Nest Audio review: The Google Home successor has serious audio chops

Improving on the original Google Home in every way, the Nest Audio is the new $100 smart speaker to beat.

google nest audio main
Ben Patterson/IDG

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At a Glance

The replacement for Google’s original, now discontinued smart speaker is here, and after listening to it for a few days, I’m not missing the old Google Home one bit. The rectangular Nest Audio delivers truly impressive sound considering its $100 price tag, and its sturdy, fabric-covered design looks handsome in person. With Google Assistant on board, the Nest Audio can also respond to voice commands and take charge of smart home devices. Waiting in the wings, however, is Amazon’s refreshed Echo speaker, which also costs $100 and packs in stereo (rather than mono) sound, plus a Zigbee smart home hub.

Design and specifications

From the moment pre-announcement photos of the speaker appeared online, the Nest Audio’s industrial design provoked furrowed brows and even some derision; indeed, I wrote that it looks like a “potato sack” or “a pillow standing on end.” Well, shame on me. Seeing it in person, the Nest Audio looks smaller than I imagined, and certainly more stylish and elegant than a crumpled pillow.

google nest audio on shelf Ben Patterson/IDG

The Google Nest Mini looked pretty sharp sitting on a shelf in my dining room. Note the chunky wall wart in the background, however.

Placing it next to a red vase on a shelf near my dining room table, I actually thought it looked pretty sharp. The Nest Audio’s design makes even more sense when you see how its two front-firing drivers (a tweeter and a mid-woofer, which we’ll discuss in more detail momentarily) are vertically stacked, just like a conventional speaker.

Measuring 6.89 x 4.89 x 3.07 inches (HxWxD), the Nest Audio is more than an inch taller than the Google Home speaker it’s replacing, but it’s a half inch shorter than the biggest Google speaker, the Google Home Max. Weighing in at 2.65 pounds, the Nest Audio feels reassuringly substantial, and given its heft along with its broad, rubberized base, the speaker never felt in danger of tipping over.

google nest audio base Ben Patterson/IDG

Thanks to its heft and wide, rubberized base, the Nest Audio never felt in danger of tipping over.

The Nest Audio’s tight, tactile fabric covering, which comes in “chalk”, “charcoal,” “sage,” “sand,” and “sky” flavors (I tested the chalk version), should feel familiar to anyone who has a Google Home Max or a Nest Mini. The fabric wraps around the entire shell of the Nest Audio, save for its base. The front of the Nest Audio is featureless, save for the four telltale LEDs that peek through the fabric when you’re chatting up Google Assistant or adjusting the speaker volume.

Ports and connectors

As for ports on the Nest Audio, there’s only the barrel-shaped DC power port in back. That port connects to a roughly five-foot power cord with a 24V adapter, necessary to accommodate the Nest Audio’s 30W power draw. That adapter comes in the form of a chunky, 1.5 x 2-inch wall wart, which will block any outlet that’s directly beneath it.

google nest audio power port Ben Patterson/IDG

The Nest Audio’s barrel-shaped power port sits near the speaker bottom-right corner; note the missing 3.5mm audio jack.

Notably, there’s no 3.5mm audio jack for connecting an external speaker, although one could argue that with its improved speakers (compared to the Google Home), the Nest Audio doesn’t need an analog audio output. In any case, if you do want to connect the Nest Audio to an external speaker, you can always do so via Bluetooth 5.0. (It’s worth noting that most of Amazon’s competing Echo speakers do come with 3.5mm audio outputs.)

Setup

As with Google’s other smart speakers, getting the Nest Audio connected to Wi-Fi is a snap. If you’re already using the Google Home app, a “Set up Nest Audio” banner simply appears at the top of the app’s main interface. Tap it, and the app connects the Nest Audio to your Wi-Fi network; I had to pick my network from a list of nearby Wi-Fi networks, but I didn’t need to enter my network password. If this is your first Google speaker and you’re new to the Google Home app, you’ll need to install the application and sign in with your Google account to get started.

While connecting the Nest Audio to your home wireless network will likely be done in less than a minute (it was for me), you’ll spend considerably more time navigating a parade of opt-ins and disclaimers for Google’s various services and privacy policies. For example, the Google Home app will give you the option of activating Voice Match, a feature that lets Google Assistant identify you according to the sound of your voice. You’ll also need to decide whether the Assistant can save recordings of your voice (a flashpoint in last year’s brouhaha over the “human review” of recorded voice assistant interactions), as well as whether you’d like personalized results when you ask to hear your agenda or look up a contact. To enable many of these options, you’ll need to agree to lengthy privacy agreements.

Once you’ve waded through the thornier Google Assistant options, you’ll get the option of linking music and video services, as well as setting up voice calls via Google Duo. Finally, you pick which room of your home the Nest Audio will occupy (“Dining Room, “Entertainment Room,” “Kitchen,” and so on), firmware updates (if any are needed) are automatically installed, and you’re ready to go.

Physical controls

While the Nest Audio doesn’t have any obvious audio playback controls, you can control music on the speaker by tapping it.

google nest audio volume button Ben Patterson/IDG

You can tap the top of the Nest Audio to adjust the volume or pause your tunes.

If you tap the very top of the speaker, you’ll pause any music that’s playing; tap the top again, and playback will resume. You can also adjust the volume by tapping the left top corner (volume down) or the right top corner (volume up). When you tap any of the capacitive buttons, the four LEDs on the speaker will light up, with the number of bright dots corresponding to the volume level. Pretty cool, but unless you’ve happened to read the instructions, there’d be no way to know that the invisible buttons are there, and unlike last year’s Nest Mini, there are no proximity LEDs that light up when your fingers are near the buttons.

Besides the capacitive-touch playback and volume buttons, there’s also a microphone mute switch in back of the Nest Audio. When you engage the switch, Google Assistant will say “The mic’s off,” and the four front LEDs will glow orange.

google nest audio mic mute switch Ben Patterson/IDG

The Nest Audio’s mic mute switch sits on the back of the speaker.

Because the mic mute switch sits in the back of the Nest Audio, it’s easy to miss unless you know it’s there; we’d prefer that the switch were placed a little more prominently, perhaps on the top side of the speaker.

Chatting with Google Assistant

Google Assistant remains one of the most intelligent voice assistants around, and since it’s backed by Google search, the Assistant is tough to stump. You can also ask the Assistant to set alarms, check your schedule, tell you the weather, read headlines, play music, or even call one of your contacts (thanks to the Nest Audio’s support for the Google Duo voice- and video-calling app).

As with last year’s Google Nest Mini, the Nest Audio comes equipped with its own dedicated machine-learning chip that processes your questions locally, versus sending them to the cloud, which speeds the Assistant’s responses. Google Assistant still takes a moment or two to mull your queries before doling out its answers, but it’s nonetheless relatively quick to respond, and Google says the chip can also help the Assistant learn your favorite commands and requests.

The Nest Audio is outfitted with a trio of far-field microphones designed to catch your voice even when you’re across the room. Standing in one corner of my dining room while the Nest Audio was in the other, a good 20 feet away, Google Assistant was able to answer my questions even when I spoke in a quiet voice. Nice, but the three-mic array does have its limits, as I learned when my calls to the Assistant went unheeded after I backed into an adjacent room a few more feet away.

Controlling your smart home devices

Google Assistant has long trailed Amazon’s Alexa when it comes to smart home compatibility, but it’s catching up fast. At last count, the Assistant can control more than 50,000 smart home devices from 5,500 brands, including such prominent names as Philips Hue, TP-Link/Kasa Smart, Harmony, LG, Samsung, August, Arlo, and Wyze. Naturally, Google Assistant also integrates with Nest-branded smart-home devices, including security cameras, doorbells, and thermostats.

Add a Nest Audio to your compatible smart home system and you’ll be able to control your home with voice commands. Say “Hey Google, turn downstairs lights off,” for example, to douse the light in your basement, or “OK Google, I’m home now” to activate a routine that (say) switches on your kitchen lights, tees up your favorite playlist, and opens your drapes. And if you’re a Nest Aware subscriber (starting at $6 a month), the Assistant can even alert you if it hears the sound of smoke alarms or breaking glass.

Click here to read about the Nest Audio’s sound performance

At a Glance
  • Improving on the original Google Home in every way, the Google Nest Audio is the new $100 smart speaker to beat.

    Pros

    • Great sound for a $100 smart speaker
    • Handsome rectangular design (it grows on you)
    • Google Assistant aided by on-device AI chip

    Cons

    • Google Assistant’s smart home compatibility falls short of Alexa’s
    • Capacitive touch controls and mic mute switch are well hidden
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