In 2001, my dad bought me my first “hi-fi”, the classic Altec Lansing 641 computer speakers, which included four oversized satellites and the biggest subwoofer I’d ever seen. The system put out 200 watts RMS, and had among the beefiest amplifiers ever put inside a standalone system. The sub alone weighed over 30 pounds (maybe more, it’s hard to remember) and could shake my whole house with the right bass-heavy song.
Of course, such a system was built less for precision than power — a truck, not a sports car — and in 2001, teenage me associated plentiful bass with high-quality sound. That I was mainly listening to poorly-compressed MP3s of already-compressed rock music didn’t help, but I didn’t know any better. One floor below, my musical salvation was sitting in wait — my dad’s extensive collection of jazz, classical, and remastered classic rock CDs and a perfectly balanced stereo speaker setup highlighted by a Technics amplifier and a pair of imported Mordaunt-Short tower speakers. I would eventually come to prefer precision over power, but it would take until my mid-20’s to really appreciate just how deep the well of audiophile equipment truly goes.
It’s with this lens that I view the latest crop of “audiophile” smart speakers, the Sonos Play:5, Google Home Max, and Apple HomePod, among others. My home is filled with speakers of all kinds, from cheap waterproof shower speakers to that same pair of Mordaunt-Short towers paired with a great amplifier, but lately they’ve stayed idle as voice assistants from across the spectrum have removed the last vestige of labor from the music-listening experience.
From a sound quality perspective, Amazon’s Echo series doesn’t even enter the contest. Even the “premium” Echo Plus emits sound that’s thin and hollow and optimized more for voice than melody. My Echo Spot serves as a consummate podcast player in the kitchen, and Alexa is still my preferred method to control my smart home. I have a few Google Home speakers peppered throughout my house, but they too have served largely as vessels for Assistant.
Instead, the last few months have been split between a Sonos Play:5 in my office and a Google Home Max in my living room, and they’re both lively, versatile room-fillers that evoke the emotion I want to feel when listening to my favorite albums. The Play:5 is a better speaker, but the Google Home Max gets more play.
At $399, the Home Max is a bit too big and needs some equalization — at its default setting, the bass is too muddy for all but the most cavernous of rooms — but it’s a better deal than the $499 Play:5 and far more versatile than Apple’s Siri-dependant HomePod.
At the same time, bouncing between smart speakers of varying quality has only reinforced the disconnect between the audiophile’s perpetual dissatisfaction and the current generation of connected speaker buyers that just want things to work.
To honor my father, who would have been 65 yesterday, I’m listening to that old school system today, but tomorrow, when the weekday returns and life once again picks up speed, you can bet that I’ll be yelling at Google to play me whatever its algorithm thinks I’ll be into on a Monday afternoon — and damn well liking it.
Happy Father’s Day!