Harman Kardon Invoke Review

posted in: Cortana, Invoke | 0

The Good: Sound quality is a step above Google Home and Amazon Echo.  Pre-recorded Cortana responses sound like you’re talking to a real person.  Skype calling.  Live traffic to any location.  Cortana is available on just about any device and can sync information between your Invoke, PC, phone, tablet, etc.  Recognition of “Hey Cortana” wake word is better than anything I’ve tested.

The Bad: Computer generated Cortana responses sound too computer generated.  No device management (yet) for connected devices.  Very limited music at launch (Spotify Premium, iHeartRadio, TuneIn). Limited skills library and no IFTTT support (Microsoft wants you to use Flow).

Overall: The Invoke itself is a serviceable stand alone speaker that sounds better than both Google Home and Amazon Echo.  Although Cortana is one of my favorite personal assistants because of her presence on virtually every platform (and because she helped me defeat The Covenant like 500 times), she continues to be hamstrung by Microsoft.  With virtually any PC able to function as an always listening Cortana device, it’s hard to justify owning a standalone speaker that costs as much as a cheap laptop.

I wanted the Harman Kardon Invoke to knock my socks off.  When the people at Harman told me that they were sending me a review unit, I couldn’t wait for it to show up.  The day it arrived, I might have waited fifteen minutes before posting an unboxing video on YouTube.  I geek out on this stuff.

The Invoke setup process was fairly painless.  I had already configured Cortana on my PC to work with Nest, Insteon, Hue, Office 365, LinkedIn, Skype and Outlook.com, so when I connected the Invoke to my existing account everything was already set up.  Plus you have Cortana talking you through the process the whole way.  Very cool.

Once it was set up, though, I was at a bit of a loss for things to try.  You can ask Cortana to do most of the same things that you would ask Alexa or Google.  Cortana can play music, pair to a bluetooth device, create and track lists, set reminders, set timers and alarms and works with your paired smart home devices.  She can also make and receive Skype calls, which competitors can’t do.  What I really wanted was something that made the Invoke stand out.  While I was thinking, I tapped the top of the device.  The (really cool) hidden lights there lit up and Cortana told me a random fact in her familiar and beautiful voice.  It sounded like she was standing there next to me.

I asked Cortana to tell me a story, a joke, a random fact, to sing me a song and all of the other silly tricks we’ve come to expect from our robot assistants and all of them came back with amusing and beautiful sounding pre-recorded responses.  Microsoft pays a real live woman named Jen Taylor to be the voice of Cortana.  She pre-records many of Cortana’s responses, which is why many times it sounds like you’re talking to a human.  But she can’t record everything, and many times the response from Cortana will be a computer generated simulation of Jen’s voice…and it is not good.  The pre-recorded responses sound so good, that when you get a computerized Cortana response it’s off putting.  It sounds like Cortana was taken over by an invading robot alien.  That’s actually no slight to the Invoke itself, the speaker does a great job of rendering Cortana’s voice, but it’s a big issue I have with Cortana on any platform.

There are two features of the Invoke that have stood out in my testing.  The first is available from Google Home, but not any Alexa product, and that’s the ability to get traffic and travel time to any location.  Alexa lets you set a start and end point in the app and then ask for the traffic between them.  That’s great if you only ever go one place, or if you really only care about your commute to work, but sucks if you want to go literally anywhere else.  Thanks to Bing, Cortana has real time traffic and directions, and can tell you how long it will take to get where ever you want to go.  This has become one of the Invoke’s primary functions in my house.

The second standout feature is the performance of the far field microphones.  In comparison to other devices, the Invoke is AMAZING at picking up “Hey Cortana” commands even in very loud situations.  I have a large, open first floor with the Invoke in the corner of my living room.  I tested this by setting the music to a volume of seven, walking into my dining room on the opposite side of the house (easily 40 feet away with a wall between us) and said “Hey Cortana, turn on the kitchen lights” at a conversational volume and watched in amazement as the lights came on.  Since then, we have put the Invoke through its paces and have been shocked that 90% of the time Cortana hears us from absurd distances or through noise from multiple sources.


Skills Shortage

Like Google Home before it, the Invoke comes to the table lacking things that I would consider table stakes.  The Cortana skills library for the Invoke is currently limited to 63 skills, 45 of which are college fight songs!  Seriously, I counted these by hand.  I don’t know why someone didn’t just make a “College Fight Song” skill that played all 45 of these songs, but instead opted to make 45 skills that each play one song (unless it was specifically as filler for the skill store).  There are also skills for Nest, Insteon, Hue, SmartThings and Wink.  The music/news skills are limited to Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and CBS News.  There are three sound skills; whale sounds, bird sounds and wind through trees sounds (thankfully no fart sounds yet).  CapitalOne, Expedia, FitBit, OpenTable, Domino’s and HP also offer skills.  For the record, the HP skill appears to just offer ways to wast ink at a fantastic rate.

While the skills library offers information for developers, there don’t seem to be any available skills from anyone but Microsoft and partner corporations.  This cuts down on the amount of nonsense skills (like trivia skills, Alexa), but also limits the ecosystem and hinders organic development of Cortana.

As with the other smart assistants, I expect Cortana to get better over time.  I had expected to be able to do more communication between Cortana on my Invoke and Cortana on my PC.  If Microsoft ever releases features along those lines I think they’ll have a real differentiator and something that they should heavily market.


Smart Home

Currently you can use the Invoke to voice control devices from Nest, Wink, SmartThings, Hue and Insteon.  This is a good jumping off point for Cortana and the Invoke, but the execution is lacking.  After setting up your accounts through the Cortana app, you’re just left hanging.  I searched everywhere for a device or group list, but never found anything.  Basically once you pair your skills to Cortana, you have to just know how to use them.

In my tests, I found that I can only control my devices by using their actual device names, and not the group or scene names I had become familiar with using.  This is especially difficult in rooms where I have multiple Hue bulbs, generally controlled in a group.  Instead of hitting the switch on the wall or asking Alexa to turn on the living room lights, I have to ask Cortana to turn on each bulb individually.  In order to do that, I had to open the Hue app and look up the names of the bulbs because I’d forgotten what they were called.  This is counter intuitive.

My tests got even more frustrating when trying to control my two Nest thermostats, named upstairs and downstairs. The skill seems to have been built assuming a user will have one Nest thermostat, as many of the commands are built with no option to specify your device.  For instance, saying “set my upstairs thermostat to __ degrees” didn’t work for me at all, but saying “set my thermostat to __ degrees” seemed to just pick one and set it.  Removing “thermostat” from the command generally resulted in Cortana doing a Wikipedia lookup of upstairs.  Sigh.

The Cortana app is in dire need of a device list and the ability to create custom groups and/or scenes.  Again, this is table stakes at this point.


Sound Quality

If you’re shopping for an Invoke, it’s probably because you heard that Amazon and Google’s offerings were lacking in sound quality.  Harman does not disappoint here.  With three 1.75″ woofers and three .5″ tweeters rated at 40W, the Invoke sounds beautiful.  The highs are crisp and the lows are impressive.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is as good as the Sonos Play:1 (or Sonos One), though.

The Invoke seems like it was tuned specifically to make Cortana sound amazing, which is actually why it’s so upsetting when computerized Cortana responds instead of a canned recording.  I tried playing everything from Country to Rap and while the Invoke isn’t going to (boom) shake (shake shake) the room, it will fill your house with crystal clear music even at the highest volumes.



Largely because of Cortana, and not the Invoke itself, I have to say that this just isn’t ready for prime time.  The lack of skills and missing device management, the shortage of music streaming options, and the lack of a real stand out feature set are too much to recommend this over the competition.  If you are shopping for a bluetooth speaker that happens to have a virtual assistant built in, the Invoke could be a contender if you can find it for under $150.  At its current price point of $199, though, its directly competing with the Sonos One which is a better sounding speaker with both Alexa and Google built in.  As with Amazon Echo and Google Home, the Invoke will get better over time and I hope Microsoft puts the time in to bring Cortana up to the level of her competitors.  Until then, this is a pass.