Four years is an eternity in the modern tech product world, but that’s exactly how long it’s been since Google’s first smart speaker, the Google Home, was released. Since then, Google has expanded the range both above and below it, with the compact and ubiquitous Nest Mini and the powerful and gargantuan Home Max.
This year, Google is returning its attention to the midrange. The new Nest Audio sits between the Nest Mini and Home Max in price, size, and output. At $99.99, it’s less expensive than the original Google Home was in 2016, but it’s not exactly the impulse purchase that the Nest Mini can be.
Despite that lower price, the Nest Audio is an improvement over the Google Home in nearly every way. It’s larger but easy to fit into a variety of places in your home. It’s faster to respond to voice commands, and most importantly, it sounds a lot better than the Google Home ever could.
But in the four years since the Google Home, Amazon has released multiple generations of new Echo models and leap-frogged the Home in audio quality, design, and features. Similarly, Sonos is now in the smart speaker game, bringing its rock-solid wireless streaming and class-leading audio quality to the table. Even Ikea is making connected speakers now, combining Sonos’ tech with its design sensibilities and aggressive pricing.
The Nest Audio has its work cut out.
With the Nest Audio, Google has gone for a simple, soft design that doesn’t call much attention to itself. It’s a more traditional approach than the company took a few years ago, and the Nest Audio looks more like a speaker than the Google Home’s air freshener aesthetic ever did.
Still, the Nest Audio’s shape is hard to describe without accidentally sounding pejorative. It’s a vaguely upright rectangle with soft corners and rounded sides. The thing I can liken it to most is a loaf of ciabatta bread standing on its end, but that makes it sound uglier than it really is in person. It’s mostly a fine, inoffensive design that will fit in most rooms with ease, and Google is selling it in five different colors to best match your personal décor.
The internal housing is made from partially recycled aluminum and magnesium, but that’s wrapped by a recycled plastic mesh fabric material that greatly softens the appearance of the speaker. When Google first debuted this fabric on the Home Mini speaker a few years ago, there was much hand-wringing over how durable it would be — would it collect an inordinate amount of dust? Would a cat see it as an ideal scratching post? In the years since, it appears those concerns were largely unfounded; the fabric doesn’t seem to get too dusty or gross, even with regular use.
Aluminum and magnesium are not common speaker enclosure materials at this price point, and Google tells me they were chosen for their sustainability and sturdiness to handle the power pushing to the drivers. They also act as thermal dissipators to help keep the internal components cool. Needless to say, I haven’t observed any buzz or rattling while testing the Nest Audio, even at full volume. It’s a dense, sturdy little thing that weighs more than you expect.
Integrated into the fabric at the top of the speaker are three capacitive touch zones for volume up and down and play / pause. They work well, but I do wish they were more accessible — you’re going to have to show someone new how to use them because they wouldn’t know that they even exist just by looking at the speaker.
Underneath the center front of the fabric cover are four LED lights to indicate volume levels, when the speaker is listening, and when its microphones are muted. They match what’s available on the Home Max and Nest Mini, but I miss the more complex multicolored animated dots of the original Home.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the Nest Audio’s design compared to its predecessor is that it’s now a traditional, directional speaker instead of a cylinder that aims to throw sound in all directions. In the last four years, Google has learned that people aren’t likely to put a smart speaker in the middle of their room, so 360-degree sound isn’t necessary. It’s most likely to go on a shelf, a mantle, in a corner, or some other area where it “points” the sound in a specific direction. It appears that Amazon has made a similar observation: its forthcoming fourth-generation Echo features a more directional design as well.
Design is important, but when it comes to a speaker, sound quality matters more. Fortunately, Google has made significant advancement on this front, and the Nest Audio sounds much better than the often muddy and unpleasant-sounding Google Home.
The Nest Audio has a 75mm (three-inch) woofer and a 19mm (0.75-inch) tweeter, which are significantly more than the lone 50mm (two-inch) driver on the original Home. These combine to provide a much fuller, clearer sound that is more pleasant to listen to at higher volumes. Interestingly, the original Home is able to get about as loud as the Nest Audio, but the Nest Audio sounds much better at any volume.
The dual-driver system allows vocals and higher pitches to shine through on bass-heavier tracks in ways the older speaker couldn’t handle. Additionally, the Nest Audio sounds good at lower volumes, which is nice when I just want some background music while I’m working or during dinner.
In my home office, the loudest the Nest Audio sounded comfortable at was around 80 percent — 100 percent volume was too harsh in this space. You can go that loud in larger rooms where you’re not as close to the speaker without having to worry about distortion, though. Obviously, the Nest Audio is louder and sounds better than the Nest Mini and is the better choice for frequently listening to music.
Compared to last year’s Amazon Echo, the Nest Audio is also clearer and less muddy, with more bass and fullness to the sound. But the Audio’s compact size has limits: there’s plenty of bass, but it’s the kind of bass you hear more than feel, and it lacks the thump of a larger speaker. It also can’t match the output or presence of the Sonos One, which is about the same height as the Audio but is twice as deep. The Sonos is also twice as expensive, though, so to get better sound than the Audio, you’re going to have to open your wallet more. (If you are willing to skip voice controls and an integrated digital assistant, the Sonos One SL is $179.)
I had the opportunity to test two Nest Audio speakers in a stereo configuration, and as expected, this provides an even louder, fuller sound than a single unit can. It’s great for listening to music, especially if you position the speakers about six feet or more apart for good separation. But if you plan to use the Nest Audio for other listening, such as podcasts, the stereo configuration sounds odd, with enough of a delay between the two speakers to make it sound like voices are double-tracked. It’s also unfortunate that you can’t use two Nest Audio speakers paired with a Chromecast for home theater audio, like you can do with a couple of Amazon Echo speakers and a Fire TV.
Playing music or other audio on the Nest Audio can be done a variety of ways: through voice commands to control services such as YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, and others; by casting audio from an app on your phone; or by pairing it to your phone directly over Bluetooth. There are no inputs on the Nest Audio, though, so you can’t hook it up to another source via wire like you can with some Echo models or the Home Max.
Unlike newer Sonos speakers, the Apple HomePod, or even Google’s own Home Max, the Nest Audio does not do continuous room tuning to adjust its sound output to the environment. Instead, Google says it tunes the speaker at the factory using a new proprietary tool that anticipates over 2,500 possible listening positions and then sets the speaker’s output accordingly. The Nest Audio also adjusts itself based on the type of media that’s playing, whether that’s music, a podcast, audiobook, or something else. In general, though, it’s often very hard to tell the difference between a speaker that is using active room tuning and one that isn’t, and most people won’t miss it on the Nest Audio.
Overall, there’s very little to complain about with the Nest Audio’s sound quality, and most people will be very happy with it for everything from casual background music to more dedicated listening. Its limits are where you’d expect them to be from something of this size, and the Home Max is still the better choice to soundtrack a dance party or fill a larger-than-average room.
Of course, the Nest Audio isn’t just a speaker, it’s also a smart speaker that leverages voice control and the Google Assistant to perform a variety of tasks. Those capabilities have expanded over the years since the Google Home debuted, but the basics are the same. You can say “OK Google” or “Hey Google” to activate the speaker and then ask it to play music, give a weather report, control a smart home device, set a timer, program an alarm, or provide a random fact.
The Nest Audio has three microphones — up from the two on the Google Home — and in general, it is able to pick up voice commands well. I do feel like I have to be louder with my voice commands compared to Amazon’s Echo devices, however. A new feature called Ambient EQ will adjust the assistant’s voice response based on the background noise in the room. But if you’re playing music on the speaker and want to use a voice command, you have to raise your voice above the level of the music to get it to work reliably.
As with other Nest speakers, there’s a physical switch on the back of the Nest Audio to mute the microphones and prevent your voice from being picked up by the Google Assistant.
Inside the speaker is the same machine learning engine Google first debuted in the Nest Mini, which is designed to accelerate the response time for voice commands. Google claims it allows the Nest Audio to respond twice as quickly as the Google Home for things like track skipping and volume adjustments. But in my testing, that difference was hard to determine, and the Nest Audio feels slower to respond than Amazon’s Echo speakers. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but its slowness is certainly noticeable.
Google has added some music-specific voice controls, such as the ability to move the currently playing music from one room to another just using your voice. In my tests, this worked when moving the stream from the Nest Audio to a Nest Hub Max smart display, but not in the reverse direction. It’s a neat trick when it works, but in the many years I’ve used wireless multiroom speaker systems in my home, it’s not something I’ve ever really asked for. You can easily move what’s currently playing to another speaker from Spotify or another app on your phone, and that’s typically easier to figure out or understand than voice controls.
I also ran into some other frustrations trying to play music from my Spotify Premium account with voice commands. Asking for specific, newly released albums, such as Shore by Fleet Foxes, failed no matter how I phrased my request, prompting the Nest Audio to either say it can’t find what I’m asking for or just play something incorrect. The Nest Audio also stumbled when asking for specific playlists from my Spotify account. Both of these requests are handled by Alexa on an Echo speaker with no issue. Google says it is looking into this issue but didn’t have a resolution available in time for publication.
Still, if you are looking for a Google Assistant smart speaker, the Nest Audio is better than the Sonos One or other third-party options. It’s more reliable when responding to voice commands and better supports the newer features Google keeps adding to the Assistant’s repertoire. The Sonos One is a better speaker speaker, but the Nest Audio is a better smart speaker.
Choosing a smart speaker is governed by not just your budget and space considerations, you also have to factor which platform you want to invest your money in. That makes comparisons to other smart speakers a bit moot — if you’re invested in the Google Assistant, it doesn’t really matter if Amazon’s Echo is faster at responding to voice commands or if it has better or worse audio quality.
The Nest Audio is an easy recommendation for a Google Assistant smart speaker, then. It’s enjoyable to listen to, easy to fit into a variety of places in a home, and can be extended with stereo pairing or multiroom configurations with other Nest speakers and smart displays.
You can certainly pay more for better audio quality, and there are limits to what the Nest Audio can do in terms of volume and presence. I’d also love to see more reliability when playing music via voice controls. But the Nest Audio hits that sweet spot of an accessible price with good sound quality, enough volume for most, and few overall complaints. If you’re embedded in the Assistant ecosystem, it’s the speaker to get this year.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge