What is the Orbi Voice?
I can see the kids arguing now: “You got your smart speaker in my mesh network! No, you got your mesh network in my smart speakers! It’s two-two-two great technologies in one!”
The Orbi Voice is a new offering from Netgear that ups the ante on their existing Orbi mesh networking product. A mesh network uses interlinked router and satellite units to blanket your home or office with Wi-fi connectivity that helps prevent dead zones, and improves bandwidth all over the covered areas, rather than allowing for the drop-offs one commonly experiences the further you get away from a single router.
The Voice kicks that up a notch by turning one of the satellites into an Alexa-enabled smart speaker. So, for example, instead of having an Echo in your kitchen connected to the Wi-fi router in the den, you’d have an Orbi Voice in the kitchen that features Alexa, as well as providing additional signal strength to the family room and other adjacent spaces.
How Does the Mesh Networking Work?
Prior to installing an Orbi mesh network in our home, we had a single wi-fi router in the garage (the easiest place for the hard-wired connection to come into the house) that fed all 1,860sf of our home. One really noticed some drop-off in signal strength and bandwidth in the far corners of the house, including our master bedroom, which could be annoying when streaming to our TV. Upgrading to the Orbi, and adding satellites evenly spaced through the house, made all the difference in the world. We have full signal and really solid speeds everywhere in the house. Mesh networking is different than simply having a repeater or extender elsewhere in the house, as there is just one network for the whole house, rather than the extender creating its own, separate, and often overlapping network. Orbi also delivers significantly faster performance because the satellites have a separate radio link to the base station for returning data from your devices.
How Does the Smart Speaker Work?
It’s just like having an Echo in the room. Except, it’s like a Super-Echo! First of all, it’s a very nice Harman Karden speaker, so the sound that comes out of it is very good. Certainly not thumpy with bass (that would probably defeat the clarity of Alexa’s voice), but clean, crisp, and clear, with enough power to fill a small room with sound. Second, the voice recognition seems to be extra-accurate. For example, we have the Voice in the kitchen, and we have an Echo dot in the living room, about 30 feet away, through a doorway. More often than not, when I’m facing the Dot in the living room, and give it a command, it’s the Voice in the kitchen that responds. Of course, it’s all the same network, so everything works just the same, but it’s certainly indicative of the quality of the mics on the Voice that it’s so accurate.
The Orbi unit looks like a post-Apple designed monolith from 2001. It’s off-white, vertically lozenge-shaped, and has a glow-y circlet on top that changes color to tell you what’s going on. It’s certainly less technical looking than most routers (no antennae pointing off at odd directions), and obviously wants to be as much a piece of art as a gadget on a shelf, but how it fits into your decor will vary. The Voice speaker is its slightly-shorter, wool-clad English cousin, and definitely looks more attractive out on a counter or shelf, which makes some sense since it’s more likely to be placed somewhere in the middle of your home. Someday, though, it’d be nice if someone made one of these that also worked as a container for small houseplants, or maybe a remote control caddy, just so they didn’t stand out so much.
Is the Orbi Voice Worth the Money?
To be frank, the Orbi system overall is not cheap. The existing setup for the Orbi mesh network (1 router, 1 satellite, no Voice unit) runs about $329 (this is the higher-speed set), where a good stand-alone router can be had in the low $100 range. However, the mesh networking really does work well, and the Orbi system is one of the best-rated versions on the market. [Note: before being offered the Voice for review, we had already purchased an Orbi system, and have been very satisfied with it.] Now, the Orbi router plus Voice satellite/smart speaker costs $430, which is a pretty decent chunk of change. If you already have an Orbi network, and want to add a single Voice unit, you can pick one up for $299 (starting at the end of October). Again, it’s pricey, but it’s in the price neighborhood of the better Bluetooth speakers out there, and it both boosts your Wi-fi and adds an Alexa unit to your home.
Added Bonus: Parental Controls by Disney
One last perk is that the Orbi systems are compatible with the Circle with Disney parental controls system, that allows parents to set up comprehensive protections for their kids’ Internet usage, including time limits, filtering, and much more.