Google’s first Assistant speaker, Google Home, turns four this year. The company says that device was designed primarily as a means to access the Google Assistant, and music playback was secondary. But the de facto second generation, the new Nest Audio, was purpose-built as a media device — and boy, does it ever show.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The first Google Home had an iconic (if funky) design that kind of looked like an air freshener. The Nest Audio trades that eccentric character for a more discreet look, and while that’s probably going to disappoint some, I like the direction. The Nest Audio is kind of a featureless, rounded rectangle, coated in the same “acoustically transparent” recycled fabric used on the Nest Mini. Shaped and textured the way it is, it reminds me of a throw pillow, and it blends easily into home decor. You can get it in five colors: Chalk (light gray, seen here), Charcoal (dark gray), Sage (green), Sand (kind of an earthy pink), or Sky (blue). Chalk and Charcoal are both pretty low-key and easy to hide; the other three stand out more.
With its new fabric-coated design, the Nest Audio more closely resembles the Nest Mini and Google Home Max than the original Google Home. There’s nothing on the front side of the speaker — it’s just an expanse of fabric. The top edge houses capacitive touch controls: tapping the left or right corner will adjust the volume down or up, and tapping the middle will play or pause. There’s no way to activate the Assistant by touch, presumably because of the always-listening fiasco from the Google Home Mini’s launch. The Nest Audio’s backside is home to a physical microphone mute switch and a barrel plug port for the included 30-watt power brick — but no auxiliary jack, unfortunately.
While it’s only about an inch taller and wider than the Google Home, the Nest Audio weighs more than twice as much: two pounds and nine ounces to the Home’s one pound and change. The increase in weight is because there’s so much more stuff packed into the speaker’s housing. It’s got a 75-millimeter woofer and a 19-millimeter tweeter, whereas the first Home only had one 50-millimeter “full-range” driver.
Those improved drivers coupled with a jump from 300 to 520 cubic centimeters of back volume (the hollow space behind the drivers) mean the Nest Audio can muster a whole lot more oomph than the Google Home could. Google says it can produce 75 percent more volume and 50 percent more bass, and while I have no means of scientifically testing those claims, they sure seem to hold water. This thing gets surprisingly, neighbor-botheringly loud, and the low-end frequency response feels extremely robust compared to the Google Home.
It just sounds larger than you’d expect for its size.
The word that came to mind as I listened to the Nest Audio was big. It just sounds larger than you’d expect for its size. That’s not only because it’s louder and the bass is stronger, but also because it doesn’t have the compressed, slightly muffled flavor Google Home had. (Google says that muffled sound was because the Home’s two passive radiators — essentially internal vents that let sound leak out the sides in addition to the direction the driver faced — caused low frequencies to reverberate for longer. The Nest Audio has no passive radiators.) The Nest Audio also uses new Google-developed software to limit compression and improve the sound further.
Across genres, I was consistently impressed by how well-represented highs, lows, and mids are. Bass really thumps in ’90s R&B and jangly indie rock guitars are clear as a bell. Dynamic range is wild for a speaker this size, too. Even in busy arrangements, little details come through: I was taken aback to pick out guitar parts in my favorite metal album that are all but inaudible when listening on Google Home.
I had two first-generation Google Home speakers in two separate rooms when my Nest Audio review unit arrived. I figured I’d make them a stereo pair in my office, where I listen to music more often, and stick the Nest in the bedroom. After testing the Nest Audio, though, I’ve decided to swap that setup. It’s that good.
Should you buy it?
Hard yes. At $99, the Nest Audio is a bargain, especially when you remember that the Google Home launched at $129 back in 2016. It does everything you’ve come to expect of the Google Assistant just as well as Google Home — better, even, thanks to improved on-device processing that speeds up certain commands like music controls. It also sounds fantastic for its size, and it’s able to hear hotwords startlingly well, even with the volume maxed. I’m probably going to buy a second one to make a stereo pair.
That stereo pair will be solely wireless, though, because Google didn’t include wired input in the Nest Audio. That’s a real shame, because two of these would be great hooked up to a turntable. If you want to make a wired stereo with Google speakers, you’ll have to shell out for two Google Home Maxes — which will run you $598 at retail. Not only is that super expensive, it’s also overkill for most rooms, especially smaller ones. By contrast, you can get a two-pack of Nest Audios for a small discount: $179.
It’s very hard to find fault with the Nest Audio.
But unless you really need to hardwire your speaker to an audio source, it’s very hard to find fault with the Nest Audio. It’s damn near the perfect smart speaker, and a sensible upgrade for anyone using the original Home.
(Don’t really throw your old speakers away, though — donate or recycle them, please.)
Buy it if:
- You’ve had your Google Home(s) a while and want to upgrade.
- You’re looking to start a whole-home smart audio setup. The Nest Audio is a great place to start.
Don’t buy it if:
- You want a speaker with auxiliary input.
- You already have Google Home Maxes in every room of the house.