Microsoft’s assistant may not have all the robustness of competing products, but its current features are all you need.

Over the past few years, we’ve learned a lot about what makes a great smart speaker. It has to be simple to use, easy to interact with, and offer the kind of customization options that make it useful as a home controller. The first Cortana-enabled smart speaker, the Harman Kardon Invoke, is very good at meeting all of those criteria.

> Best smart speakers – what are your options?

Finally, Microsoft’s digital assistant has joined its competitors in the smart speaker market. Harman Kardon, the manufacturer behind the speaker, has sound-guru-status in the industry, and the company certainly focused on that particular functionality. Where the Invoke excels, though, is in existing as the sort of “easy assistant,” for those who don’t want to venture fully into any one particular ecosystem.

Cortana’s first foray into the smart speaker space

The Harmon Kardon Invoke looks a little familiar, doesn’t it? Like an Amazon Echo, perhaps?

The Harman Kardon Invoke resembles a more futuristic Amazon Echo. At 9.5-inches tall, it’s a bit taller than the new Echo Plus, and almost 4-inches taller than the Google Home.

The Invoke may take up a bit more space, but it’s housing a heck of a speaker. Inside, there are three 1.75-inch midrange driver and three half-inch tweeters which all face outward. There is no subwoofer, but a passive radiator to helps enhance the bass. The Invoke also boasts a 40-watt amplifier, which Harman Kardon claims is the most powerful on the market. It’s a speaker that can get loud and quickly fill a room with sound. I often had to turn it down in areas of my house with higher ceilings because the amplification was too much.

In my anecdotal tests, the Harman Kardon Invoke produced a fuller sound than the Google Home, which I use for streaming music. When I turned it up, the lack of bass was apparent. It’s not an issue when streaming podcasts or the news, or interacting with Cortana, but it does become noticeable with songs with heavier drum beats.

On top of the Invoke is a touch-sensitive pad that you can use to activate Cortana, or turn clockwise to control the volume. There’s also a mute button on the side of the device, placed next to a Bluetooth switch which converts the Invoke into a connectable speaker. Unlike Google Home and the new Echo devices, you can’t link the Invoke to other speakers for surround sound, though you can connect it to your computer or smartphone to stream audio.

Perhaps the most significant annoyance of the Invoke’s design is the bulky power brick attached to its short three-foot cord. It makes sense that it would be so big because of how much hardware there is to power, but the power brick’s elongated shape makes it a hog when plugging it into a power strip with other connected devices. Not to mention, the shortness of the cord makes it hard to reach outlets located behind larger pieces of furniture. I’d rather not have to bust out an extension cord just to connect a smart speaker.

To interact with the Harman Kardon Invoke, all you have to do is shout out your command with “Hey Cortana” before it. Weirdly, the Invoke will not respond to “Okay, Cortana,” so don’t try it, nor can you edit what to call Cortana from the companion mobile app.

If you touch the Invoke, Cortana will exhibit a blue ring to show you it’s listening for your command.

“Hey Cortana”

Cortana is not typically the assistant I shout out to when I need to turn off a connected light or find out the traffic on the way to the city, but it can fulfill both of those commands quite well. Cortana can also tell the time, schedule reoccurring reminders, track flights, perform simple calculations, tell jokes, find out who starred in that one movie, and relay sports scores. It can also make phone calls through Skype, which is great if you’re in the market for a family speakerphone that doesn’t require a landline. It can even help set up a family grocery list so that any members of the household can add an item.

Where Cortana flubs is with the more dynamic parts of interacting with a virtual assistant, like setting up routines and integrating with other services. Though it works with some connected home hubs, it doesn’t work with third-party services like IFTTT, which offers user-friendly programmability between devices. Microsoft’s site currently shows that Cortana has 174 skills, but that’s a paltry number compared to the 15,000 skills and counting for Amazon Alexa.  You’ll start to see those limitations the more you use the Invoke, especially if your queries become either more complicated or less precise.

Cortana also had issues processing some of the more nuanced voice commands. For instance, I found that I had to over-enunciate to get it to play a particular playlist of mine on Spotify. Additionally, each time I asked it to play a specific album by a band called The Midnight, it would always play the wrong thing. I had no problem starting playback from the Spotify app and casting media to the Invoke, but I was bummed that my voice commands couldn’t achieve the same results. At the very least, I had an easier time commanding the Invoke to play podcasts and stream radio through TuneIn.

Simply, a smart speaker

Harmon Kardon Invoke

The Harmon Kardon Invoke with Cortana might be a little too pricey for those of you looking for your first smart speaker purchase.

Microsoft has quite a journey ahead of it before Cortana can really compete with Amazon Alexa or even Google Assistant. The Invoke is still a solid choice for a smart speaker, though, especially if you’re new to this particular product category. It works as a party speaker due to Harman Kardon’s tuning, and Cortana can get the job done when it comes to simple tasks, like shutting off the connected lights and answering silly questions.

The only major drawback of the Invoke is its price tag. At $200, it’s too steep to be considered as a starter smart speaker, even if you like the idea that it’s not overly complicated to use.  If you’re looking to merely test the waters with a virtual assistant in your home, start off with a $50 Echo Dot or Google Home Mini instead.

Leave a comment