There was a time many years back when I was awed by the quality of sound that came from a Bose speaker someone took out of his suit pocket. That was a time when audio quality had a lot to do with the size of the speaker itself. Now, however, speakers have gotten over this problem of physics with some help from software. The best example of this has to be the new Apple HomePod Mini.
The Apple HomePod Mini is mini in every sense of the term. When the review unit came, I was surprised at how small it was — a bit like seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, bigger than I ever imagined. Like the new Echo Dot, this too is shaped like a small ball. But the fabric-covered HomePod Mini has an LED panel on the top, which also houses the volume controls. It is minimalist while being more functional — the LED comes to life when you use the Hey Siri command and there are colour variations that suggest different things are happening inside.
Set up is as easy as it can be. Apple users just need to bring their iPhone near the speaker and then set up the device in a couple of moves. Apple had sent me two units to review, and as I set up the second one, it asked if I wanted to pair them as a stereo. Only Apple can think of an onboarding flow that is so natural and uncomplicated. Trust me, I have pulled my hair trying to set up smart speakers more than once.
Smart speakers are smart as the name suggests. But the HomePod is smart enough to even understand the kind of music being played and constantly making it sound better. So this means there is no equaliser, or in other words human intelligence needed to change the audio quality to sound better. This is computational audio, Apple style.
I tried the speakers with a variety of songs I asked Siri to pull up for me and experience was amazing all around. Leonard Cohen’s baritone in Hallelujah came out with the right amount of bass while the guitar on Sultans of Swing was as sharp as I would have wanted it to be.
By default, the music volume is somewhere in middle. If you ask it go to full volume, Siri warns you that it will be too loud. My son was impressed and so was I after realising that Siri was right and the HomePods, though Mini, can get very loud.
Also impressive is how at the higher volumes the audio profile holds up without jarring notes as I have often seen in smaller speakers. But when Siri responds, I was often struggling to hear her as the base volume of responses seem to be low by default.
In stereo mode, the two Mini’s pair perfectly and the sound fills the room with the perfect left and right split. The volume adjusts on its own for both when you command Siri. Even without the pairing, a solitary Mini was able to fill my room with the best of Jagjit Singh. When the Minis are set up in different rooms, I can ask Siri to have Singh’s silken voice ‘play everywhere’, ideal settings for a party this Diwali.
And Siri on the HomePod is by no means limited to music. I asked her to ‘play Our Own Devices podcast’ and I could hear myself on the speaker. I could ask for headlines and any other query I would throw at Siri and the answers were ready. And I can even throw her a deep query, like photos of Joe Biden’s victory celebrations, to my iPhone.
However, I did feel that when Siri was playing an answer it was tough to speak over her. I had to stop her and then move to the next query.
One feature that is really good is the intercom which you can use to communicate a message from one Mini to the other, or to all your devices. So when I went out on my weekly trip to get some essentials, I could surprise my nine-year-old by announcing on the Mini that I will be at the door in two minutes. This is one feature that could find a lot of use — I made a mental note to get one set up for my mother in Kerala, so that we can converse when we want to more naturally.
The Mini is also a hub for connected devices. You can set up a Philips Hub to connect multiple smart home devices that can be controlled with voice, or even look for devices like the Philips Hue bulb that can thread directly with the Mini without the need for a bridge.
So who should buy the HomePod Mini?
Well, at a price point of Rs 9,900, this is clearly the best-sounding smart speaker at this price point. Only the HomePod and Echo Studio sound better and both cost double the Mini. You can in fact have multiple Minis across the room and ensure a seamless audio experience in every room. Also, it is really smart as a speaker and this is over and above its smart speaker capabilities. I recommend this as the first smart-speaker for those on the Apple ecosystem and to those who really love their music.