Hands-On with Google Nest Audio

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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