Nest Audio review: Strong sound & Google smarts

Google announced its latest smart speaker — Nest Audio — on September 30.

We’ve been putting the $99.99 speaker to the test for the past six days. In short, thanks to its upgraded internal hardware, algorithms for sound mixing and Google Assistant at the ready, Nest Audio is a big improvement over the original Google Home, and the Google smart speaker most worth your attention.

Here’s why.

With Nest Audio, Google put the focus on sustainability, a trend we first saw on the Nest Mini last year. The full outer shell of the Nest Audio is made from 70% recycled plastic, and the fabric encasing the speaker is made from recycled plastic bottles.

The speaker uses a proprietary port that we wish was USB-C. The included power cable measures in at four feet and 11 inches. The 30-watt power adapter is automatically connected at the other end.

Nest Audio has to stand vertically with the front facing out into the room. You’ll know it’s the front as the power plug is on the back along with a physical mute switch. It provides both an electrical disconnect and a physical shutoff for the three microphones. Engaging it will have the Google Assistant say “the mics off” and four LED dots on the front will glow red.

Those dots still represent the same simple user interface we’ve seen on all Google smart speakers. As you adjust the volume, the dots will grow up to a maximum of four while also increasing the brightness. You’ll see the dots appear when the Assistant is listening as well.

Besides that switch on the back, there are no physical buttons on Nest Audio — another trait that Google is sticking with. There are three touch sensors on the top. Left, center and right for volume down, play or pause and volume up. It’s simple enough and quite easy to get the hang of.

Google made a lot of improvements from the Google Home to Nest Audio — more internal hardware, algorithms to mix the music and clearer sound throughout. Powering the audio experience here is a 75-millimeter woofer and a 19-millimeter tweeter. Sound is pushed out through the front of Nest Audio.

The first thing we noticed was a more balanced approach to audio quality. Lows, mids, highs and bass aren’t overpowering, so they all come through in a very leveled fashion. You’ll hear every bit (vocals, instruments and synthesizers) of the track. And the other surprise was the volume Nest Audio could produce. Compared to a HomePod (priced at $299) or the Echo studio, it wasn’t as loud. Up against a Nest Mini or Echo Dot, though, it’s much louder. And, from our tests, the loudness depends on the track or genre.

For instance, we asked for “Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez and at 100%, it filled the room pretty well. The track starts with a solid bass tone that’s on repeat and a single vocal gets laid on top before a deeper mix of percussion gets tossed in. Vocals are front and center, with the Nest Audio handling the higher range of tones well with no noticeable cracking. The bass isn’t the deepest but doesn’t feel flat or like we’re being cheated out on part of the song.

With “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, though, it didn’t get as loud — even at 100%. Seems that it might be more tuned for pop tracks. Still, you can pick out drums, keys, guitars, vocals and the saxophone. No introduction of muddiness (instruments mixing) or cracking of audio to be heard.

“Ghosts” by Bruce Springsteen was a lot louder by default and was a great test for many instruments. You get a kick off of bass with no distortion and Springsteen’s vocals switching mid and high throughout. Backing guitar, percussion and keys build to a climactic chorus filled with additional voices. As with “Born to Run” and “Bad Liar,” the instrument or vocal tracks don’t collide with one another.

Similarly, “Running On Empty” by Jackson Browne was a clear mix. The piano and drum beat come through front and center early and take a step back with vocals from Jackson Browne. The vocals fall in the mid-range leaving the tweeter plenty of room to focus on backing vocals and the other instruments. The woofer had the snare drum covered pretty well.

All-in-all, the sound is quite good and hits the right notes. We just wish it got a bit louder across genres. One fix is to play around with the EQ within the Google Home app for Android and iOS. Increasing bass and treble sliders give you a louder or fuller mix. By default, it’s prioritizing the overall mix, rather than overall sound volume.

You can easily pair the speakers in the Google Home app. In the pairing setup, you’ll choose which two speakers and select which one is the right and the left. This is important to ensure a proper mix. It takes about 10 seconds to pair.

And with two Nest Audio speakers paired, you get that room-filling experience. We positioned one on the left nightstand and the other on the right nightstand. With “Bad Liar,” it was a more robust listening experience that could be heard throughout the house. It also solved the volume issues with “Born to Run.”

The Nest Audio is a fully functioning smart speaker. Powering the intelligence is the Google Assistant, the same virtual assistant on all Google smart speakers. It’s also found on nearly every modern Android phone.

What’s really neat is the machine learning chip inside the Nest Audio. We saw the same one in the Nest Mini, but it has some more memory to work with here. The chip gives Nest Audio more bandwidth on the device to figure out what you said and read back the appropriate answer. It’s pretty handy and delivers noticeable speed improvements over the original Google Home and even Home Max.

Even when we had the volume cranked and wanted to get the Assistant’s attention, we didn’t need to scream. The three microphones are listening for the wake word (“OK” or “Hey Google”) and lower the volume to hear your request. It will also intelligently raise or lower the response volume depending on the background noise of where the speaker is. We had an AC unit on high with a fan blowing and the Nest Audio spoke louder when telling us the weather.

A neat trick is multi-room audio. Let’s say you’re like us and have a few Nest Mini’s scattered throughout the home with two Nest Audio’s in the bedroom. We can start by playing on the Nest Audios, walk out to the kitchen and ask the Mini to begin playing. You can do this with your voice, and even move the stream to that speaker (essentially stopping the audio on the first speaker) or use the Google Home app to choose which speakers are playing.

There aren’t too many new features for the Google Assistant. That’s par for the course with Google, as they’re always updating the Assistant to be smarter and more responsive.

With Nest Audio, Google certainly took the mid-range smart speaker in a new direction, one that delivers a well-rounded experience. For $99, it lets you expand the Google Assistant and have music anywhere your home.

At the price, you get balanced sound that delivers strong tones across low, mid and high. Bass is also much improved over the original Google Home. Overall, it sounds better and less tinny than the $49.99 Nest Mini.

We’re going to reevaluate once we get our hands on the new Echo, but if you’re in the Google ecosystem, this is likely the speaker you’ve been waiting for and the one to get. Our recommendation? Opt for two and get a robust sound experience. Better yet, you’ll get twice the Assistant.