Hey Cortana, It’s My Harman Kardon Invoke First Impressions

Posted on October 20, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Hardware, Smart Home with 72 Comments

Hey Cortana, It's My Harmon Kardon Invoke First Impressions

With the Harman Kardon Invoke, Cortana takes her first confident steps into our homes. This is a high-quality device with superior sound, excellent build quality, and broad devices and services compatibility.

Right. I’m a bit surprised myself.

As you may know, I’ve chosen Google Home and its Google Assistant as the center of my own smartphone efforts. But I also have an Amazon Alexa device—an Echo Dot—and I have years of experience with Siri, that special snowflake of digital personal assistants. What I’ve learned is that each of these platforms, including Cortana, has its strengths. And that each can and will leapfrog the others from time to time, or at least catch-up.

As important, perhaps, digital personal assistant technology doesn’t strike me as being particularly sticky. That is, most people will simply use the assistant that comes on their phone when on-the-go, and when you’re at home, it kind of doesn’t matter. You can move very easily between Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and, now, Cortana too. These things are all pretty decent. And they’re even starting to work together in small ways, which could have big implications for the future.

But because of Windows phone’s defeat, Cortana is not the default assistant on a mobile platform that is an ongoing concern, let alone popular. And it hasn’t had a viable place in the home, unless you believe that a bulky Windows 10 all-in-one PC in your kitchen or an Xbox One in your living room satisfies that need. I don’t.

There’s not much more Microsoft can do about that first problem: It has ported the Cortana app to Android and iOS, and any interested parties can, to some degree, have a fairly seamless experience on mobile.

Hello, beautiful.

To address the home, Microsoft is turning to its traditional strategy of partnering with others. Including, of course, Harman Kardon, which arrives first with the Invoke.

And it’s a good product. A great one, really: The speaker itself is a well-made, premium device that should appeal to technophiles and modern design enthusiasts. It provides stunning sound for a single conical smart speaker, much better than that of the Google Home. And Cortana’s voice is crisp, clear, and deep. It’s easily the highest-quality assistant voice I’ve heard in my home.

Compared to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, Cortana appears to offer similar basic functionality. You can ask her about the weather, to tell a joke, or provide a quick newscast. You can control smart home appliances like the Philips Hue smart lights I’m using, plus many others. (That said, it seems to have trouble with rooms, whereas individual light control works.) You can set reminders, create and edit lists, set timers and alarms, and get traffic updates. You can play music from popular services like Spotify. (Pandora support is coming soon.)

“Hey Cortana”

Someone with way too much time on their hands will no doubt do a deep dive comparing the respective responses of these assistants to a list of common interactions. But of more interest to us here in the Microsoft community, I bet, is Cortana’s key strength: Its integration with Microsoft’s productivity ecosystems. If your life centers around Skype and Microsoft Office, the Invoke will be of interest.

You can twist the ring at the top to adjust the volume with your hand.

When TWiT or Brad rings me on Skype, Cortana perks up on the Invoke and asks me if I’d like to answer the call. Likewise, one can make hands-free Skype calls directly from the Invoke using your voice. This includes Skype contacts, of course, but also phone numbers and, in a Google Assistant-like twist, vaguer businesses like “the nearest Chinese restaurant.” Which, yes. Really does work.

And hands-free Skype-based calls work great. If I say something like “Hey Cortana, call Brad,” it will respond with: “Which Brad do you want to call? Brad xxx, Brad Sams, or Brad xxx?” When I respond with “Brad Sams,” the Invoke says “Calling Brad Sams” and connects the call. From there, things work normally, and you can end the call with “Hey Cortana, hang up.”

If Brad were to call me—he got an Invoke review unit as well—the Invoke lights up and says, “Call from Brad Sams. Answer or Ignore it?” If I say “Answer,” it picks up and the conversation starts.

I always feel like … somebody’s calling me

The Invoke also integrates nicely with your Office 365 or Outlook.com account. So you can say things like “Hey Cortana, what’s my next meeting?” You can also have more complex interactions, which will be familiar to any Cortana fans, but perhaps a bit more magical to the uninitiated. Consider the following conversation.

Me: “Hey Cortana, add an appointment to my calendar for tomorrow at 2 pm.”

Invoke: “OK, what do you want to all your event?”

Me: “Meeting with Tina.”

Invoke: “Sure thing. Adding a meeting called ‘Meeting with Tina’ to your calendar. Is that OK?”

Me: “Yes.”

Invoke: “Got it.”

And sure enough, there it is.

Less successful, alas, was the command, “Hey Cortana, cancel an appointment.” The Invoke replied with, “I’m sorry, I can’t cancel meetings. Try your calendar app.”

During my Invoke testing this week, I’ve been using it in my home office. But I have about 17 ways to make and receive Skype calls in that room. Where Invoke makes more sense, of course, is in the kitchen, or perhaps some other shared space. We do this with the Google Home right now, and to be fair to Google, that device supports multiple users where Cortana and Invoke, at least today, do not.

Google Home, left, and Harman Kardon Invoke, right. Please ignore my still-unfinished kitchen.

Like other smart speakers, the Invoke uses far-field voice-recognition technology to cut through noise—like playing music—so that it can hear your voice when you issue a command. So if I start some music by saying “Hey Cortana, play the Beatles on Spotify,” I can later say “Hey Cortana, turn down the volume” (or whatever) and it will work, even if the music is very loud. This works well, even from across the large room that is my home office.

There’s a mute button and Bluetooth capabilities. But no line-out.

At $199, the Harman Kardon Invoke carries a premium price tag, and that is a bit disappointing: The high-end Echo Plus is just $149 as I write this, and that is perhaps the most comparable device. (Google Home is often on sale for as little as $79.) But one might justify the Invoke’s price by its premium materials and build quality, and by its superb sound.

Less defensibly, the Invoke is initially only available to consumers in the United States. My understanding is that Harman Kardon will expand availability over time.

Today, Microsoft claims that there are nearly 150 million active Cortana users, most on PCs. And while I can’t imagine that the Harman Kardon Invoke will lead to a usage spike, I also can’t picture a more worthy attempt. Say what you will about Microsoft’s molasses-slow moves with Cortana—I certainly have—but this speaker is fantastic. The only question is whether great hardware is enough to push the platform forward.


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Comments (74)

74 responses to “Hey Cortana, It’s My Harman Kardon Invoke First Impressions”

  1. graboskyc

    Can it play music from Google Play?

  2. slerched

    I had the opportunity to beta test the Invoke. I found it novel at first, and loved the Groove integration that unceremoniously was ripped from the device when MS dropped Groove. And before anyone says "wah, just go to Spotify," you don't understand how I use Groove. I don't use the subscription service, I use music on my One Drive account. Using the Invoke for this was, in a word, awesome. Sound was fantastic for a single source like this (yes, I know technology, multiple speakers, etc), and I loved it. Then Groove subscription died, and the next day, Invoke no longer offered music streamed via Groove from One Drive. I really hope they add this back as an option. Or if Spotify adds it, no problem, awesome.

    Call quality has been good, and response time is spot on. I wish you could follow up on answers similar to how it SOMETIMES can work on PC (and worked on Windows Phone). "What's the nearest Chinese restaurant?" "Whatever blah blah." "OK, call them." Nope. Hopefully the fix this.

    As far as this being DOA because it is Cortana, it integrates with smart home stuff, and that won't just stop working if HK decides they don't care about the device. Spotify integration could die, which would be... bad for streamers. Really bad. But given the integration is all done through Cortana, I don't THINK this will be an issue if HK drops the line.

  3. Chris Payne

    Curious how well this works in concert with other Cortana devices. As it is, I have my phone on me most times, and if I'm in my living room and say "Hey Cortana," both my phone and Xbox answer. With this speaker, that would be 3 things that answer at once.

  4. Soundtweaker

    This isn't a bad price at all. I bought my Original UE boom for the same price and it basically doesn't have any features on it. This Invoke is a way better deal and probably sounds as good or better. Just wish it would stream from OneDrive.

    • SvenJ

      In reply to Soundtweaker: That really should happen. Bad enough they killed the Groove streaming service, which did work fine with the Invoke BTW, but to disenfranchise their own Groove/OneDrive connection is just consumer unfriendly.

    • VancouverNinja

      In reply to Soundtweaker:

      I cannot imagine they will not make this happen. I guess it is a wait and see issue. I have over 20k of paid tracks but now I really never access them as I just stream old stuff when in the mood from Spotify. Most of the time I want to listen to the latest and Spotify is really had to beat on that front.

  5. Vittorio Vaselli

    It's Harman, not Harmon.

  6. mortarm

    >You can twist the ring at the top to adjust the volume with your hand.

    Can't imagine what else you'd twist it with.

  7. Brian Mueller

    Needs multi-user capability, podcast, audiobook, support and better smart home integration. Doubt it will ever happen though.

  8. johnh3

    We will see. Looks like a nice system but so was Windows Phone 7. Microsoft are out late in this. Apple coming late to but thet got a huge userbase in phones.

    I am reluctant to buy any Microsoft stuff now beside PC.s

    This might be killed to like the Microsoft band. I hope I am wrong but Nadella seems to have a very different approach than Ballmer and are not afraid to removing products that not taking off.

  9. BrickPrinter

    Can you have it read audible books?

  10. PincasX

    Cortana and Alexa are pretty much dead ends in the digital assistant market. Cortana is relegated to begging for user attention and while Alexa seems like the big winner to Americans but it is a non-starter worldwide as it only supports two languages and is available in three countries. Seems fitting that these two are in a partnership in an attempt to fend off the Google/Apple steamroller that is about to flatten the home assistant market. They both have the language support and world wide availability of Google Home and HomePod respectively that it will take to be players in this market. Additionally Google and Apple's services are broadly available world wide while Amazon's world wide presence is anemic and MS is fleeing consumer services.

    I'm always surprised how American centric Paul's analysis is when it comes to global companies.

  11. irfaanwahid

    Paul, how does Invoke handle voice commands if it is already playing music at a high volume?

  12. harmjr

    I just dont get any of these devices. Wouldnt a remote or screen help.

    • ToddKlindt

      In reply to harmjr:

      Amazon has one with a screen, the Show. And most, if not all of the Echos support a remote, or you can use your phone as a remote. As someone that's had an Echo since they were available I can say I prefer having a screen, but they are perfectly usable for the stuff I want to do without one.

  13. cayo

    It is a niche market today and home automation might stay that way for a long time. However, I can already see this in my warehouse. Print label for order xxxxx on station 7, email invoice to customer, etc. Check inventory for this, order more of that...

    Will it be your Chromebook, Mac or some Amazon device responding to this request? No. It will be your PC, the same device your business already uses for everything else.

    You can ask Siri to play the Beatles on Spotify, but you will still need your Cortana app if you want to send the above request from your iPhone... On Android, why not set as default the digital assistant that can still check weather forecast, recommend a restaurant, but also process the orders?

    This is what Microsoft cares about. Cortana is here to help keep competition irrelevant in business environment.

    • Stooks

      In reply to cayo:

      All that sounds great....but none of it can be done today, especially when it can't even cancel an appointment.

      As long as Nadella is running Microsoft, Cortana is a heartbeat away from being killed off if the man does not think it is worth the effort.

      My new attitude towards Microsoft is....in the future they may surprise me. I am tired of next version...next year...etc. They can't even sync photos with a Outlook dot com account right now.

  14. victorchinn

    Can this be hardwired as a plain stereo speaker in case Cortana goes away or is cancelled by MS in the future?

  15. Jhambi

    So Google Home and Echo devices offer free calling to US/Canada. Why only 6 months of Skype ? That feature alone makes it handy to have in the Kitchen. I like the hardware of the invoke, but I'll probably pick up an echo dot on Black Friday instead.

  16. Stooks

    All of these "assistants" basically suck right now. Google probably has the best and honestly it is still slow and gets stuff wrong.

    I have used them all and after some initial usage I ignore them. Are Echo gets used the most simply because we have Amazon Unlimited music.

  17. edboyhan

    This is the only place where I've read a positive review of this. Others have stated that sound quality is mediocre for a $199 device. Most reviews I've read said you are better off spending your $199 on the Sonos One, or the new Echo for $100 less. If you are tightly bound into the Microsoft ecosystem, and want (eventually) integration with the Microsoft Graph, then maybe this device makes some sense. I suspect that that scenario, however, plays more into the enterprise space rather than the home.

    For my money putting an Echo Show in your kitchen (as I have) makes a lot more sense than this thing.

  18. VancouverNinja

    This is the best deal in the market today. You get Alexa and Cortana through it (yes when it is released...), this in itself leaves both Google and Siri a distant second in my opinion. My place is loaded with WEMO devices which Cortana can now control (thru smart things hub support), and we have a family Spotify plan, and use Skype extensively - sometimes at home at night due to international business. MS has already said Pandora is coming, and the ability to move around between multiple speaker systems. I can't see any reason why anyone would not go with this going forward unless you are all in with Apple including a Mac.

  19. Michael Brehm

    Great review. I would buy this in a heartbeat if I had one iota of confidence that it would be more than a paperweight a year from now.

    • trevor_chdwck

      In reply to djp952:

      It should be good thanks to the integration between Cortana and Alexa, basically allowing Cortana to do anything Alexa can do, and that one isn't going away any time soon!

    • VancouverNinja

      In reply to djp952:

      It really is a no brainer - Cortana is here to stay; there will probably end up being a ton more Cortana devices by this time next year. I am dying to buy the Johnson Controls Thermostat - looks so awesome.

      • Stooks

        In reply to VancouverNinja:

        I hope you are right but seriously I have so little faith in Microsoft outside of EA/SA agreements and their cloud efforts for business.

        I am all in with Xbox, with a X pre-order, and I fear that even that may get kicked to the curb some day.

        • VancouverNinja

          In reply to Stooks:

          MS is in it for the long term. They simply rebooted what they were doing. I agree with their approach - they lost mobile; why be out of the picture completely which they were? With a current phone system or not they are almost at the exact same place; being well under 10% market share was the same as having no solution. Skip ahead to the next thing - this approach allows them to change the game if they can do it. It is a risk I would take in my company if the business category was one of many.

          You always hear from the people who really loved Windows mobile - I am one of them, but 90%+ of the mobile users out there do not have negative feelings towards MS about them exiting the mobile business. They had already been directed by the carriers to buy either Android or Apple.

      • BrickPrinter

        In reply to VancouverNinja:Becoming partneres with Johnson Controls shows where MS is really going --they make and sell products that are well trusted in industry worldwide and from my experience their service is exemplary. Note: do not have any connection with them except before retired, depended on them for many things at my plant. Good company.

        • VancouverNinja

          In reply to BrickPrinter:

          That is why I am pumped about it. We put two Nest thermostats in our office. We changed our router and the Nests work but all internet capabilities are gone. We have asked Google for assistance twice and both times the answers where to manually update via USB - Done, and then to (I kid you not) reboot, then reboot again, and then it might take another reboot of the reboots... This was probably the worst help and directions I have ever received.

          As soon as the Johnson thermostat is out we are getting them and now that the home hub is up in Windows I am going to get one for my house. Based on the Video it is the best looking device as well.

    • slerched

      In reply to djp952:

      I think it'll be OK. It integrates into some smart home tech, and it's powered by Cortana. Unless MS decides to drop Cortana, which is unlikely, it should last at least... 13 months.

  20. jbinaz

    Paul, I often use cortana on my desktop PC by typing "text <wife's name>" and she'll pop up a box for me to type my message and send it via my android. Have you tried that with the invoke?

  21. jrickel96

    On the business side of things, everywhere I go I see Surface everywhere. Business clients have really adopted that line and something like the Invoke works better for that sort of costumer. It has features that can make workplace productivity increase and the premium price tag does not scare you when you use the device to make money. Google Home and Echo are consumer devices and they have both not done well if you really look at volume (9 million smart speakers sold in three years - Windows Phone did better and usage rates hovering near 50% monthly). They are hyping them, hoping they can be the next big thing, but I'm not sure they will ever be more than niche products.

    The Invoke works well as a niche product just as Surface does. High quality. A bit pricey, but the people that buy them don't care about that.

    The problem with Echo and Home is that they are designed for mass market and they are failing to sell. There's a reason Google puts the Home on sale all the time. The Echo products have fallen off a cliff in sales since January according to market data - it appears they are nothing more than a digital fruit cake.

    It'll be interesting to see if those speakers remain ascendant this Christmas or if consumers have moved past them and we see little growth. You're talking less annual sales than Windows Phone had just two years ago. That's how few people actually buy these speakers. And a whole generation of millennials isn't all that interested in talking to speakers - they grew up typing on their phones. They're much more likely to use an adaptive parser interface.

  22. jrswarr

    Can the Invoke handle multiple users?

    • lwetzel


      "Google Home right now, and to be fair to Google, that device supports multiple users where Cortana and Invoke, at least today, do not."

      • slerched

        In reply to lwetzel:

        Correct. The Invoke does NOT support multiple users. If you want it in a shared space, make sure you are OK with everyone and their brother messing with you and adding crap to your calendar or creating randomly stupid and ridiculous lists for you.

  23. hack-o-holic

    Absolutely too little too late! This whole idea of Cortana on devices is DEAD on arrival. DEAD!

    I soo want to use Cortana on my PC (and Windows Phone oh ya had to go to Android after they abandonded us) and in my home as I truly believe it has features the others don't and has the back end ability to beat the world with their AI and machine learning abilities. However, if you want your product to succeed and be meaningful, relevant and timely in the already competitive marketplace... you HAVE to STOP relying on this outdated and silly idea of letting your partners create the devices. MS needs to be doing this themselves and screw these lame and lazy partners. This thing sadly is DOA!!

    • jimchamplin

      In reply to hack-o-holic:

      This is a pretty lame market. The leaders sell like nine of them a week. I'm pretty sure that the only people who buy things like Echos and Homes outside of extreme techies are Ebay scalpers. To achieve any success with this product, all HK has to do is keep production low and margins high.

      • William Kempf

        In reply to jimchamplin:

        Techies... and home automation fans. Yes, a niche market today, but home automation won't stay niche for long, and in the mean time this is a lucrative niche to be in.

        I'm not sure you can count Microsoft out here. Yes, they are late. Yes, they have a bad consumer image right now. But Cortana actually is a better assistant then most, and the integration with Windows does make a difference for the MANY people that still use PCs. With Cortana on Android they actually have a better story than if Win Phone was still a thing. While I'm skeptical, I think most of the negativity in the comments here is short sighted.

    • SteveM

      In reply to hack-o-holic: If you want to use Cortana then use Cortana. I recently switched to Android after breaking my Lumia and I bought Cortana with me and replaced the Google Assistant. Happy days. Having the phone bluetoothed to the car means that Cortana is there as well.

      • ABT

        In reply to SteveM:

        I have cortana on my android phone as well, but it's a far cry from the functionality that was provided on the windows phone platform. If I'm doing something wrong please correct me, but I was disappointed and now rarely use it.

  24. dhallman

    U.S. only. I was waiting for that. Not hard to imagine as iOS and Android still can't use Cortana here in the North. I had hopes the mobile apps would expand with the Fall Creators Update and then be available on Invoke. But no. The real question is why is it so hard? Cortana is on Windows 10 and Windows 10 mobile in Canada (with limited skills). What stops this from working on iOS, Android and smart speakers when the service exists? I guess it's another hard computer science issue. Oh well.

  25. xapache

    The real question is, do you feel lucky? Band, Band 2, Windows Phone/mobile, ZuneHD, etc...It looks great and I would only expect the best sound from Harmon Kardon but sometimes err most of the time MS products seem like an experiment. We'll make this thing, it will be pretty good, but we will do minimal in the way of getting it out there in front of consumers and then we'll be surprised when it doesn't sell and then they drop it.

    I want it, but.....

    • navarac

      In reply to xapache:

      US only of course, but even it was available here, I'm not going to even consider it, although I know HK speakers in my car are great. I've been bitten once too often now. Except for Windows maybe which I'm starting to think about weaning my self off, just in case !!!

    • krabago

      In reply to xapache: it's funny yet sad that I also feel exactly the same way about Microsoft's history with consumer products. I also want one but know it's probably a bad idea.

  26. eeisner

    Without any real marketing, the product is doomed. No one outside of the tech/MS world knows this device exists. Hopefully MS/HK put some money behind this, otherwise it is doomed to fail.

    I haven't gone smart home yet (just moved into a new condo), but am definitely thinking about where I want to invest. I definitely won't be investing in Cortana if MS shows no commitment to keeping the brand/product alive and comparable with Amazon and Google.

  27. mocavo67

    With the Cortana/Amazon partnership can we access Amazon services through this device or will soon?

  28. SteveM

    US Only. When will these companies learn that to succeed you need to be global; like their competitors.

  29. glenn8878

    Alexa will soon be coming to cars. I can’t wait. I would like to gain access to media in the car hands free.

    Cortana is too late and half baked. They need a low cost speaker that attaches to the home PC. They still don’t have Pandora access. They are so far behind.

  30. Tony Barrett

    This will turn out to be nothing but a half-hearted, poorly marketed, quickly forgotten attempt to break Cortana outside of the PC space. Personal Assistants need a tier 1 mobile service to make them work - MS doesn't have this. I'm sure it's well made, but it's Microsoft FFS. So uncool. So yesterday. Google and Amazon have this sewn up, and likely in a couple of years Google will be way out in front. Even Apple are years behind the curve here. Sure, the 'HomePod' will be seriously expensive compared to the rest, but it will have an Apple badge, so will sell to the ever faithful. Siri turned out to be pretty dumb after all anyway. Sorry MS - too late once again. I can't really see them selling many of these at all.

  31. Brandon Mills

    It's Windows Phone all over again. Microsoft, again, decides that it'd be best to hold off on getting a foothold early, and instead waits to put out a premium product. Google had a product out the door last year and updated it this year with serious updates. Amazon, the current market leader, is several steps ahead of Microsoft at all times.

    Where is Cortana Dot? Where is Cortana View? Where is the full force of MS behind this product that is being made by a third party? Does anyone who isn't an MS fan even know about this speaker? Why should they buy this one over the other ones? Especially the one that is integrated with that little store called Amazon that they already order everything from?

  32. JimP

    What OS is this running? Windows 10 IoT? Linux?

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