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A larger version of its Home smart speaker. Time

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If you care more about your smart speaker's sound than which digital assistant it employs, the new Google Home Max speaker should be on your holiday short list.

After days of pumping an eclectic range of music through Google's $399 speaker — from AC/DC to the Three Tenors — it's clear the Google Home Max is in a class by itself when it comes to filling a home or apartment with sounds even an audiophile could appreciate. 

The downsides: It's big, heavy, cord-powered and not particularly portable.

Admittedly, for many people the decision to purchase this or that voice-activated smart speaker has often boiled down to which AI-infused digital assistant you’re most comfortable engaging with in your home, most likely Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant. But when music is the priority, different features come into play.

 

Certainly, at $399 there is a high price to pay for such sonic joy. The sum is way above the current $79 discounted price for the regular Google Home speaker or the comparably priced rival Amazon Echo speaker with Alexa, not to mention the $29 Google Home Mini.

But while such less expensive speakers sound perfectly decent for what they are, the Max is in a different class altogether. With the volume at full blast on a thunderous track such as AC/DC’s Hells Bells or something as polar opposite as the Three Tenors in concert belting out Puccini's Nessun dorma, Google Home Max demonstrates the power to rock even a very large room.

In fact, all kinds of music—jazz, classical, classic rock, hip-hop, pop, Broadway—sounded terrific, whether cranked up high or played at more modest volume levels.

I was impressed with the deep bass across an eclectic mix of music as well, ranging from Rockstar by Post Malone featuring 21 Savage to You Know I’m No Good by Amy Winehouse.

Smart but not portable

This bookshelf speaker is big and, at nearly 12 pounds, rather heavy, so it's not meant to be moved around a lot. There’s also no battery, so it must be plugged in.

That said, it does offer some versatility. You can position the Max horizontally (for a wider stereo effect) or vertically (a blended mono mode sound), all while resting the speaker on a removable magnetic silicone base.

If you do move the Max to a different location, Google says a machine learning-fueled feature the company calls Smart Sound will dynamically tune the audio to its new environment within seconds. Google is also promising periodic automatic updates to improve sound experiences.

A pair of 4.5-inch woofers and two custom 0.7-inch tweeters are housed inside a sealed polycarbonate enclosure. There are also six far-field microphones.

You can get the speaker in chalk or charcoal colors; the design ethos matches the look of other Google Home speakers.

I had two Max speakers to test, and I was able to pair them for superior sounding left-right stereo separation. But with a pair, you’re flirting with an $800 purchase.

You can also create speaker groups with any other Google Home or Chromecast-capable speakers you might own, letting you sync music across multiple rooms around the house.

The speaker supports a variety of streaming services including: Google Play Music, Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, with Google also throwing in a year of YouTube Music, ad-free, gratis.

It also supports Bluetooth, so I was able to stream Apple Music and play other audio off my phone.

Using the Google Assistant as a DJ

As with other smart speakers with the increasingly useful Google Assistant, you can solicit answers to various Google search queries, control smart home devices, summon the news and weather, and so on.

It also is compatible with the Voice Match feature that lets different members of your household customize the responses each of you gets from the Assistant, be it the news that is delivered or commute times.

For the purposes of this review, however, I mostly called on the Google Assistant as a DJ: using my voice to alter the volume, play, pause and skip songs, and figure out which playlists and tunes to listen to.

The Assistant can help you find a song just based on you knowing a few lyrics, even if you’re unfamiliar with the title. For example, when I barked out “OK Google, find the song with the lyrics, `I can build a castle from a single grain of sand,’” it found and played I Can’t Get Next To You by the Temptations.

The Assistant similarly found Hotel California by the Eagles when I asked about the lyrics, “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.”

More: Sonos plus Alexa makes for a smart — and great-sounding — speaker

More: Google launches $49 Google Home Mini, rival to Amazon Echo Dot, and $399 Home Max

More: How to choose the best smart speaker for you: shopper's guide

Alexa on Echo speakers can also find songs based on lyrics. But Alexa couldn’t match a request I made to the Google Assistant when I asked it to start playing the album with a zipper on the cover. That album, of course, was Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Sones.

Often, though not always, the Assistant heard my verbal “Hey Google” commands even when the music was cranked up high. My biggest beef though came when I stopped playing a song and asked the Assistant to respond to a verbal query. The Assistant's speaking volume was often much lower than that of the the music, meaning I had to either ask the Assistant out loud to raise the volume or walk over to the speaker and slide my finger against a volume control.

Google Home Max is by no means the only smart speaker with excellent sound quality. The Alexa-capable Sonos One for one is a fine alternative for $199. It'll be adding the Google Assistant next year. 

And Apple will compete in this premium category with the $349 HomePod with Siri, a product that was supposed to come out around now, but that has since been delayed until 2018.

Though it’s on the pricey side, Google Home Max has set an exemplary example for any and all smart speakers to come.

Email: ebaig@usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

The bottom line:

Google Home Max

$399, play.google.com

Pro. Excellent sound. Google Assistant

Con. Expensive. Heavy. Volume on Google Assistant can be much lower than music volume

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