Google Nest Audio review: The smart speaker for anyone

Patrick

Google Nest Audio is the smart speaker you should trust, or at least that’s what Google hopes. This pillow-shaped smart speaker succeeds the Google Home, and is affordable, versatile, and approachable. The Nest Audio doesn’t sound like a hi-fi sound system, because it’s not trying to be one. Instead, the Google Nest Audio is an accessible smart speaker for everyone.

Let’s see how the Nest Audio holds up in the real world, and how it differs from the latest generation of the Amazon Echo, in our Google Nest Audio review.

Google Nest Audio The latest smart speaker from Google’s Nest brand.

Almost like a Google Home 2, this full-sized smart speaker is for the folks who want something that sounds better than a Nest Mini but is less expensive than the Google Home Max.

Who should get the Google Nest Audio?

Google Nest Audio smart speaker bathroom

  • Anyone can enjoy the Google Nest Audio; that’s the point: this little smart speaker takes minimal technical know-how to get up and running.
  • Google Assistant users already familiar with Google hardware and software will feel right at home with this speaker.
  • Music and podcast fanatics will appreciate how easy it is to stream media to the Nest Audio.
  • Those invested in the Google ecosystem should add this speaker to their collection. It plays nicely with other Nest products, and supports stereo and multiroom playback.

Meet the Nest Audio

Pictured is the gray Google Nest Audio on a bookshelf with the lights blinking.

The Nest Audio is a seamless, smooth device, save for the line bisecting it into front and back halves. A dedicated mute switch is the only physical toggle on the speaker, which underscores Google’s push for privacy. When the mute switch is toggled on, all four LEDs glow amber until the speaker performs a new task.

Unlike the Google Nest Mini, the Nest Audio cannot be mounted against a wall. Instead, the Nest Audio must stand vertically atop a flat surface. For the best sound reproduction, make sure the speaker is unobstructed and isn’t stuck in toward the back of a bookshelf or a wall.

Google Nest Audio smart speaker touch control

The Google Nest Audio is broken into three segments at the top of the speaker (near the seam). These divisions serve as touch panels, so you can manually control playback and volume. I found these controls to be a bit too sensitive on my Google Nest Audio review unit.

A few centimeters below the invisible controls rest the LED indicators that indicate Google Assistant activation, Bluetooth pairing mode, and more.

Inside the Nest Audio lies a new machine learning chip that enables a faster Google Assistant response time. Once the software becomes familiar with your habits and go-to commands, it will execute commands faster. During my five-day test period, I didn’t observe a marked increase in response time, but this may very well change as time goes on.

You might like: A guide to Google Assistant commands

The only accessory Google provides with the Nest Audio is the DC power adapter.

The Nest Audio is available in several color options: Charcoal, Chalk, Sage, Sand, and Sky. Other than that, all of the fancy features have to do with software, rather than hardware.

How do Media EQ and Ambient IQ work?

The gray Google Nest Audio speaker pictured on a white desk in front of computer screens.

Media EQ and Ambient IQ streamline the listening experience, by reducing the amount of time you need to interact with your smartphone or the speaker.

Media EQ dynamically changes the sound signature of the Nest Audio depending on the type of media you choose. Simply put, the EQ will sound markedly different when you’re listening to your favorite Arcade Fire album, compared to when Google Assistant is voicing a reply.

If you’d rather take manual control of the sound, you can do that too in the Google Home app. Google provides users with a spartan equalizer that allows adjustment of treble and bass along a spectrum of  “less” and “more” — not very granular.

Ambient IQ reliably increased the volume as I used a hairdryer and washed dishes near the speaker.

Ambient IQ is a bit different, and very useful for podcast and audiobook listeners. It automatically changes the volume output according to environmental noise. Volume did, in fact, increase when I used a hairdryer near the speaker, and then decreased after I powered the dryer off.

Google Nest Audio in black on nightstand next to bed

There are a few caveats to Ambient IQ: you need to enable the microphone, and it’s limited to spoken word content. Music volume doesn’t automatically increase with the Nest Audio, because Google understands spoken word and music content to be different: the former is usually the center of attention, while the latter is typically used in the background (e.g., ambiance for a dinner party).

The Nest Audio is easy to set up

Setting up the Nest Audio smart speaker takes little to no effort. All you have to do is download the Google Home app and follow the prompts for setting up a new speaker. Once you make the first step, as outlined in the minimal paperwork provided with the Nest Audio, in-app prompts guide you through the rest.

If you own multiple Nest displays or speakers, you can choose to “broadcast” to specific rooms or to the whole house. Just say “Hey Google, broadcast [your message]” to send the message to all your smart speakers in the house. While I didn’t find this useful in my one-bedroom apartment, it’s great for large homes. If your kids or roommates are scattered about and it’s time for dinner, the broadcast function is an easy way to get everyone’s attention without yelling.

Does the Nest Audio stream over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth?

The Google Nest Audio speaker in gray pictured in front of plants on a table

The easiest way to use the Nest Audio is via Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz/5 GHz). Since it has Chromecast built-in, you can cast directly from your phone, tablet, or computer directly to the speaker for high-quality audio. All you have to do is tap the cast button from your app, and choose the desired speaker. It supports FLAC, HE-AAC, LC-AAC, MP3, Opus Vorbis, WAV, and WebM Source audio formats.

Learn more: Understanding Bluetooth codecs

Alternatively, you can also connect to the speaker via Bluetooth 5.0 over AAC or SBC. This is a great option for listeners who subscribe to services like Apple Music or Amazon Music HD, which don’t support casting. Sure, you don’t get the same ease of use as casting affords, but pairing via Bluetooth is easy still. Just say, “Hey Google, enable Bluetooth pairing,” and then open your smartphone’s Bluetooth menu and select your speaker.

You can’t however, use your voice to command playback of Amazon Music or Apple Music. Another thing the Nest Audio lacks is a 3.5mm input. You also aren’t afforded an ethernet port, which isn’t a huge deal but something the Sonos One (Gen 2) offers.

How do you charge the Nest Audio?

Pictured is the "G" logo on the back on the Google Nest Audio on a wooden surface

The Nest Audio requires constant power, so you don’t charge it. Instead, it must be connected to a 30W, 24V adapter at all times. Don’t worry, though, the 1.5-meter cable affords some leeway and is easy to move from room to room. If you want a portable speaker to accompany you on your next adventure, check out our list of the best Bluetooth speakers.

How does the Google Nest Audio sound?

A frequency response chart of the Google Nest Audio smart speaker, which accurately reproduces midrange frequencies with notable bass de-emphasis.

Google did a great job tuning the Nest Audio, which has a relatively neutral frequency response when reproducing sounds above 200Hz. This kind of sound signature handles all genres of music and spoken word content well, because there’s little change in frequency output (volume). What you’re left with is a sound that’s similar to what the audio engineers intended.

Now, Google bragged a lot about the Nest Audio’s bass reproduction, and at first glance, the frequency response chart seems to contradict that, but that isn’t the case. See, sub-bass notes are very hard for single-body speakers of this size to reproduce. The fact that mids (green) are less than twice as loud as mid- and upper-bass notes is very impressive. Sub-bass reproduction is a limitation of physics, hence why home theater systems include a separate subwoofer.

Sure, you won’t feel a strong “thump” from your music, but the Google Nest Audio’s bass response is impressive for the speaker’s size. If you want a true party speaker, save up for the Google Home Max instead.

At the beginning of the song Read Receipts by Kyle Thornton & Company, the trumpets sound great even after the kick drum enters the fray. Brass instruments sound clear through the Nest Audio, and never masked Thornton’s vocals. This consistent detail is a positive consequence of the de-emphasized bass. Auditory masking is a non-issue, so it’s easy to process more auditory information at once.

Usually, treble notes sound poor from speakers like this because their distribution is uneven once it leaves the speaker chamber. However, the tweeter is surrounded by a little cone that helps guide and distribute high notes. Take a listen at 2:45, when cymbal hits present themselves. These sound clear through the Nest Audio but are usually quieted by exaggerated mids from other speaker sound signatures.

Can I use the Google Nest Audio for phone calls?

Google Nest Audio pictured on glass table with plants

You can use the speaker to make and receive calls, so long as you’ve registered your Google account with Duo calling. You can even call non-Duo affiliated phone numbers, though you’re unable to make emergency calls from the speaker.

Three far-field microphones make up the microphone system and ensure voice reception from a distance, though sound quality is just okay. I called my mother and a few friends who all had similar feedback: I sounded muffled or distant, even if I was within a half a meter of the speaker. Generally, quality is fine but it’s dependent on where you’re standing relative to the speaker. Take a listen for yourself – I recorded the microphone demo below on my Google Nest Audio review unit.

Google Nest Audio microphone demo:

What data does Nest Audio collect?

We all know Google’s services are powered by data collection, and the Nest Audio is no exception. Though, the company is rather transparent about the data it does and doesn’t collect, and even how it’s used and distributed.

An aerial photo of the Google Maps app open on a Google Pixel 3 smartphone, which is flanked by a Tamron lens cap and Casio watch on a white table.

Google uncouples audio recordings from advertising, so your raw audio recordings aren’t used for ad personalization per se. Your voice isn’t nearly as important to the company as the content of what’s being said, and Google retains the right to use the transcript of your interactions with Google Assistant for ad personalization. This means anytime you purchase something via the Nest Audio’s Google Assistant, this data can be used to show you certain ads. To limit this, you can always opt out of Ad ID on your device.

Audio recordings themselves aren’t used by Google for advertising purposes; instead, it uses audio recording transcripts.

Google’s servers only receive audio data when you interact with the speaker (i.e., you say “Hey Google”). You may access, review, and delete your audio recordings from your Google account at any time. Google only shares audio recordings with third-party affiliates when you use third-party services or apps on the Nest Audio. When using affiliated services with the Nest Audio, you’re subjected to each service’s privacy policy along with the Google privacy policy.

Google Nest Audio vs Amazon Echo (4th Gen)

Amazon Echo Dot 2020

With their latest smart speakers, Google and Amazon departed from the design language of their previous products. As we know, Google gave up the air freshener silhouette of the Google Home for a pillow-inspired appearance, while Amazon dropped all edges with the spherical Echo (4th Gen).

Both companies have several partnerships with companies that manufacture Internet of Things (IoT) products like Philips, GE, and thousands more. However, only the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) integrates Zigbee Hub, so you can control more smart devices from one place.

If you subscribe to Amazon Music, the Echo may be a better choice.

Google has a more ubiquitous presence, and the Google Assistant’s presence seems virtually inescapable. Both Alexa and Google Assistant are useful and many companies support both smart assistants. Still, Google is easier to interact with on a conversational level, while you have to be a bit more deliberate about commands with Alexa.

The Amazon Echo has a 3.5mm input for wired playback, something the Nest Audio lacks. That said, the woofer and tweeters are nearly identical in size from one device to the other. We won’t know how the new Echo sounds until it’s released at the end of the month, but it’s hard to beat Google’s software EQ.

The Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is available for pre-order, and shipping begins on  October 22. The Google Nest Audio is available now, and both speakers retail for $99.

Google Nest Audio review: Should you buy it?

Google Nest Audio in gray on top of book in front of yellow couch.

The Google Nest Audio is a neat smart speaker that can do just about everything. Its playful, smart design is inviting and the price is fair for everything it affords. The Nest Audio easily blends into the background of any home and performs well, with few hiccups. Customers who don’t want to spend hundreds on their first smart speaker will comfortable and happy with the Google Nest Audio.

As good as the Nest Audio is, it has its shortcomings and budget consumers will have a hard time justifying this speaker when the Nest Mini is a fraction of the cost. The other side of the coin is that party hosts and audio enthusiasts will find it worthwhile to invest in the Google Home Max. The Nest Audio is the middle ground, and it’s a great product for general consumers.

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