Google's Nest Audio sounds way better than the Nest Mini

It'll probably be enough for most people, but serious music fans might want more.

Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

It’s been three years since Google released a smart speaker with music quality in mind. The Google Home Max was the polar opposite of the Home Mini, a large and powerful speaker that could fill a room with great-sounding audio. But unsurprisingly, cheap and tiny smart speakers like the Home Mini and Amazon’s Echo Dot have had an easier time gaining traction than more expensive options like Apple’s HomePod and the Home Max.

Google is trying to split the difference with the Nest Audio, a compact smart speaker that the company says will offer a robust music experience without breaking the bank. I’ve been testing the Nest Audio for a few days, and while it doesn’t sound as good as bigger and more advanced music-focused speakers, I can say it’s a major upgrade over something like the Nest Mini or Echo Dot. (At least, the older Echo Dot. I haven’t heard the new one yet.) And at $99, it’s cheap enough where getting a stereo pair or putting a bunch around the house isn’t unreasonable.

My first impression upon pulling the Nest Audio out of its box was “wow, this thing is tiny.” From the pictures and videos, it looked like a smaller version of the Home Max, which still holds true now that I’ve seen it in real life. But it’s less than 7 inches tall and only 3 inches thick -- unlike the Max, the Nest Audio will be able to fit in just about anywhere you want to put it. Like all of Google’s current speakers, it is covered with audio-transparent cloth that comes in five colors (I got the boring but versatile “Chalk” option). The front has four LEDs that activate when you’re talking to the speaker, and the back contains a power port and mute switch. Finally, there are invisible touch-sensitive buttons on the top to play or pause audio and adjust the volume.

Nest audio smart speaker
Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

From a feature and setup perspective, the Nest Audio is essentially identical to the Nest Mini and other Google-branded smart speakers. Plug it in and the Google Home smartphone app will guide you through a setup process that links your Google account and lets you pick your preferred music services. Once that’s done, you can ask Google to play whatever you feel like or cast songs to the speakers from various apps.

Nest Audio has all the same features as the cheaper Nest Mini, so what I really care about here is music quality. At first, the small size made me question how good it could really be, and that was borne out in my initial testing. It’s both a huge upgrade over a tiny speaker like the Mini or Echo Dot but also a little underwhelming given that Google is selling it as an audio-first device. Specifically, I found music to be a little bit muddy, without defined highs.

The good news is that it’s decently loud and can fill small- and medium-sized rooms with sound, though you’ll probably need to push the volume up past 50 percent. Fortunately, the Nest Audio holds up well at higher volumes, without any noticeable distortion. And as time went on, the muddy quality I noticed initially seemed to subside -- that could be just because I got used to the speaker’s characteristics, or it could be that the Nest Audio’s automatic tuning feature was improving audio quality the more I listened.

Nest Audio smart speaker

Either way, I went from being slightly disappointed with the Nest Audio to enjoying the experience. It has more than enough power for my relatively small office, and it has a bass presence that you can’t get from the Nest Mini or original Google Home speaker. My colleague Cherlynn Low also noted that her Nest Audio sounded better after a bit, so I do think there’s something to be said for the speaker’s auto-tuning making adjustments as it learns more about your room and the kinds of music you’re playing.

Like the Home Max, you can pair two Nest Audio speakers together for stereo sound, and this made the whole experience much more memorable. Of course, everything can get much louder -- at 50 percent, it was a comfortable listening experience while sitting at my office desk. Pushing things higher can quickly get overwhelming, but would probably be appropriate in a larger room or if you were having a party (someday). I want to hear how the pair holds up in other parts of my house, but a $180 pair of Nest Audio speakers would make for a strong living room music setup.

I still have more testing to do with the Nest Audio -- in particular, I’m looking forward to more closely comparing it to the HomePod, Home Max, Sonos One and other speakers I have around the house to see how it stacks up. But a few days with the Nest Audio has me thinking that Google might be onto something here. The success of cheap smart speakers like the Nest Mini have shown price is king, but music fans will get a lot more for their money with the Nest Audio.