Microsoft-Harmon answer to Amazon Echo is promising, pricey, and plays catch-up


Harman Kardon Invoke voice-activated speaker featuring the Microsoft Cortana digital assistant, a new $199 smart speaker rival to the Amazon Echo and other products.

“Of all the questions you could have asked…”

That’s how Microsoft Cortana, the digital assistant and female voice inside the new $199 Invoke voice-activated speaker from Harman Kardon, responded when I asked what she thought of Amazon Echo, the rival speaker it will inevitably draw comparisons to.

It was Echo and its own chatty artificial intelligence-infused assistant Alexa, after all, that started what is rapidly becoming an increasingly crowded market for such intelligent cloud-connected speakers. The speakers let you use your voice to set alarms and timers, turn on lights, list appointments, deliver the news and play music.

More:Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod — or all 3? How to choose a smart speaker

More:Watch out, Apple: Amazon announces new $99, Alexa-powered Echo

More:Sonos speaker now works with Alexa and soon, Siri and Google Assistant

Google’s been expanding its lineup of Google Home speakers with the Google Assistant. Apple is readying a HomePod speaker with Siri for a December release. And Amazon, which eMarketer credits with having about 70% of the smart speaker market, continues to spread Alexa’s voice around, on newer Echo products as well as third party models from the likes of Sonos, whose own new Sonos One speaker delivers excellent sound.

So Microsoft and Harman Kardon won’t have an easy go of it persuading consumers to give the Invoke speaker a listen.

That’s not to suggest that Invoke, which I’ve been testing over several days, isn’t a good product.

Excellent sound

For starters, I’ve been very impressed with the audio quality. And Invoke leverages Microsoft’s Skype to permit hands-free voice calls to mobile phones, landlines, or Skype capable devices, something I was able to do without a hitch.

Meanwhile, Cortana, which is the AI voice inside Windows 10 computers, makes a nice showing here, with an assist from Microsoft’s Bing search. (The operating system in the speaker is a variant of Linux from Harman Kardon, and not Windows.)

I like how you can tap the touch panel on top of the speaker to have Cortana deliver random and sometimes bizarre or funny tidbits, exhibiting a bit of personality while doing so. Cortana, for example, paid tribute to Dracula actor Bela Lugosi with a faux monster laugh. And upon saying that most humans cannot lick their own elbows, Cortana added that most humans will try licking their elbows upon learning this.

(It’s worth noting since Samsung owns Harman Kardon, that Samsung’s own AI assistant Bixby doesn’t have a presence on the device.)

Playing from behind

Still, there are several areas where Invoke and Cortana must catch up to the competition. The new speaker, for example, launches with more than 100 Cortana “skills.” But Amazon, which granted has had a huge head start, claims north of 25,000 third-party skills for Alexa.

Invoke doesn’t currently support multi-room audio, though the capability is on the product roadmap.

Price-wise Invoke comes in higher than the $149.99 Amazon is charging for a new Echo Plus model which doubles as a smart home hub. And the latest regular Echo is now down to $99.99. That may make it a tough sell.

On the other hand, Invoke is also priced lower than the premium $399 Google Home Max, or the $349 HomePod, both due out in December.

For its part, the cylindrical shaped Invoke speaker—the design is somewhat similar to the original Echo--blasts sound that is loud and pure. You can change the volume with your voice or twist a volume control ring. The 9.5-inch tall speaker boasts 360-degree audio, with three woofers, three tweeters, and two passive radiators. The seven far-field-capable microphones recognized my spoken requests—and the “Hey Cortana” wake phrase---from across a decent sized room.

One quibble: I wish the power cable were longer and the power brick a bit smaller.

And yes, Cortana is always listening but Microsoft says data is only sent to the cloud when activated through the "Hey Cortana" command.

Invoke also functions as a Bluetooth speaker that you can pair by voice.

At launch, Invoke works with Spotify, iHeartRadio and TuneIn, with Pandora likely to follow soon. Through Spotify, for example, I was able to request specific songs or musical genres, or play material from given artists.

It is also compatible with connected home products from SmartThings, Philips Hue, Wink, Insteon, and Nest; I successfully tested Invoke with a Nest thermostat.

Invoke handled many of the other basic tasks I threw at it. It added items to a grocery list, set reminders, read an Emily Dickinson poem, told corny jokes, indicated what the traffic would be on the way to work. and listed some nearby sushi restaurants.

It was mostly up to date delivering sports scores, too, though it messed up once when it gave me the right score but wrong inning during a Yankees-Astros playoff game. (It soon corrected itself).

Unfortunately, Invoke failed on certain other requests. When I asked for an apple pie recipe it said it needed to be updated to do that. Cortana said it couldn’t book an Uber  either. I had trouble setting up a few other skills inside the Cortana app on my phone.

But overall I was pleased, even if Cortana passed again when I asked once more for her opinion of the Echo. "Consider this a polite dodge of the question,” she said.

Email:; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter

The bottom line:

Harman Kardon/Microsoft Invoke


Pro. Excellent sound, Skype calling, Cortana

Con. Behind on some skills Expensive. Doesn't support multi-room audio. Short power cord