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The best smart speakers for music fans

The best smart speakers for music fans
From Engadget - February 23, 2018

How we tested

For the purposes of this story, we compared a single HomePod ($350), two Sonos One speakers ($350 total) paired in stereo and a single Google Home Max ($399). While the prices are in the same range, you will get different speaker components with each set. Each Sonos One includes a single tweeter and one mid-woofer to cover both mid-range frequencies and bass. The Home Max answers with two tweeters and two large 4.5-inch woofers. The HomePod has perhaps the most unusual arrangement: seven total tweeters (each with its own amplifier), along with a single woofer that points straight up.

To compare the speakers, we set them up in the same room, made sure each was running the most current version of its software and, in the case of the Sonos One, ran the TruePlay tuning software, which adjusts audio quality for the room and placement of the speakers. The HomePod and Home Max both tune themselves automatically; there's no way to control that part of the audio equation. In all cases, we left EQ settings on default. Finally, we used an Apple Music subscription for the HomePod and Sonos One, while Google Play Music provided audio to the Home Max. Song choices trended toward modern rock, indie and pop, although we sampled songs from every decade since the 1960s.

Lastly, although I did most of the listening, a number of other Engadget editors lent their ears and feedback to this review.

Audio quality

There was not a clear, unequivocal winner among the three speakers tested; rather, each speaker showed its prowess in different situations. Chris Ip, our features editor, did a comparison listen between all three speakers and preferred the HomePod's rendition of Beyonc's "Countdown." Specifically, Ip is a fan of prominent bass, and the HomePod's woofer elevated it over the Sonos One. The Home Max also provides strong bass, but it did not reproduce mids and highs with the same precision.

That was the story across the board with the Home Max. Its strengths come from two places: bass and volume. At louder volumes (think 75 percent or higher), it sounds better than a pair of Sonos One speakers; the lack of bass means the One ends up sounding shriller than the Home Max when you crank it up. But both the HomePod and Sonos One offered better overall clarity across the range of songs we tested. The bass does not feel as well regulated on the Home Max; while the HomePod does a great job of adjusting bass levels to match the room and the speaker's overall volume level, the Max's overall sonic picture is muddier and less distinct than the competition.

As mentioned, the Sonos One is the speaker most lacking in bass here; pairing two of them together helps a bit, but it just does not reproduce the physical, table-rattling, chest-thumping sounds you can coax from the Home Max and HomePod. However, spending $350 on a pair of Sonos One speakers opens up a number of audio experiences that just are not possible with the other speakers we looked at. By virtue of being two separate speakers you can place anywhere you want, the pair of Ones naturally did a far better job of reproducing a wide stereo soundstage. The Home Max and Home Pod do a better job of this than they should, but it's still not the same as having true stereo separation. And if you are more interested in multi-room audio, two One speakers will give you that option for a lot less money than getting multiple Home Maxes or HomePods (which do not even have stereo pairing or multi-room audio capabilities yet, though Apple says its speaker will this year).

There was not a definitive winner between the paired Sonos One speakers and the HomePod. When listening to Metallica's "Master of Puppets," I preferred how the HomePod added a nice low end to the frantically chugging guitars; the One felt like it lacked the power needed to make the song hit home, particularly at higher volumes. But Sonos did a great job at reproducing the psychedelic soundscape of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." For plenty of other songs, it was truly difficult to pick a winner. Executive editor Dana Wollman did a blind test and could not decide which speaker did a better job playing back John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things," while senior editor Kris Naudus was similarly torn picking between the HomePod and Sonos when listening to "Cherry Tulips" by Headlights.

Along with senior editor Chris Velazco (who wrote our HomePod review), I spent hours bouncing songs back and forth between the speakers -- everything from the swirling trip of Beck's "Colors" and the continually shifting soundscape of the Radiohead classic "Paranoid Android" to Carly Rae Jepsen's over-the-top hit "Cut to the Feeling" and the electronic glitches of "Such Great Heights" by the Postal Service. Throughout our listening, we were never able to fully write off either the HomePod or the Sonos One.

Ultimately, though, I give a slight edge to the HomePod -- it has significantly better bass reproduction, but I would not describe it as an overly bass-heavy speaker. It just makes it a lot easier to hear every aspect of the song the way it was intended to be heard, bass included. The Sonos One does a lot with lesser specs, and pairing the speakers up in stereo makes for a truly great listening experience. But to my ears, the HomePod more often had the edge.

Everything else

If music were our only focus, we'd be done -- but even if sound quality is your foremost concern, there are still other things to consider before making a decision. Specifically, each comes with a voice assistant that can be used to control audio playback, but Siri, the Google Assistant and Alexa can do much more than that. Additionally, each speaker supports different music services in different ways, so that's another thing to take into account.

Plenty has been said about Siri's limitations as a personal assistant on the HomePod. Ditto for the device's reliance on Apple Music. But I think Siri holds its own in a number of situations, specifically finding music. Telling it to just play some music brings up a station populated primarily with music in your library, ensuring you start off with tunes you will recognize and enjoy. Siri does a good job of fielding queries like "Play me some rock music from the '70s," "Play popular songs from the last decade" or something as simple as "Play me new music I will like."

Initially, the Google Assistant did a horrible job of answering the same questions on the Home Max using Google Play Music. When I asked it to play rock music from the '60s, it played a compilation album called Rock and Roll Instrumentals: 50's60's that was populated with terrible covers of songs from that period. Eventually, I figured out that I could ask it to play Google's custom radio stations -- just saying something like "Play a station featuring songs from the '80s" would do the trick. Most users are not going to realize that, initially.

Wrap-up

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