Hands-On with Google Nest Audio

Posted on October 5, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Uncategorized with 16 Comments

Announced last week during a virtual event alongside new Pixel handsets and the Chromecast with Google TV, Google Nest Audio is the new version of what used to be called Google Home, and it offers a more attractive form factor, better sound, and—go figure—lower pricing than its predecessor. I ordered a pair immediately, intrigued by Google’s ongoing efforts to take on and undercut Sonos.

The quick takeaway: Google Nest Audio is a nice advance over Google Home. But it’s no match for any Sonos speaker, including the identically-priced IKEA Symfonisk Wi-Fi Bookshelf Speaker. And Google still doesn’t offer a viable home theater setup with surround sound, while competitors like Amazon, Roku, and Sonos all do. I’m curious that it didn’t introduce such a system alongside the Chromecast with Google TV.

Anyway, Google Home was still ripe for a makeover, given that it is approaching its four-year anniversary next month. As with other Google smart home products, it’s been renamed with the Nest brand, which his fine. And it has picked up the pleasant fabric exterior found on the Google Home Mini/Nest Mini and Google Home Max. I like the look quite a bit.

More important, of course, is the sound quality. It’s … good. I’ve seen several reviews claiming that Google somehow nailed it with Nest Audio, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, my initial audio testing was a bit disappointing, and I had to switch back to my old Google Home pair to see whether I was missing something.

But after a bit of fiddling with the equalizer settings—that is, I pumped up the bass and treble—and with a more varied selection of music over time, it became clear that Nest Audio really is a big improvement. (I had previously optimized the sound of my Google Home pair.) But that’s a low bar: Google Home isn’t in any way impressive from a sound quality perspective.

The key to this improvement is obvious enough: Nest Audio is quite a bit bigger than Google Home, and it has larger components—a 75-mm woofer and a 19-mm tweeter—inside. And of course, there’s some Google software magic too; the speaker is supposed to get better over time as it maps its output to the environment.

What Nest Audio can’t do is fill a very large room with sound, even with a stereo pair. Nor does it hold a candle the audio quality found in Sonos’ cheapest home speakers, the $99 IKEA Symfonisk Wi-Fi Bookshelf Speaker noted above and the Sonos One SL ($179). Those nearly identical Sonos speakers deliver deeper bass and crisper, richer overall sound. They are as big an upgrade over the Nest Audio as is the Nest Audio over Google Home.

What you don’t get with Sonos, of course, is access to the open Google Cast ecosystem. I like being able to cast music directly from the apps I use and not be forced to use the lackluster Sonos app. Granted, some apps, like Spotify and Audible, do support that functionality. But I switched to YouTube Music this year, and that app does not.

One thing I’ve already done is mute the microphones: Google provides a handy hardware switch for this purpose on the back, and we certainly don’t need yet another device listening to us all the time.

Given that, I’m probably going to hang on to these speakers. I had previously retired my Google Home and Home Mini smart speakers, and had put a pair of those Symfonisk speakers in the kitchen. But I’ve since moved them to the living room, where they’re used as surround speakers with my Sonos Beam in a home theater setup. So I had temporarily brought back the Google Home pair until the Nest Audio speakers arrived.

Google Nest Audio comes in five colors, Chalk, Charcoal, Sage, Sand, Sky, and I chose Chalk to somewhat match our white-ish kitchen tiles. The old Google Home might have matched the color scheme a bit better, actually, but I like the Nest color choices. And the price is good: Google Nest Audio is normally $99, but I got mine from Best Buy, which was offering them for just $89 each. The original Google Home was $129.

On that note, if you’re still using the original Google Home speaker, this is a great upgrade. And if you’re in the Google ecosystem and want to add some decent speakers elsewhere in your house, you could do worse. But now I’m wondering when or if Google will upgrade the Home Max. And when it will jump on the home theater bandwagon and make its Chromecast with Google TV even more interesting. We’ll see.

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Comments (23)

23 responses to “Hands-On with Google Nest Audio”

  1. bschnatt

    What *I* want is a good sounding smart speaker system from Amazon that works with Ethernet! I know Sonos has at least one smart speaker that has an Ethernet port, but I'm fully invested in the Amazon ecosystem and would rather not change. I asked Amazon more than a year ago to come out with Echoes that work with Ethernet but all I've gotten so far is a polite "Thank you for your suggestion".

    Having said that, I use Spotify over Amazon Music (because of the poor integration of the Amazon Music PC app with Echo devices - something else I've complained about to no avail), so I'm not opposed to switching over at some point if Amazon doesn't come through in the coming year or two, especially since most smart speakers work with both Spotify and Alexa.

    As to why I want Ethernet, anyone health-conscious should already know the reason: electromagnetic radiation!

    • VMax

      In reply to bschnatt:

      Your (lack of) WiFi is going to make a barely-measurable difference, unless you live in an area with no neighbours, no cellular coverage (nor household members with phones that aren't constantly in airplane mode), no radio stations, etc etc.

      • darkgrayknight

        In reply to VMax:

        Or you have a Faraday cage around your house, maybe.

      • bschnatt

        In reply to VMax:

        Ironically, when it comes to my phone, I'm grateful for WiFi because it means my phone isn't sucking down cellular data all the time. But when it comes to my home, my reliance on WiFi for so many things is an annoyance ;)

        I've drilled holes in my home in places I probably shouldn't have, just to run Ethernet to my living room. I bought a cheap switch and my home theater setup (and the occasional connected laptop) relies on it. Rock solid connection, faster speeds and less hiccups. #winning

      • bschnatt

        In reply to VMax:

        Granted, but every little bit helps...

        • VMax

          In reply to bschnatt:
          Granted, but every little bit helps...

          I (strenuously!) disagree, but that aside, if you are willing to live with "less" WiFi, it may somewhat paradoxically be worth looking into range extenders or additional access points or routers - if it has an ethernet port and the ability to manually set the signal strength, perhaps it's acceptable to simply set that very low and place the WiFi-only device close by?

    • jgraebner

      In reply to bschnatt:

      You might want to at least consider the Sonos One. It has an ethernet port and it also has a microphone and can be configured with either Alexa or Google Assistant.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I'm curious about the sound quality of the Echo Studio. I finally saw one in person at a Best Buy, and it looks sharp. $200 though.
      • bschnatt

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        Ditto, but from what I could see, it doesn't take Ethernet either. I own a second generation Echo tower and it sounds little better than the first generation one I bought earlier. It also tends to rattle a bit with increasing volume - it's not built for room-shaking sound, for sure. Ethernet aside, unless the Studio was made for that, I don't expect much from it...

        • Paul Thurrott

          I guess I have some vague hope that Google's speakers will work properly with Google's mesh Wi-Fi system, where Sonos has issues. Not sure whether Amazon gears suffers from this as well.
  2. derekaw

    Finally my question was answered, Thanks Paul. Its good to know that these speakers are not better sounding than Sonos One's.

  3. MassDude

    I have the Echo Studio and the sound is excellent. Of course, I subscribe to Amazon Music HD and yes, I can definitely hear the difference! On a side note, if you have 2 Nest Audios set up together (left and right), can you use them as audio output for the Google TV with Chromecast?

  4. JH_Radio

    There's one reason I'm with Amazon over anything else. line out jack on the dot. it not only is for the music, but anything that the echo says. Google never did have this. I've always thought the echo ecosystem had more choices, even with devices. Not just its line of skills.

  5. Patrick Yore

    I decided to ditch Google for Amazon...drives me mad have to say Hey and Hi Google....Also the whisper feature with Alexa is a no brainer for people with young kids.....Google would wake up the whole house

  6. crunchyfrog

    Smart speakers are such a strange consumer product. It makes sense for Amazon so you can order products, but I've only tried that once and it actually did work. Google also makes some sense but it's limited to Google related search functions and services. Then Apple, Microsoft and even Samsung jumped into the fray and I'd say did a poor job.

    I actually like the sound from my Apple HomePod but it's fairly useless for pretty much anything else, save for playing music. The HomePod has this annoying delay from the time that you initiate a request that I often talk over Siri and all of my other Apple devices also respond annoyingly whenever I invoke its name.

    I may upgrade my Google Home to this new device mainly because the audio quality is so atrocious but I still mainly use my Amazon Echo as an over glorified timer in the kitchen and to play some music on occasion.

  7. RonV42

    The switch is a placebo. I am sure Google is listening in 24 x 7 :-) I love my Ikea speaker's they sound great, do text to speech for my home automation system. Working from home since March it has filled my office with music to keep my brain from going from mush being on 10 hours teams meetings a day.

  8. rickeveleigh

    Pedants' corner: 'four colors Chalk, Charcoal, Sage, Sand, Sky' -- isn't that 5 colours?

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