We want very much to believe in so-called “virtual assistants.” We’re nerds, we like Star Trek, we want to talk to our computers and have them do everything for us. We want to live in the future, but we’re stuck in the present, just trying to make the best of it. Right now, the biggest players are competing to get users committed to their own virtual assistants and, by extension, their hardware and software ecosystems. Though most of the war is being fought inside smartphones, some significant battles are taking place on your desk, kitchen counter, and bedside table with smart speakers. As we wait for Apple’s entry into this market, we’re taking a look at luxury speaker brand Harman Kardon’s Invoke speaker featuring Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant. Though Harman Kardon’s design chops are evident in the Invoke, we think they may have chosen the wrong virtual assistant.
The Invoke is a beautiful speaker, especially compared to competitors like the Echo and the Google Assistant-powered Link offered by HK’s sister brand, JBL. Standing just under ten inches tall, the Invoke’s outer housing is made almost entirely of gray aluminum, perforated in a swirling pattern. On top is a volume adjustment ring, with a beautiful polished chamfer detail and just enough resistance for a high-quality feel. Inside the ring is a translucent blob; this area serves as the Invoke’s visual interface, lighting up with colors and patterns to indicate volume level, whether Cortana is listening or ‘thinking’, and whether the microphones are muted. The Invoke’s base is plastic, with buttons for microphone muting and Bluetooth pairing; hidden underneath are the Invoke’s power jack, factory service port, and silicone grips to keep the Invoke in place. We love the Invoke’s modern, classy looks, and applaud Harman Kardon on its impeccable build quality. If we had to nitpick, we would have appreciated a longer cable for the Invoke’s power brick.
The Invoke’s exterior is nice, but it’s what’s inside that counts. Six active speakers — three 13mm tweeters and three 45mm woofers — are staggered around the lower third of the Invoke to project sound in all directions (linking Invokes is not supported), while two passive radiators work to improve bass response. We were not impressed with the Invoke’s sound over Bluetooth — only the basic SBC codec is supported — but we did find its performance streaming Spotify Premium quite good. We think it’s important to set expectations — the Invoke sounds better than other speakers in this form factor, but will not produce so-called “room-filling sound” the way that a dedicated two-channel speaker system would. The Invoke’s woofers are the size of some bookshelf speakers’ tweeters; to produce the kind of bass response that makes the Invoke sound compelling in a kitchen or living room, it seems that some midrange detail had to be sacrificed. With that caveat, we think the Invoke — at its best — is a good way to add streaming music to a room that would otherwise be silent.
Though this is not a full review of Cortana, the Invoke’s hardware is so deeply integrated (or, spoiler: limited) by Microsoft’s virtual assistant that the two must be considered together. Harmon Kardon have done their part in supporting Cortana: the Invoke’s proprietary seven-microphone array makes it extremely easy to summon Cortana. A simple series of lights tells the user when Cortana is listening, when she’s searching the web (Bing), when the microphones are muted, and volume level. The translucent bubble on top of the speaker is also touch-sensitive, enabling the user to play/pause music, answer Skype calls, and summon Cortana to retrieve a random fact from the internet. Cortana is fast and responsive — even with loud music playing, even when “Hey, Cortana” is mumbled — and her voice is clear and friendly. Beyond that, however, Cortana’s limits begin to be felt.
To be direct, we were entirely underwhelmed by Cortana. She can perform some internet searches, deliver random facts, set reminders, look up directions, read recipes, and interface with Spotify Premium, but we did not find Cortana useful enough to make us want to commit to the ecosystem. Cortana cannot read or create email or calendar events, even when connected to a Windows PC running Outlook 2016. We thought Cortana might gain some skills through its iPhone app — plenty of other apps can be granted access to the iPhone’s calendar and email — but alas, those queries were met with Cortana’s disappointing “I can’t do that yet.” We asked for news headlines, but Cortana would only play the most recent NPR podcast via iHeartRadio. At most, Cortana can send results to the Cortana app within iOS, but we can’t imagine many iPhone users wanting to operate within the confines of one app. Third-party “skills” are available, but not terribly interesting. In fairness, Cortana’s abilities expand if you’re using an Office365 account or smart devices, but we did not test these in our review.
It’s entirely possible that Microsoft will continue to develop Cortana to make it a truly useful option in the future. What bothers us about the Invoke’s Cortana integration is that she appears to have artificially limited the Invoke despite its otherwise-competent hardware. Harman Kardon is proud of the Invoke’s sound quality — high-quality audio formats like AAC, MP3, Vorbis, FLAC and even WAV are supported by the hardware — but there is only one way to take advantage of it — Spotify Premium. There is no AUX input and, although Spotify can stream to the Invoke, neither Windows nor iOS can cast to it over Wi-Fi. Of course, there are millions of Spotify Premium users, but it’s only one of several major music services; we couldn’t help but be frustrated having to choose between low-quality Bluetooth and Spotify Premium when there is no technological barrier preventing other devices and services from streaming to the Invoke. As we tested the Invoke, we tried to get the most out of it and Cortana. Unfortunately, we couldn’t help but feel bound by agreements made by people in conference rooms who were, apparently, not trying in making the most flexible device out there.
They say hardware is hard. They also say software is hard. Both are true; the engineers at Harmon Kardon have done well with the Invoke’s hardware, but we were not impressed with Cortana’s abilities in software. iLounge is focused on users of Apple products; the Invoke was relevant as a major competitor in the virtual assistant market and because Cortana has, since the death of Windows Phone, become essentially platform-agnostic. Though we like what Harman-Kardon has done with the Invoke, we don’t find Cortana’s current abilities compelling enough to convince potential buyers to switch to Microsoft’s ecosystem. As if that weren’t enough, we think the potential audience of the Invoke — Apple user or otherwise — is further limited by its apparent attempt to use hardware and software limitations to push users to just one music service. To be clear, our criticisms don’t come from a blind allegiance to Apple products — Siri can be frustrating too — but the Invoke with Cortana demands that you choose sides without offering just justification for the commitment. That, unfortunately, will severely limit its audience.
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