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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

A HomePod mini on my desk

Note: This story has not been updated since 2021.

A few months ago I decided to unplug the iPod Hi-Fi I was using as an external speaker for my iMac Pro, and replace it with a stereo pair of $199 Sonos One SL speakers. I’m using my iPad Pro’s internal speakers for podcast editing and other general noises; the Sonos speakers are meant for playing music. I listen to music all day long as I work, and I decided I wanted to get the iPod Hi-Fi off my desktop and get something that sounded a bit better.

The Sonos Ones do sound better than the iPod Hi-Fi, not only fuller but with more stereo separation, considering that they’re on opposite sides of my office from one another. Unfortunately, what I’ve discovered is that using AirPlay from Music on a Mac is not particularly reliable. Music often pauses for a moment. One speaker will start playing and the other will only step in after a moment. And worst of all, sometimes when you pause a song and attempt to start it again later, Music completely loses track of where the audio is playing and refuses to play or plays it out of the wrong speakers.

What I’ve found, in short, is that while AirPlaying music from an iOS device is pretty solid—not perfect, but solid—it’s a lot rougher on macOS. But is it the fault of AirPlay, macOS, or perhaps Sonos’s implementation of AirPlay?

Recently Apple released new colorful versions of the $99 HomePod mini. I already had a single HomePod mini in Space Gray, but when Apple sent me an orange one to try out, I decided to set them on my desk and see how a stereo pair of HomePods sounded.

The result? They sound pretty good. The Sonos speakers do sound better, but they’re twice the price. Are they twice as good? I’d have to say no. In fact, I regret buying the Sonos speakers now that I’ve tried the HomePod mini. If I used Sonos’s software things might be different, but the bottom line is that I’m just using my Mac to play via the Music app. The HomePod minis are also much smaller than the Sonos Ones, which is nice.

However, to get the HomePod minis to sound right, I needed to place them equidistant from my ears, on the back of my desk. (Unlike the Sonos speakers, there’s no way to balance the pair to account for one being slightly further away than the other.)

Then comes the real question: Is AirPlay more reliable on the HomePod mini than on the Sonos One? After a couple of weeks, I have no clear answer. It seems to me that while the HomePod mini might be a bit more stable at playing music via AirPlay, it’s got all the same issues that the Sonos Ones have. Sometimes Music will just refuse to see or play to an AirPlay target, paused music won’t consistently resume, and one speaker starts playing music a fraction of a second before the other kicks in.

In the end, my choice to move the iPod Hi-Fi off the desk wasn’t as clear a winning move as I had hoped it was. I’ve reclaimed that desk space, and the wider stereo separation is nice, but when I was routing all my audio via a headphone cable from my iMac to the iPod Hi-Fi, the connection was foolproof. Now AirPlay is inconsistent and occasionally frustrating.

That said, I’m still pleasantly surprised by how good two HomePod minis sound as a stereo pair. For listen to music at my desk while I work, they really hit the spot. And the orange model fits the color scheme of my office perfectly.

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