It wasn’t long ago that networking devices were ugly and arcane, hidden in closets and set up just by IT professionals. About five years ago, routers like Netgear’s Nighthawk emerged as devices to be kept on the desktop and configured as part of a performance PC build. These routers were certainly more attractive than their predecessors but were clearly aimed at the gamer crowd, with their spider-like antennae and sharp corners. It seems like we’ve finally entered a new age of consumer networking, with mesh routers designed to be seen all over the home. Netgear’s Orbi system is one such such line of mesh networking gear, and it’s the latest addition feels like the next logical step. The Orbi Voice combines a mesh networking node with an Alexa-enabled smart speaker. Though it’s got some notable limitations, we think it’s a great way to saturate your home with Wifi and smart features.
To those new to the technology, mesh wifi networks are a relatively new way of spreading a strong wifi signal over a large area. In the past, if your home had a poor wifi signal when far from your router, options were far from ideal. You could set up a “range extender,” but those only repeated the poor signal they were already receiving from the router, and shared their router connection with regular device traffic. The only way to actually improve signal was to run a cable your router to the access point – costly, or even impossible for some. Mesh networking gear like Netgear’s Orbi solves this problem using a tri-band router, with the standard 5GHz and 2.4GHZ networks, plus an additional 5GHz network reserved solely for the connection between wifi nodes. We found the Orbi’s app-guided setup easy enough – lights on top of the router and mesh nodes make it easy to ensure that each has a good connection. Many important network controls are available through the app, including access and parental controls, which is a welcome improvement over the old “192.168.1.1” menu we’re used to (though more advanced features are still available that way). Using the in-app speed test, we were getting excellent speeds – as fast or faster than our old Netgear Nighthawk R7000, and certainly a stronger connection at the far corners of our home. One of our favorite features of the individual Orbi nodes is that each features 2 ethernet ports, which allowed us to effectively upgrade older 2.4GHz wifi devices like our TV and PS4 to the Orbi’s 5GHz network. Perhaps our only issue with this setup is that the Orbi system has lost some functionality in its USB ports – our years-old R7000 supports attaching USB hard drives, but the Orbi supports printers only.
The Orbi Voice can only function as an add-on satellite to an existing Orbi mesh network. It’s available bundled with an Orbi router (Model RBK50V, $429) or on its own (RBS40V, $299). We like the home-friendly design of the Orbi Voice – it’s oval shape is much easier on the eyes than the Nighthawk, and similar to the Amazon Echo, it’s wrapped in a soft fabric grille. On top of the Orbi Voice is a ring of soft multicolor LEDs that glow to convey information about things like signal strength and Alexa notifications. Touch controls are available to set volume, mute the speaker and microphone, and activate Alexa. Setting up smart assistant functionality was as easy as any other Alexa device, through connections to Spotify must be done through the app. We’re happy to report that Alexa works nicely with the Orbi Voice as if we had placed an Echo right on top of a router. Its four-microphone array works just as well as our Echo; Alexa was able to hear us even at normal speaking volumes in any corner of the room. We had already set up most of our home devices in Alexa, so the Orbi Voice immediately worked as an additional way to control our smart lights, outlets, and fans. Though this isn’t a review of Amazon Alexa – generally, we find it more fiddly than HomeKit but more useful than Siri – it would be wonderful if Netgear made it possible to choose between Siri, Alexa, and Google Home when setting up one of these devices.
The Orbi Voice wears the Harmon Kardon badge, promising quality sound. Inside, it features one 1″ tweeter and one 3.5″ woofer, enhanced by a large downward-facing bass reflex port. Despite this branding, we can’t say that we were very impressed with the sound of the Orbi Voice as a music speaker. This is a simple, mono speaker, with none of the tech you’d find in the similarly-priced HomePod or Google Home Max. Alexa supports speaker groups, but to our knowledge, this feature is not supported on the current firmware. Its sound is very low-mid heavy, with an upper midrange that appears to be missing at times. Though this will probably suffice for modern pop music, rock music does not fare very well on the Orbi Voice. Still, we recognize that the Orbi Voice – even with its big-name branding – is not intended to be an audiophile speaker and, like any smart speaker, if it adds sound of even passable quality to a room that would otherwise be silent, we’re happy. As a wifi music streamer, has some limitations that may surprise – Spotify and Amazon Music work perfectly (including the Voice being included in Spotify’s Devices menu), but there is no Bluetooth support, and the Orbi Voice does not support the Apple Music skill, despite it being available on the $99 Amazon Echo. Arbitrary limitations like this never feel good to the consumer; Netgear tells us that this is actually Amazon’s restriction on Alexa integration. The good news, however, is that Apple Music functionality should be coming to the Orbi Voice later this year.
The Orbi Voice’s combination of a wifi-extending network device, sifi is one of those devices that sounds obvious only after somebody else did it. “Add a smart speaker to a networking device? I could have thought of that!” Well, we’re glad someone did. As parents of a newborn, the ability to saturate our home with wifi signal and control smart devices hands-free with the same device was very much appreciated. The Orbi Voice is, however, a networking device first and those other things second. Its networking performance was fantastic in our testing – we think anyone interested in upgrading to a mesh network setup should definitely consider Netgear’s Orbi line. As a music streaming device, the Orbi Voice’s sound leaves much to be desired, and it seems like contracts (or firmware) have unnecessarily limited its functionality. We think that this could be improved with some updates – a flatter tune, support for the Apple Music skill, and some kind of smart multiroom support. Even in its current form, Orbi Voice Orbi Voice makes it perhaps one of the most versatile networking products that we’ve ever used.
Orbi Voice + Orbi Router Kit: $429
Orbi Voice Satellite: $299