Reviews

The Nest Audio speaker will blow your mind

We reviewed Google's newest Assistant-powered smart speaker and the sound is a beast at all volume levels. Listen to the difference yourself.

The Google Home released in 2016 as the answer to Amazon's Echo. Shaped like an air freshener, the Home was the vessel for the Assistant, Google's Alexa competitor. Fast forward to 2020 and the Home is dead. Replacing it is the Nest Audio. There are three reasons to get the new smart speaker.

$99

Reason No. 1: the Nest Audio is $99 — $30 less than the Home. It's the same price as the latest Echo, but also $200 less than a HomePod.

Reason No. 2: It’s got a new design. The air freshener aesthetic and swappable bases are gone. Instead, the Nest Audio resembles a mini pillow. Chris Chan, a product manager for the Nest Audio, tells Input they wanted a more organic shape inspired by the products and materials in the rooms the speaker would live in.

If by organic, Nest means basic, then it nailed it because the Nest Audio is as generic as a smart speaker gets. That's not bad if you want the speaker to be as invisible in your home as possible. But also, it sums up smart speakers in 2020: we've peaked.

Recycled materials

Sustainability matters. So it's great to see companies like Google and Apple proactively use recycled materials. According to Google, "the fabric is 100% recycled plastic bottles, excluding dyes and additives. The device’s enclosure is 70% recycled plastic, which includes fabric, housing, foot and a few smaller parts."

Invisible buttons

You wouldn't know it at first, but there are three touch-sensitive buttons on the top surface. Tap the left and right side to control the volume, and the center to play/pause. Besides these hidden buttons, the only button on the speaker is the microphone switch on the back. This physical switch electronically turns the microphone on and off for privacy.

The mute switch turns off the microphones.

Lastly, reason No. 3: the Nest Audio sounds terrific for its size. It's still the middle child in Google's smart speaker, which means audio quality falls between a Nest Mini and a Home Max (why it's not rebranded as the Nest Max is beyond me). But in terms of sound, Google's says the speaker has more clarity across all frequencies and lower and higher volumes.

This boost in sound quality is largely due to the bigger drivers: a 75mm woofer and 19mm tweeter. In comparison, the Home had a 50mm "full range driver" and dual passive radiators to assist with bass.

Typically, bigger drivers push more air and allow for more bass. But larger and more powerful speakers wouldn't have been enough. Today, good sound needs good tuning, which means good software. And Google is really good with software.

What is good sound? Balanced frequencies? Louder volume? More clarity at lower volumes? Chan tells Input it's all of the above. Whereas the Google Home's sound was tuned using third-party software, Chan says the Nest Audio was tuned using its own in-house software. The result: clearer sound across the sound stage for all music genres at lower and higher volumes. IMO, the Nest Audio sounds way better than a Google Home and makes the Nest Mini sound unacceptable.

Put on your headphones because we're going to do some listening

First up is the loudness test. We're listening for clarity at 100 percent volume. Usually, compact speakers sound like garbage at max volume. The Nest Audio does a good job of maintaining separation between the mids, highs, and lows. You'll hear there's less distortion.

We're going to pit the $100 Nest Audio (center) against the $50 Nest Mini (left) and retired $130 Google Home (right).
First up is the Nest Audio. "Black Skinhead" by Kanye West is usually completely wrecked at high volumes. Not so on Google's new speaker.
Next up is the Google Home. In addition to not getting as loud, the Google Home's speaker doesn't sound nearly as full. The bass also isn't as strong.
The Nest Mini sounds decent for its size. But it's very obvious it lacks boomy or punchy sound that larger speakers can deliver.

Louder, clearer bass

The larger drivers in the Nest Audio means heavier bass. What you want is strong bass even at lower volumes. But also, you don't want the bass to muffle and drown out the other frequencies. The Nest Audio achieves a nice balance.

Linkin Park's "Papercut" is always a favorite of mine to test speakers with. To my surprise, the bass holds up quite nicely on the Nest Audio and doesn't shred the rest of the track.
Listen carefully and you can hear the bass gets muddy and mushed together with the vocals on the Google Home. Bass sounds flatter compared to the Nest Audio.
Once again, the Nest Mini just can't provide the same oomf as a larger speaker. The bass is tinny and not pleasant on the ears even at 50 percent volume.

Balanced sound

Audiophiles will never love the Nest Audio or any smart speaker. These are speakers made for a broad range of music genres. For contemporary music, the tuning strikes a solid balance across the frequencies at low, medium, and high volumes.

Here's Christina Aguilera's "Reflection" for the live action "Mulan" movie on the Nest Audio. Note the even preservation of her highs, mids, and lows.
On the Google Home, you can hear the speaker struggling to separate the different parts of the song. It's almost as if there's a filter in front of the speaker.
On the Nest Mini, Aguilera's vocals sound thinner and duller. There's no vibrancy that makes the music pass through you. Music on the Nest Mini sounds more like ambient or background noise.

Faster Assistant

It'd be negligent of me to not also mention the Google Assistant is faster. Google says the Assistant is 2x faster at controlling music than on Google Home. I don't know if it's that much faster, but the Assistant does feel a step speedier. Regular smart home stuff like controlling setting timers, checking the weather, and controlling my smart lights is more or less as snappy as on my Home and Nest Hub and Nest Mini.

For even louder stereo sound you can pair two Nest Audio's together. It's too bad you can't wirelessly pair them to use as TV speakers, though. It would have been a nice feature.

Should you buy?

The Nest Audio punches way above its size and price. It's a solid buy if you value sound quality, but also don't want to spend more than $100.

If you already own a Google Home and don't care for the extra sound clarity and stronger bass, you should save your money. Nest Mini owners: you deserve better sound, period.

The Nest Audio is a simple smart speaker with great sound if you're just starting a smart home or really want to upgrade your existing smart home's sound game. What it isn't is groundbreaking.

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