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Bose SoundLink Max review: size-defying sound isn’t cheap



Bose is undoubtedly best known for its noise-canceling headphones. But do you know what else the company has always been damn good at? Portable speakers. I can still remember being wowed by the original SoundLink Mini (and later, its successor). Something about Bose’s magic sauce audio processing can make these relatively tiny speakers sound much bigger and broader than they really are, and that’s remained true with the more recent SoundLink Flex — which remains one of our favorite picks.

Now, Bose has introduced a larger speaker, the new SoundLink Max, that takes after the Flex in style while adding key improvements. It delivers much richer audio that’s now in true stereo. (The Flex, like other diminutive speakers in its class, uses a mono driver.) But here, you’re getting dual tweets along with passive radiators on both sides for a much fuller listening experience.

Size-wise, especially with the handle, it feels like a lunchbox: a very thick 4.9-pound lunchbox of sound wrapped in silicone with a metal faceplate. Look, all I’m saying is this thing could absolutely be a weapon if you ever needed it to be. You can get some real swinging force with the removable handle, which can be swapped for other colors or a longer shoulder strap.

At 4.73 inches high, 10.42 inches wide, and 4.13 inches deep, the Max’s enclosure is noticeably bigger and beefier than the Flex’s, but it’s far from oversized. Once I started playing music, I was quickly struck by the remarkably wide soundstage it can produce. This is one of those speakers where if you close your eyes, your brain will be convinced that sounds are coming from well beyond the device’s physical footprint. And the bass carries plenty of punch. Some people might find the default EQ a tad bright, but you get full control over that balance in Bose’s mobile app. 

The Max fares best indoors, where Bose’s processing can count on walls and bouncing soundwaves. Outdoors, in wide open spaces, that audio presentation feels less “max” but still above average for this size — especially if you bump the bass EQ. Aside from the usual AAC and SBC Bluetooth codes, the Max also supports AptX Adaptive for higher-bitrate audio from Android devices. Bose puts battery life at up to 20 hours, which I’ve found accurate based on my moderate-volume listening so far.

The SoundLink Max has IP67 dust and water resistance, meaning it can be briefly submerged without any problems.

The speaker has an IP67 rating for dust and water resistance. It’ll even float should you accidentally drop it in a pool. That said, its rear ports are left uncovered and exposed to the elements, so you’ll want to dry the Max off and let it sit for a while before plugging it in. The silicone that wraps around the sides and back is resilient, but the tradeoff is that it’s a dust and lint magnet. (At least you can easily clean it off.) 

The Max’s metallic front grille can pick up scratches more easily than I’d like. My camera lens bumped up against it, and just like that, the powder paint coating picked up a tiny permanent scar. This blue looks quite nice, but I wish Bose would offer a paintless silver edition that would conceal such blemishes over the long haul — especially for a speaker that’s otherwise quite rugged. 

The controls are about as simple as they come.

You love to see an aux input.

Then there’s that $399 price. The SoundLink Max finds itself in no-man’s-land. It’s more expensive than competitors from JBL, Anker / Soundcore, and others — and not much cheaper than far “smarter” options like the Sonos Move 2. Bose’s speaker has no Wi-Fi connectivity to speak of, so you’re at risk of notification sounds (or calls) interrupting your music. There’s also no speakerphone functionality, which the Flex does include. Climb a bit higher in price, and you’ve entered much larger speaker territory with popular choices such as JBL’s Boombox 3 and Sony’s new Ult Field 7, which can hold their own better in outdoor spaces. Even Bose’s prized processing is no match for those bigger drivers and their more impactful sound once you really crank the volume.

It’s larger and heavier than the SoundLink Flex but still compact enough to fit in a bike basket.

Bose does throw in several bonus features to help justify the premium price. The Max supports multipoint Bluetooth, so two devices can pair to it at once. There’s a 3.5mm aux input for external audio sources, and the USB-C port that’s used for juicing up the speaker can also provide power to mobile devices. We’ve now hit the point where I wish that the USB-C port could double as an audio input. As is, I had to grab a headphone jack adapter from my bag whenever I plugged in my phone for some lossless playback. I’m just happy to have any type of line-in. Later this year, you’ll be able to stereo pair the Max with another unit or group it with Bose’s other speakers.

Unlike the Flex, the Max delivers true stereo sound.

At the end of the day, the SoundLink Max will draw in the same people who’ve always bought Bose’s speakers. If you want to splurge on a very simple, elegant, great-sounding speaker, this is that. But the Bose tax and that $399 price will inevitably give others pause — understandably so. I’m already planning to carry this thing around often over the months ahead, but it’s a luxury purchase through and through.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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