Harman Kardon Invoke review: A premium Cortana experience with fantastic sound for your home

Audio / Audio Hardware Reviews / Hardware Reviews / Microsoft / Reviews / Tech / Top Picks
Harman-Kardon-Invoke-review

Harman Kardon and Microsoft have done an excellent job in bringing Cortana to your living room with the Invoke’s premium build quality, sound, and functionality.

TA-ratings-93While Google Assistant and Alexa have been present in households for some time now, the Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker with Cortana integration was teased late last year and was officially unveiled back in May. A few months later and the launch of the Harman Kardon Invoke is close at hand. We were sent one to try out and our Harman Kardon Invoke review takes a look at Microsoft’s first foray into the living room and home with its Cortana voice assistant. Read on to find out why it’s deserving of a Top Pick of 2017 Award here at Techaeris.

Specifications

The Harman Kardon Invoke has the following features and specifications:

  • Rated power: 40W
  • Frequency response: 60-20kHz (-6dB)
  • Woofer: 1.75” (45mm) x 3
  • Tweeter: 0.5” (13mm) x 3
  • Bluetooth version: 4.1
  • Power supply: 19V/2A
  • Power cable length: 47” (1.2m)
  • Wireless network: 802.11b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz/5Ghz)
  • Dimensions (DxH): 4.2 x 9.5” (107 x 242mm)
  • Product weight: 2.3lbs (1kg)
  • Supported audio formats: AAC, MP3, Vorbis, FLAC, WMA, WAV
  • System requirements: Windows Creator’s Update or higher, iOS 9 or higher, Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or higher

What’s in the box

  • Harman Kardon Invoke
  • AC Adapter
  • Invoke Quick Start Guide
  • Cortana Quick Start Guide
  • Warranty Card
  • Invoke pamphlet

Design

Harman Kardon and Microsoft have taken steps to make sure the first Cortana enabled speaker is an experience from start to finish. The Harman Kardon Invoke comes in a matte black box with the words INVOKE, the Cortana O, and VOICE-ACTIVATED SPEAKER stamped in gloss black on the top. Lifting the front flap opens the box and on the underside of the lid are the Harman Kardon logo and mention of the Cortana integration. I’m not in the habit of commenting on packaging as it’s usually pretty non-descript, and while a black box doesn’t seem like much, the speaker is presented in a way that speaks to its quality.

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Your first look at the Harman Kardon Invoke nestled in its box.

The speaker itself is nestled in foam padding and, at a glance, is a well designed, slick looking speaker. Lifting the speaker out of the box, you first notice the nice weight to it. Our review unit came in the Graphite (black) colour scheme and it’s also available in Pearl/Silver (white). The Harman Kardon Invoke is cylindrical in shape, wider at the base (just under 4 1/4″) and angling narrower towards the top (roughly 3 3/8″). The speaker is a hair under 9 1/2″ in height as well.

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The Harman Kardon Invoke is a tall, yet sleek looking speaker.

While the speaker may sound large from those dimensions, it has a really nice and classy design to it — one that you won’t mind placing in your living room, kitchen, bedroom, or elsewhere. The base is roughly 1 1/2″ in height and has the harman/kardon logo printed in silver on the front side. Just below this is a Wi-Fi status indicator. On the back side is a reset pinhole, microphone on/off button, and Bluetooth pairing button. While the base is constructed of polycarbonate painted plastic, it doesn’t feel cheap at all.

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The microphone mute/reset button and Bluetooth button are on the back of the base of the speaker.

Just under the microphone button is a notch in the base which allows the power cord to plug into the hidden power connector on the underside of the speaker. A Micro-USB port, for service use only, is located beside the power connector. The bottom of the base is also covered with an anti-slip pad.

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The underside of the Harman Kardon Invoke.

The main portion of the speaker is covered with a steel speaker grille that wraps around the entire device. Only a thin solid strip up the back breaks the speaker slot pattern on the Invoke. The aluminum top section is 1 3/4″ in height and has a nice beveled edge around the top. This ring doubles as the volume control ring for the speaker. A disc sits on the very top of the Harman Kardon Invoke and houses a touch panel as well as an indicator ring for displaying volume, when Cortana is active, and other functions. Barely visible between the edges of the touch panel and the volume control ring is where the microphones are located.

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The top ring doubles as a volume control and the top is a touch pad interface as well.

Setup

Setting up the Harman/Kardon Invoke is pretty simple and can be done with a Windows 10 PC, Windows Phone, Android, or iOS device.

We used our review unit with an Android device. After installing Cortana from the Google Play Store and logging in with your personal Microsoft Account, you then plug in the Invoke. One thing to note, if you’re not in the U.S., you’ll need to change your Language & Region settings in Cortana by tapping on the profile icon > Settings > Language & Region > English (United States).

Once the speaker is plugged in, type “Setup my Invoke” in your Cortana app and follow the steps. The first step entails you matching the lights on your phone with the lights on the top of the Invoke. Once they match, hitting next will continue the process and ask for a pretty extensive list of permissions like being able to access your Cortana information, name, contacts, Windows Notification Services, Skype, and more. While it seems extensive, the permissions are required to get the most out of the Invoke.

You can either accept or decline at this point, but if you click no, setup will restart. After you’ve accepted the permissions list, you’ll then have to agree to “Cortana on Invoke” permissions, and after you agree, Cortana will ask you to confirm your Invoke’s location and time zone. Once you’ve confirmed, you’ll be asked a second time to confirm a different light sequence (this time the Cortana circle) and then you’ll be able to choose which Wi-Fi network you want Cortana to use. Once connected, which is confirmed in the app and by the indicator light on the Invoke turning white, you can also choose to connect iHeartRadio, Spotify, or TuneIn as your music provider. Finally, choose if you want your Outlook 365 or Outlook.com calendar to be connected and after confirming a final light sequence match, you’re all set. At this point, Cortana will walk you through a number of skills that you can use like checking the weather, setting a reminder or appointment, or checking your calendar.

While it seems like a number of steps, the app does a really good job of walking you through it.

You can also connect various smart home devices like Philips Hue, Nest, Wink, SmartThings, and Insteon to Cortana and control them through the Invoke as well. Support for other providers like Honeywell, ecobee, TP-Link, IFTTT, Johnson Controls, and others will be coming down the road.

Ease of Use

Once you’ve connected your Cortana app to the Harman Kardon Invoke, it really is smooth sailing. You can control the volume by using the volume control ring on the Invoke, or by asking Cortana to “turn it up” or “turn it down.” The majority of your interaction with the speaker will, of course, be through the “Hey Cortana” voice command. After speaking this phrase, the ring on the top of the speaker will light up and you’ll be good to go and ask Cortana anything from facts, checking traffic, translating phrases, making Skype calls, playing music, setting timers, alarms, or calendar appointments, checking on your calendar, getting the latest news, and much more.

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You’ll know Cortana is listening when the blue ring is displayed.

Some of the useful, and fun, examples of what Cortana can do once set up include:

  • “Hey Cortana, play [song name] by [artist]”
  • “Hey Cortana, what album is this?”
  • “Hey Cortana, turn up the volume”
  • “Hey Cortana, call [name]” (from your Skype and phone contacts)
  • “Hey Cortana, add dentist appointment to my calendar for Friday at 3pm”
  • “Hey Cortana, what are my reminders for today?”
  • “Hey Cortana, remind me to pick up milk when I get to Safeway”
  • “Hey Cortana, add eggs to my grocery list”
  • “Hey Cortana, how much time is left on my timer?”
  • “Hey Cortana, snooze my alarm”
  • “Hey Cortana, dim my bedroom lights by 50%”
  • “Hey Cortana, how do you say ‘hello’ in Chinese?”
  • “Hey Cortana, what time is sunset tonight?”
  • “Hey Cortana, tell me a joke”
  • …and so forth and so on.

While you can use the “Hey Cortana” voice command, you can also use the touch panel controls for some basic functions. Short taps will stop whatever music you’re playing, answer or end Skype calls, or turn off an alarm or timer. A long tap (touching the touch panel for roughly three seconds) will activate Cortana — after which you can ask it a question — or ignore an incoming Skype call.

Additionally, you can connect devices to the Invoke by pressing the Bluetooth button on the back of the speaker or asking Cortana to pair Bluetooth. Once paired, you can control music playback and adjust the volume using voice commands.

Software

As far as software is concerned, it’s mainly used to set up the Harman Kardon Invoke with the Cortana app on your Android, iOS, Windows 10 PC, or Windows Phone. Once set up, about the only thing you need the app for is to check your history and adjust some basic settings like the name of the device, toggling sound notification when Cortana starts listening, send feedback, select a device, or manage music services. You can also control music playback as well, but that’s just as easy — if not easier — with voice commands.

The Cortana app for Android is pretty straightforward and you can access the Invoke settings under the Devices section in the menu. It would be nice to be able to check and adjust your permission settings for the Invoke from the app as well.

In addition, because Cortana is available on Windows 10 PCs, the Xbox, and iOS and Android devices, you can add reminders and appointments from just about anywhere and access it through the Invoke in the comfort of your home.

Cortana also uses third-party skills to further extend its usefulness. With skills from companies like Expedia, Fitbit, OpenTable, Food Network, and more, you can easily ask Cortana to have those services tell you about upcoming trips, activity summaries, recipes, or make reservations.

Performance

The biggest question with voice assistants is how well do they work? I’ve used Cortana on my Windows 10 PC and Android device for searching, but haven’t used it too extensively with voice before using the Harman Kardon Invoke. I have to admit, I was really impressed with not only the voice recognition but also the relative quickness of the responses. While I’ve been able to stump some other voice assisted speakers, I was hard-pressed to come up with a question that Cortana couldn’t answer. From current and future weather, traffic, upcoming appointments, adding reminders, playing music, and more, the Invoke was quick and responsive. For the most part, it also did a great job of getting the question right the first time asked without having to repeat the question to get the desired response.

Spotify support is bang on as well and it was super easy to get the speaker to play the exact song, playlist, or artist that I asked it to. Not only did it play the requested songs, but Cortana was also helpful in telling you what song or album was playing, who the artist was, saving tracks, and following playlists among other Spotify functionality.

There were only two minor issues I ran into with the Invoke. I ran into the first issue while messing around with adding calendar appointments. It turns out that you can’t delete a calendar appointment with Cortana. A quick Google search indicated that this seems to be a known issue with Cortana itself and not specific to the Invoke. The second issue is minor as the Invoke reported the weather in degrees Fahrenheit even though I have my Cortana settings set to Celcius. When on my phone or PC, Cortana properly reports the weather in Celcius and I’m assuming that the issue here is because the Invoke is being released in the U.S. only for the time being. An easy way around this issue was simply to ask “Hey Cortana, what’s the weather in Celcius.”

Sound Quality

For a speaker bearing the Harman Kardon name, one would expect decent sound and the Invoke doesn’t disappoint. Not only was it crisp and clear, but when used for music playback the speaker was pretty well balanced between highs, mids, and low. Everything from rock to hip-hop and classical, and everything in between, sounded fantastic on this speaker, even at full volume. Speaking of full volume, the speaker is quite loud and I found that for a normal sized room having the sound around the 40% level was more than ample. As mentioned above, the sound volume can be adjusted using the volume control ring around the top of the speaker or by asking Cortana to turn it up or down as well. When you are adjusting the volume, the indicator ring on the top of the speaker adjusts from a full circle for full volume into a shrinking C shape as you turn the volume down.

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The ring also acts as a volume indicator when adjusting the volume.

Honestly though, given the Harman Kardon Invoke has three direct-radiating woofers, three direct-radiating tweeters, and two passive radiators, I’d expect nothing less with regards to sound quality.

If you’ve read any of my past audio hardware reviews, you know I tend to enjoy a bit of bass and was actually impressed with the bass that the Invoke does put out. It’s not table shaking by any means, but it was definitely enough to suit my tastes. You are stuck with the default sound as there is no type of equalizer in the Cortana app to play around with but to be honest, that is not needed at all here. Simply put, the sound output from the Invoke beats out other voice assistant integrated devices I’ve tested and used in the past hands down.

Microphone

Aside from how well a voice assistant enabled device performs on the information given back, it also needs to be able to hear you clearly in order to give you that information. The Harmon Kardon Invoke has seven far-field microphones located around the top touch surface. When speaking in a normal voice from across the room, the Invoke was flawless in picking up the “Hey Cortana” activation phrase. The closer you got to it, you could lower your voice and it would still pick it up just fine. At any rate, no matter where you were in the room there was no need to raise your voice in order for the speaker to recognize the phrase.

Of course, with any microphone enabled device, the question of privacy almost always arises. When configured, Cortana is always listening on the Invoke, but only sends data to Microsoft’s cloud services when it’s been activated by the “Hey Cortana” phrase or holding the touch control panel o the top. As mentioned above, the speaker also has a microphone mute button on the back for those times you want to prevent Cortana from listening. When the microphone is muted, the light indicator ring lights up red so you can easily tell at a glance.

Price/Value

With an MSRP of $199.99USD, the Harman Kardon Invoke is more than reasonably priced. Cortana aside, the design, build quality, and sound alone is worth the price and having voice assistant integration is simply a lot of extra icing on the “value” cake. That being said, it is being sold with Cortana as the forefront of functionality and if you use Cortana, this speaker is definitely worth the price.

While it’s not quite on sale yet, the Invoke will be available for purchase in the U.S. at Microsoft Stores, Best Buy, and at HarmanKardon.com starting October 22nd.

Wrap-up

The Harman Kardon Invoke may be Microsoft’s first foray into bringing Cortana into your household, and while Microsoft may be a bit late to the game, it was well worth the wait with the Invoke’s premium build quality, sound, and functionality. If you’re a Cortana user you’ll be pleased with Harman Kardon and Microsoft’s first endeavor in bringing her home…

*We were sent a sample of the Harman/Kardon Invoke for the purposes of this review.

Harman Kardon Invoke

$199.99 USD
Harman Kardon Invoke
9.3

Design

10/10

    Setup

    10/10

      Ease of Use

      10/10

        Software

        7/10

          Performance

          9/10

            Sound Quality

            10/10

              Microphone

              10/10

                Price/Value

                10/10

                  Nailed it

                  • Very sleek design
                  • Solid build quality
                  • Cortana integration works well
                  • Easy setup
                  • Fantastic sound
                  • Reasonably priced
                  • Smart home device integration
                  • Spotify, iHeart Radio, TuneIn integration

                  Needs work

                  • Can't delete a calendar appointment with Cortana
                  • Reported weather in Fahrenheit even though Cortana settings are in Celcius
                  • Doesn't support phone calls over Bluetooth
                  • Some popular smart home devices and music services not supported yet
                  • Needs more skills
                  • No multi-user support yet
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