(Pocket-lint) - The Nest Audio swings in as replacement for the original Google Home speaker. It's designed to be compact enough to slip into any room, but deliver a bigger experience than the popular Nest Mini.

The launch of Nest Audio also sees Google eliminate another Home-branded device from its line up. Nest now covers home audio, security and heating, a general conflagration of smart home devices.

Design and build

  • Dimensions: 175 x 124 x 78mm / Weight: 1.1kg
  • Mesh front and back construction
  • Uses lots of recycled materials

The Nest Audio speaker is a similar size to the original Google Home, but it's now a fabric covered unit. At first glance it's slightly unusual, because it's a flattened shape - when we're so used to cylinders or boxes as speakers.

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It has some advantages, in that the shallow depth means it's easy to slip onto a shelf, but that was the same thinking behind the cylindrical Amazon Echo design. A major difference with Nest is that the speakers are on the front - it's not designed for 360-degree sound.

There's a rubber foot on the bottom to reduce vibration and provide grip on surfaces. The fabric that covers the front and back of the speaker is made from recycled plastic bottles - as per the Nest Mini - and the only physical control is the mute switch on the rear of the device. Recycled materials make up much of the rest of the bodywork.

There are four LEDs across the front of the speaker, as is common with Nest devices we've seen before, and if you're not interacting with the speaker then these will be off. They illuminate when you say "Hey Google", as well as indicating when Google Assistant is waiting for a response.

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They are also used as confirmation when you use the invisible touch controls. Towards the top of the device you can tap in the centre to pause the music or whatever you're playing; to the left to reduce the volume; to the right to increase the volume. It's a slick, easy-to-use and natural interaction.

The design fits in with recent Nest devices like the Nest Hub and Mini and it will come in two colours in the UK and Europe - charcoal or chalk - while the US gets a wider range of pastels to choose from. Some folks get all the luck.

Sound quality and performance

  • 75mm woofer, 19mm tweeter
  • Stereo pairing, grouping

Under the skin, there's a greater volume to this speaker than there was the previous Google Home, designed to boost the audio performance. Google says the Nest Audio is 75 per cent louder than the old Google Home, while the bass is boosted by some 50 per cent. That's thanks to a 75mm mid-woofer to drive the lows and a 19mm tweeter for the higher tones. 

In short, Nest Audio has been better designed for the delivery of music, rather than just as an entry point to Google Assistant. It's more of a speaker, but just as smart.

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As we mentioned above, those drivers are on the front of this speaker so you don't get the sort of omnidirectional music we've seen from some others recently, namely the Amazon Echo - although in 2020 that product has changed its design also.

For a small speaker there's surprising volume available from the Nest Audio, and it hangs onto fidelity well through the volume range. Google says that this speaker will adjust itself to suit the type of content you're playing through it, using a system called Media IQ. Certainly, it delivers those bassy tracks well enough, but doesn't trample across spoken word by then being too heavy on the bass. There's a richness to spoken word content that we appreciate, a far cry from so many cheap radios. As a kitchen speaker, Nest very much delivers on all fronts.

In terms of the overall sound, we think Nest Audio is similar to the 2019 Amazon Echo, although we feel that it's a little more directional - a slightly narrower sound field because of the arrangement of the speakers - compared to Amazon's 360-degree projection, which we find a little more involving. But there's not enough of a difference between these speakers to say one is substantially better than the other - it's more a case of which fits your needs better.

You can manually adjust the levels for bass and treble to get the type of sound that you want, but as a small format speaker - and affordably priced - there's little to complain about in terms of performance.

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As with other Nest audio devices, you can pair, group and assign speakers to rooms, giving lots of options for how you play back your music. While the Nest Audio can be grouped with a Nest Mini or a Nest Hub, for example, the biggest advantage will come from stereo pairing with another Nest Audio. We've not had the chance to test this, but with Google offering these speakers in pairs for a small discount, we can see that being a popular option.

You can also use the Nest Audio as a straight Bluetooth speaker, it will support casting from compatible music apps, and it supports Spotify Connect for direct control too.

The Nest Audio claims to have a system called Ambient IQ that will adjust the volume to make sure it can still be heard over background noise. We tried this, by progressively increasing background noise, and it's a hard feature to pin down. There seemed to be a barely perceptible increase in the volume to make some spoken word clearer in our test scenario.

Smart skills and Google Assistant

  • Voice matched Assistant
  • Smart home control

Powered by Google Assistant, much of what the Nest Audio will do will be familiar to those who are already in the Google ecosystem. It's the same experience as Google Assistant on your phone or your Nest Hub.

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Assistant has a lot of skills, able to tap into a lot of information and services. The key part to running the Nest Audio is setting it up via the Google Home app and making sure it knows who you are. You'll be able to assign things like default music services and a default TV device, so you can ask to watch a particular thing on TV, for example.

But through the links that Google Assistant can make, the Nest Audio can also be a capable voice access point for smart home control. If you've linked Google to services like Philips Hue, you can then ask your speaker to turn on the lights or change the heating, for example.

What the Nest Audio lacks is the dedicated hardware to act as a smart home controller. The new Amazon Echo is equipped with a Zigbee controller that means it can directly setup and control some devices without the need to use a hub. There's no such offering in Google's speaker, so any devices you want to control will have to be setup in advance. It's a minor point and, on the whole, the smart home experience is better when you use a device's dedicated hub anyway.

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One thing that does become apparent using the Nest Audio is that Google Assistant's voice isn't actually very clean. You can hear distortion and hiss around the Assistant's words. While this is also present on the Nest Mini, we've found it a lot more noticeable on the Nest Audio because it's a bigger sound experience. There's a chance this could be improved via software, but we think that Alexa's voice is clearer on a comparable speaker.

Verdict

With Google Home now being well outdated, the new Nest Audio is better positioned as a music device. It looks better, it sounds better and it is better value for money than the original speaker.

Google has clearly positioned Nest Audio to be a natural rival to the Amazon Echo. There's not a huge difference in performance between Nest Audio and the 2019 Echo - although that might change with the 2020 version.

Importantly, however, Google now has a speaker that's more appealing. The Nest Hub is great, the Nest Mini is great, and the Nest Audio plugs that gap - fitting easily into the home to provide music, information and voice control whenever you want it.

The competition from Amazon is still fierce, but in the Nest Audio, Google now has a speaker that can hold its own.

Alternatives to consider

Amazon Echo 

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The Amazon Echo (2019) is a similar sort of size to the Nest Audio and has a similar sound performance, the biggest difference being that it offers 360-degree sound. Of course, it depends whether you want Gogole Assistant or Amazon Alexa in your home - and that's likely to be the deciding factor.

Sonos One

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Sonos boosts the audio performance and ties nicely into the wider Sonos system, but does cost nearly double the asking price of the Google speaker. You do get to choose whether you use Google Assistant or Alexa, however. 

Writing by Chris Hall.