Microsoft and Harman Kardon built a smart speaker that’s more speaker than smart

Cortana has a new form.
Cortana has a new form.
Image: Harman Kardon/ Microsoft
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Amazon and Google dominate headlines about the voice-controlled speaker boom, but Microsoft wants in, too.

To break into the space, home and car audio maker Harman Kardon has partnered with Microsoft to build a smart speaker called the Invoke. Its brain is Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual personal assistant, and the device is meant to live in your kitchen or living room—or anywhere you might not have a desktop computer already running Cortana.

Quartz spent more than a week testing the device, which costs $199 and is on sale now. Here’s what we found:

What’s good

The speaker sounds great. Harman Kardon isn’t a slouch when it comes to making quality products. The Invoke sports three 1.75″ woofers, three 0.5″ tweeters, and two passive radiators, angled to evenly project sound around the device. To compare, the new Amazon Echo speaker has one 2.5″ subwoofer and one 0.6″ tweeter. The Invoke’s bass comes through satisfying and clean, and highs are crisp. Music is simply enjoyable to listen to on the device.

It’s loud. The speaker can really fill a large space, but even at 25% volume the speaker was sometimes too loud for my small apartment. I’m sure my neighbors will be glad when I send the Invoke back to Microsoft.

The design fits into a modern space. The speaker isn’t ungainly or awkward to look at. It’s just nice enough to avoid being an eyesore, but not flashy enough to be overtly noticeable on a countertop.

Cortana always hears you. It might not always respond well, but the Invoke does a terrific job of hearing a voice say “Hey Cortana” through the music you’re playing.

What’s not so good

Cortana isn’t that smart. If you’re looking for a full-featured voice assistant with an active developer community and a deep stable of skills available for the device—or you even know what that means—the Invoke isn’t for you. A count on Microsoft’s site shows 174 skills for Cortana, while there are 15,000 on Alexa.

That being said, it does the basic things: play music, tell the weather, and set a timer. Data show that those functions might be all we really use smart speakers for anyway.

I had trouble connecting my Microsoft account with my Google and work calendars, which meant that I couldn’t check what events were coming up for the day. That’s a relatively easy task for an Alexa device and even easier for Google Home.

Microsoft has incredible potential to make their voice assistant useful in the office. The Microsoft account you need to sign into the Invoke is the same one that you use for an Office 365 subscription, meaning email, Excel, Word documents, and everything in between. Cortana can actively understand what you work on and what could be helpful in your coming day—right now that’s limited to reading calendar events. Email response hasn’t been launched yet.

The verdict

If you like music and don’t need all the trimmings of a virtual personal assistant, the Invoke is a quality product that excels at the task. It might also evolve into a helpful virtual assistant if you’re a Microsoft power user. If you want a digital friend, maybe stick to Alexa.