If you buy the Google Home for music, you have several music services to choose from. First off, all Home owners get access to Google Play Music (free), Pandora (free and paid accounts), Spotify (paid accounts only), TuneIn for Internet radio, and YouTube Music (paid accounts only). Within the Home app you can select which service your system defaults to, but in use you can always specify which service you want the Home to access. Google’s free Play Music service isn’t as user-friendly as Amazon’s Prime Music for Alexa (which requires a $100-a-year Prime membership). It’s more like Pandora, in that you get mixes based on your artist or track request, rather than music solely by that artist. And after an update announced at I/O 2017, the Home is now a Bluetooth speaker, so you can stream music from your phone, just as you can do with the Echo (and the Tap, but not the Dot).
The Home can also work as a key part of a multiroom audio system when you combine it with a Chromecast wireless media streamer (you have three of them to choose from: Chromecast, Chromecast Audio, and Chromecast Ultra). The Chromecast devices allow you to stream music or video to another device such as a powered speaker, an audio system, or a TV, and control it with your phone. Google Assistant can play the same music through all units simultaneously or different music in each room. In this way, the Google offering behaves more like a Sonos system than the Echo and Alexa do.
We tested the multiroom feature using one Home and one Chromecast Audio. With the Audio plugged into a TV, we were able to tell the Home to play music on the TV and to play the same music on both the TV and the Home at the same time, essentially creating a multiroom music experience similar to that of Sonos. Echo/Alexa owners can add multiples of the cheaper Echo Dot to their existing Bluetooth speakers or audio system, but the units won’t play the same music in every room, and you can’t ask the Echo in the kitchen to play music via the Dot in the living room—all of those restrictions make the Echo arrangement ineffective as a multiroom-audio system. Adding Chromecasts throughout your home costs less than buying multiple Sonos speakers, too, though Sonos works with more music services and has an easier-to-use app (and soon will be Alexa compatible).
In our listening tests, we found the Home to be a decent speaker for rooms such as kitchens, dens, or bedrooms for casual listening, but it is not a speaker for critical listening, or for entertaining a roomful of people at a party.
To find out how the Home and the Echo compare in sound quality, Wirecutter audio expert Brent Butterworth set up some blind-listening tests and borrowed the critical ears of our Los Angeles–based audio editors, Geoff Morrison and Lauren Dragan. We also ran some lab measurements to get a clearer idea of the devices’ technical performance and to better test how well the microphone arrays and voice-recognition systems separated the user’s voice from other sounds.
Complicating our blind test was the fact that the Google Home plays only material sourced through the Internet, which meant Brent would have to use voice commands to cue up the music for the test. Of course, the voice commands would reveal the speakers’ identities, so Geoff and Lauren listened to pink noise through Direct Sound Serenity II noise-isolating headphones while Brent told the speakers which tunes to play. On top of that, even though the speakers were hidden behind thin black fabric, the listeners would have been able to identify the speakers as their flashing lights shone through the material. Thus, Brent insisted that Geoff and Lauren each wear a special pair of “blind-testing glasses”—sunglasses covered with painter’s tape. The listeners were so well isolated that when the music started, he had to clap loudly to signal the listeners to remove the headphones. The two speakers’ coarse volume steps made it impossible to match their listening levels perfectly, but Brent was able to get the match within 0.43 decibel, which is reasonably close.
Geoff, Lauren, and Brent all ended up describing the sound of the two speakers much the same way. It was a Goldilocks-style dilemma: The Echo seemed to have almost no bass, so much of the drive and rhythm of the music was lost, and voices could sound harsh and sibilant. But the Home had a muffled midrange and treble, making voices harder to understand. Lauren summed up the group’s unhappiness when she concluded, “I … guess I’d prefer the sibilant one?” Considering that only Geoff picked the Home as his favorite, the Echo has the advantage, especially if you listen to a lot of talk radio programs. But anyone who wants voice command with good sound should get an Echo Dot and connect it to a better system.
Brent also ran some lab tests on the speakers to confirm what everyone heard. Because the Home had neither input jacks nor Bluetooth capability at the time of testing—which would have allowed it to accept test signals from an audio analyzer—Brent had to perform the tests using a pink-noise track sourced from Spotify. He measured each speaker from the same eight locations in his listening room and then averaged each set of eight measurements to minimize the effects that the acoustics of his listening room had on the speakers’ performance. He found, to his surprise, that the Home actually had stronger measured treble response, but that the Echo had much better response in the midrange, between 300 and 1400 Hz, which covers most of the range of the human voice.
A few other performance characteristics are worth noting. For starters, in our tests the Echo played +4.5 dB louder than the Home. In a bedroom or kitchen, such a difference probably doesn’t matter, but in a very large living room the Home might not sound loud enough. The Echo is a true omnidirectional speaker, too, so it will more easily fill a large space with sound. In contrast, the Home has a single, front-firing speaker driver with passive radiators on the side to reinforce the bass, and the sound seems even more muffled when you move to the sides and back of the speaker.