Music Technology: Listening to music on the Google Nest / Home

The Google Home series pack a lot of features into tiny enclosures, but can they sound good too?

So… for some reason I still don’t understand, Google recently sent me a Google Home Mini to play with. Being the tech junkie that I am, I jumped at the chance to mess around with voice control. Especially considering the size — this thing is so tiny it literally fits in the palm of my hand. Let’s find out how it works in a real life situation…

What is a Google Home anyway?

The Google Home series (currently being replaced / rebranded as the Google Nest series) basically consists of a small enclosure that contains:

  • An amplifier & speaker
  • A microphone array
  • Wi-fi & Bluetooth modules
  • and the Google Assistant voice recognition system

I’m not going to go into how well the Google Assistant voice control works, because this review is focused on the sound quality, but suffice it to say it worked extremely well in my weeks of testing. It easily handled pretty much every request I gave it, although it did have a little trouble understanding my Irish accent at times! :-)

Now on to the audio testing…

Google Home Mini

I stuck the new Home Mini on the bedside table and within a couple of days my wife was naturally using it to set alarms, find out the weather, all that small (but useful) stuff. When I hooked it up to my Spotify account she was even more impressed, using it to listen to ambient music in the evening before sleeping, or setting the alarm to play selected tracks to wake up to each morning. Given the size I expected it to sound like a tinny unlistenable mess, but it was actually not terrible for listening to music. There was obviously a distinct lack of bass, but treble and mids were very present and clear, and not distorted or harsh. That alone was quite impressive, and there was clearly some clever bass processing going on to get even this much out of it; but then I realised that the Google Home smartphone app contains an equaliser for it as well. Aha! Let’s see if we can make this thing sound a bit better with that.

The Google Home equaliser is fairly basic — just two controls, running from -6 db to +6 db for bass and treble. That’s not much, but it’s certainly better than nothing. After playing with it for a while, my conclusion was that the optimal setting was just to turn the bass up all the way to +6 db, and leave the treble as is. That still doesn’t give you anything close to a hi-fi sound, but it was listenable, and the bass still wasn’t distorting, which was quite remarkable in such a small enclosure. See screenshot for my settings.

Google Home Mini suggested EQ settings

Technical note: the db settings aren’t marked on the EQ interface screen, but from what I can surmise each notch represents 2 db, and you can choose to set the EQ on or between the notches, giving you -6 to +6 in increments of 1 db. A 6 db change represents a doubling (or halving) of amplitude, and 10 db would be a doubling of perceived volume. A 6 db change is quite a lot in a stereo mix — you wouldn’t normally want to go beyond that without causing significant other issues anyway.

To be honest I’m surprised that they don’t ship it like this to begin with. With this setting it becomes a completely usable tiny portable speaker, not to mention the addition of the voice control. It certainly sounds a lot better than the built-in speakers on my (very expensive high-end) laptop.

Update: so not long after I wrote this, Google announced the Google Nest Mini, which is almost the same device but with “40% more bass” — a tiny note at the bottom says As compared to Google Home Mini. Measured at 60–100 Hz at max volume. Haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but since mathematically adding 40% works out to be almost the same as adding +6 db, I wouldn’t be surprised if they literally just turned up the bass on the EQ the same way I did and made it the default setting instead as I suggest above.

Google Home

After a few weeks playing with the Home Mini we liked it so much I decided to splash out and actually pay for a full-size Google Home. This retails at £89 here in the UK, so it’s not cheap, but I figured it would have a bit more bass, so probably have reasonable enough sound to act as a decent late-night bedroom speaker.

Unpacking it, I was surprised at how small this thing is too (see pic above). It’s certainly bigger than the Home Mini, but it’s by no means large. It sits happily on the bedside table taking up very little space and looking very sleek and modern (something that my wife insists on). Plugged it in, turned it on, and put on New Order’s True Faith. And was… horrified. This thing is a bassy, middley woolly-sounding mess. Just awful. No top end, just way too much mid range sound and artificially emphasized bass bottom. I am genuinely shocked that Google shipped this thing in this state. The worst speaker system I have heard in years — how anyone would think that this is what the public would want to hear is beyond me.

…but on the other hand, there seemed to be plenty of power in there, so maybe it just needed to be controlled better. Time to bring out the trusty Google Home app equaliser again. After much tweaking and listening, I found that if I reduced the bass by 2 db that was enough to reduce some of those low mids, control some of the obvious artificial bass boost, and get it down into a region where it still sounded loud but wasn’t flapping around so much. I stuck on NWA’s Straight Outta Compton album, and with that -2 db reduction on the bass it handled the very strong kicks on that album without a problem while still staying quite present and powerful.

But that top end was still nowhere to be heard. I had to turn the treble EQ all the way to the top just to be able to hear the hats and cymbals, and give the vocals their full presence. I couldn’t decide on whether to go to “just” a 5 db boost, or all the way to +6 db. In the end I settled on the full +6 db of extra treble because it needed that for the hi-end instruments to be able to jump out over the hugely extended low mid sound. Here’s that EQ setting:

Google Home suggested EQ settings

With that EQ setting applied, suddenly this becomes a completely adequate bedroom speaker that can stream tracks from Spotify or play BBC 6Music on command. It’s still not going to win any hi-fi awards, but for £89 it’s very listenable, and you absolutely can’t beat the convenience factor.

Though it really does beg the question of who is in charge of audio technology at Google, and what the hell is wrong with them? This box should never have been shipped in the state it was in. Without that EQ in the Home app it would be completely unusable and I would have sent it back an hour after setting it up.

Bluetooth

But there is another solution — although these things have no hardware sockets to send or receive audio, they do have Bluetooth, and can be connected to external Bluetooth speaker systems. Let’s try connecting to my Creative Sound Blaster Roar speaker…

I originally tried this using the Google Home app on my Android tablet, and none of the instructions I found on the Google Home website seemed to make any sense. Eventually I realised that the app that runs on the tablet is different than the one that runs on my Android phone, and the tablet version lacks some of the phone version’s features, including the Bluetooth speaker pairing (why Google, why?).

Switching to phone and after following the still not very intuitive instructions, I finally managed to get the Google Home Mini connected to the Creative speaker. And… it works great! Now we’re talking. With the Home Mini sitting on the kitchen table and the Sound Blaster Roar on a convenient shelf we suddenly have a great hands-free system for playing music while cooking, or for background music while the crew are sitting around playing D&D on games night. I really like this combination a lot, it’s the way this thing was really meant to operate.

Conclusion

Yes, this does mean that in order to get something approaching a hi-fi sound with a Google Home system you do need to already have a Bluetooth speaker system, or spend a bunch more money, but if good sound is important to you it’s worth it. Certainly after hearing the built-in sound on these things, I have no hesitation in saying that the best value for money for good audio is the combination of the Home Mini for voice control and a good external Bluetooth speaker for the music. That’s a combo made in heaven.

Having said that, the full-size Google Home does make a great-looking and very convenient voice-controlled bedroom sound system, with the caveat that you use the EQ settings I mention above — with those settings it’s a whole different-sounding box.

I do realise that Google now also make the Google Home Max which is supposed to be their “hi-fi” version, but at 400 bucks or thereabouts; and going by the default sound on the other ones I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable dropping that kind of money without hearing it in some detail first.

Another option is to get a Google Chromecast and plug it into your TV system if you already have a decent sound system connected to your TV. The Google Home devices can connect directly to the Chromecast and control it. That’s getting slightly more complex, but still completely do-able — and the Chromecast is really cheap (and gives you streaming video into the bargain).

There are also audio systems from other companies like JBL and Sonos that have Google Assistant built-in that might be worth checking out; but in general I still think the best, cheapest, and most flexible music listening system is the Mini plus your choice of Bluetooth speaker system. That really works, especially in situations where you need hands-free operation, like in the kitchen. That’s where mine is going to be living going forward.

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