There is a physical switch on the back of the Nest Audio speaker that, for now, you won’t find on any other smart speaker. It turns off the microphone used by Google Assistant, meaning that it can’t listen in on your life or respond to any commands. This is essential if you’re about to have an important conversation and don’t want to be interrupted or if you’re inviting friends over and want to avoid the distraction of misheard commands triggering inappropriate song choices or awkward ramblings. It still continues to work as a speaker and will play music or podcasts and remain “smart” in analyzing the acoustics of the room and adjusting sound quality to match, but it’s not eavesdropping and won’t start again until you flip that switch back on.
It’s the only physical switch on the speaker. There are secret, touch-activated playback buttons, but this is a traditional, mechanical switch and that’s important. No phone needed, no internet, it’s not a setting you have to go hunting for and anyone in the room can reach for it. There’s a lot of talk about privacy and our connected worlds these days, but a physical switch that shuts everything down when it becomes too intrusive? That’s real privacy and you can use it to better manage what parts of the day you want Google Assistant to be involved in, between work versus relaxation, between cooking versus eating, between planning your life and having an intimate one.
Nest Audio is a small speaker, about the size and shape of a garden stone and you might be tempted to place it on a bookshelf, but it can absolutely fill a room with sound. Google has designed it for the home and there’s an interesting philosophy behind that. It’s small enough to play music intimately at your desk, but can be loud enough to drown out any conversation. Add a second Nest Audio speaker to your house and the two will connect and cooperate with each other, pairing up like stereo speakers to act like a massive boombox should you want to have a party, but if your home is a Smart Home, then having them spread out means having voice controls for your lighting spread out through your home too.
There’s two qualities I like about it’s music playback. Increasing volume actually reveals a clarity of sound, meaning you can better hear the vibration of acoustic strings, the difference between the vocal pipes of separate singers, or the textures of different instruments. It’s not just that things get louder.
The second is that you can feel the bass when it’s not a pulsing beat or an earthquake rhythm, but when it’s merely the cellos thundering across the floorboards or even a singer reaching into his chest to give a refrain some power. Bass is there if you’re looking for a pounding, but it’s also there to accentuate, to let you feel in your gut or chest when a lyrical song hits notes that resonate.
It’s a far better speaker than it’s size suggests. It’s made for Google Assistant, a voice-controlled service that is still evolving and changing through software updates, so what’s important to focus on here is what is permanent. Nest Audio’s hardware plays music quite well and with a physical switch will always give you control of your privacy. Since it’s the only smart speaker to do, that makes it the best one for now.