If you’d asked me five or six years ago whether the smart speaker market would gain any sort of traction, I would have laughed you out of the building. Who on earth would want a speaker that’s always listening to them right in the most private space of their lives?
Well, here we are in 2020, at a party with me eating my humble pie. Since 2016, we’ve seen the smart home speaker market take off, with the likes of Amazon and Google pushing out multiple generations of their smart speakers. And with Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s HomePod conspicuously missing from many countries around this part of the world, Google has been free to gradually make in-roads with its Assistant-powered speakers.
These efforts have culminated in the company’s latest Nest Audio, which just launched in Singapore this past week.
Wait, Nest Audio? What happened to Google Home?
In 2019, Google decided to market all of its smart home products under the Nest brand. So “Google Home” products are no longer a thing, though you might still see some products like the Google Home Mini and Google Nest Mini co-existing side by side in certain stores (for now).
It might be a little confusing, so just keep this in mind: the Nest Audio is effectively the direct successor to the original Google Home, and can be considered its de facto flagship smart speaker under the Nest brand in 2020.
On the outside, the Nest Audio is essentially a shrunken version of the Google Home Max – a large fabric-clad rounded rectangular block that launched in 2017 but never made it to our shores.
It cuts a clean and sleek silhouette, with no buttons or edges to be seen except for a small microphone mute switch round its back and a subtle “G” to denote its brand. The mesh fabric, made from 70 per cent recycled plastic, wraps around its whole body, giving the speaker a soft look and feel.
It looks a lot like a tiny cushion that is somehow sitting on your side table until you pick it up and realize how surprisingly heavy it is. For a device that’s just 17.5 cm tall and 12.4 cm wide, the Nest Audio weighs a hefty 1.2kg.
But that’s not a problem, since this isn’t a gadget you’ll be totting around town anyway. The weight is actually a good thing, as it’ll prevent it from falling over should there be accidentally brushes or swipes, such as during your usual dusting.
The top front-face of the speaker has three touch-sensitive zones that allow you to control the volume as well as play/pause your music. But in line with the clean and minimalistic design approach, there is absolutely zero indication of their existence. You’ll have to learn about them from the short little manual included in the box. It's not difficult to master at all -- after all, it's only three buttons -- but perhaps a removable sticker here would provide a better user learning experience.
Overall, unlike the original Google Home, the Nest Audio is clearly designed to fit into your existing home as subtly as possible. Whereas the Google Home had a distinctive half-cylindrical design that loudly calls attention to itself as a special gadget, the Nest Audio emphasises a nondescript and minimalistic aesthetic that tries its very best to make friends with the rest of your furniture and fixtures.
This is also apparent in the selection of colours Google has opted for. The Nest Audio is currently available in chalk and charcoal in Singapore – which is basically white and black respectively. They blend well with any colour scheme chosen for your room. Even the more exciting colours of blue, green and pink come in muted pastel hues, reinforcing their soft and friendly feel.
As a big fan of minimalism, I love how the speakers look. But at the same time, I cannot deny how boring they can look to someone who might have different tastes.
Even in the carefully dressed up sample photos provided by Google, the Nest Audio looks simultaneously like a dream accessory and a boring little slab that sticks out like a sore thumb. It all depends on your personal taste and perspective on what makes for good home décor.
Personally, I don’t live in a Pinterest-esque home that’s perennially clean and tidy yet juxtaposed with carefully orchestrated “mess”, so I couldn’t quite get the Nest Audio to look as good as I thought it would.
But thanks to its clean lines and muted colours, the Nest Audio is entirely inoffensive no matter where I placed it, allowing me to pay more attention to the “smart” part of its moniker.
Four round LEDs shines through the front cover of the Nest Audio and serve as a familiar frame of reference for the Nest Audio’s true power under the hood: Google Assistant.
The lights are pretty minimalistic themselves but still offer nifty visual feedback. They flash to life when you call out “Hey, Google”, and blinks when the Assistant is thinking. They also act as volume indicators when you tap on the top left or right corners of the speaker. If you toggle the microphone mute switch on the back of the speaker, all four light up in orange.
If you’ve ever used Google Assistant on your phone before, you’ll find the experience similarly seamless on the Nest Audio.
The set-up process was quick and painless, guided completely by instructions within the Google Home app (available on both iOS and Android). A few quick taps later, the Nest Audio was connected to my home WiFi, linked to my Google and Spotify accounts, and ready to add an extra layer of convenience to my life.
The Nest Audio can do everything that Google Assistant can do. From reading out the latest headlines, helping you set reminders, and answering simple questions like, “What sound does a dog make?”
Upon answering the latter question, I was unexpectedly delighted by the Nest Audio’s offer to send me daily updates about an “Animal of the Day”, complete with a nice little jingle just like a radio programme. This suggests that there’s much more depth and functionality to Google Assistant that’s worth exploring.
The Nest Audio will also send you follow-up links to the queries you make (like shown below) through the Google Home app, completing your search experience on your phone.
It’s fast and snappy, and the longest it ever took to consider a query was a few short seconds.
As a speaker that you place in the middle of your home, the Nest Audio will likely be used by a few members of your household.
Google makes it easy for multiple users to use the same Nest Audio with the Voice Matching feature, so you don’t accidentally set a reminder in someone else’s account, or peek into someone else’s agenda.
It was easy setting up voice match for my wife and I through the Google Home app, and we were confident that the Nest Audio got it correct because asking it “Who am I?” consistently returned the correct answer.
Google Assistant also has a few other established nifty features geared towards families, some of which may be fresh in your mind because Apple just emulated them in its latest HomePod Mini.
For instance, if you have multiple Nest devices throughout your home, you can use them as an intercom to communicate in between rooms. You can even send such broadcast remotely through the Google Assistant on your phone, such as when you’re on your way back home from work and want to gather the kids for dinner.
You can also control all other support bits of your smart home through the Nest Audio – if you have one. My home, unfortunately, is still of the “dumb” variety so I didn’t get to test this feature out. But if you do have other compatible smart gadgets, Google Assistant will gladly help with tasks like turning your lights off.
All in all, the “smart” bit of the smart speaker makes it a great complement to any home. I can see it being genuinely useful in many situations. But bear in mind that ultimately, you’re still dealing with the biggest Internet company in the world. All of us have different thresholds for how much we trust Google’s approach to privacy, so think about that carefully before you invite the Nest Audio into your home.
Alternatively, remember the microphone mute switch at the rear of the speaker? If you primarily control your smart speaker with your phone, you can disengage the speaker's microphone input until you really need it. This is also useful to prevent multiple home users 'hijacking' the smart speaker at their whim and fancy, such as kids.
The Nest Audio sounds surprisingly great. Despite its petite size, it pumps out loud and full-bodied sound that is capable of filling a whole room without cracking.
Armed with a 75mm woofer and 19mm tweeter, the Nest Audio handled lows, mids, and highs with competence. For a compact desktop speaker, it managed pretty well. I threw a variety of genres at the speaker to try to find a crack in its sound, but it consistently produced sound quality that’s clear and balanced. Google says that the new Nest Audio is 75 per cent louder and has 50 per cent stronger bass than the original Google Home and it does feel the part in my usage.
My only complaint is that the bass can sound a little too heavy-handed to my liking. To be sure, the heart-thumping effect is appreciated in bass-heavy tunes like Blackpink’s Lovesick Girls, or any number of EDM beats, where the bassline features heavily as part of the songs’ overall composition.
It still manages to strike a nice balance in a multi-faceted rock piece like Green Day’s Jesus of Suburbia. Here, the bass generally plays nice with guitars and drums without being too overbearing.
But when I switch gears to something more mellow, such as John Mayer’s Waiting on the World to Change, the bass comes across as just a tad too thick and coarse for my preference. There is a basic equalizer control on the Google Home app to help you tweak bass and treble, which helps a little, but not quite enough to change the speaker's main audio signature. So don't pin your hopes too much on this app control.
Otherwise, the Nest Audio produced excellent detail and soundstage in all of the songs above. And if they sound a little too one-dimensional, it’s possible to rig up two Nest Audios into a stereo configuration. We didn’t get the opportunity to test this out, unfortunately.
As a shared speaker placed at home, it’s important for the Nest Audio to sound good at any volume, whether you’re in the mood to blast some rock music or just want some soft piano tinkling in the background. It performs admirably in this respect, and I could still enjoy soft music in one room without bothering whoever’s in the other.
All of this sounds good so far, so what’s the catch?
Surprisingly, there isn’t much, except for what you can chalk down to personal preference. This is especially so at the low entry price point of just S$139.
Obviously, you’ll be tying yourself deeper into the Google ecosystem if you go with the Nest Audio since it works best with other Google services such as search and calendaring. If you’re more invested in other ecosystems such as Apple’s or Microsoft’s, you might need a little more workaround to make things work, such as importing your emails and calendars into Gmail.
If you want to take full advantage of the Nest Audio, be prepared to shell out for more than one unit. A single speaker by itself functions just fine, but its true power comes in twos or threes. Because this can turn out to be a hefty investment, it’s best to be thinking longer and harder about whether you’ll regret the decision down the line if Apple and Amazon launch their offerings here in the future.
If none of the above concerns you at this point in time, we can wholeheartedly recommend the Nest Audio as the smart speaker to get if you’re in the market for one, thanks to its combination of good looks, good sound, and useful smarts.