Apple HomePod mini Review: Siri in a Compact Speaker

Apple’s new HomePod mini is a compact rethink of the more than three-year old HomePod. The original HomePod suffered because of its high price: $349, later reduced to $299; it was for the cash-flush users who wanted sound more than smarts.

The $99 HomePod mini is the cheapest Apple device that actually does something (i.e., that isn’t a cable, dongle, case, or accessory). Unlike the original HomePod, it is being sold more for its Siri smarts than for its sound, and rightly so. Apple is hoping that people will buy multiple HomePod minis and place them all around the home, so anyone in a family can use them for Siri requests, and, should they desire, to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks.

Apple’s marketing of this device focuses on four concepts:

  • Room-filling sound.
  • An intelligent assistant.
  • Control your smart home.
  • Private and secure.

Read the rest of the article on The Mac Security Blog.

The HomePod mini is Apple’s Cheapest Product that Actually Does Something

Apple’s new HomePod is a very interesting device. But it’s overpriced, and when it sounds good, it’s great; but it doesn’t always sound good.

The HomePod mini is not a mini version of the HomePod, but a different device entirely. At the same time, it’s the cheapest Apple device that works on its own. It needs the cloud for Siri, and for Apple Music, of course, but at $99, it’s the least expensive Apple product that is not an accessory.

It’s worth considering this when thinking about what the HomePod mini is for. It’s not for music; it’s for the smart home. Apple is way behind Amazon in the smart speaker / smart home space, and, even though just about every Apple user has Siri in their pocket or on their wrist, having a device in fixed locations in the home may lead to more use of Siri and specifically smart home products.

Note the four key points that Apple presents on its website for the HomePod mini:

  • Room-filling sound.
  • An intelligent assistant.
  • Control your smart home.
  • Private and secure.

I think it’s safe to discount the first; the HomePod mini is really mini: it’s 3.3″ / 84mm tall. That’s a tad more than 1/2 the height of my iPhone 11. It’s not mini, it’s tiny. It will play music, and sound like an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker, but nothing like the HomePod or other good standalone speakers.

Homepod mini tiny

The second point is just another way of saying that it works with Siri. But everyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch already has Siri. Perhaps that’s not enough.

But it’s the third point, “Control your smart home” that is the clincher: this is where Apple is aiming. In the presentation of the HomePod mini, Apple showed a family in a cut-away house on a stage, demonstrating how this device can control the home, and help communicate within the family. (The new Intercom feature is quite interesting.) On the HomePod mini product page, there’s a screenshot of the Home app, with a new Discover tab. This tab is not yet available in the app, and will presumably be added when the HomePod mini is released. It will offer “recommendations on top‑rated accessories that work with HomePod mini, and connect to the Apple Store app for additional details and effortless shopping.”

You can, of course, control your smart home with your iPhone; the HomePod mini is just an interface. But it serves an important purpose: it can be a HomeKit hub, and it is the cheapest device that can serve this purpose. While you don’t need this to control simple smart home devices, you do need it to share your devices across your family, or to control them remotely. Currently, you need either a HomePod, an Apple TV, or an iPad to have a HomeKit hub. The first two devices set themselves up automatically, and you have to turn on specific settings on an iPad for it to work. But the iPad must remain in your home, and not run out of power, in order for it to serve this purpose.

Apple is clearly banking on the smart home as their Next Big Product. While it’s not a “product” as such, and certainly will not rival the iPhone, if Apple can get a large number of users to buy into the smart home idea, there’s lots of money to be made. The smart home needs a killer app to take off; so far, it’s been Amazon’s Alexa, but lots of people don’t trust Amazon. Hence the fourth point: “Private and secure.” I’ve heard from several people already, who are Apple users and have Alexa devices, who are going to buy two or three of these, and ditch Alexa.

Back to the price; $99 is the cost of some of Apple’s watch bands. It’s the cost of the Magic Keyboard. It’s cheaper than the Apple TV. It’s the cheapest product that, on its own, actually does something.

This isn’t to say that it’s cheap; compare it with Amazon’s Echo Dot, which you could get for $19 on Prime Day. That product is a loss-leader to get you into the Alexa platform. Apple would never sell the HomePod mini that cheaply, but perhaps we’ll see it discounted as a bundle with other devices, or why not even for free when you buy, say, a new Mac?

The HomePod mini is a Trojan horse. If Apple succeeds in selling enough of these, they can get a strong foothold in the smart home.

Apple Announces iPhone 12 and HomePod mini

Every new iPhone has a marquee feature that Apple focuses on in its new product announcement. In recent years, Apple has repeatedly highlighted improvements to the camera system, spending the majority of time in their new product presentation showing the beautiful photos that the phone can take. While the camera in the iPhone 12 gets a bump, this year‘s marquee feature is a new mobile technology that most people won’t be able to benefit from: 5G.

The iPhone 12 also sports a new design, with narrower bezels, and a new, more robust type of glass, as well as being “the fastest iPhone ever,” which is the case every year. Apple also announced the HomePod mini, which is more of a smart speaker with Siri features than an audio device, like its older sibling.

Read the rest of the article on The Mac Security Blog.

How to Do Everything with the HomePod

As smart speakers go, Apple’s HomePod has a few points that make it stand out. It has better sound than most Alexa and Google Home devices. There are a number of smart speakers made by audio companies that focus on sound quality, and that include the ability to use one or more of the voice assistants, but the HomePod is the only smart speaker that uses Siri. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, this is a compelling reason to use it.

In this article, I’m going to tell you what you can do with your HomePod: how you can tell it to play music, give you information, make phone calls, and more.

Read the rest of the article on The Mac Security Blog.

HomePod vs. Sonos One Stereo Pair Comparison

I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was this:

What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly.

A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).

In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.

So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.

Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.

So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)

Bedroom

You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)

Read more

Stereo-paired HomePods need to be a Mac sound option – 9to5Mac

I can’t believe I actually have to ask Apple to add stereo-paired HomePods as a Mac sound output device! It’s the most ridiculous Feature Request yet, because it’s absolutely nuts that this isn’t already built into macOS — especially that it isn’t baked into Catalina.

Apple’s own audio apps will happily allow you to select stereo-paired HomePods as a single output device. You can see in the photo above that the Music app sees both my Office and Winter Garden HomePods as a single device.

Not so the Mac itself, however…

I can output Mac sound to Office Left or Office Right, but not to the stereo pair.

So I have the utterly ridiculous situation of having a pair of HomePods on my desk but not being able to use them with my Mac unless it’s through an app that recognizes stereo pairs.

A agree, sort of. On an absolute level, it is very odd, but, do people really want to do that, to have all their audio come out from a pair of HomePods? To be honest, the HomePod isn’t designed to be on a desk so close to the listener; its tweeters are at the bottom, so ideally they should be on stands. (The tweeters should ideally be close to ear level.) Given the way the HomePods work, I’m not sure that putting them on tilted stands, so they are leaning back, would work very well in all situations. I mentioned this in this article, where I also pointed out the inability to use them as general Mac speakers, but here’s how it would look; the HomePods are already bassy, you wouldn’t hear much treble in this position.

You can stream from the Music and TV apps, for example, so if you want to listen to music or watch a movie and hear its audio on a pair of HomePods, that’s easy to do.

Source: Stereo-paired HomePods need to be a Mac sound option – 9to5Mac

Hand Off Music from Your iPhone to HomePod; I Also Want to Hand Off from My Mac to My iPhone

New in iOS 13 is the ability to “hand off” music from an iPhone to a HomePod. If you’re playing any audio on your iPhone, just go near your HomePod (or near one HomePod of a stereo pair), and after a few seconds, the audio will switch from the iPhone to the HomePod.

What this essentially does is switch the output from the iPhone via AirPlay to the Home Pod.

HandoffAs you can see here, the iPhone shows all available AirPlay devices that are active in my home. Music that I was playing on the iPhone (top) then started playing in the bedroom.

As you can see in this interface, you can control a number of AirPlay devices from your iPhone or iPad, sending music to each of them, or controlling playback from Apple Music or your music in the cloud.

What I’d like to see in addition to this is the ability to hand music off from my Mac to my iPhone. If I’m listening to something on my Mac then want to go out, it would be great to pass the music over to that device. It wouldn’t be the same as with the iPhone to the HomePod, which is essentially just playing the music via AirPlay, but it would be more like when you open a web page in Safari, and can then load the same page quickly on an iOS device. Naturally, this would only work with Apple Music or with your music library in the cloud, but it would be a useful addition to the web of Apple devices.

New 13.2 Update Bricking Some HomePods [Update Pulled by Apple] – MacRumors

Update: Apple has released an updated version of the software which should resolve these issues.

“Apple today released new 13.2 software for the HomePod with long-awaited features like Handoff and voice detection for different family members, but unfortunately, some users are running into problems with the update.”

This is disgraceful. It’s not just that they don’t work, but that there is nothing users can do. Apple is having them ship them back to the company to get them fixed. All this because there’s no USB port to restore the device.

What a blunder.

(To be fair, it’s not clear how many people this is affecting. As often with this sort of problem, the media attention makes it appear bigger than it is. Mine both work fine after the update.)

Source: New 13.2 Update Bricking Some HomePods [Update Pulled by Apple] – MacRumors

The HomePod Is a Mono Speaker

Stereophonic sound uses two speakers to deliver two very different sound channels (depending on how the music was recorded) to deliver sound that approximates what we hear when we hear music live. It uses two channels, because we have two ears. The HomePod is a mono speaker. It uses a ring of seven tweeters to adjust the volume of the mono sound it sends out in an attempt to provide balanced sound anywhere in a room. It does not create any form of stereophonic sound reproduction.

I’m correcting a statement that Daniel Eran Dilger on AppleInsider posted in a rebuttal to my recent article about the HomePod. While I’m happy to disagree on some points, he makes the statement below about the HomePod not being a mono speaker, which is simply incorrect.

He also makes the bizarre claim that “it’s a mono speaker.” HomePod is not a mono speaker. A mono speaker is a single speaker that can only deliver a single channel of audio, resulting in its sound clearly appearing to come from one source. Stereophonic sound uses multiple speakers to deliver at least two slightly different sound channels to create a wider soundscape. HomePod is a stereo speaker. It uses a ring of seven tweeters to send out stereo sound that creates a wide, surrounding sense of stereophonic sound reproduction.

Also, “a mono speaker is a single speaker” is not correct. A mono speaker can have multiple “speakers” – aka drivers – such as a woofer, midrange, and tweeter. Or use one floor standing speaker, that may have four or five drivers, for mono sound. At a minimum, most – though not all – speakers that aren’t portable have two drivers, a woofer and a tweeter.

Apple sells the HomePod as having “room-filling sound.” But they never suggest that it’s stereo. It’s not hard to test it: put on I Saw Her Standing There, on The Beatles’ 1963 album Please, Please Me. Paul’s voice is on the right channel, and the main guitar and the drums are on the left. This was common practice in the early days of stereo.

Listen to that song on a single HomePod and you’ll quickly understand that it’s not stereo. The two channels are in a single stream, and you don’t hear the voice on one side and the guitar and drums on the other. It’s logical: how would the HomePod know where the listener is to know how to separate channels? This would be possible; they could have, say, an iPhone emit a tone that the HomePod could identify, but aside from that, it’s just guesswork. In fact, go to your favorite streaming service and find the stereo and mono versions of this song. Listen to both of them on the HomePod: skip back-and-forth from one track to another. With the exception of the fact that the mono version is a bit louder, you will note that the sound is exactly the same.

In addition, Mr Dilger seems to ignore that stereo sound requires separation. There are plenty of “stereo” speakers that aren’t really stereo, because their two speakers (generally two tweeters; a single woofer can be used in such cases) are too close together. So even if the HomePod was an actual stereo speaker, with different audio coming out of the left and right sides, it wouldn’t sound like stereo, because there would be no separation. You’d get a sort of spatial effect if you were far enough away, but only if there are walls close enough to the HomePod for the different channels to reflect off.

Discussing my presentation of two HomePods on either side of an iMac – it’s not just “someone on Reddit” who imagined this; a lot of people hoped they could do this – he says:

This is purely ridiculous, as one HomePod delivers far more than enough sound to be placed within an arm’s reach of a seated computer user. Placing one on either side of an iMac to deliver “stereo” is simply a dumb idea, based on the misconception that HomePod is a “mono speaker” and that a Mac user would need to have two of them.

So he’s suggesting that one put the HomePod in front of the iMac to get a stereo effect…?

I’m not looking to get into an argument, but sometimes there are facts that can’t be explained away by fanciful marketing.

Source: Editorial: After taking the premium tier, HomePod will expand in markets Amazon and Google can’t

One more thing. I think what is confusing people about this is what Apple says about the HomePod:

HomePod combines Apple-engineered audio technology and advanced software to set a new audio quality standard for a small speaker, delivering high-fidelity sound and a wide soundstage. Featuring a large, Apple-designed woofer for deep, clean bass, a custom array of seven beamforming tweeters that provide pure high frequency acoustics with incredible directional control and powerful technologies built right in, HomePod is able to preserve the richness and intent of the original recordings.

The section I have put in italics is what makes some people think that the HomePod is actually a sort-of-stereo device. All it is doing with this “incredible directional control” is compensating for the shape of the HomePod. Most speakers point in a specific direction; the HomePod is omnidirectional. What it does, using its microphones and multiple tweeters, is modulate the volume from each tweeter according to the proximity of walls or other objects in rooms. And, using time delays and reverb, it can create a more spacious sound from a single speaker than one that is just pointing in one direction.

Look at this still from Apple’s animation about the HomePod:

You can see that two of the mauve circles point forward, and are larger than the two smaller ones that seem to reflect off the back wall. With these multiple tweeters, the HomePod can produce sound that can develop resonance if it is timed correctly according to the distance of walls. The blue circles are the bass, which, perhaps, also has a bit of delay. What is deceptive in this photo is that there are two pairs of mauve circles, suggesting that it might be stereo. It’s not, but the volume of each tweeter is adjusted using the “incredible directional control.” Hence the spatial impression that can make music sound less flat.

However, this fails totally when the HomePod is in the center of the room, but, in that case, the HomePod is far superior to a directional speaker, because it can send music in all directions. I would guess there is probably not much difference in volume when the HomePod detects that it’s far from walls, because the goal there is to fill the room completely. This is, in fact, the ideal use case for a single HomePod: in a central location, with people in many positions around it. Set it up on a table in the middle of a room when you have a party.

Apple continues:

With two HomePod speakers set up as a stereo pair, this soundstage gets even wider, delivering room-filling sound that is more spacious than a traditional stereo pair from a speaker that’s just under 7-inches tall. Using spatial awareness to sense their location in the room, each HomePod automatically adjusts the audio to sound great wherever it is placed and sound great together, using an Apple-designed wireless peer-to-peer direct link to communicate with each other and play music completely in sync.

This suggests that the “spatial awareness” is used to control which tweeters send audio. The HomePod knows it’s, say, a foot from a wall, and can tell that the other HomePod is at a certain direction, allowing it to figure out which way is intended to be the front. This probably doesn’t work if you set two HomePods, say, at ends of a table in the center of a room.

Note: some of this is educated guesses, based on what Apple has said, and the way the device is constructed (ie, seven tweeters and six microphones). For more details about this, watch Phil Schiller presenting the HomePod in 2017. Of course, you need to take with a grain of salt what he says about things like “ambient audio, the backing vocals and reverb.”

The Problems with Apple’s HomePods

Apple released the HomePod in February, 2018, and the device has never seemed to catch on. There have been strong rumors recently about a HomePod 2 coming next year. But there are lots of problems with the HomePod, which Apple needs to address.

The HomePod is expensive. At $349, the price at launch, it was overpriced; at $299, its current price, it’s still not a good value. The HomePod costs $100 more than the Sonos One, which is a comparable, and some would say better speaker. (I think the Sonos One sounds better than the HomePod.) Apple was clearly targeting its core market, people willing to pay more for better products, but this isn’t a product that people are willing to pay more for, apparently.

The HomePod doesn’t have a clear use. Is it a Siri device, or is it speaker that provides “consistent high-definition sound?” If it’s the former, then Apple is trying to sell this to people who already have at least one Siri-capable device. If it’s the latter, well, Apple’s crack marketing team came out with lots of great adjectives, but the overall opinion among audiophiles is that it’s meh.

The HomePod doesn’t sound that good. Don’t get me wrong: it sounds fine, but not good enough. It’s better than pretty many Bluetooth speakers, but it doesn’t sound as good as it should for the price. It has a default sound signature that is very bass-heavy, which is not to everyone’s taste. And there are no EQ controls (as you have with Sonos speakers, for example), meaning that you need to adjust the sound on a device that you stream from, such as an iPhone. If you interact directly with the HomePod, then you can’t make any adjustments to the sound. And, one more issue with a stereo pair: you can’t adjust the balance. It’s not always easy to get two speakers positioned exactly where you want them so you are in the sweet spot. (To quote Chris Connaker, from his review on Audiophile Style: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an audiophile product. It’s a me too voice control product that happens to play audio.”)

The HomePod’s fancy technology is wasted. Apple touts the HomePod’s ability to adapt to any location. “Equipped with spatial awareness, HomePod automatically tunes itself to give you optimal sound — wherever it’s placed.” This may be true, but it’s a mono speaker; the only adjustments it’s going to make are to the tone of the music, and, perhaps, to the output of the various tweeters (there are seven, in a circle). Apple has an animation on its website showing what the HomePod does, but what does this even mean? It’s a mono speaker.

Homepod

The HomePod is unreliable. To Apple’s credit, the HomePod can hear you say “Hey, Siri,” even with music playing loudly; that’s pretty impressive. But set up HomePods in a stereo pair and be prepared to reset them regularly. After a while, the stereo pair stops working, and music comes out if just one speaker. Sometimes you can simply split the stereo pair and re-create it, but I’ve had to fully reset my two HomePods several times. This could be the fault of the HomePod’s software, or of Apple’s Home app, but it’s not reliable.

The HomePod’s design is mistaken. Who am I to question Jony Ive, right? But think about it: a speaker is generally directional. You point it to where you want the music to be heard. There are exceptions, of course. You may want one in the middle of a room, in which case the HomePod’s seven tweeters in a circle around the base of the device make sense. Sort of. Because you don’t put tweeters at the base of a speaker; ideally, tweeters should be at the level of your ears, because high frequency waves are smaller. Try it at home. Sit next to your speakers, and then stand up; you’ll hear a drop in the high end. In my bedroom, where I have a stereo pair of HomePods, I had to put them on a higher shelf than I would have wanted so I can hear music correctly in bed.

Apple tried to do too much with the HomePod. The company was falling behind in the smart speaker market, but they should have realized that they already have that market cornered: just say “Hey, Siri” to your iPhone (or Apple Watch, or iPad, or Mac…) And while their adaptive audio technology is impressive, it fails by not allowing users to choose the type of sound they want. By prioritizing the bass-heavy sound of rap and hip-hop music – the genre they push most in Apple Music – they created speakers that many people find unpalatable.

And they forgot one thing that might have sold more HomePods: you can’t send audio from a Mac to a stereo pair of HomePods. You can send music from iTunes, but not system audio. So if someone wants to use a pair of HomePods on their desk, as computer speakers, they can’t. Here’s an image from Reddit, showing how it would look:

Imac homepod

There are two problems. The first is that this is only usable with iTunes; you can’t stream audio from, say, QuickTime Player if you want to watch a video, or from Safari if you’re watching or listening to something on YouTube. And see where the tweeters are, there at the bottom of the speakers? That will not sound good in this sort of setup.

Apple should have done the necessary to sell the HomePod as computer speakers, but the design is wrong; even with speaker stands, the tweeters at the bottom mean you would need very tall stands to balanced good sound from that distance.

In any case, the market decides for products like this. The HomePod just seems like it wasn’t thought out for real-world usage. It has powerful technology, which is wasted, and its price is way above what people want to pay.

Apple continues:

With two HomePod speakers set up as a stereo pair, this soundstage gets even wider, delivering room-filling sound that is more spacious than a traditional stereo pair from a speaker that’s just under 7-inches tall. Using spatial awareness to sense their location in the room, each HomePod automatically adjusts the audio to sound great wherever it is placed and sound great together, using an Apple-designed wireless peer-to-peer direct link to communicate with each other and play music completely in sync.

This suggests that the “spatial awareness” is used to control which tweeters send audio. The HomePod knows it’s, say, a foot from a wall, and can tell that the other HomePod is at a certain direction, allowing it to figure out which way is intended to be the front. This probably doesn’t work if you set two HomePods, say, at ends of a table in the center of a room.