Nest Audio Review: Worthwhile, long-overdue upgrade

Google's mid-range smart speaker finally matches Amazon's Echo device in sound quality, but for how long?

Nest Audio

The Pros

  • Significant sound quality upgrade
  • Reasonable price tag
  • Great design

The Cons

  • Might not be enough of an upgrade over the Google Home for some people
  • Amazon's upcoming new Echo speakers could feature better sound quality
  • No in-line 3.5mm headphone jack

The official reveal and release of Google’s Nest Audio has been a long time coming.

The original Google Home came out first in the United States back in 2016 before eventually making its way to Canada in 2017. This means Google’s mid-range smart speaker hasn’t received a hardware update in nearly three years and three months, with the timeline being even longer in the United States.

At the time, Google’s Home and Amazon’s Echo line of smart speakers were relatively evenly matched in terms of audio quality and functionality. Both offered capable voice-activated assistants, smart home device integration and decent quality music playback.

Nest Audio beside a skeleton

Since then, a lot has changed. For example, Google’s ‘Home’ app is far better than Amazon’s Alexa app when it comes to managing smart home devices, and Google Assistant is a more intelligent and responsive voice-activated helper. On the Echo side of things, Amazon’s speaker offers superior sound quality across the board.

This is where the Nest Audio comes in with its 75mm woofer and 19mm tweeter, which to my ears, matches the excellent sound quality of the 2nd-gen Echo Plus. Of course, I can’t compare the Nest Audio to the new 4th-gen Echo because it isn’t yet available.

The changes also go beyond the Nest Audio’s internals. Google shifted the smart speaker’s still fabric-covered design in a sleek new vertical direction

However, the main questions surrounding the Nest Audio are whether these upgrades are worthwhile for current Google Home owners, as well as if the Nest Audio is the best mid-range speaker within its very reasonable $129 price range.

Going vertical

Nest Audio on a table beside the Nest Wifi

When Google responded to an early Nest Audio leak by releasing official pictures of the smart speaker, I was pretty shocked by its design.

The now-iconic air freshener look of the original Home was gone and replaced with what sort of looks like an entirely fabric-covered Google Home Max placed on its side.

“The fact that the device is completely covered in fabric and devoid of the plastic lower half the Google Home featured helps it more easily blend in with its surroundings”

Now that I have the Nest Audio in front of me, my opinion has changed, and I think it looks pretty sleek, especially the ‘Sage,’ ‘Sand,’ and ‘Sky’ colours.

Google sent me the ‘Chalk’ Nest Audio, which is by far the most subtle colour of the bunch. Sage, Sky and arguably even Sand are way cooler looking and have far more pop to them.

Nest Audio top down look

The fact that the device is completely covered in fabric and devoid of the plastic lower half the Google Home featured helps it more easily blend in with its surroundings. That’s not to say the original Google Home was an eye-sore, because it wasn’t at all. It’s just that the Nest Audio’s design is far more nondescript and low-key than its predecessor’s.

Like all of Google’s recent speakers, there’s a physical mute button on the rear of the Nest Audio to give you a straightforward way to mute the device, a power port and a subtle ‘G’ Google logo on the back. The bottom features a rubberized base that helps keep the speaker in place.

Nest Audio base

Overall, I like the look of the Nest Audio and would even go so far as to say it’s my favourite smart speaker in terms of design. Though I’m far from an interior designer, I moved it to several locations around my home, and it blended in excellently, whether it was sitting on the desk in my office, on a bedside table or even on my kitchen counter.

It’s worth noting that despite the Nest Audio looking like it could easily be mounted on a wall like the Nest Mini, it doesn’t feature the same rear attachment as its smaller counterpart.

Significantly better sound quality

Nest Mini, Google Home and Nest Audio

There are a few other new hardware features. First off, the Nest Audio includes a 75mm woofer and a 19mm tweeter that offer sound quality on par with Amazon’s current Echo Plus, which costs $199 and includes a built-in Zigbee smart home device hub.

The Nest Audio also comes close to matching the $249 Sonos One, but doesn’t seem to have quite as wide of a soundscape or as pronounced highs and lows. As expected, that situation doesn’t change when you pair two Nest Audio speakers and pit them again two Sonos One speakers. Across the board, Sonos’ more expensive speakers offer a better acoustic experience.

“It now features a 75mm woofer and a 19mm tweeter that, to my ears, offer sound quality on par with Amazon’s current Echo Plus”

There are also other new features under the hood that aim to improve sound quality. First, there’s ‘Media EQ,’ which adapts to the content you’re currently playing. For example, if I’m listening to music, the Nest Audio shifts its acoustics to the best settings for that type of audio.

Then, when I go back to listening to a podcast, it’ll change to a different audio setup better suited for voices. In practice, I noticed a subtle change in the amount of bass when switching between various sources of audio content, but the difference isn’t pronounced.

Nest Audio

There’s also ‘Ambient IQ’ that adjusts the volume based on the background noise in a home, similar to the 2020 Pixel Buds’ adaptive sound feature. Like Media EQ, I find the Ambient IQ only makes a difference if the room gets deafeningly loud. What’s missing here is the ‘Room EQ’ features in the Google Home Max (which will also likely get a refresh soon). The Home Max is able to automatically adjust to the room’s acoustics, which impacts audio quality in a significant way. While the Nest Audio is Google’s mid-range smart speaker, Room EQ would have been a great addition to the device.

Other improvements include three far-field microphones instead of two like in the original Google Home. I didn’t find this changed how responsive the speaker was to my voice commands. The Nest Audio still hears what I ask it roughly 90 percent of the time, with the remaining 10 percent usually being the result of someone speaking over my command.

Overall, whether I was pumping guitar-driven music like Seaway’s “Still Blue,” Machine Gun Kelly’s “title track” or a song with more bass to it like Brakence’s “dropout,” the improvement in audio quality is immediately apparent when compared to the Google Home and Nest Mini. The Nest Audio’s sound is far fuller, with a more significant difference between the highs and lows in a song. However, when you turn up the Nest Audio to extremely loud volumes, the sound gets overly distorted. This isn’t a smart speaker designed to be played at full blast, though to be fair, no good speaker is.

Nest Audio from different angles

In comparison, the Google Home sounds almost muffled, with most songs overpowered by too much bass. On the other hand, the Nest Mini offers a similar soundscape to the Nest Audio, though with nearly non-existent bass and very tinny sound thanks to its comparatively small 40mm driver.  The screen-clad Nest Hub falls somewhere between the Google Home and Nest Mini in terms of sound quality, with its audio being muffled but slightly clearer than the original Google Home.

“Right out of the box, the Nest Audio offers the most impressive audio I’ve seen in this price range”

There are, of course, equalizer settings across the Google Home, Nest Hub, Nest Mini and new Nest Audio that allow you to adjust the bass and treble. Playing around with these can mitigate some of the Google Home and Nest Mini’s acoustic problems, but right out of the box, the Nest Audio offers the most impressive audio I’ve experienced from a smart speaker in this price range.

In fact, in some respects, I’d even say it rivals the far more expensive $249 Google Home Max, though the Nest Audio’s sound isn’t nearly as powerful and room-filling.

Nest Audio beside palm plant

 

The Nest Audio features Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11b/g/m/ac (2.4 Ghz/5 Ghz) and Wi-Fi, but unfortunately, not Wi-Fi 6. On the chip side of things, Google says its new smart speaker includes the same ML Chip with up to one TeraOPS of processing power as last year’s Nest Mini.

This allows the tech giant to shift several Google Assistant features from its data centres directly onto the smart speaker, which, in turn, lets the device learn your most common commands and respond to them more quickly.

Unfortunately for Canadians, and just like with the Nest Mini, this upgrade isn’t currently available in Canada. It’s unclear if the feature will launch here eventually, with Google only stating that it doesn’t have anything to announce at this time. Similar to other smart speakers and their features being delayed, this likely has something to do with adding French Canadian language support to the Nest Audio and Nest Mini.

Nest Audio beside Google Home Max

You can also mute the smart speaker’s mic with a physical switch on its rear, just like previous Google Home devices. While Google continues to claim its smart speakers only listen when the wake phrase ‘Okay, Google’ has been said, it’s great to see the company still including a physical mic-off switch for those concerned about privacy. You can also access all of your history with Google Assistant through the ‘My Activity’ tab and delete it all at any time. Amazon offers similar functionality with the Echo.

While you can change the Nest Audio’s volume with your smartphone or through the excellent ‘Home’ app (more on this later), you can also tap either the left side or the right side of the speaker to shift levels.

I found this more finicky than with other Google smart speakers. For example, since the touch sensors are on the top of the smart speaker, every time I tried to move it, I’d accidentally activate it. That said, people likely won’t be carrying the Nest Audio around much, so this won’t be an issue to them.

Smart home advantage

Home App

Over the last few months, I’ve slowly removed Echo devices from my home, with the exceptions being my Alexa-enabled Polk Sound Bar and a lone Echo Plus I have in my bathroom for listening to music while I shower. This is because I recently set up a Nest Wifi mesh network that includes two additional Points. Since the Points effectively act as Nest Mini speakers, I didn’t need to have Echo speakers in those same areas.

Also, Google’s Home app is now leagues ahead of what Amazon’s Alexa app offers across iOS and Android. It’s simple, intuitive and, most importantly, allows you to set devices up in a matter of minutes easily. Nearly all of my smart home devices, including a Nest Hub, an Arlo Ultra Camera, several Philips Hue lights, Wemo smart plugs and several more, all very easily connect to the Home app.

For the most part, Amazon’s Alexa app is capable of the same thing, although the process requires more steps and the app’s layout can get confusing. I’ve also had problems with getting different smart devices to show up in their correct room. Now that I have the Nest Audio, it’s likely the remainder of my Echo speakers will be disconnecting in favour of Google’s new device.

Everything else

Nest Audio

Since smart home speakers have grown into an established category over the last few years, several features are expected out of the devices at this point, and most of these make a return with the Nest Audio.

There’s ‘Voice Match,’ allowing the smart speaker to know exactly who is speaking to it; ‘Stereo Pairing’ that lets you connect two Nest Audios; and ‘Multi-Room Audio,’ which, as you may have already guessed, lets music or podcasts play across all of your smart home speakers.

Voice calling via Google Duo, Intercom functionality and the ability to Broadcast any message to all of the other speakers in your home are also back.

Nest Audio in darkness

Basically, if there’s a feature you’ve enjoyed using with Google’s other recent smart speakers, including the Nest Hub and Nest Mini, they’re also present in the new Nest Audio.

Finally, there’s also still no 3.5mm headphone jack like the 3rd-gen Echo Dot, which while not necessary, would have been a great addition to the Nest Audio.

Is it worth the upgrade?

As with most reviews focused on product refreshes, a few factors will determine if the Nest Audio is for you. If you own a Google Home or an older Home Mini and are looking for a better quality speaker that doesn't cost as much as Sonos' superior but also more expensive Sonos One, then the Nest Audio seems like the most cost-effective option around.

Of course, I've yet to test out Amazon's new circular 4th-gen Echo, which releases on October 22nd. There's a possibility the new Echo could be capable of better sound quality than the Nest Audio, especially since this has been the case in the past. This story will be updated with more information regarding how the Nest Audio compares to the 4th-gen Echo when it releases.

On the other side of the spectrum, if you've been waiting to pick up a smart speaker for the first time, the Nest Audio is one of the best options out there in this price range. It offers intuitive voice controls, excellent Google Assistant integration and, unlike its predecessor, features superb audio quality that provides a broad, detailed soundscape for such a small speaker.

The Nest Audio releases on October 5th for $129 in Chalk, Charcoal, Sage, Sand, Sky.

"If you've been waiting to pick up a smart speaker for the first time, the Nest Audio is one of the best options out there in this price range"

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