I was a first-day adopter of the original HomePod, which was strange, because even amid a life of composing music, I'd seldom considered myself an audiophile: the seeming target consumer for this product. What mattered with music, I thought, was whether you could hear and distinguish the notes and sounds. With speech, whether you could make out the words. Inexpensive speakers and headphones were fine, and those who disagreed were like connoisseurs of wine who could be fooled by a blindfold.
Perhaps it wasn't that I deeply cared, but that I still wondered whether I'd been missing something. I had fully passed on the HomePod's spiritual progenitor, the iPod Hi-Fi, which, while I gathered wasn't popular, I had found stories of a handful who swore lasting affection for it.
Later I'd begin to appreciate finer aural distinctions with the Beats Solo Pro and the AirPods Pro. A separate topic, but what's relevant is the way both managed to render the gentle bass of soft, ambient audio in a way that wasn't clumsy or obnoxious, but faithfully gentle; rather like a blanket or an unrealistically soft mattress. However they did it, I could tell it wasn't easy.
The original HomePod managed to do that to a room. Oddly, therein lay its awkwardness for me: its bass felt unpredictable in its capability – when watching Star Trek, for example, I feared a dramatic orchestral cue or brief action sequence would overwhelm me or disturb people in adjacent rooms. This was partially because of the HomePod's way of handling voices, which – even with the Apple TV's "reduce loud sounds" option always on – seemed to quieten and restrict them to more vocal-centric frequencies, perhaps to more finely delineate that contrast between aural "elements" for which it was marketed. The inability to influence its decisions was disheartening, and I learned to treat this as the proposition: if you want to be able to adjust your audio, don't buy a HomePod. It's purpose-specific. If you buy one, it's because you want to talk to Siri and play music only from your Apple devices, Apple Music, or a handful of other Internet sources.
The HomePod mini's restrictions are identical, but after coming to fear and revere the HomePod's prowess, I found myself hoping the Mini – with its single driver and unbeliedly minuscule bearing, the only Apple product the size of an apple – would liberate me from it.
It turns out the audio is essentially the difference. I doubt I'd have noticed if I hadn't lived on a HomePod, but hearing Siri's voice from the Mini for the first time made me think "wow, that's tinny."
Again, by comparison. The "American female" voice dwells above the bass clef, but even it benefitted somehow from the original HomePod's subtle muscle.
It's clear the Mini did liberate me in the way I hoped. It can't produce the enveloping fundamental aural layer of a soft thunderstorm or a deep set of pads, but it makes the attempt, and the result of the attempt is about what I was hoping for. Instead of the unrealistically comfortable mattress, it's perhaps a premium body pillow. My non-audiophile life in no way diminished my appreciation for the expansiveness of simple stereo, and while the original HomePod felt like more than enough, I'm tempted to pair my Mini in the future.
This drives home for me that different speakers and different headphones just sound different, period. Audio engineers may wish this wasn't so, but it's a better lesson to embrace than fight.
Surprisingly, the display proved a noteworthy difference as well – more to my mind than those of most reviewers I've read from. Here's what I noticed:
- The Mini clearly has an ambient light sensor; shining a flashlight momentarily onto the display caused the entire thing to dramatically brighten for a moment. I can see how the failure to adjust itself would be annoying in full darkness – though a deliberate iTunes-style visualizer effect seems like a possibility and a cool idea.
- The volume adjustment indicators (a visible "plus" and "minus" sign) were illuminated on the HomePod. On the Mini, they aren't, which in my typically dark location, makes them invisible.
- The original HomePod illuminated these only when media was playing. Instead, the Mini illuminates its display with a soft white blur, though – again, in my dark room – isn't sufficient to reveal those volume indicators.
- Unlike the HomePod's, the Mini's display spans its entire touch surface, and I find more satistying its visible splash in response to touch or voice.