Apple’s best boom for your buck: small price for great tech
GONE are the days of speakers just playing music.
Smart speakers are now doing everything from helping us to keep on schedule, finding answers on Google or from Apple's Siri, and even keeping in touch with people in another room.
Brands like Bose, Sonos, Sony, JBL and Bang & Olufsen are producing some incredible-sounding speakers in very small packages.
The first portable speaker I bought was the cheapest Bose. It cost me about $200 on special and the sound was incredible for the price.
Bose home speakers now offer the smarts of Google Assistant and Alexa as well as Bluetooth connectivity.
It's a market that Apple is obviously keen to be a part of and its HomePod mini is surprisingly well priced at under $150.
The sound coming from such a small speaker is surprising, better than the Bose speaker I've had for a couple of years.
Part of this is because of the way it has been designed, with every element created from scratch.
The custom-engineering means the sound accounts the type of music you are playing and for the different furniture you have in the room. The speakers use the S5 processor featured in the Apple Watch to deliver 'computational audio'.
It's kind of like what the iPhone does when taking a great photo - taking into consideration a whole range of information to capture a photo in incredible detail.
That same computing power is being used for sound with the HomePod Mini, adjusting up to 180 times a second.
The HomePod mini is the result of a lot of testing. It was put in something like 1000 different rooms as part of the testing phase.
With two speakers, which we have been testing for some months, you can create even better sound together, or use them in different rooms, including as an 'intercom'.
I tested them to let the teenager know that dinner was ready. After a while the novelty for him wore off, but I thought it was pretty cool.
For a small speaker, you get an incredible range of sounds - including deep bass and well defined instruments so that individual guitar picking can be well heard.
I've set one up in the kitchen and one in the front loungeroom.
If you are playing music from your iPhone, you can send the same song through both speakers - not so popular given the difference in my musical choices and the rest of the family but fun sometimes!
A little Elvis Presley or INXS sharing never hurt anyone.
If you have smart connected devices like lights, you can also use Apple's Home app through the HomePod mini to control other things throughout the home.
As you would expect, Apple's Siri works very well - so you can easily change the volume level or tracks using just your voice.
You can request a song, a favourite playlist from Apple Music, a favourite artist or even a musical genre like 'instrumental' if you're reading a book and just want some nice background music.
It's a pretty good way to discover new music. If you're using another music service like Spotify, you can send your music from your iPhone to the speaker via AirPlay.
SO IS THE SPEAKER ALWAYS LISTENING IN?
One of the strong points of Apple's voice commands is security and privacy.
With many increasingly concerned about the idea of our devices listening to us (like Facebook via our phones), Apple says its listening function starts only with the Siri command.
If you're on Wi-Fi at home, and your ask Siri to read your last message out loud, it will only use the home network. Nothing goes back to Apple in that instance.
Requests to Google are effectively encrypted and information on what you are searching for is not shared to third parties or advertisers.
The same guidelines apply to third parties hooking into Apple's Home app to ensure information is treated securely with strong privacy requirements.
SHOULD YOU BUY ONE?
If you are an Apple fan, have an iPhone or iPad, Apple TV or other Apple devices and use Apple Music, the HomePod Mini is the obvious choice. The set up is really easy.
After plugging it in, you just hold your iPhone near and you get a notification asking whether you want to connect.
A small light glows on top of the speaker and you use your camera from your phone to locate this and securely transfer key information - including your Wi-Fi connection passwords and the like. It's similar to the process you use when you first set up an Apple Watch.
You can set up multiple accounts and give each speaker a different name for the room it is in. That allows to say things like 'play music in the kitchen'.
One downside is that the device always has to be connected to its power chord so you can't move it around as readily as other devices. A battery operated version would be preferred, especially if you want to move it around often.
NOT MUCH SOUNDS TERRIBLE ON THIS SPEAKER
The biggest reason to buy the HomePod Mini is definite the sound quality.
It performs well across every musical genre from classical to hard rock.
The treble and vocals are superbly clear, balance is good, and bass is more than adequate without being 'booming' or overpowering.
Even at 50% volume, you can easily fill the room while crank it right up and you will have people looking for a much bigger speaker as the likely sound source. Would I buy one? Definitely.