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The new Nest Audio Internet-connected speaker, introduced on Monday, is Google’s latest attempt to catch up to the category leader, Amazon’s Echo. But this time, Google is trying a new tactic: It’s focusing on better sound quality rather than new artificial intelligence features that have previously been its main sales pitch for the devices.
The move to focus on audio quality underscores that while people may use smart speakers for asking questions and quickly retrieving recipes, they mostly use them to play music.
Since 2016, Google has released several versions of its smart speakers, including small and large models. But the basic premise has remained unchanged—people can use the their voices to adjust the speaker’s volume, play their favorite songs, or check the weather.
The size and appearance of the latest speaker—branded for the first time under Google’s home device unit, Nest—is a big departure from the older models. Instead of resembling a plastic canister, the Nest Audio speaker is sleeker, akin to a 7-inch pill draped in felt. It’s also heavier, weighing twice as much (2.7 pounds) than its predecessor, Google Home. The increase in heft is partly due to the big changes in the speaker technology, explained Google Nest product manager Chris Chan.
The Nest Audio now contains a 75-millimeter woofer and 19 millimeter-tweeter used to produce deeper bass and treble, respectively. The older model lacked a woofer, Chan said, and instead relied on a smaller speaker technology known as a passive radiator.
Using the Nest Audio, I found that the funky bass lines of “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees came through clearly, without sounding muffled. The improved bass also helped the low end of Rihanna’s “Work” stand out amid the song’s synthesizers and samples.
It’s unclear how the Nest Audio’s revamped sound quality compares to its newly redesigned Echo, which is now spherical and contains so-called stereo drivers that can simulate the sound of two speakers. The Echo’s speakers therefore, presumably produce sound that better permeates through a room.
Chan said that he hasn’t tested the new Echo, so he couldn’t compare the two speakers. But generally, he said that Google’s user tests showed that people place their smart speakers against the wall rather than in the center of a room, so designing speakers that distribute sound in 360 degrees isn’t very important.
Google didn’t announce any major changes to Google Assistant—its voice-recognition technology— except to make it automatically speak more loudly when in a noisy room. The new speaker has the same machine-learning chip as the $50 Nest Mini speaker, but not for the bigger Google-branded speaker, which debuted in 2017. That computer chip helps Google Assistant more quickly do things like playing a certain song when asked.
Using Google Assistant depends on how worried you are about data privacy. For instance, I typically go into my Google account settings to stop Google from recording my search and browser activity or location for all Google services. Doing so, however, limits what Google Assistant can do, making it unable to retrieve certain answers from Wikipedia to my questions or play songs from my Spotify account when I ask.
“For instance, let’s say I ask the Google Assistant, “Who is LeBron James?” If I disable my web and app activities from being tracked, Google Assistant tells me, “For help with that, you’ll need to go to the Google Home app and turn on web and app activity.” However, when I reactivate my “web and app activity” setting, Google Assistant retrieves an answer from Wikipedia about the NBA player.
I had to manually change my Google account’s privacy settings to allow the company to track my web and app activities for all of Google Services in order to get access to all of Google Assistant’s features.
Ultimately, my existing stereo system produces better sound quality than the new Nest Audio speaker. That’s to be expected considering that my stereo system has two speakers and a powerful amplifier, and that they’re more expensive than Nest Audio, which costs $100.
But using Nest Audio as an extra speaker that I can use in my bedroom or kitchen is a notable improvement from its predecessor. The sound it produces is more defined and louder, considering its size—about the same as my toaster.
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