HomePod Mini: round in more ways than one

HomePod Mini: round in more ways than one

It is Apple's second smart speaker after the original HomePod, launched in February 2018, and follows more or less the same steps, albeit in a more compact size.

HomePod Mini: round in more ways than one

I'll say it right away: the HomePod Mini doesn't have the right to sound as good as it does, considering its dimensions. The new Apple smart speaker, which goes on sale this week at a price of 99 euros, is the same size as a baseball (slightly larger than a tennis ball; about 8 centimeters in diameter) but still manages amazing sound quality and a volume that can fill a medium-sized room with ease.

It is Apple's second smart speaker after the original HomePod, launched in February 2018, and follows more or less the same steps, albeit in a more compact size.

High Fidelity

As in the HomePod, which continues to be sold, the key to the good sound of the HomePod Mini is in an intelligent acoustic system governed this time by the S5 chip, the same one used by the Apple Watch last year.

The ball hides two drivers capable of reproducing the full range of frequencies (there is no dedicated subwoofer for bass like in the HomePod) and a guide system that channels the sound through the lower part of the sphere so that it bounces off the table on which it rests and is distributed in 360 degrees.

In my tests the result is clear sound at any volume and surprising bass response despite not having a subwoofer. They're not as forceful as the original HomePod bass, sure – it's bigger and has a lot more power – but they still sound really, really good.

It just so happens that these days I was also testing the new Amazon Echo, which also has a spherical design. It's a great speaker, especially at the price, but the feeling was a bit worse. The basses have more power, yes, but the music sounded somewhat muffled in comparison, not so clear.

HomePod Mini: round in more ways than one

This feeling was accentuated when pairing two HomePod Mini in stereo mode. I cannot stop repeating it because it is without a doubt the most amazing feature of the product. At that size, it shouldn't sound so good. But it does. It's a delight.

Old limitations

As I said before, the HomePod Mini has the same philosophy as the original HomePod and that also means that it comes with some of the same limitations. It's a great speaker for those who live in the Apple ecosystem , but not for the rest.

It has Bluetooth, but only for the initial pairing process. Music is sent to the speaker via AirPlay 2. There is no traditional audio connection to use the speaker alongside another sound source, and the power cord, in this case USB-C terminated, is built into the device itself.

Apple does include a 20W USB-C power adapter with the HomePod Mini. It also seems that it is the minimum power for it to work. The HomePod Mini didn't work connected to a Macbook's USB-C port, for example, or to lower-wattage chargers, but they did work with third-party chargers rated at 20W or more.

These limitations can be frustrating even for those operating in a 100% Apple ecosystem . With two HomeMini on the table, it occurred to me that they might be a great set of speakers for my Mac, but while it is possible to send music from the Apple Music app on the Mac to a stereo pair of HomePods Minis, MacOS does not allow using a pair of AirPlay speakers as sound source, just one single speaker. Incomprehensible.

HomePod Mini: round in more ways than one

The good news is that at least AirPlay 2 is starting to gain traction among other manufacturers, like Sonos. This makes it easy to have multiple speakers at home from different brands and transfer music from one to another, or play it simultaneously, much easier.

HomePod Mini also has a new ace up its sleeve, which is the U1 location chip. This chip allows you to transfer music from a speaker to a phone (or vice versa) just by bringing it closer, or control playback by bringing the mobile closer as if it were the device screen. It will arrive in a software update in the next few weeks and I have not been able to test it.

Siri and home automation

If you use iPhone, Mac or iPad, HomePod mini is definitely recommended as a speaker, but also as a 'smart' speaker at home. I've been testing it with Siri in English and in the US, where the assistant tends to perform better, I think, than in Spain. The Mini has four long-range microphones spread over the surface, and long-range here is literal. They are able to hear me from another room without problems.

Siri has been quite effective at finding music – undoubtedly her best ability. Even more effective than Alexa, which seems to struggle when a song has the same album title. Over the years, I notice that the responses are more complete as well, although I still occasionally respond with a frustrating “I can't figure that out on the HomePod.” The biggest advantage here is Apple's focus on privacy, which its competitors don't rank as high on the priority list.

Apple has also started opening up HomePod to other music services. Spotify is not yet present, but other alternatives, such as Pandora, are, and can now be set as predefined music services.

The HomePod Mini can also be configured as a control center for HomeKit-compatible home automation devices. I've been testing a new Nanoleaf smart bulb with good results, but this was true of the original HomePod as well. Alexa or Google Home offer access to a larger collection of home automation devices, but again, Apple's approach to privacy is worth emphasizing here.

Intercom

Apple also launches a new intercom function with the new HomePods. It is a system that allows you to send messages from one room of the house to another or broadcast a message for all rooms such as “dinner is ready.”

It is functional, but it can be a bit confusing because Apple also allows to notify with these messages to a car equipped with Car Play or even a user's iPhone.

This is fine because it allows, for example, to send a message to the family when we are coming home with the car but there does not seem to be a way to refer to these devices individually. You can send a message to the kitchen, but not to someone's mobile because HomePod will interpret that what you want is to send an iMessage message (which can also be done).

However, if someone receives an intercom message on your phone, they can answer from it.

It's also not very clear to me what makes the Apple Watch Walkie Talkie service so different from this intercom and why they couldn't be part of the same experience. I get the feeling that the same thing happens to Apple as Google. Too many messaging services that would benefit from better integration.

Safe bet

Overall, if you have an iPhone, Mac, or iPad and are looking for a good speaker for listening to music, you can't go wrong with the HomePod Mini. It sounds great and for 99 euros it's a great buy.

If you also have home automation elements at home and you are betting on the HomeKit standard, there is no more to discuss. The HomePod Mini will give you the same features as an Echo or Nest (Google) device but with a much more privacy-centric approach. The price to pay will be a virtual assistant that may not be as effective when you take it out of its specialty (music) and a more limited catalog of compatible home automation devices.

But at this price and with this size, this ball will surprise you. Apple has produced a round speaker.

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