Apple HomePod mini review
Quick verdict: Apple brings some serious audio oomph to the affordable speaker space with the HomePod mini, although it's still best suited for heavy Apple ecosystem users thanks to the strong integration with Apple Music.
- Great audio from such a small unit
- Far more affordable than the full fat HomePod mini
- Thread protocol support
- Touch controls are fiddly
- Less flexible than competing Google or Amazon speakers at the same price
- Apple Music default is limiting
Apple's entries into the home smart speaker space haven't been extensive over the years. That's the polite way of saying that, up until now if you wanted an Apple smart speaker, you had the choice of precisely one – the higher-end, high priced but sweet sounding Apple HomePod.
The Apple HomePod mini shows Apple extending what it wants to do with smart speakers in a very pleasing way if you're a fan of good quality audio that won't break the bank, although it's rather predictably tied into – and best suited for – homes with a heavy preference towards Apple products and services.
- Sleek ball design
- No audio input
- Touch controls
- Sealed power cable
There's a pretty easy way to describe the Apple HomePod mini, just in case you haven't looked at any of the pictures yet. It's a small ball, sold in either "Space Grey" – Black if you're not Apple – or White finishes with a flat top that includes a swirly LED display that's meant to mimic the animation Apple uses for its existing Siri digital assistant. At 84.3mm tall and 98mm wide, the HomePod mini certainly fits that "mini" description, and that's quite a good match for most homes, where you're likely to want a smart speaker to essentially get out of the way.
It's just a coincidence that Amazon also has ball-shaped Echo speakers this year, right?
That aside, the only other design element you'll need to accommodate with the Apple HomePod mini is its sealed power cable, which finishes up with a USB C cable. That plugs neatly into the supplied power cable – no sign of the ageing Lightning connector standard here – but its sealed nature means that if something does go awry with your power cable, despite one end being standard USB C, you won't be able to easily replace it. Maybe that's the point for a speaker that only costs $149.
While it's far from universal, it's also just a tad disappointing to note that the Apple HomePod mini lacks any kind of dedicated audio input capability. Sure, iPhones haven't had headphone jacks for a good long while now, but it would still add another option for audio input if you wanted it.
- Easy setup from an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch – or not at all
- HomeKit works quickly with compatible devices
- Thread compatible, but good luck finding Thread-compatible devices
- Audio output is excellent
- Intercom works well
- Heavily tied into Apple Music
Setting up the Apple HomePod mini is a very simple affair, as long as you've got a recent model iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to hand.
Actually, that's a compulsory step, because there's simply no way to set up a HomePod mini without some kind of qualifying Apple device to hand.
That ties in well to the fact that this is very much an Apple ecosystem device, and if you're not playing in that ecosystem, you're very much not welcome. The issue for Apple here is that both Google and Amazon make it pretty trivial to add their smart speakers no matter which mobile OS you prefer.
That being said, the process of installation is no more complex than having your iPhone nearby, powering up the HomePod and following the popup onscreen instructions to add it to the Apple Home app and get it up and ready for some audio playback. The whole process should only take a few minutes before your HomePod mini is ready to go.
The other effectively essential element in the HomePod mini mix is an Apple Music subscription. In theory, the Apple HomePod mini is compatible with other music sources, or at least there's an Apple API to enable this, but Australians will at launch be utterly stuck with no choices but Apple Music.
No Spotify, no YouTube Music… you get the picture. Pandora is apparently compatible, but it's been years since Pandora was available to the Australian marketplace. That's an audio picture that may improve in time, but right now, it's very much an Apple Music playback device.
Full disclaimer time: Apple provided me with an Apple Music subscription to use with the HomePod mini, which does rather cement that position in of this being a speaker built around its own ecosystem and services. Basically, if you're happy and frolicking within Apple's walled garden ecosystem then go for it, and if you're not… don't.
The Apple Music hurdle jumped, it was time to get into what the HomePod mini can do. There are a few strands to this, because it works both with Apple's HomeKit ecosystem for smart home devices as well as being a smart speaker for music in its own right.
The Smart Home side of the HomePod mini does work quite well as long as you've got HomeKit-compatible gear already installed. There's a wide range of HomeKit devices out there, but the simple reality is that Apple is still chasing both Amazon and Google when it comes to overall compatibility and device choice.
You can certainly build a HomeKit home without missing too many services – but I was surprised when testing ou the HomePod mini to find a large number of my existing smart home devices that would happily leap between Amazon and Google draw complete blanks when it came time to talk everything HomeKit.
That's a picture that also might improve in the coming years, because the HomePod mini is also compatible with the new Thread protocol, designed to massively simplify hooking up new IoT gadgets in your home, often without the need of a central network connected "hub" device at all.
Future looking tech is always welcome in terms of longevity, but the practical reality right now is that there's a genuine dearth of actual Thread compatible devices on the market.
Apple supplied me with a Nanoleaf bulb with Thread compatibility for testing purposes, but I couldn't even test that, because it was an Edison type bulb, and all my sockets are Bayonet type. That's not Thread's fault of course, but its inclusion is very much a watch-this-space inclusion, rather than a reason to buy right now.
The clear reason to buy right now is in audio quality. The Apple HomePod mini isn't a particularly large speaker, but its 360 degree sound field is genuinely impressive, especially relative to what you see out of speakers of this size.
Having recently tested out the Google Nest Audio and Amazon Echo 2020, I'd happily place the Apple HomePod mini at the top of the audio tree in terms of overall audio presentation, albeit within the limitations of smaller and lower cost speakers.
Testing with The Jimi Hendrix Experience's classic Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), the Apple HomePod mini managed a great job of displaying the complex tones of its mind-bending guitar work and heavy thumping rhythm. Switching over to Prince's Diamonds and Pearls softer tones, it impressed with clarity in the softer cymbals without losing the essential heartbeat thump that pervades that track.
Suzanne Vega's Marlena On The Wall let the Apple HomePod mini show off her vocal range beautifully for a speaker in this price range. I could even pick up my own slight head sniffle – it's just hayfever, before you panic – in my own voice in a recent episode of my own podcast.
You can use Siri to adjust volume or send what you're playing to other HomePods in your home setup, and you'll generally want to do just that rather than rely on the HomePod mini's rather indistinct touch controls.
The centre of the LED lets you pause/play and that works acceptably, but the side mounted plus and minus areas for volume control are a lot harder to make out reliably. Sometimes I'd dial down the music, sometimes I'd accidentally pause it, and sometimes absolutely nothing would happen at all.
Unlike the Amazon Echo Dot 4th Gen, the audio that comes out of the Apple HomePod mini is properly balanced from any angle, but you can place it more or less wherever you'd like and still enjoy good sound. If you're particularly cashed up, you can set up two Apple HomePod minis in the same defined "room" in your Home app and they'll work as a stereo pair.
To further play within that Apple ecosystem if you've also got an Apple TV 4K, you can use a pair of HomePod minis as a stereo speaker pair for your TV playback. Apple doesn't limit you to just Apple TV+ there, thankfully.
If you do set up a pair of Apple HomePod minis in separate rooms, you can also use Apple's new "intercom" feature to make broadcast announcements to any attached speakers and iOS devices. In the latter case they'll just come up as messages, but the secondary HomePod mini – or presumably more if you had them – will directly relay your call. Have I used this feature when working in my home office to pester my teenage children to make me coffee?
Why yes, I have, and it works. Apple hasn't massively innovated here, given that you've been able to do similar on Google and Amazon smart speakers for some time now, but it's a nice feature to have if you are going to invest heavily in HomePod mini.
Also, if any of my kids are listening, black with one, thanks.
Should you buy the Apple HomePod mini?
- Buy it if you're already heavily in the Apple Ecosystem and want an affordable and good sounding speaker.
- Don't buy it if your music comes via Spotify or you're not an existing Apple fan.
The Apple HomePod mini is a pleasant surprise, given that the premium nature of the Apple brand could well have seen it launch a smaller smart speaker in the above $200 space without shocking too many people.
That's not what it's done, but it's not hard to see that the price point of the HomePod mini is really more about locking folks into the wider Apple ecosystem than anything else.
It's a well built speaker with pleasing sound for its size, but there's not much of an argument for picking one up unless you're going to match it with an Apple Music subscription. Suddenly that $149 speaker is costing you at least $11.99 extra per month for as long as you've got it.
If Apple Music is already your jam and you're considering smart speakers it's an incredibly easy recommendation, but the reverse is true as well. If you're a user of alternative music sources, you'd do better right now with the Google Nest Audio – or at least waiting to see if more music and audio sources come on board with Apple's vision of what a smart speaker should be.
Pricing and availability
PriceThe Apple HomePod mini retails in Australia for $149.
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman