By Dan Moren
November 20, 2020 12:30 PM PT
HomePod mini review: Lots of bang, not a lot of bucks
Calling Apple’s history with speaker accessories “mixed” is probably being kind. In 2006, the company made its first foray with the iPod Hi-Fi, a technically impressive but expensive and ultimately doomed speaker dock for the company’s iconic music player.1 It was discontinued a year and a half later after disappointing sales.
You could be excused for thinking that the original HomePod was the iPod Hi-Fi Reborn. As a speaker, most reviewers agreed it was impressive, but it was very expensive and not terribly capable at anything else. At a time when the market was pushing smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home (now the Google Nest Audio, what a mouthful), the HomePod’s use of Siri was underpowered, lacking features as basic as being able to set multiple named timers. Despite the tried-and-true Apple strategy of not being first to market, but rather being the best, the company didn’t just walk in and take over.
Unlike the iPod Hi-Fi, however, Apple didn’t cut its losses. Instead, three years after it announced the HomePod, it’s back with another swing: the HomePod mini. Everything about this product seems, well, kind of un-Apple-like. It’s far cheaper than the original HomePod ($99 vs. the $349-eventually-lowered-to-$299 price tag) and features a number of trade-offs from its big sibling, most prominently a scaled down ambition of the sound—arguably the best part of the original HomePod.
For all of that, I’m here to tell you that the HomePod mini is great, and in many ways, better than the full-size HomePod. This is a case where I’d argue that Apple has made the right trade-offs—at least, if it’s goal is to make the HomePod popular.
First off, the HomePod mini is—as its name promises—smaller than the original HomePod. And not just by a little, by a lot. The full-size HomePod is a beast, the size of a watermelon. It weighs 5.5 pounds. That’s very nearly two MacBook Airs.
The HomePod mini, by comparison, is .76 pounds, slightly more than two iPhone 12s. And it’s about the size of a softball.
Surely that smaller size means a requisite trade-off in sound, though, right? After all, bigger speakers tend to sound better, especially in the bass ranges. And yes, the HomePod mini is not going to provide the same sound as the full-size model. But you know what? It’s pretty good.2 I’d rate it as better than standard smart speakers like the original Amazon Echo or Google Home, if not quite up to the level of my Sonos One or Play:1s.3
In one quick test, I put the HomePod mini behind my new M1 MacBook Air, whose speakers I found surprisingly usable on their own, and played some music via AirPlay on both the internal speakers and the HomePod mini at the same time. Turning down the HomePod mini’s volume and leaving only the Air’s speakers playing resulted in a laughable difference in quality: the MacBook internal speakers really only sound good until you compare them directly. Conversely, turning down the MacBook Air’s speakers and leaving only the HomePod mini playing made no appreciable difference to sound quality: the mini’s speakers drown out and surpass the Air’s in every way. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise, but it does tell you that if you’re listening to audio on your MacBook’s speakers, the HomePod mini is an unqualified improvement.
What the HomePod mini mainly lacks compared to the larger model is the auto-tuning and “spatial awareness” features; Apple instead talks about the mini’s “360-degree audio” which means that the sound is essentially the same no matter which side of the HomePod you’re on (the mini’s speakers fire downward). But that sound is still directional in a way that the full-size HomePod’s doest’s seem to be: if you have the HomePod mini off to one side on a desk, for example, you’re going to feel like you’re listening from that side. Even a single full-size HomePod has a better presence, and manages to produce audio that feels like a more balanced soundscape in the same conditions.
At least some of that difference is probably down to the use of the S5 chip in the HomePod mini, the same system-on-a-chip package that Apple uses to power the Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch SE. The full-size HomePod, on the other hand, uses the A8 processor that powered the iPhone 6/6 Plus and the Apple TV HD (the 4K version has a A10X). Or, to simplify it, a watch chip versus a phone chip—you can draw the conclusions.
The lack of spatial awareness is also why HomePod minis can’t provide the “home theater” experience when paired with an Apple TV 4K, though you can still connect a stereo pair to the set-top box for sound purposes; you just won’t get that extra surround sound-ish experience.
I can easily imagine a stereo pair of the HomePod minis sounding quite good, though I didn’t have an opportunity to test that configuration. The full-size HomePods sound excellent in a stereo pair, despite the weird inability to use them as system speakers for your Mac, so I’d expect results from the mini proportional to the difference between the full-size and mini HomePods. Alas, you cannot mix and match, pairing a full-size HomePod and a mini for stereo—nor do I think you’d want to, given the disparities in their audio qualities.
Why so Siri-ous?
My home is now filled with a preponderance of devices that respond when I yell their names, to the point where I’ve had to start deactivating them or else they would probably be having conversations amongst themselves. I’ve had the “Hey Siri” feature on the full-size HomePods disabled for some time, thanks to false positives, though the more recent software updates probably mean it’s time to see if they’ve improved on that front. Apple’s even allowing third-party music apps to integrate directly with Siri on the HomePod, though only Pandora currently supports it. (Amazon Music is said to be coming.)
Overall, Siri has certainly improved on the HomePod since the device was first released. It’s gained a lot more capabilities, including the ability to recognize different voices and provide personalized results, making and receiving phone calls, and those multiple named timers. (Alas, however, I find myself disappointed that timers, unlike alarms, don’t show up in the Home app when they’re active.)
How does Siri compare to Alexa and the Google Assistant? That’s harder to say. They all seem to handle many of the same requests, and the Siri ecosystem’s ability to interact with other devices has definitely gotten more robust. In order to actually test this longer term, I’ve swapped the Sonos One with Alexa in our kitchen—the smart speaker we use the most—with the HomePod mini, and will report back.4 But my inclination is to say that Siri can probably handle most of what you throw at it these days. Plus, there is the added benefit of Apple’s privacy-centric approach that likely will appeal to many users.
In my admittedly early tests, Siri responded quickly and accurately to my queries and commands, even when music was playing, and I rarely got the wrong answer or had to repeat myself.
I’ve also noticed that the HomePod mini’s mic pickup seems better than the full-size HomePod. Sitting in my living room, about equidistant from the HomePod mini in the kitchen and the full-size HomePod in my office, the mini tended to be the one to answer a “Hey Siri” request. (Unless of course my phone decided to answer instead—Apple’s devices have gotten somewhat smarter about not all trying to respond, but there’s still room for improvement.)
In terms of software and capability, the HomePod mini can do everything the larger HomePod can do, from controlling smart home devices and acting as a home hub to offering automations to working with Apple’s new intercom feature.
But it’s worth noting that there are a few differences between the HomePod mini and its predecessor, most of which are improvements upon the original.
For one thing, though the cord still isn’t replaceable, it now terminates in a USB-C connector, which you can either plug into the included 20W power adapter or any other compatible adapter. Or your Mac. Where it shows up in the Finder, even though all you can do is update the software; the ports don’t provide enough juice to actually use the speaker. (Presumably there are some magic Apple diagnostic tools hidden away somewhere, though, which hopefully makes it easier to service a HomePod gone bad.)
This mostly feels like a lateral move compared to the original HomePod’s standard power cord—really, it should just be a USB-C connector on both ends. And some have complained about the mismatch between the black cord on the space gray version of the HomePod and the white power brick—honestly, I can’t get that worked up about it, but if it bugs you then consider buying a black third-party USB-C power brick.
As I noticed when I took the HomePod mini out of its very wee box, Apple has now physically printed the +/- controls on the top of the HomePod mini, which is a welcome change that also feels like it probably caused some arguments inside the company over marring the beautiful featureless expanse of the device’s “display.” But it’s easier to see the controls and adjust the volume—also helped by the mini’s smaller height, so you’re generally looking down at the top instead of having to peer over it. The touch-only controls are still worse than physical/tactile volume dial or knob like on the original Echo, though, and I’m standing by that.
Finally, the very very best feature of the HomePod mini brings a huge improvement over the full-size model. In iOS 13.2, Apple added the ability to handoff music from your iPhone to your HomePod via NFC. The idea was simple: hold your iPhone over the HomePod, and any music playing on the smartphone would just pick up on the speaker, without any intervention from the user.
In practice, this feature has been terrible. It’s unreliable and more often than not I find myself waving the iPhone over the HomePod trying to get it to work, which results in accidentally hitting the HomePod’s touchscreen with my hand, at which point it starts playing—invariably loudly—whatever random song it last had in its queue. Maddening.
Apple seems to have realized this experience isn’t great: the HomePod mini has ditched the use of NFC for this feature and replaced it with the proximity-sensing U1 chip. Yes, this means that you’ll need a U1-compatible iPhone, either from the iPhone 11 or 12 series, but let me tell you: it works great. Quick, seamless, and, above all, reliable. This is exactly how this feature should have worked from day one. I love it.
Update 11/21/20: After Twitter user Chris pointed out that his iPhone 7 was able to handoff music to the HomePod mini, I tested this with my wife’s iPhone 8, and sure enough, it worked. That was pretty surprising seeing as even Apple’s own site claims you need a U1-equipped iPhone to use this feature, but I suspect it may be using Bluetooth 5.0 to accomplish the same thing? I tested it with an iPhone 6s as well—which only has Bluetooth 4.2—and that didn’t work.
The (very) short of it
It was always hard to recommend the HomePod to most people, even when on one of its not infrequent deep discounts. With the HomePod mini, however, I’m not feeling any such reservation. At $99, it’s not exactly cheap, but frankly, that price isn’t too bad for a solid AirPlay-compatible speaker, much less one with Siri built-in. It seems solidly placed within impulse-buy territory.
Apple doesn’t typically build devices with an aim for market share, but the HomePod mini very much feels like it was designed to appeal to the masses. I would even go so far as to suggest that it’s a Trojan horse to get Siri in more places and help develop the company’s smart home ecosystem.
Unless you really are someone who craves the best possible sound5 or you want the home theater experience of the full-size HomePods, I would save your money; you can, after all, buy three HomePod minis for the price of one HomePod. Now that’s a deal I can get behind.
- Yes, Jason still uses one, but come on, we all know there’s something not quite…right with him, right? (You’re fired, Dan.—Ed.) ↩
- Let me say upfront: I’m not some audiophile with a golden ear; this is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary. Consult your physician. Void where prohibited. Sorry Tennessee. ↩
- More recently, companies have bolstered the audio performance of even their standard smart speakers, but I don’t have any on hand to test. ↩
- Tune in later this month to see if my wife has killed me. ↩
- And let’s be honest here, a lot of self-proclaimed audiophiles were pooh-poohing the HomePod’s sound in favor of more expensive speakers anyway. Sound equipment is one of those places where there’s always a way to spend more money for improvements that are probably pretty marginal. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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