As we settle into the new normal, smart speakers are coming across as a helpful home assistant. You can make them read out the morning news, engage your kids with fun games, control smart home appliances, and, most importantly, stream music. The Amazon Echo Dot and Google Nest Home Mini are currently the only speakers you can buy for less than Rs 5,000. In my experience, they hardly justify the “speaker” part. This is where Xiaomi comes in with the Mi Smart Speaker. Priced at Rs 3,499, this aims to deliver a good audio experience without sacrificing the smart features.
That low price of Rs 3,499 is surprising by all means, given the performance this thing delivers. It outdoes the smaller Echo Dot and Home Mini speakers by a mile with its audio performance. It looks premium too. If you are planning to get a smart speaker for your home this festive season, you should read this before you make your decision.
The Amazon Echo Dot and Google Nest Home Mini have appealed to minimalists with their hockey puck dimensions. The cutesy looks hide average speakers underneath and hence, they are marketed as an extension speaker for the rooms. The Mi Smart Speaker is completely different. It looks nothing like the other two. It, in fact, looks like the more expensive Amazon Echo and Google Home.
The Mi Smart Speaker looks like a big desk speaker and that’s not surprising as it is physically a big speaker. It is as big as a large tin can of baked beans. The design is similar to the smart speakers from Bose but with certain custom Xiaomi touches. The flattened cylindrical shape is converted on the sides by a metallic mesh. The top and base have high-quality plastic caps holding the structure. As with most smart speakers, the top holds the control buttons, all of them taking touch inputs. The buttons are marked in gold accents – a classy touch.
To make the speaker look cool, Xiaomi has given it an LED light ring along the top edge. The light glows blue when the speaker is responding and when it is not, it glows orange. There are two holes for the microphones on the top. Towards the back, there’s a port for the power adapter. There’s no power button here – as soon as you plug it, it powers up.
The build quality on the Mi Smart Speaker is next to nothing I have seen in this segment of smart speakers. The metallic mesh feels premium to touch. In my household, it did add to the ambiance without drawing as much attention as my Coral Google Home Mini.
With smart speakers, one of the things that matter is how it resists dust. My Home Mini with its fabric mesh hides dust, although I have to clean it every now and then. The Mi Smart Speaker gets dusty easily owing to the black color theme going all around. The mesh remains clean but the top needs to be wiped every two days, at least in Noida. Smudgy hands also tend to leave their mark on the touch buttons. It is nothing a wet wipe cannot deal with but a fabric coating on the top could have helped hide the dust better.
On the whole, I think the Mi Smart Speaker looks smart and adds to the ambiance, regardless of the home decor.
The Audio stuff
Since Xiaomi stressed on the audio performance on the Mi Smart Speaker, I will begin with that first. If I have to describe it in one word, it is amazing.
It is amazing in the sense that it sounds like the more expensive smart speakers. Xiaomi has used a 63.5mm driver with a rated output of 12W. That is a fairly big speaker unit and it is no surprise that it sounds rich. The low-end is strong and with the balanced bass, it sounds amazing. I made the Mi Smart Speaker play a mix of Hollywood tracks as well as the Bollywood party numbers – it was loud enough to turn my room into a party zone.
The speaker comes out with strong mids and pronounced instruments. In songs that carry a lot of bass, it delivered the “thumping” effect without making it muddy. The vocals were clear and did not distort at higher volumes. The high frequencies weren’t as clear as you would expect from an Echo or Nest Home. But then you look at its price and it all starts to make sense. The audio processing is great on the whole, thanks to the DTS tuning and HiFI output.
The speaker gets plenty loud for a small room but in bigger halls, the output might just be enough to host a mini-party. I did not notice any directional limitation to the audio and from any corner of my room, the speaker sounded the same to my ears.
One area where the Mi Smart Speaker needs improvement is the microphone sensitivity. In smaller rooms, it can catch voice commands easily. However, if you summon it while the speaker is playing, it does not register the voice easily. I had to resort to shouting many a time to make Google Assistant listen to me. In larger rooms and dining halls, the issue is amplified due to just two microphones. A four-mic array on the Mi Smart Speaker could make it catch our voices easily.
The Smart stuff
Compared to any smart speaker running on Google Assistant, it performs as well as all the others. In its price range though, it has a slight advantage over its rivals – thanks to a simple thought.
The clever chaps at Xiaomi knew that you would want to use this good speaker to occasionally play songs from your phone or laptop. Hence, with a simple voice command, you can turn it into a Bluetooth speaker. One can enable the Bluetooth connectivity with the command, “Hey Google, turn on Bluetooth.” If your phone is paired to the device, it will connect automatically to the phone once you deliver the command.
I found the addition of this Bluetooth streaming quite helpful over my Google Home Mini. Of course, you can always cast your audio to the speaker via Chromecast but the Bluetooth pairing is easier on a wider range of mobile devices.
Google Assistant is at your service on the Mi Smart Speaker and it behaves in the typical “Google Assistant fashion”. Whether your English accent is good or broken, it can pick up commands correctly for basic tasks. My house-help, who only knows Hindi, could make it to switch on my air purifier and turn off the smart TV. Most of my daily commands in English worked.
It is during music requests when Google Assistant starts struggling. As long as I am asking it to play Hollywood songs, it works nicely. Complex Hindi song titles do take a few tries. Moreover, Google Assistant’s integration with third-party music services is average. Most of the time, it presented me with wrong versions of the songs. It denied response when I asked it to play the newest releases. The experience is slightly better with YouTube Music but services such as JioSaavn and Gaana suffer. This is worrisome as Xiaomi bundles a free annual subscription to Gaana Plus and I expected it to work better on the Mi Smart Speaker.
The issues are on Google’s part and it needs to make the Assistant better at identifying Indian content. For basic smart speaker stuff such as news reading and playing voice games, it works as expected. You need the Google Home app to set up the speaker and control the search settings.
Maybe Xiaomi could have offered an option to choose between Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. That could have driven up the price but given the great audio quality, I would prefer a voice assistant that works better with Indian accents and identifies local content better.
Conclusion: Should you buy the Mi Smart Speaker?
Thes only answer to this question – Yes! At Rs 3,499, there’s nothing in the market right now that can challenge the Mi Smart Speaker. It raises the bar in terms of audio performance in its category so high that it may take a year or two for the others to catch up. I have been a loyal Google Home Mini user and after the Mi Smart Speaker, I don’t feel like bringing it back on my table. The Mi Smart Speaker simply blows expectations of what an affordable smart speaker can do. Even after the introductory price lifts, the audio performance is unmatched for a smart speaker costing Rs 4,000.
Style-conscious buyers could like the minimalist yet handsome design to suit most home decors. The microphone sensitivity is a concern for larger rooms but the amazing audio performance makes up for it. The best bit is that it offers an incredible value that we are used to expect from Xiaomi for years. For those looking to invest in a good smart speaker this festive season, your search stops at the Mi Smart Speaker.