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Harman Kardon Invoke review: The first Cortana-enabled smart speaker is here

Presented with something more rock-oriented, however, the Sonos wiped the floor with the Invoke. The tight funk of Queens of the Stone Age's "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" sounded a little confused, distant and harsh compared to the Sonos. This is the kind of track where the Sonos shines.

Adjusting the volume via the turning dial feels good, but it's hard to get a great visual of exactly what volume level you're dialing to with a smoky LED circle. From a distance, it's difficult to see any light notifications, as the light on the very top is the only indicator of Cortana's activity. Seven microphones allow far-field listening and separate pipelines differentiate between audio playback and your voice. That means Cortana can hear you well from a distance and over the speaker's music.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Music streaming options are limited for now, though. You'll need Spotify premium in order to ask Cortana to play a specific song. Invoke also works with iHeartRadio and TuneIn, creating or playing stations per your request. With a Spotify premium account, you can ask Cortana to play a specific song. Pandora is not supported, but Harman Kardon says it is working to make it available.

Smart home shortfalls

Smart home control is where Invoke starts to lag behind. It currently supports SmartThings, Philips Hue, Nest, Wink and Insteon. That's not a bad start, and it will allow you to control lights, switches, outlets and thermostats. However, I'd like to see that list, as well as Cortana's set of skills, really expand. Harman Kardon say it's working with Honeywell, Ecobee, TP-Link, Johnson Controls, IFTT, Geeni, Iris by Lowe's and iDevices to integrate with Cortana. If those integrations happen soon, Invoke will be a much more viable smart home platform.

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Control your Nest thermostat with Cortana.

Chris Monroe/CNET

We tested the Invoke speaker with the Nest Thermostat E.  Connect your Nest account in the Cortana app and Cortana will adjust the temperature with phrases like "Hey Cortana, make it warmer" or "Hey Cortana set the thermostat to 68 degrees."

We tested Philips Hue's Cortana integration and while it did work well once we connected, that account connection process was significantly buggier. It took re-pairing the Hue bridge with a new e-mail in order to get things up and running. Once connected, Cortana can to turn on individual lights or a specific room, depending on what you've built in the Hue app.

An Alexa partnership

Perhaps the most interesting part of Invoke's debut is Amazon and Microsoft's announcement of future Alexa and Cortana interoperability. In August, both companies stated that by the end of 2017, you'll be able to open one virtual assistant with the other by saying "Alexa, open Cortana" or vice versa. From there, you would be able to interact with Alexa or Cortana-specific skills. This supposedly symbiotic relationship looks to fill in the gaps for one another, giving Alexa users the ability to tap into Office 365, Outlook and other Cortana productivity skills. Is that something consumers will welcome? Microsoft and Amazon certainly think so.

Overall, Invoke gets Microsoft and Harman Kardon going in the right direction. Factor in a growing set of skills and brand integrations, and the Invoke is on the right track. But the competition here is formidable: Alexa-powered speakers -- Amazon's own Echoes, plus Sonos and Ultimate Ears -- are on fire, Google's ramping up with new Home models and Apple's HomePod ($299 at Walmart) is just weeks away.

In that environment, it's hard to tell someone to run out and get the Invoke. On the other hand, the speaker's superior sound quality and the promise of additional smart home compatibilities and -- especially -- that forthcoming Alexa tie-up make this Cortana-enabled speaker one that we'll be revisiting soon. 

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