Review: The Cortana-Powered Invoke Speaker Is A Loud, Pricey Alexa Rival

This is the year that the smart speaker phenomenon, popularized by Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo devices, becomes an all-out blitz.

As the holidays approach, new voice-controlled speaker offerings are popping up almost daily. Most are powered by Alexa or the Google Assistant (or by both, as in the case of the Sonos One, which will also work with Apple's Siri for good measure). Far fewer smart speakers are being developed using the Cortana assistant, which Microsoft wants to liberate from within the boundaries of the PC.

The Invoke smart speaker, from Samsung subsidiary Harman Kardon, is the first major Cortana-powered release coming to market, and we've been trying it out at the CRN Test Center.

[Related: Head-To-Head: Google Home Is Smarter Than Amazon Echo]

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As Harman Kardon is an audio company, the real focus with the Invoke is on sound. You can turn up the volume and audio quality won't suffer nearly as much as on the Amazon Echo or Google Home. There are three woofers (1.75-inch) and three tweeters packed in and, yes, the Invoke can get very loud. And even at high volumes, louder than most home or workplace situations would call for, the music sounds terrific.

The deep bass, in particular, is a major improvement over the Echo. And the overall sound blows away the Google Home and its modest speaker system (something Google is looking to remedy this winter with the Google Home Max).

One big drawback regarding music: At launch, the Invoke can only connect to one of the major music services, Spotify. Integration with Pandora is in the works, though. The Invoke will also connect to TuneIn and iHeart Radio. Unfortunately, that means the Invoke has fewer options for music services than the Echo or Google Home. Both of those speakers connect to Spotify and Pandora, as well as to their parent companies' music services (Amazon Music for the Echo, Google Play Music and YouTube Music for the Home).

So, for a speaker that is chiefly differentiated on its audio strengths, we're not thrilled with the small selection of music services.

Apart from the speaker setup, the Invoke can do a lot of the same things you'll find on the Echo or Google Home. Cortana is a competent assistant, able to answer many queries accurately, and is capable of being conversational too. For instance, when you ask Cortana, "Who directed 'Dances With Wolves?'" -- and she answers "Kevin Costner" -- you can ask "How old is he?" and Cortana will infer that you are still asking about the 62-year-old actor.

The Invoke is pretty easy to use as a scheduling and reminder device, with the ability to add items to your Office 365/Outlook calendar intuitively. If you're a Google Calendar user, you're out of luck, though.

Basic stuff like getting the latest news briefings and weather, and creating shopping lists, is all there with the Invoke. Some functionality is a bit weak, such as Cortana's response to the question "How's traffic today?" The answer: "I'll put a map of the traffic near you in the Cortana app." Not exactly helpful. Alexa's answer is to tell you the fastest route to your work address and how long it'll take.

One cool feature on the Invoke is the ability to make hands-free calls–including to mobile phones and landlines—just by asking Cortana to call a certain contact or phone number. The service is built on Skype, and the Invoke will come with free Skype credit to enable the calling feature. While the Echo also offers hands-free calling, it requires a fair amount of setup including connecting to your mobile phone. The Invoke starts working right out of the box and doesn't force you to connect to your phone.

In terms of design, the Invoke comes across as a slicker-looking version of the first-generation Echo. It's about the same height as the original Echo, and is a bit larger all around – with a wider circumference around the bottom half that narrows a bit as it ascends. It's still more on the industrial aesthetic end of the spectrum compared to the domestic look of the Google Home.

We do have some questions about the pricing. Will a lot of people be willing to pay $199 for the Invoke, when that's double the price of the second-generation Echo? The assistant functionality is pretty equivalent, with the Invoke even lagging behind in some areas. Users are paying all that extra money for the better speaker. Meanwhile, the Invoke is still $50 more than the forthcoming Echo Plus, which has an improved speaker over the base-level Echo, and $70 more than the Google Home.

Ultimately, the Invoke's closest competitor may be the Sonos One, which also purports to offer premium sound and has the same price of $199 as the Invoke. One key difference being: the Sonos One plans to give users the choice of three different assistants, as mentioned.

Still, for devoted fans of Cortana, Microsoft calendars and Spotify--who want better sound than the Echo or Google Home can offer--the Invoke is a perfectly fine choice for a smart speaker. Just don't count on it to help you plan your morning commute.