Google Nest Audio review: A powerful choice to embrace the Assistant ecosystem
Back in 2016 at its I/O developer conference, Google introduced the Google Assistant alongside the original Google Home smart speaker. At the time, Google Assistant was perceived as Google Now 2.0, a virtual assistant that adopted a conversational approach to search backed by Google’s artificial intelligence and machine learning. Fast forward to 2020, and Google Assistant has evolved into a potent virtual assistant — arguably even the best. Google Assistant powers some of the highlighting experiences on Android, and its deep, thoughtful, and focused integration on Pixel smartphones is what makes them a Pixel in the first place.
With the Google Home and later the Google Home Mini and Nest Mini, the company essentially tried to deliver the Google Assistant experience to every corner in every house. The idea was to encourage users to speak to Google without any effort and accomplish varied tasks without needing to put much thought into it. The speakers were mere vehicles, and the Assistant was the main product. But with the Google Home Max, the speaker finally took center stage, with Assistant taking on a supplementary role as an added benefit.
For users like me, who aren’t invested in the Google Assistant ecosystem, or in any smart home ecosystem for that matter, the Google Home, Home Mini, and Nest Mini were very uninteresting. The idea of a tiny speaker serving as a virtual assistant that brought no utility to my life was just not worth the investment, even if Google offered ludicrous discounts on these products from time to time. On the other hand, the Google Home Max was a much better sell, as it was a speaker first. But the speaker never made its way to my home country of India, and even if it had, the ~$400 price tag is too much for me. There just wasn’t enough in any of these smart speakers for me to part with my hard-earned money, and the same went for the Google Assistant ecosystem, if I am being honest.
When Google launched the Nest Audio, I was definitely intrigued. The device seemingly was a mid-point between the Google Home and the Google Home Max, offering a healthy mix of speaker specifications, cosmetic appeal, and smart assistant integration at a decent price tag. The Google Nest Audio has had a spot in my house for about three weeks, so I’ve been able to use it for enough time to put together some thoughts on the Nest Audio as a first-time Google Assistant adopter.
Google Nest Audio: Specifications
|Specification||Google Nest Audio|
|Dimensions & Weight|
|Audio (In and Out)|
|Voice Assistant||Google Assistant|
|Charging||30W DC power supply|
About this review: Google India sent us the Nest Audio in Chalk color for review. This review is after 20 days of regular use. Google had no input into the contents of this article.
Google Nest Audio: Design and Build
The Google Nest Audio has a discrete look that is both familiar as a Google product and different from a lot of speakers that we usually encounter. It looks like a shrunken-down pillow with a flat base and an upright speaker setup. At 1.18 kg, the device is surprisingly heavy and dense for its size.
The speaker cover is made out of a durable fabric top, which Google claims is made from recycled plastic bottles. The entire enclosure (i.e. the fabric, the housing, the foot, and some smaller parts) is made from 70% recycled plastic. The fabric cover sits atop an enclosing cage framework that is built solidly and does not flex (if handled ordinarily). It’s a stationary speaker, so hopefully, you can place it once and forget about it.
The LED on the Nest Audio glows blue during setup, orange when the microphone is disabled, and white when it is listening.
The design is very simple. The front looks completely clean, but underneath the fabric cover, there are four LEDs in the middle and touch sensors towards the top. On the back, there is just one hardware toggle for toggling the microphone input on or off. There is also a port for the barrel type charging pin and a small Google “G” logo on the back. And that’s it — there’s nothing else on the device — no on/off switches, no other buttons, and even no 3.5mm input. Even the box contents are fairly simple: You get the Google Nest Audio, the 30W barrel type charger, and some documentation.
The simplistic design and discrete look for the Nest Audio allow the speaker to inconspicuously blend in with your furniture. You can place it alongside your other tech, hide it on your bookshelf, or place it next to other decorations. The Google Nest Audio ends up attracting very little attention if you hide it well, and it can look good on its own when people do notice it.
Unlike the Home Mini that lay flat and spread audio in a 360° fashion, the Google Nest Audio is meant to be unidirectional. The placement of this speaker becomes somewhat important, even though Google claims that the Nest Audio will sound great in most common placements. To that end, I agree, as the Google Nest Audio sounded pretty much the same when placed in corners, on the dining table, or next to a wall. Just make sure that the speaker end faces the general area where you want the audio to be directed, and you should be good to go. Note that there is no IP rating or any claims of water resistance whatsoever, so it’s best that you keep it away from the bathroom. I’m also a little concerned about what happens to the fabric look as the device ages and accumulates dust and smaller stains, but I haven’t had the Nest Audio for long enough to find out.
I’m very impressed with how the Google Nest Audio looks and fits in. The other residents at my home have had no issues leaving this piece of tech on display, and they have had no complaints of it disrupting their carefully constructed aesthetics. It doesn’t look like a regular speaker with bare metal surfaces or other garish looks — and that’s what gives it its ability to just blend in when it isn’t actively blasting away music.
Google Nest Audio: Sound Quality
The Google Nest Audio comes with a 75mm woofer and a 19mm tweeter for sound output, and 3 far-field microphones for voice input. With these specifications, Google says that the Nest Audio is 75% louder and has a 50% stronger bass than the original Google Home. And while I do not have the original Google Home for comparison, I can attest to the fact that the Google Nest Audio gets pretty loud for its size, to the point that neighbors have complained. And this loudness doesn’t come at the cost of sound quality, as my neighbors can attest. (Sorry about that.)
The Nest Audio has a strong, pronounced bass, and I love it. A lot of Indian pop music favors bass on the heavier sound, and the Google Nest Audio produced these sounds wonderfully. Some of my favorite tracks, such as Nucleya’s Laung Gawacha from Bass Rani and Ritviz’s Sage, sound amazing, with beats being surprisingly pronounced throughout the tracks. Audio across the spectrum is well reproduced, with very good performance across highs, mids, lows, and even vocals. While I cannot claim the audio to be satisfactory for audiophiles, nobody who has heard the Nest Audio at my home has complained about the sound quality. So for average consumers, this smart speaker from Google does a great job.
Google claims that the Nest Audio comes with internal smarts that help it adapt to homes. There is the Media EQ feature, which adapts the tuning to the content that you are listening to, with different outputs for music, podcasts, or the Assistant. And then there is Ambient IQ, which allows the speaker to adapt to background noise in your home. Honestly speaking, both of these features are difficult to notice — I am not sure if these features “kick” into place or if they are always enabled. It is difficult to find the differences in output, but the audio sounds great and remains clear even when there is a lot of background noise. You can say that the features are working just as advertised, but there is no easy way to tell these features are working as there is no setting or toggle to check on. There is no way to change equalizer settings too, so you’re restricted to just changing the Bass and Treble response from the speaker.
The Google Nest Audio is also very good at picking up voice commands. The microphones pick up commands from a pretty good distance. The only times I have experienced the speaker struggling to pick up my voice is when it was placed very high up and I was closer to the floor. Unless you plan to place your speakers at a height, you should have no issues with voice reception.
Overall, I am very happy with the Google Nest Audio when it comes to sound quality. I only have a single unit at the moment, but I am planning on picking up another unit to get a sweeter stereo set up thanks to the Speaker Pair feature.
Google Home app
One of the highlight features of speakers from Google is, obviously, Google Assistant. To set up the speaker and begin using Assistant, you need the Google Home app. The Google Home app serves as the middleman for all your smart home peripherals that don’t have a settings surface by themselves, letting you set up the device, invite home members, set up routines, create speaker groups for multi-room playback, and manage services related to Music, Video, Podcasts, and more.
The setup process for the Nest Audio through the Google Home app is fairly straightforward, and the app hand-holds you through the process. You do need an active Internet connection for the setup though, and without that, you cannot begin to use the speaker. You also need to have an active Internet connection to pair a device through Bluetooth to the speaker for the first time, though subsequent Bluetooth connections don’t need an active Internet connection.
Further beyond the setup, the app also teaches you about the on-device controls and some of the ways you can use the smart speaker.
Once set up, you are presented with an overview of your smart home setup and some quick actions. The “Media” button shows you which media is playing, the “Call Home” function calls your home device through Google Duo (oddly, the app would force close for me when this option is selected), “Broadcast” lets you broadcast an audio note to your speaker, “Routines” lets you set multiple instruction sets to be carried out with one command, and access Settings.
Device settings includes a whole host of other settings, letting you set adult content filters, set downtime for command reactions, set night mode for lowered volume responses and lowered LED brightness, and even allow all connected Android devices to control casted media.
Using a Smart Speaker
While a speaker being smart is a good thing, it won’t be much of a selling point if the smart bits weren’t actually useful. My experience on this end has been a little mixed, and I say this as someone who is not invested in the Google Assistant ecosystem or in other voice assistant ecosystems for that matter.
People are diverse, so even if we speak the same language, we do so with individual accents that make us sound different. My personal experience with voice assistants thus far has been sour. My first language is Hindi, my second Urdu, and my third is English, followed by French and Marathi. When I am speaking in English (which I can mostly speak fluently), I do have an accent that is typically heard in India. Others in my household are not as proficient in English, so conversations in my house involve a weirdly-evolved mix of Hindi and Urdu sprinkled with words from English and Marathi. It’s not singularly one language. A huge chunk of India is bilingual and multilingual, so I know this situation is not just reflective of my house.
So when the rest of the world got excited about making voice assistants like Google Now and Google Voice Search a part of their daily routine, I could never get as excited. The potential was visible, sure, but getting these voice assistants to even understand my query was a challenge that preceded the voice assistants’ ability to execute the query properly. It has largely been an affair that required multiple instances of shouting the same command differently, and eventually, just giving up and doing things sans-voice. A lot of features are also tuned for Western markets and are not available in regions like India. Further, “smart home” and “home automation” are still emerging concepts for urban India, and often require fairly substantial monetary investments and infrastructural changes that aren’t always economically feasible. As a result of all of this, I just haven’t been into Google Assistant, opting to remove it entirely from all my devices as it barely brought any utility into my life.
The Google Nest Audio is my first dedicated Google Assistant device, and it is also the first “smart” accessory in the house, if you don’t count smartphones and TVs. So, while the Nest Audio can be used to control your smart home, you do need a smart home to do so in the first place.
I am happy to see the usability situation for voice assistants has improved. To the Nest Audio and Google Assistant’s credit, the speaker and the voice assistant combination has been far better at understanding what I and other members of my house are instructing through voice commands. This has been a breath of fresh air, as most commands are recognized. There are still caveats — commands in mixed languages are not recognized that well (like a primarily English command with some Hindi words), and setting up bilingual languages is still limited to some combinations (Hindi + Urdu, or any two Indic languages are not a valid combination, but Hindi + English is). Largely, I am happy to see the current progress on this end since the situation was disappointing a few short years ago, but there is still some room to improve.
Getting Google Assistant to actually be useful remains a limited case scenario for me. Over a period of three weeks, my household has defaulted to just issuing YouTube Music song commands to the Nest Audio. That makes sense, since it is a smart speaker after all, and music playback is one of its highlights. What I mean to point out is that practically speaking, what we use the Nest Audio for on a daily basis has ended up being a very small subset of uses from the larger set of functions that the Nest Audio can actually accomplish. We ask it to read the news aloud sometimes, and occasionally ask for a weather update or to set an alarm. Sometimes, my nephew asks Google what a lion or a tiger sounds like. But by and large, we just go, “Hey Google, play Baby Shark” — and in the age of Bluetooth speakers and Chromecast Audio, I can argue that one doesn’t really need a dedicated smart speaker for such a task.
I am not going to judge the Google Nest Audio too harshly for this section, as a lot of what I mention is based on personal anecdotes and experience. But I see these aspects rarely mentioned when people talk about smart speakers with Google Assistant. Yes, Google Assistant can be very helpful, but the world is more than just the USA and Europe. If you are in a region outside of these, I would recommend assessing what use you actually want to derive out of Google Assistant before you invest in a smart speaker. This is a general comment on the state of smart assistants and not a critique of the Google Nest Audio per se.
Conclusion: The Google Nest Audio is good enough to buy two of
Even though my personal use for the Nest Audio is fairly limited, I am very impressed with its build and sound quality. I am impressed to the point that I may just pick up another Nest Audio unit to create a stereo pair. This smart speaker does what it says on the box, and it does it very well. Google has found the sweet spot of mixing in smarts with a good speaker at an affordable price tag. And in some regions, the deal gets better if you pick up two units together. A two-unit pair also gives you greater flexibility with how you can place the speaker in your house. And if the stereo pair doesn’t work out, you can also create a multi-room group to play the same music across different rooms at the same time, and have all of them sound very good while at it. That versatility is what gives the Google Nest Audio an edge over other bigger and possibly better speakers, such as Google’s own Home Max.
In the Indian market, there aren’t that many options when it comes to Google Assistant-powered smart speakers (since this category split entirely removes Amazon’s Alexa powered smart speakers because of their ecosystem). If you are just getting started on this smart speaker journey, good first steps are the Google Nest Mini (₹2,299) and the recently launched Xiaomi Mi Smart Speaker (₹2,999 in Diwali sales). If you have a larger budget and want a very good speaker, you should absolutely get the Google Nest Audio (₹6,999), for it sounds well worth its price tag. And if it is an option, definitely consider picking two units up for a stereo setup.