HomePod Mini Review: Sweet Sound at the Right Price
Apple introduced the original HomePod in 2018 with the hope of bridging the gap between high-end audio hardware and the ease of music streaming. The HomePod Mini, which launches November 16, is a $99 speaker designed to bring that experience to a lot more people. This is the first speaker Apple has released after the runaway success of AirPods Pro, and the company clearly wants to bring that carry that momentum back into home audio.
Five Minute Setup
Apple has brought the streamlined setup process from its Apple Watch to the HomePod Mini, and the approach works really well. I plugged in the HomePod Mini, brought my iPhone close to it, and a message popped up asking if I’d like to set up the speaker. After tapping yes, Apple turned on my phone’s camera, and asked me to scan a swirling image displayed on the HomePod Mini’s touch screen.
In a matter of seconds the Home app on my iPhone asked if I’d like to transfer settings like my Apple Music credentials to the HomePod Mini, and whether I’d like personalized Siri requests. The HomePod Mini took care of the rest, and I was ready to listen about five minutes after I plugged the speaker in.
Simple, Familiar Design
True to its name the HomePod Mini looks and feels like a shrunken down version of Apple’s full-sized smart speaker. It stands 3.3 inches tall, and has a rounded shape that bulges out a bit on the sides. The top and bottom of the speaker are completely flat, keeping the look symmetrical. If you like tech that doesn’t scream “I’m a gadget,” you’ll appreciate the HomePod Mini’s aesthetic.
It may be plain-looking on the outside, but audio gear under the HomePod Mini’s mesh-fabric hood is a lot more complicated. Apple outfitted its new speaker with a single full-range driver, with a pair of passive radiators that direct sound outward in multiple directions. A component called an acoustic wave-guide routes audio downward through the bottom of the speaker to create a 360-audio effect. A four-microphone array is positioned to hear Siri commands even over the sound of loud music.
The HomePod Mini runs on a custom-designed S5 chip, which debuted inside the Apple Watch Series 5. The point of this chip is to enable the HomePod Mini to adjust and optimize audio depending on the song you’re listening to. A folk song will sound different than a hard rock song, and the S5 wants to make both sound great.
A Sound Decision (Or Two)
While the HomePod Mini’s audio hardware looks good on paper, I was even happier once I heard how the speaker actually sounded. Apple managed to maintain the high bar of audio quality it set with the original HomePod, but brought it to a $99 package. Make no mistake, the full-sized HomePod sounds a lot better, but it also costs $299. At $99 the HomePod Mini is in a league of its own.
I used HomePod Mini as my main speaker for a couple of weeks, and it impressed me each time I listened. My sources for testing were: tracks from my local music library, songs streamed from Apple Music, and full-quality audio files from TIDAL. Most of the music was streamed from my iPhone via Airplay (Apple’s wireless standard), but I also asked the speaker to play certain songs directly by asking Siri. My verdict is that audiophiles and casual listeners will find a lot to like about how the HomePod Mini sounds.
The HomePod Mini was able to capture the dank ambiance of Dream On by Noel Gallagher and the High Flying Birds, and did an especially good job accentuating the vocals. Listening to the piano work on Joni Mitchell’s Willy, I was struck by just how natural it sounded. Even dense tracks, like the Flaming Lips’ Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell were played with stunning clarity. Certain elements of Ego Tripping, like the synth deep down in the mix, were harder to make out, but the HomePod Mini did a great job overall.
It can be hard for a small speaker to handle deep bass without either muddying up the midrange and highs, but I didn’t have that problem with the HomePod Mini. One of the first tracks I listened to was Senorita by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, which begins with a distinctive interplay between bass and guitar. It was easy to hear details in both elements of the song, without any loss of fidelity.
One of the disadvantages of wireless speakers is that most of them play music in mono. This means instruments from both the left and right channels are “folded down,” making some songs sound wrong or weird. The HomePod Mini’s audio system does a good job reducing these audio abnormalities, but it’s a common problem. Thankfully Apple solved this issue by allowing you to connect two HomePod Mini speakers together and listen to music in true stereo.
As a stereo pair, the HomePod Mini becomes the speaker equivalent of Apple’s AirPods Pro: An incredible, totally wireless audio system. Listening to Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell on a stereo pair of HomePod Minis made the track sound complete. No missing elements, just great sound.
I’ll go so far as to say a pair of HomePod Minis are good enough to replace a traditional stereo home audio system if all you do is stream music. If you play music on a turntable, or can’t access the tracks you want on an iPhone or Mac, you should stick with a pair of powered bookshelf speakers, or a high-end system.
But I’ll give Apple credit, the company has been on a quest to make premium sounding audio gear in a compact package, and the HomePod Mini succeeds.
Getting Smarter, Slowly
The HomePod Mini works wonderfully as a speaker, but its “smart” features are limited by Siri and Apple’s software. At its best, the HomePod Mini makes life a little easier if you use other Apple gear.
The ability to automatically send audio from an iPhone to a HomePod Mini just by bringing the phone close to the speaker is an excellent time saver, but it only worked about 60% of the time. I had a similar experience when using a pair of HomePod Minis as speakers for an Apple TV.
Apple’s media streamer allows you to set HomePod Minis as an audio output to create a smart, wireless home theater system. I was able to get this to work for a little while, and the results were really good, but at a later point in my testing the Apple TV stopped giving me the option to set the HomePod Minis as an audio output. Curiously, it continued to detect a regular HomePod connected on the same network.
Where the HomePod Mini really delivered for me was using it with a new Apple feature called Intercom. Intercom allows you to send short audio messages to different Apple devices, and the HomePod Mini makes the feature shine. Once it was set up, I could use the HomePod Mini to send messages (think: I’m coming upstairs in five minutes to cook dinner), which would play through my other HomePod speakers, and send a notification to my phone.
Sending audio messages felt natural, and the HomePod Mini’s microphones made clear-sounding recordings. Intercom isn’t limited to the HomePod, you can send and receive messages using an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch AirPods, or a car using Carplay. Apple allows you to limit the devices that can receive these messages, and whether they should be played automatically. You can also select an option that plays only plays Intercom messages on devices that are inside your home.
Intercom really showcases the benefits of Apple’s unique hardware and software integration, which is why it’s a bummer that using all of its features is such a mixed bag. These issues are emblematic of the struggles Apple has had in this area for several years, but the HomePod Mini actually gives me quite a lot of hope.
At $99, the speaker is far more likely to get popular than the $299 full-sized version. This hardware symbolizes a renewed interest in smart home tech, which puts even more emphasis on Apple to get its software on more even footing.
The Bottom Line
If you use Apple hardware and services, the $99 HomePod Mini is a great sounding speaker whose smart features are a nice bonus. Get two, and you’re in for a real treat when you listen to your favorite songs.
The HomePod Mini is the clearest sign that Apple is doubling down on making incredible, accessible audio gear that’s seamless to set up, and pretty easy to use. The cracks in the company’s smart home strategy still show sometimes, but the HomePod Mini may become popular enough to change that.
Preorder the HomePod Mini for $99 at Best Buy, Target, B&H
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