In mid-2017, Apple announced the HomePod and started shipping it in early 2018. According to the reviews, the audio quality is great, but with an introductory price of $349 (it now sells for $299), and with Apple encouraging you to get two or more for multi-room audio or stereo, I considered it too expensive to be worth it for me. And I get the sense that lots of others felt the same way.
In late 2020, Apple introduced the HomePod mini, and this one made me pay more attention, although I still wasn't sure if it was for me. At only $99, the price was far more attractive. The smaller size meant that the audio was not quite as loud and full as the HomePod but it needed less space. Although I had not even mentioned to my wife that I was thinking about it, she knows me well and bought me a pair of HomePod minis for Christmas. I've now been using them for just over two months, and I love them. If you have been wondering whether these are worth having, my answer is a very strong yes. Here is why.
The HomePod mini is indeed mini. At only 3.3” tall and 3.9” wide, it doesn’t take up much space. The weight is .76 lb.
The built-in power cord is only about 4’10” so you will want to place it reasonably close to a wall outlet unless you use an extension cord. But unlike a typical speaker, 360° music comes out of all of the sides of the small round ball, so it doesn’t have to face any particular direction. The speakers are pointed down so that music bounces off of the surface that is holding the HomePod mini.
The outside of the device is wrapped in an acoustic mesh fabric, and you can choose between white or black. I haven't seen the white model in person, but the black looks great.
The top of the HomePod mini is typically a black circle. But when Siri is listening to or responding to a command, that display becomes illuminated with moving colors.
When a HomePod mini is playing music, there is a soft white light in the middle of the black circle. With that light, you can see the - and + that will allow you to change the volume on the HomePod mini. (You can also adjust the volume from an iPhone.)
Pass the music
There are a few different ways to get music to start playing on a HomePod mini (including using Siri, which I discuss below), but one of the most interesting (and satisfying) is to pass the music using Handoff. Start playing a song on your iPhone and then put your iPhone near the top of the HomePod mini. As you start to do so, you will feel a slight vibration on your iPhone, a signal that the song has passed from your iPhone to the HomePod mini. At that point, the music stops playing on your iPhone and starts playing on the HomePod mini.
If the HomePod mini is already playing a song, you can also do the reverse, although it works a little differently. Put your iPhone close to the HomePod mini until you feel the vibration. At that point, your iPhone screen will show you what is playing on the HomePod mini and will show a button that you can tap to transfer the music back to your iPhone.
You can also send music from an iPhone to a HomePod mini by tapping the AirPlay icon and switching the audio output from the iPhone to the HomePod mini. Or you can swipe to bring up the Control Center on your iPhone and control a HomePod mini that way.
When my HopePod mini plays music, the Music app on my iPhone will sometimes (although not always) show what is playing on the HomePod mini. You can tap the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the screen to change which device you are controlling. This system makes sense, but I will admit that sometimes I get confused about whether my iPhone is controlling the HomePod mini or not. I'm used to using traditional Bluetooth speakers in which the speaker is always an extension of the iPhone. The HomePod mini, on the other hand, is taking over control of the music, not just streaming music from the iPhone. The music actually moves to the HomePod mini. You and your iPhone can leave the room (and get out of Bluetooth range), or you can even turn your iPhone off, and the song, album, playlist, etc. will continue to play on the HomePod mini.
Before the HomePod mini, I used a Bose SoundDock Portable in my living room that I purchased in 2008. That was a $400 speaker (although I purchased mine at a discount from a Bose outlet) and I was very happy with the sound quality of that Bose device. While I normally kept it plugged-in, it had a rechargeable battery so you could easily move it to another room or the backyard. That speaker had a 30-pin connector for an iPod, and after Apple moved the iPhone to a Lightning connector, I added dockBoss air (my review) to turn it into a Bluetooth speaker.
The HomePod mini is much smaller than my old Bose speaker, but the sound quality is actually a little better. It is difficult for me to pick the best words to describe an audio experience, but I suppose it is accurate to say that the sound seems fuller? I would not call it a major improvement, but it is nice that a smaller $99 device sounds as good as a device that used to cost much more.
When you have two HomePod minis, you can use the Home app on your iPhone to designate one as a left speaker and one as a right speaker. That way, you can sit in the middle of two of them and get a stereo experience. It works very well. The stereo effect in some songs is more obvious than other songs, but most songs sound richer when you are in the middle of a stereo experience, much like movies in your home sound better when you can take advantage of 5.1 surround-sound speakers.
At first, I thought that I would be using the HomePod minis in the stereo mode all of the time. But I don't. There are four reasons for that. First, with the layout of my living room, I don't have two good places that are close to power outlets.
Second, I don't find myself sitting in that one middle spot and listening to music very often. Instead, I often have music playing when I am doing other things in the house, walking around my living room and other rooms. So I'm not really spending much time in the "sweet spot" to take full advantage of stereo. This is very different from the TV room in my house, where I have a couch and a TV and 5.1 surround sound speakers and I'm virtually always sitting on the couch in a spot where I can get the full effect from optimal speaker placement.
Third, just a single HomePod mini, on its own, sounds great. It may not be stereo, but the sound fills the room. Apple says that each HomePod mini “creates the full, detailed tones of a much larger speaker,” and I agree with that. And as a result — to my surprise — I really don’t feel like I am losing that much when I use a single HomePod mini instead of two of them in a stereo pair. As Apple explains on that webpage: “An Apple-designed full‑range driver uses an incredibly powerful neodymium magnet to deliver deep bass and crisp high frequencies. The unique acoustic waveguide directs sound out the bottom of the speaker, creating a 360‑degree audio field for consistent sound no matter where you are in the room.“
If you have good places to put two HomePod minis in a room where you will often be between those locations, then the stereo experience that you get with two HomePod minis will be more enjoyable for you. For me, stereo isn't worth it for the reasons noted above ... plus, there is a fourth reason that I don't use the HomePod mini stereo mode: it is far more enjoyable to me to take advantage of the ability to have two speakers in two rooms.
The idea of having the same music played in multiple rooms at the same time is nothing new. For decades, some high-end homes have had speakers in multiple rooms that were wired to a central amplifier. But when you have multiple HomePods or HomePod minis, you can do something similar without wires.
You can have different HomePod minis playing different things, or perhaps have one play music while the rest of them are silent. But the real magic comes when they are all working together to play the same thing. As you leave one room and enter the next room, the music just moves with you, like you were on a ride at Disney World. Many people have been fans of Sonos speakers because they offer a similar experience. In my opinion, multiroom audio in two rooms is a far more enjoyable experience than stereo in a single room.
I can actually do this in three rooms at one time. Because I have an Apple TV in my TV room, which is connected to a nice set of 5.1 speakers, and because the Apple TV works with AirPlay 2, I can actually have the same music playing on two HomePod minis in two different rooms plus the Apple TV in my TV room.
Portable HomePod mini
I mentioned above that my old Bose speaker has an internal rechargeable battery. It normally stayed in my living room, but I could also take to the backyard to provide music, perfect for a BBQ.
The HomePod mini is not portable, at least not normally. It has a cord that is permanently connected to the HomePod mini on one side and the other side has a USB-C connection. The HomePod mini comes with a 20W USB-C power adapter. However, you don’t have to use the power adapter that comes with the HomePod mini, although you do need to use a power adapter that provides at least 18W of power. That led me to wonder: can I use a portable battery with a USB-C connector that provides 18W output so that I can move my HomePod mini wherever I want? The answer is yes.
The only real downside is that in this configuration, the cord on the HomePod mini is long and somewhat gets in the way. It is a shame that the HomePod mini doesn't have a USB-C port on the device so that you can use a USB-C to USB-C cord of any length.
I noted in my review of the Anker PowerCore that I played music for eight hours while using only a fraction of the power in that battery. As I type this, I’m listening to some Jazz music on a HomePod mini that has been connected to that Anker battery for more than 24 hours. I haven’t been playing music that whole time, but even so, the four lights on my Anker battery are only at three lights right now. It looks like this battery can power a HomePod mini for at least two days. That is more than long enough to use a portable battery to take a HomePod mini outside and use it outside during an afternoon and then into the night.
Indeed, even when I am inside the house — right now, for example, I am typing on my iPad on my dining room table — I often use a HomePod mini connected to this Anker battery. Sure, there are power outlets in my dining room, but I have to reach behind a table to get to them, which is awkward, plus I would rather have the HomePod mini on the table with to me, not across the room on the table near the outlet.
I would love it if Apple sold a portable version of the HomePod mini. If so, I would want for at least one of the HomePod minis in my house to be the portable version. But for now, using a portable battery that was already in my house, I was able to achieve almost the same thing.
Like many other Apple products, you can use Siri to talk to a HomePod mini. From a hardware perspective, Siri works better on an HomePod mini than any other Apple product. I don’t know what Apple has done with the microphone on this thing, but it easily hears me even if I am far away. Even more impressive, a HomePod mini can be playing loud music, and yet using whatever sophisticated noise cancellation technology it uses, it has no trouble hearing my voice over the music. You can also trigger Siri by holding down a finger on the top of the HomePod mini for a second or two.
I subscribe to Apple Music, and using Siri to ask the HomePod mini to play a song, album, artist or playlist works very well. Almost too well. My 14-year old son quickly discovered that he could tell the HomePod mini to “play fart sounds” and it plays an album on Apple Music called Fart Sound Effects. And, unlike me, he finds that just as funny the 10th time as it was the first time. Sigh. But it is nice that I can be sitting in the living room with my daughter and, when she wants me to listen to a song that she likes, she can just ask Siri on the HomePod mini to play the song, and it happens right away.
While Siri on a HomePod mini will let anyone use their voice to control certain functions such as music (unless you turn that feature off), it is smart enough to recognize different voices for certain actions. If I tell a HomePod mini to send a message, create a reminder, create a note, or make a phone call, it will do so when it recognizes my voice but will decline to do so when my son or daughter say the same thing. And if my wife asks Siri to do the same thing, it will recognize her voice and handle that task for her, not for me. I currently have my HomePod mini configured so that my kids are not given user credentials, but if I did so, then it would recognize their voicesand work for them the way it does for me and my wife. And you can even require authentication on an iPhone before Siri on a HomePod mini will honor certain requests, such as a request to read a note, reminder, or calendar event.
You can also use Siri on a HomePod to make a phone call. It will do so by connecting to your iPhone, with the HomePod mini operating as a speakerphone.
I’ve been particularly impressed with using Siri on a HomePod to control HomeKit devices in my home. I can already turn the lights in a room on or off by using an Apple Watch or my iPhone, but the better microphone on the HomePod mini is more accurate. Controlling a HomeKit device using Siri on my Apple Watch is pretty simple, but I do need to raise my wrist to near my mouth, and it sometimes has trouble understanding me. With a HomePod mini, I just speak out loud into the room. I don’t need to press a button or take an iPhone out of my pocket or anything like that. I didn’t expect this to be the case, but using a HomePod mini is now my favorite way to turn HomeKit lights on or off.
When it comes to asking Siri on a HomePod general questions, such as how old is President Obama or what year did Elvis die, it works well. When I’m talking to my family at the dinner table, Siri often helps us to answer random questions. I’ve read reviews from other folks who say that the similar feature on an Amazon Echo works even better, providing more sophisticated responses, but I’ve never used an Amazon Echo so I cannot comment on that. All I can say is that Siri has done a good job with almost all of our requests.
Speaking of Amazon Alexa, a HomePod mini is the only listening device that I feel comfortable allowing into my home because of Apple’s commitment to privacy. Although a HomePod mini is always listening so that it can tell if you say “Hey Siri,” nothing is sent from the device to Apple’s servers until it hears that phrase. Then, all communications between your HomePod mini and Apple’s server are encrypted, with anonymous IDs used with your requests to protect your identity.
This is the same way that an iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch work. Thus, if you already use other Apple devices, adding a HomePod mini to your home doesn’t really change the tech privacy issues that you are already facing.
Moreover, I like the fact that Apple regularly touts its commitment to privacy as a core value. And Apple doesn’t make money based on using your personal information ... at least, not directly. (Apple does get a lot of money to use Google as a default search engine in Safari, but you can change that default if you want.) Companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, on the other hand, have a core business value of taking advantage of personal information to convince you to buy things, or to sell your information to other companies who want to do so. That makes me favor a HomePod over an Amazon Echo or a Google Nest Smart Speaker. To eliminate any privacy risk, I suppose that you need to stay in a room without windows, smart speakers, smartphones, etc. But my desire is to use technology while keeping the privacy risks to a minimum, and staying within the Apple ecosystem works best for that.
You can use one or more HomePod minis to work as an intercom — say a message and it will almost instantly be repeated (a recording of your voice) in other rooms. This article by Juli Clover of MacRumors does a good job of describing Apple’s Intercom feature.
A HomePod mini can act as a HomeKit hub. This means that you can control and automate accessories in your home even if you are away from home, so long as the HomePod mini is plugged in. (You can use a modern Apple TV to do the same thing.)
You can use a HomePod mini (or better yet, a pair of them) as a speaker for an Apple TV. I haven’t tested this feature, but I understand that you need to tell the Apple TV to start using the HomePod minis. (With a full-size HomePod, the Apple TV can connect automatically, plus the larger and more expensive HomePod can create surround sound.)
The HomePod mini also supports a new smartphone communication standard called Thread. This is a cross-platform alternative to HomeKit and similar services that allows devices from different companies to communicate with each other using a mesh network. For now, there are not many devices supporting the Thread protocol. But it has the support of Apple, Google, and Amazon, and my hope is that we will see widespread adoption of Thread in a few years. When that happens, the HomePod mini that you buy today will be ready. If you want to learn more about the Thread protocol and how the HomePod mini supports it, check out this article by Illinois attorney John Voorhees of MacStories.
The HomePod mini has been a pleasant surprise for me. I had some interest in and curiosity about the product when it was first announced, but I wasn't rushing to buy it. However, after using two HomePod minis for two months, I like this product far more than I expected because it does so many things to well. For personal audio, I still use my AirPods Pro more often, especially if I am listening to something like a podcast that nobody else in my house would want to hear. But for playing music that can be enjoyed by many, the HomePod mini is great. Plus, it has so many other useful functions, such as asking Siri questions and controlling HomeKit devices. The HomePod mini was a nice addition to my house. I encourage you to think about whether you might want to get a pair — or more — for your home.