Reviews

The HomePod mini is Apple's last chance at the smart home

Apple's $99 HomePod mini is everything the bigger HomePod should have been: affordable, compact, and sounds terrific. Read on to listen (yes, listen) to how it compares to the latest Echo and Nest Audio.

Everyone agrees that the HomePod was a failure. Nobody disputes that Apple's first smart speaker has terrific sound (some of the best of any smart speaker). But its expensive price ($299), limited Siri functionality, and lack of voice controls for non-Apple Music services like Spotify were big turnoffs.

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The HomePod mini is Apple's attempt at a redo and, perhaps, its last chance to gain any ground on Amazon and Google in the smart home wars. It's $99 (good!); sound quality is terrific for a speaker this small (awesome!); Siri's smarter three years later (nice!), and it's got new tricks like intercom and the ability to beam music from an iPhone with a tap (fun!). TL;DR: It's everything the bigger HomePod should have been.

Siri is still... Siri

At this point, it's a well-known fact that Siri is not as smart as Alexa or Google Assistant. Maybe that bothers you. But it doesn't me. Take it from a guy who has been using voice commands on smart speakers daily for five years: Siri is smart enough.

Amazon and Google boast more skills and third-party device support, but most people will stick to a handful of basic commands like checking the weather, playing and controlling music, controlling smart home devices, setting timers, and getting simple trivia.

I mostly control the volume with voice commands. But if that fails for some reason there's a + and - button on the top touchpad. A single tap on the center play/pauses, double-tap skips to the next song, and a triple-tap goes back to the previous track.

Weird plug

Like the HomePod, the HomePod mini has a really nice braided cable. Also nice: the mini charges via USB-C. Not so nice: It charges via an included 20W power adapter. My guess is that including the power supply in the mini would have made it larger. The compromise is a white power adapter that doesn't match the black mini and sticks out quite a bit in an outlet.

How does its sound compare?

At $99, the HomePod mini costs the same as Amazon's latest Echo and Google's Nest Audio. There are some differences: the HomePod mini is considerably smaller, which means it doesn't get as loud. It's also a 360-degree speaker, blasting sound in all directions, versus the single directional speaker on the Echo and Nest Audio.

I've spent the past few weeks listening to all kinds of music on all three speakers, comparing them at different volumes to pick apart the differences. There's a lot of nuance to each one. So put on your favorite headphones or earbuds and let's do some listening.

For the volume test, we're listening to Blackpink's "How You Like That" at 100 percent. The HomePod mini gets demolished by both the Echo and the Nest Audio on loudness. Louder volume doesn't always equal better sound. As you will hear, though the Echo and Nest Audio are louder, the sound also clips.

The HomePod mini strikes a good balance between max volume and clarity. Unsurprisingly, Apple Music sounds better than Spotify (via AirPlay) on the HomePod mini. I noticed this on my regular HomePod. This is because HomePod mini uses "computational audio" to adjust each song to better balance out the different frequencies.

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HomePod mini • Apple Music
HomePod mini • Spotify
Echo (2020) • Spotify
Nest Audio • Spotify

I recently watched The Queen's Gambit and it rekindled my appreciation for jazz. In the next samples, you'll hear Peggy Lee's classic "Fever." I chose this song so you can hear the delicateness of the finger snaps, bass, drums, and vocals.

With the volume set at a more normal 50 percent, the Echo is both the loudest and pushes the most powerful bass. The Nest Audio sounds flat in comparison. Harder to convey is the HomePod's 360-degree sound. In person, the sound quality feels richer and airier. Less static-y since it's not directional sound.

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HomePod mini • Apple Music
HomePod mini • Spotify
Echo (2020) • Spotify
Nest Audio • Spotify

Judging by everyone's Spotify Wrapped lists, The Weeknd helped a lot of people get through this tough year. The last batch includes clips from "Blinding Lights." Electronic tracks usually expose a smarter speaker's weaknesses — the drivers can never seem to produce clean synths.

Again, at 50 percent volume, you can hear similar results to the previous track. The HomePod mini (and all of Apple's audio for that matter) tends to produce the warmest sound whereas the Echo and Nest Audio lean on bass to add more kick.

PYMCA/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
HomePod mini • Apple Music
HomePod mini • Spotify
Echo (2020) • Spotify
Nest Audio • Spotify

One HomePod mini is impressive. Two paired for stereo left and right channels, especially for watching content with an Apple TV is truly music to your ears. "Siri, play everywhere" never gets old.

Haters are gonna hate. The Echo and Nest Audio beat the HomePod mini on volume, but I think sound quality-wise, the mini makes me feel my music — the vocals, instrumentals, rhythm, etc. —the most.

Just like iPhone cameras that don't oversaturate or go overboard with the contrast, Apple audio is all about balance and tuning the sound for each song in Apple Music. It's yet again the advantage of deep hardware and software integration in a device that other smart speakers streaming third-party music services don't have. Spotify could build for Siri controls on HomePod, but the ball is in its court, not Apple's anymore.

Buy it if...

• You're deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem

• You use Apple Music

• Privacy is a top priority

• You like your smart speakers small

Don't buy if...

• You want a smarter assistant

• You want the loudest sound

• You mainly use Spotify or other music services

• You want the largest support for third-party smart home devices

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