It’s unanimous that the HomePod is the best sounding smart speaker. But can Apple repeat the accolades with the palm-sized HomePod Mini?
A few years ago, the idea of a CPU in a speaker was as alien as asking a SoBo-ite to take the local train. What was the need? But as Siri and other voice assistants have evolved and our lives have increasingly become automated, virtually every appliance is gaining smarts and smart speakers are becoming the hubs to control it all. The HomePod Mini, with a footprint half that of the HomePod and overall size that makes it fit on your palm, aims to bring Siri to more homes and hopefully more rooms than one in those homes.
Using the S5 chip that did duty on the Apple Watch S5 and is now seen on the Watch SE, for a tiny speaker like this, it is more than enough brainpower. Computational audio is becoming a driving force behind big sound from small speakers and while the bigger HomePod uses an A8 chip from the iPhone 6 generation but that’s also a larger device with multiple beam-forming drivers and bass correction whereas the HomePod Mini has a simpler layout with a single full-range driver (what seems like a 3in unit) and two passive radiators. A waveguide helps “shape” the output via the bottom of the speaker and thus, allowing it project sound in a 360-degree pattern and thus, making its response consistent no matter where you sit in the room. All the drivers and electronics are made by Apple so they have much tighter control of the whole design and the Mini has something that even the HomePod doesn’t - the new U1 chip for detecting other Apple devices in the vicinity. This makes the pairing process easy and in the near future, it will also push suggested tracks or playlists directly to your iPhone if you’re near the HomePod Mini! Apple’s Home app has gone through a coat of lacquer as well and with every new point update of iOS14, it gets easier and more accomplished. It’s as easy as bringing your iPhone close to the HomePod Mini to start the pairing process and the process doesn’t take more than a minute.
You can assign the left or right speakers if you’re using a stereo pair and input a name for the zone or room the Mini is placed in. With the ability to be paired in stereo mode with an additional HomePod Mini, you could potentially make the tiny thing sound pretty big. In most cases though, the Mini will be used as a standalone unit in multiple rooms and with its sub-4inch dimensions, it really is a space saver compared to even the Echo Dot (4th gen). The fabric mesh is identical to the kind used on the HomePod, which is soft and foam-like to touch and said to be acoustically transparent. The flat top and bottom give it a distinctive look, but then again, all the big tech companies have done well to create their own family look as well. The touch panel on top controls basic track navigation and can summon Siri but maintains a soft white glow while active. Since the sound is mainly output through the bottom, it’s suggested that you place the HomePod Mini on a solid surface to maximise its efficiency and it does make sense. Placing it on a soft fabric layered surface will only absorb most of the high frequencies.
Firstly, Siri needs a mention in the performance column since it’s the primary way of interacting with HomePods and fortunately, Apple has made great progress here. Both with Indian accents and artist names, almost eliminating false starts and retrying of commands. Unlike Echo devices, Siri is intelligent enough to not wake up when it hears the wake word in a recording or casual conversation. The four far-field microphones do a great job of listening to commands from even across a large room with music playing at about 50% volume. The Mini won’t play as loud as the HomePod of course, but it proves its worth in refinement, detail and a more open sound compared to the Echo Dot. But here’s the twist. The Echo Dot is only physically larger than the HomePod Mini but is less than half its price. Whereas the Echo (4th gen), which is comparable to the HomePod Mini in price, is much larger in size and hence, louder with deeper bass and a fuller sound.
In isolation, the HomePod Mini does suffice for a bedside or kitchen listening but clearly can’t fill up a room with floorboard-shaking bass as the HomePod can. Where it excels though is voices and higher frequencies which don’t sound hollow or boxed in like on the other smart speakers of similar size. Blood Bank by Bon Iver has a complex harmonic structure and the HomePod Mini is not intimidated by it nor does it disintegrate the sonic tapestry. It holds it all together, only falling short in sheer SPL and bass output. Pair another unit though and the difference is instantly tangible, with a wider soundstage and low-end getting a much-needed boost too. But, as stated earlier, most people would buy multiple Minis for multiple rooms and eventually, its fate will mostly be decided in isolation. It is, however, a brilliant little device for Siri commands to control your home-automation or connected devices. It picks up voice easily from 10-15ft away and executes commands to switch on lights or bulbs with almost instantaneous response. Moving the song from one HomePod to the other elsewhere in the house is as easy as asking Siri to “move the song to the kitchen”.
Assigning rooms in the Home app is as straightforward as selecting from a drop-down list of rooms and boom! Intercom, the new feature for Apple devices to communicate between one device to others works flawlessly as well and will go beyond initial novelty value, especially if you have a multi-room set-up. In terms of smarts, it still has a way to go before it can challenge Alexa in terms of utility, with some queries still prompting you to look at the iPhone. This could be great when you’re prepared to view pictures on the iPhone. News readout is decent and for ordering in, all you get are suggestions based on cuisine but you can’t actually place an order like you can on the Echo Show, for example. Siri has become more conversational though and you don’t have to wake it for follow-up requests, which is AI done right. Overall, like all smart speakers, voice commands are a mixed bag but the hit rate is going up which is a good thing and this is the most useable and obedient Siri has ever been, especially in the Indian context.
Apple has been constantly working at improving Siri for Indian voices and diction and it’s come a long way since the early days, explaining why we are seeing a simultaneous launch of the HomePod Mini in India as the US. The original HomePod took more than a year to come to India while the Siri backend was being customised and adapted for Indian usage. That being said, the utility value of the HomePod Mini has gone up several notches, especially if you’re invested in Apple devices and ecosystem. Like always, you can’t use regular Bluetooth from any Android (or even iOS) device to stream music. You have to go via AirPlay or directly ask the HomePod through Siri so it doesn’t make any pretences about being an all-inclusive product. In terms of sound quality, Apple has tuned the HomePod Mini for an open, accurate sound with the best it can with a single, tiny full-range driver. It gets beaten by the Echo for sheer bass impact but also rises above the Echo when it comes to the naturalness of tone and detail, especially in acoustic music and voices.