After years of Google and Amazon duking it out over the smart home speaker market, Apple finally joined the party this month with the launch of its HomePod. And whether or not Apple wants to consider the new product a direct competitor to the likes of Google Home and Amazon Echo, it undeniably is. It’s priced within range, it’s powered by a smart assistant, and it’s primarily (but not only) going to be used for playing music. Just like its competitors.
The most obvious competitor to the Apple HomePod, in my opinion, is the Google Home Max. Max is priced just slightly higher and is about twice the HomePod’s size, but for most consumers looking for a high-end smart speaker, the decision will come down to these two. Most shouldn’t get a HomePod.
The first point of comparison is sound quality. This is a bit of a mixed bag, but admittedly, many reputable sources have declared the HomePod the winner — not just better than the Google Home Max, but better than every single speaker in its price range. Audiophiles seem to agree; one user on the r/audiophiles subreddit conducted an extensive set of measurements, testing frequency response, distortion and much more, and found it to be favorable to most higher-end standalone speakers.
Plenty of less-than-audiophile owners have said the same thing. “Sound quality is absolutely stunning,” says Candidate for US House of Representatives Brianna Wu, as one very random example. “The Apple HomePod crushes it on sound quality,” says another Twitterer. “Home Max certainly sounds worse than HomePod,” says one well-known YouTuber who owns both products.
But wait, I thought you said that almost no one should get a HomePod? Yes, that’s what I said. And that’s because all of the praise of the HomePod’s sound basically breaks down when you consider how many people think it sounds less than desirable. Reviews have been incredibly mixed, enough so that one of our 9to5Mac writers is actually worried that some units might be duds. Highly unlikely.
Blind listening tests conducted by Yahoo’s David Pogue saw the Google Home Max handily outperform Apple’s HomePod. Precisely nobody in his test picked the HomePod as the overall winner, while two participants chose the Google Home Max. Another three chose the Sonos One.
Oh, and don’t forget about the Consumer Reports test that showed the Google Home Max edges out the HomePod. They said, among other things, that the HomePod “was a bit boomy and overemphasized and the midrange tones were somewhat hazy.”:
Overall the sound of the HomePod was a bit muddy compared with what the Sonos One and Google Home Max delivered.
So what’s the conclusion here? No, I’m not claiming the Home Max to be my overall winner or coming from some place of audiophile authority to declare the HomePod subpar. I don’t know hardly anything about speakers. But I do know that the reviews of the HomePod have been mixed enough that one thing is certain: If it’s better than the other offerings on the market (the jury is definitely still out on that), it’s not mind-blowingly better enough that the average person will be able to tell. And by the average person, I mean you. And me. And everyone else who isn’t an audiophile.
I’d say the hyper-positive reviews of the thing are partly true (as audiophile analysis suggests), and partly imaginary. Regardless of how great the HomePod sounds, though (and it may sound amazing!), I don’t think its supposed best-ever sound quality should be a deciding factor for most.
Assistant and Software
Now that we have the HomePod sound quality debate out of the way, let’s get to what should be a deciding factor for everyone. Apple can say as much as it wants that the speaker’s smarts aren’t what it’s primarily selling with the HomePod, but even if not intended, it’s implied. Most likely, the HomePod will go the way many Apple products do: Severely crippled feature-wise at first, blossom later. But for the purposes of this comparison, it’s not later, and who knows if later will come.
Apple’s seeming contentment with the HomePod’s smarts being a bit behind aside, let’s compare these two smart speakers for what they are in present day. My thesis for this is simple: Even if Apple isn’t really making the “Assistant” a selling point and is making the speaker the primary goal, Siri’s still behind enough that it makes HomePod a worse speaker — not just a worse assistant.
Anyone who has used both an iPhone and a Google Pixel (or other Assistant-running Android phone) for any amount of time knows that the Assistant is ahead in several areas: overall feature set, tie-ins with third party services, english dictation and general interpretation of the things you say, and more. The short story with the HomePod (from what I’ve gleaned) is that it’s not much different from the same Siri you’ve used on your iPhone.
Siri is seriously struggling compared to Google Assistant. For just one quick example, let’s look at how HomePod handles weird song names. My colleague was brave enough to test playing some weirdly-named songs using Siri and Apple Music, like Mh 4.18.2011 by Blink-182. Describing the song name letter for letter of course worked, but getting any more abstract than that and Siri struggled. Google Assistant, on the other hand, could handle even the most obscure queries without a hitch.
If you are someone looking for a speaker that’s more than a little smart, then buying one that packs Assistant is a given at this point (or, perhaps, Amazon Alexa, if you must). The most obvious downside with the HomePod is its partial incompatibility with third-party music services. For voice control, you’re locked to Apple Music. Google Home Max can tie in with a handful of the most popular services and you can control them all with your voice. Check out this extensive list of supported streaming devices, audio streaming services, and Google’s 1,500+ home control partners.
But as I just deconstructed above, if it being a premium speaker is its primary selling point, it’s still not doing an altogether amazing job. Even the far-better Google Assistant can be frustrating when you don’t remember the exact name of that playlist you want to play on Spotify, or the weird number of symbol-laden song names. Assistant is better, though. I’d have little patience with anything else.
In conclusion, it seems obvious that the Assistant is the winner. If the smarts of your assistant holds much weight in whether you pick the Home Max or the HomePod, then I think your answer is mostly cut and dry. But even if smarts isn’t that important to you, I think it’s worth considering a Google Home anyway and seeing how it helps you with daily tasks — you might be surprised. I mean, the thing can even cast a Netflix show to your Chromecast-connected TV with a voice command.
Physical Build + Price
When it comes to physical build, comparing the Home Max and the HomePod is a bit Apples and oranges (Googles?). By that, I mean they’re both not-massive speakers and they’ll both probably fit most places you would want them in your home. In the case of the HomePod, keeping it anywhere but a larger room like the living room would probably be wasting its potential. And if you’re placing it in a larger room, then its smaller Google Home-like size isn’t really that much of an advantage.
But that’s certainly something to keep in mind if you’re in need of a smaller speaker. The Google Home Max is easily about the size of two HomePods, so if you need a speaker specifically for your kitchen and you want the Home Max’s audio quality (or perhaps better), then you fall into one of the few categories of people that might be able to justify the HomePod in my mind. If you’re looking to fill a large room with sound, though, the Home Max’s larger size probably isn’t a downside.
The other thing is their appearance. While both the Home Max and the HomePod are attractive home-friendly devices in my eyes, the Home Max definitely looks more bland — especially the lighter colored one. That could be an upside or a downside depending on what you’re looking for, but one thing is for sure: the HomePod is a stunner to look at. Despite its amazing looks, though, it apparently leaves white rings on wood surfaces. For some, that anxiety could be a legitimate deal breaker.
Another aspect of their physical design is the Home Max’s inclusion of an auxiliary jack. While Apple embraces the no-headphone-jack philosophy even with its high-end speaker, Google’s speaker will be better fitted for those who might want to play audio from a wider variety of external sources. It also means that the Home Max is more future-proof than the HomePod. If in the distant future software support is dead for the Home Max and HomePod, the Home Max will continue to partially function.
I’ve mostly ignored the price aspect throughout this piece because they’re not that far apart, but I think it would be fair to note that the Home Max has a $50 higher MSRP. That’s not taking into account sale prices that might take it equal or below the HomePod, though, which are much more likely on Google’s side if we’re being honest. That $50 might make a difference for some buyers. I think it’s worth it.
In conclusion, there are only a few arguments I think anyone can really make for getting a HomePod over the Home Max. First of all, it obviously makes sense to get a HomePod if you are already severely walled in to Apple’s ecosystem. If you only use Apple Music, you’ve never even used an Android phone to see how great Assistant is, you don’t really care for any smart assistant features in general, and you’re okay with overpaying, then I’m not going to stop you.
Another argument I can think of is its physical size, as I said. So if you need your speaker to fit into a very specific small-ish location, and you’re willing to accept the weird silicon-on-wood problem (or buy a coaster), and you aren’t willing to give up the higher-end sound, and most of the above qualities of already being walled in to Apple’s ecosystem apply to you, then by all means. Buy a HomePod.
Finally, privacy is a consideration that comes in when comparing any non-Apple product versus one from the Cupertino company. Google has done a decent job of being transparent about what data it collects and stores about you, while Apple has long been adamant about collecting as little data as possible about its customers. For those highly concerned with privacy, HomePod might be the better choice. But Google’s less-strict-but-responsible policies are part of what has made the Home so smart.
For almost all, I think the Google Home Max is by far the better option. It has almost-as-good if not better sound quality, an Assistant and third-party support that takes laps around Apple’s offerings (in both the compatibility and machine learning/interpretation departments), and other benefits like a auxiliary jack and future-proofing that round out the package. For almost everyone, and especially those that already have Google products, buying the big Max isn’t going to be a regret.