For a company which makes a voice-controlled assistant, it is becoming table stakes to get a smart speaker for the house that uses it: Amazon’s Alexa debuted on the Echo smart speaker 3 years ago, Google now includes a complete lineup of Home speakers that utilize the Google Assistant, and Apple’s forthcoming HomePod is powered by, you guessed it, Siri.

Not just one to be overlooked of the party, there’s now a good wireless speaker that uses Microsoft’s Cortana assistant. The $199 Harman Kardon Invoke isn’t hugely unique of the Amazon Echo or Google Home. It has seven far-field microphones to listen to your voice commands from over the room. It includes a circular light at the top that illuminates when it hears its wake word or is giving an answer to a request. And it works extremely well to provide facts, perform unit conversions, set timers or alarms, research directions, control smart home gadgets, or add what to a to-do or grocery list.

The Invoke can be used to hear music, which is where it separates itself from devices from Amazon and Google. The Invoke has better speakers than either of its competitors, and, as a perhaps clear result, it sounds much better than the Echo or Home. Since Amazon itself admits that finished . persons utilize the Echo for a lot more than any other is to hear music, the Invoke’s improved audio tracks experience is obviously appreciated.

But that experience comes at a price, and the purchase price difference between your Invoke and others isn’t insignificant. Further, while Cortana is an able va, it’s clear that device is Microsoft’s first effort in this space, and it has some catching up regarding Alexa and Google’s Assistant.

InIn conditions of design, the Invoke is most like the first-generation Echo from 2015. It’s a roughly four-inch diameter cylinder that’s slightly below 10 inches tall, with a tapered design that gets narrower at the very top. The finish is unquestionably a intensify from Amazon’s offering, with a far more attractive speaker grille and a chrome bevel at the very top that catches light nicely. It really is obtainable in black or white color options, both which should look nice in today’s home décor.

The only physical controls on the Invoke will be the volume ring at the very top (which effectively works identically to the first-gen Echo’s, but has smoother damping), a touch-sensitive pad at the top, and the mute and Bluetooth buttons on the trunk. The Invoke works extremely well as a typical Bluetooth speaker, nonetheless it cannot hook up to a more substantial speaker either over Bluetooth or with an aux cable just like the newer Echo devices can.

Not that you’d have a lot of grounds to hook the Invoke up to some other speaker regardless if it could. Beneath the speaker grille are three 1.75-inch midrange drivers and three 0.5-inch tweeters, arranged within an outward-facing circle to supply 360 levels of sound. The Invoke doesn’t have a subwoofer, but you will find a passive radiator to improve the bass. All this is pushed by a 40-watt amplifier, which Harman Kardon boasts is stronger than some of its direct competitors.

An x-ray view of the Invoke’s speaker array
Image: Harman Kardon
This speaker array makes the Invoke much nicer to hear compared to the Echo (even the brand new and supposedly improved model) and the Google Home. It fills an area with sound superior to either of these speakers, and even though it won’t be well suited for bumping a residence party, it has actual bass response, which is all but non-existent in others. The Invoke’s only competitor this is actually the equally priced Sonos One, which is louder still with better still bass.

The touch-sensitive pad near the top of the speaker will illuminate with a blue-and-white circle whenever the “Hey Cortana” wake-up command is said. It’ll shine red when the speaker is muted, and it’ll display a white ring when you modify the volume. It’s better to see over the room compared to the lights on the Google Home, however the Echo’s brighter ring is way better still.

You can tap the most notable of the Invoke to pause music that’s playing or cancel a command. In the event that you tap it when the Invoke isn’t doing anything, Cortana will offer a random fact.

But just like the Echo and Google Home, the key way you’re likely to utilize the Invoke is through voice commands. It’s very proficient at hearing my voice from over the room, whilst music is playing, and it rarely failed when I barked a command at it. It only responds to “Hey Cortana,” however, and you cannot change it out to a new wake word. Saying “Hey Cortana” each and every time is more tedious compared to the Echo’s simpler “Alexa” command, particularly if you’re saying it multiple times in a row to execute different actions.

At launch, the Invoke works together with Spotify, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio, with support for Pandora promised to come. I could pull up specific albums or playlists from my Spotify account, and even save new tracks to my library or follow a playlist with simply a voice command. The Invoke wasn’t in a position to find everything, however, and it tended to fall back again to a generic artist playlist when it couldn’t find the precise album I asked for. Other music services could be played via Bluetooth, but voice commands are limited by volume control and pause / resume / next / previous track control in Bluetooth mode.

AsAs an individual assistant, the Invoke is most readily useful if you already are in Microsoft’s ecosystem. It could pull up calendar information from Outlook.com and Office 365 accounts, and it could add what to a to-do list in the Cortana iphone app on a phone or Windows 10 computer. You may also ask the Invoke to remind you at a particular time or location as well as your other devices will light when the task arrives. But if you are using other services for your calendar, Cortana can’t access them at all, which meant it couldn’t see the calendar appointments in my own Google Calendar account. In addition, it couldn’t access or control my to-do list or grocery list in Todoist, which I’m in a position to do with either the Echo or Google Home.

For smart home control, the Invoke works together with SmartThings, Philips Hue, Nest, Wink, and Insteon out of your box, which covers a sizable number of smart home gadgets. I could voice control my lights with Hue or SmartThings using the Invoke, exactly like I could on the Echo or Google Home. Microsoft says it really is dealing with Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe’s, and iDevices to include support for those products in Cortana.

The Invoke can even be used to put calls, using Microsoft’s Skype service. The business says it’s Skype certified for conference calling, nonetheless it my tests, callers were distant plus they had trouble hearing me, so that it wasn’t an excellent experience. The Invoke can’t be used as a Bluetooth speakerphone for standard calls, which is most likely to find the best given my experience with the Skype calling feature.

Beyond those music and productivity functions, the Invoke can be utilised to answer facts and trivia; provide weather forecasts, news updates, and traffic information; and offer some quick entertainment, such as for example telling jokes or poems. It’s not unlike Alexa or the Google Assistant in this respect, and it didn’t have any trouble performing unit conversions or telling me when the neighborhood Home Depot closes and how long it will require me to make it happen when I asked.

AsideAside from the actual fact that it is most effective with Microsoft’s own services and doesn’t support others, Cortana’s biggest limitation is that it could only support one account at the moment. Calendar information, reminders, and to-dos will all be pulled from the account the Invoke was setup with, that makes it difficult to use as a shared device for all those functions. Both Alexa and Google’s Assistant have added features that try to identify the individual making the voice request and offer personal information to them. Even though the Invoke does sound good alone, it can’t be