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Apple HomePod mini - Review 2020


There’s no shortage of smart speakers to choose from these days, but recent months have placed the focus on affordable, often spherical options. Apple’s new HomePod mini, a $99 alternative to the larger, more powerful $299 HomePod, competes primarily against the $99 orb-like Amazon Echo (4th Generation) and the non-spherical $99 Google Nest Audio. If audio is your top priority, Apple’s speaker is outperformed by Amazon’s, as well as some other, non-smart wireless models in the $100 price range—the HomePod mini delivers solid, clean mono audio, but the Echo is substantially larger and more powerful, offering a stronger sense of bass response. That said, if you’re already thoroughly invested in the Apple/iOS/HomeKit realm, the HomePod mini is still a strong smart speaker for the price.

HomePod mini Design and Features

The orb-shaped, 0.8-pound HomePod mini is available in space gray or white, and measures 3.3 by 3.9 inches (HW), with a flat panel on the top and on bottom preventing it from being a perfect sphere. The outer paneling is covered in an attractive, “acoustically transparent fabric” grille, and the top is a touch-sensitive control panel.

Internally, the speaker employs a single full-range, down-firing driver and dual passive radiators to enhance bass response. The down-firing driver’s audio is then dispersed by an “acoustic waveguide” that aims to capitalize on surface reflections to create 360-degree audio dispersion. 

The HomePod mini might be small enough to pack in a suitcase or tote, but to be clear, it requires a power source in order to work. The hardwired cloth-lined charging cable terminates in USB-C, so the speaker can get its juice from a computer, or by connecting it to the included power adapter and plugging it into the wall. 

Apple HomePod mini

The top panel glows white audio is playing (or an array of foggy rainbow colors when Siri is listening or speaking) and has dedicated plus/minus buttons for adjusting volume. A single tap on the top panel plays or pauses audio, a double tap skips forward a track, and a triple tap navigates backward a track. Touching and holding the panel summons Siri, which you can also do by saying, “Hey Siri.” The controls are responsive and easy to operate.

Setup is automated and simple—just having an iPhone or iPad connected to Wi-Fi near the speaker is all it takes when you turn it on for the first time. The process involves agreeing to use Siri’s “recognize my voice” functionality, as well as syncing your Apple Music and iCloud settings, if you wish. Siri does a little demo for you, telling you how you can ask for music to be played or news to be read, though you can get more granular in Apple’s Home app.

HomePod

Left to right: Amazon Echo (4th Generation), Apple HomePod mini

The HomePod mini is compatible with Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi. Of course, the speaker also works with Apple AirPlay 2, so you can stream directly from Apple devices. There’s no physical connectivity here, however, like an aux input.

HomeKit, Siri, and Other Smart Functionality

The Apple Home app is designed to help you connect and automate smart home devices that are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit standard. For instance, you can connect a smart light bulb from Nanoleaf and integrate it into your Home app, then use Siri voice commands on the HomePod mini to control it. Siri can turn it on and off, of course, but can also follow commands to turn the light, say, purple. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant offer similar functionality, so you just need to make sure the smart home products you buy support the standard you want to use.

With Apple’s intercom messaging function, you can send a voice message to multiple HomePod speakers throughout your home, and anyone can respond with their own voice message. Intercom messages can be sent to anyone who is part of your Home group inside the Home app. To send a voice message, you can simply say, “Hey Siri, intercom dinner’s ready,” and the message gets sent out, not just to other HomePods, but to any Apple devices you have set up in the app.

If you ask for a store’s hours on the HomePod mini, you might find that Siri has the directions to the store waiting for you when you get in your car and check the GPS via CarPlay. Ask Siri to find photos of zebras, and images of zebras will appear on your iPhone’s screen within seconds. Furthermore, Siri can recognize up to six voices on the HomePod mini, so Siri should also know that you asked about zebra images, and send them to your phone specifically.

apple homepod mini family kitchen

As for audio sources, you can stream anything to the speaker from another compatible device (like an iPhone or laptop) via AirPlay 2. The speaker can also directly access Apple Music, Apple Music Radio, and Apple Podcasts, as well as iHeartRadio, Radio.com, and TuneIn radio streams. Some third-party audio apps, like Amazon Music and Pandora, have built-in integration, in which the HomePod mini will appear as a speaker option from within the app.

I have about 100GB of music stored on my iPhone 8, and nearly all of it was purchased over the years from the iTunes Store (I know, how old-fashioned of me). Before setting up Apple Music, my command, “Hey Siri, play Radiohead, ‘Decks Dark’” failed. When I clarified that I wanted to play music stored off of my phone, Siri complied, but getting a specific song to play proved difficult—Siri was happy to play “all music” on my iPhone or “shuffle music” on my iPhone, but requests like, “Hey Siri, use my iPhone’s Music app to play Radiohead,” and, “Hey Siri, play the playlist Testing Suite from my iPhone,” didn’t work. Of course, you can always play music directly from your phone to the speaker manually via AirPlay 2, but the lack of integration of store-bought iTunes files with Siri voice commands is a bit disappointing. 

With Apple Music up and running, Siri and the HomePod mini are both much happier. The speaker works smoothly, and music can be called up quickly.

How the HomePod mini Handles Privacy

In the era of digital voice assistants, it’s reasonable to wonder: Is Siri always listening to me? Apple claims that, no, Siri isn’t listening when you don’t directly ask a question. But if you want to stop Siri from listening unless you expressly tell it to, you can turn off the HomePod mini’s always-on mic by saying, “Hey Siri, turn off Hey Siri.”

Beyond this, Apple claims that when you ask Siri for anything—info from the internet, to play a song, ingredients for a recipe, etc.—the information exchange utilizes “random identifiers” to convey data back and forth. These random identifiers, Apple says, aren’t traceable, so your searches are kept private. If you also disable the “send feedback” option, you have a smart speaker that should offer sufficient privacy to allay most concerns.

HomePod mini Mic and Audio Performance

The HomePod mini’s four-mic array is designed to pick up voice commands from far away. We tested it with some quiet vocal commands from across a room, and can attest to an impressive reach. Obviously, if music is playing, you’ll have to speak up louder, and the mics once picked up a commercial during a football game—a voiceover said, “Hey Siri, who’s leading the NFL in touchdowns,” and the HomePod mini immediately came forth with an answer. Someone in the booth during the broadcast also said something like, “Hey, seriously,” and this activated Siri, as well. I wasn’t listening to music, so this wasn’t annoying, but the potential to accidentally trigger Siri is there.

As for audio performance, Apple’s “computational audio” here seems to be an example of the company creating a new term for one that already exists: digital signal processing (DSP). Nearly every speaker we test these days uses DSP to manage various aspects of the audio experience—most importantly, to prevent distortion when a speaker’s volume is maxed out. But DSP can also raise bass levels when the volume is turned low so that the audio still sounds full and rich. Apple’s computational audio does these very things, along with aiding in the 360-degree audio dispersion made possible by the waveguide.

Whatever you want to call it, when a company implements DSP well, it’s usually a good thing—but make no mistake, the existence of computational audio in the HomePod mini isn’t more impressive than the existence of DSP in any other speaker. Thankfully, Apple’s version here allows the HomePod mini to get fairly loud for its size and price. At maximum volumes, you get a solid sense of bass depth, but the dynamics are limited to a notable degree. Again, this is par for the course with DSP, especially with a speaker this size.

On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the HomePod mini avoids distorting at top volumes, with the deep bass thump is lessened to a thinner sound, but you still get a decent sense of low-end depth. At lower volume levels, the speaker does a good job of preserving the sense of bass depth so that the track still seems to pack a low-frequency punch without actually being played at a high volume level.

Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the HomePod mini’s general sound signature. The drums here can sound thin on speakers that lack enough bass depth, but on the HomePod mini they sound relatively full and even a little heavy at times. It’s Callahan’s baritone vocals that seem to stand out the most in the lower register, with plenty of low-mid richness. Thankfully, the lows are balanced out with crisp high-mids and highs, giving the vocals some treble edge and the acoustic guitar strums some bright presence. At top volumes, we again can sense the DSP squashing the dynamics to a degree, but it doesn’t sound bad, and at slightly more moderate levels, the dynamics are a little more vibrant.

HomePod

The Amazon Echo (left) glows on the bottom, while the HomePod mini (right) emits light from the top

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives enough high-mid presence for its attack to retain its punchiness, while the sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are more implied than delivered—we wouldn’t really expect a thunderous subwoofer rumble from a speaker this size, anyway. This isn’t to say that the HomePod mini sounds brittle here—there’s plenty of added bass thump in the drum loop, just not powerful sub-bass. The vocals on this track are delivered with solid clarity and no added sibilance. 

Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get a little added richness through the HomePod mini—the lower-register instrumentation is pushed forward in the mix, but balanced out well with the bright presence of the higher-register brass, strings, and vocals. This style of speaker isn’t designed for critical listening, nor for sub-bass thunder, but for casual listening it delivers some solid richness and strong overall balance.

We tested the HomePod mini on its own, but adding a second speaker to create a stereo pair can work wonders—just getting some stereo separation adds to the perception of a larger soundstage and more power. The difference between stereo mixes on a single HomePod mini versus a stereo pair of two is profound, but you’re also doubling the price.

Comparing the HomePod mini with some similarly priced speakers, like the fourth-generation Amazon Echo, almost doesn’t seem fair. Yes, they’re the same exact price, but Amazon’s speaker is significantly larger, louder, more powerful, and provides a substantially stronger sense of bass depth. If audio is your top priority, it’s not even close—the Echo beats the HomePod mini (as well as the Google Nest Audio, for that matter) hands down.

Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant? Which $99 Smart Speaker Is Right for You?

Ultimately, the value of Apple’s HomePod mini comes down to how much you want Siri in your home (or to expand Siri’s reach in your home). If audio quality is your top priority, you can get better performance with the $99 Amazon Echo or with a non-smart, portable Bluetooth speaker like the $129 JBL Charge 4. But if you already use Siri as your primary voice assistant, or you’re invested in Apple’s HomeKit smart home system, the HomePod mini won’t disappoint—its audio capabilities are solid, and its overall value is strengthened by its smart features.

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