HomePod mini review: Apple plays catch up with small but sweet sounding Siri speaker
Apple has a legacy of validating many markets it competes in just by showing up.
It took 2001’s iPod debut to make portable media players a thing, though Apple’s was by no means first.
Skip ahead a decade to when Apple unveiled the original iPad. It provided oxygen to a tablets category that was barely on life support.
These days, you can make the case that Phone 12s with 5G are what the nascent next generation of wireless needed to really gain momentum.
But Apple doesn’t have the same impact in every corner of tech.
Consider voice activated smart speakers. The market was already established by Amazon and Google by the time Apple unveiled the $349 HomePod with Siri in early 2018, since knocked down to $299. Apple has been chasing its rivals ever since and the standings don't change with the recent launch of the compact $99 HomePod mini I’ve been testing for a few weeks in my home office.
Indeed, though I like the new speaker very much, Apple is still playing catch up against comparably priced Amazon Echo and Google Nest-branded speakers, which feature Alexa and the Google Assistant, respectively. Apple's rivals also sell cheaper Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers, but $99 is as low as Apple is willing to go for now.
Siri has improved, but the consensus opinion (which I share) is that those other digital assistants continue to do more things or do them better than Siri, especially in Google’s case when it comes to answering general purpose questions.
Listening to music. For this review, however, I mainly concentrated on sound quality rather than focusing on what the voice assistants are capable of.
And HomePod mini sounds really good for a speaker of its size. The audio is clean with decent bass, and at a level that should please most people who routinely cozy up to all things Apple, notably those who have invested in an Apple Music subscription. For sure, Apple Music gains favored nation status within HomePod. I was able to listen through my Spotify account as well, but doing so took a bit more effort. I opened the Spotify app on my iPhone and streamed music to the speakers via AirPlay.
With Apple Music you can just ask Siri to play a tune, artist, genre or playlist, or to surprise you based on your mood. And if you’re not sure what song is playing, Siri can tell you. (Alexa and Google Assistant can do as much on their speakers.) You can also ask Siri to play Podcasts through Apple's own Podcasts app.
I should point out that you need an iPhone, or at least a compatible iPad or iPod touch, to set the speakers up, which is as simple as holding your iOS device near the minis to get started.
You can also adjust the volume, pause, skip and resume tracks by asking Siri. Alternatively, you can touch the top of the HomePod mini surface to control how you’re listening. The surface lights up when audio is detected, or Siri is speaking.
I give the mini high marks for providing a sweet soundtrack in my office. I listened to an eclectic mix of artists that included Jeff Beck, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Billie Eilish, and Linda Ronstadt. I streamed Beethoven, Debussy and Mozart as well.
Two minis are better than one. The mini works as a 360-degree speaker rather than one that delivers directional audio, resulting in consistent sound as I walked around the room. I tested with two HomePod minis working in tandem as a stereo pair, which I highly recommend if your budget permits.
Inside the speaker is Apple’s own S5 chip, which the company says takes advantage of “computational audio” algorithms to determine the unique characteristics of the source material. But the mini doesn’t adapt to its surroundings like the original HomePod.
Coming later this year are proximity controls which Apple promises will let you “hand off” whatever you’re playing on your iPhone to the mini when you bring it close.
Even when music was playing at a high volume, Siri heard me when I barked commands from across the room. At least most of the time. Notable exception: I asked Siri to play the New York sports radio station WFAN; it began playing the Christian station WFAM instead.
Have realistic expectations. As good as the HomePod mini sounds, keep your expectations in check. It doesn’t match the fidelity of the larger and pricier original HomePod. Nor can the mini, even as a stereo pair, substitute for the kind of rich (and likely expensive) sound system required to fill a spacious room, much less satisfy an audiophile.
But HomePods can adequately stand-in for either tinny-sounding TV speakers or soundbars, so long as you have an Apple TV.
HomePod mini is attractive too. Dan Siefert at The Verge compared it to an upside-down Magic-8 Ball wrapped in mesh, as apt a description as I’ve come across. It comes in space gray or (see the Apple-supplied image above) white.
What Siri can do. The main emphasis with the original HomePod was on premium audio specs and integration with the Apple Music ecosystem, rather than the number of ways Siri could insert its way into your life.
But as I noted Siri above, Apple’s assistant has gotten more useful through the years, and Siri does more than assume the deejay role on HomePod. It handles all the table stakes tasks you have come to expect of an intelligent assistant, from making a call, delivering the weather and setting timers, to performing unit conversions and calculations. Siri will also tell you a stock price or how to say and pronounce “bathroom” in Mandarin Chinese. And you can ask Siri to read back your Messages or send one on your behalf.
Siri can also flip on light switches and other compatible Apple HomeKit-capable smart home accessories on command. A new Intercom feature lets you dictate a message to other HomePods in the house (or other Apple devices) to alert, say, family members that dinner is ready.
Keeping things private. Finally, Apple has taken several steps to ensure your privacy. HomePod only listens for the “Hey Siri” command, Apple says. Audio recordings are never stored by default. What’s more, personal requests around Messages are processed on the device, and smart home data sent between Apple devices and HomeKit accessories is encrypted.
Apple is still an underdog here--how often does that happen?--and there are good reasons to go with (or stick with) Amazon and Google if you’re more fully invested in either ecosystem. Each sell devices with not only smart (or smarter) assistants, but audio that is arguably just as robust.
For its part, HomePod mini doesn’t break a ton of new ground. But it’s a fine speaker and that very rare Apple product you can get for less than $100.
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