The Netgear Orbi mesh Wi-Fi system has been busy banishing internet dead zones for years now, but there’s a new product in the range: the Orbi Voice smart speaker. It combines a satellite wireless access point with an access point, and has Alexa built in too.
In other words, it can help extend your wireless network into rooms struggling to get a Wi-Fi signal, and tell you the weather forecast as well. Netgear has also packed the Orbi Voice with some serious audio playing tech, which means it’s competing directly against the likes of the Sonos One as well.
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A wireless extender node, a smart speaker, and a music player all wrapped into one? It’s an appealing proposition, and we’ve been busy testing the Netgear Orbi Voice over the last few weeks.
Netgear Orbi Voice: design
The Netgear Orbi Voice fits right into the Netgear Orbi range – which means it’s big, tall, and difficult to hide away on a shelf. It’s definitely not an eyesore, but you definitely won’t miss it, standing nearly 23 cm (9 inches) high.
The speaker is covered with a tasteful grey fabric which we like the look of, and on top you get some simple controls for adjusting the volume, muting the mic, muting the speaker, and getting Alexa’s attention (of which more in a moment).
Around the back you get a pair of Ethernet connections if you need to cable up devices for more reliable internet access. It’s a very convenient way of adding connectivity to a room that was previously struggling to get online, and while the Orbi Voice is big, it’s not so big as to put you off.
There’s a coloured LED ring on top of the device that tells you when Alexa is listening, when it’s connecting to the router, when something’s wrong, and so on. Like everything else with the device, the LED ring is elegantly integrated into the package as a whole.
On the software side, Netgear’s Orbi app for Android and iOS is easy to get around and covers all the basics without really standing out in terms of design or intuitiveness. It lets you configure your Orbi devices, as well as add Alexa to the mix, and set up child controls for internet access if you need to.
Netgear Orbi Voice: Wi-Fi
The Netgear Orbi Voice comes with a Qualcomm IQP4019 Wi-Fi chip and together with the router device can cover an area of 418 square metres or 4,500 square feet, according to Netgear. The pair support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz streams and tri-band, 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
We managed to get the Orbi Voice (RBS40V) connected to the Orbi router (RBR50) without too much difficulty through the app, though it did take a couple of minutes. The RBR50 is the same device that comes with the standard Netgear Orbi mesh networking kit, and sets up a dedicated connection to the Orbi Voice, which should make for reliable speeds.
It should be noted that the RBR50 needs another modem or a router as well – it doesn’t connect straight to your broadband connection from the wall, but rather to a spare Ethernet port on your existing device. That means you can set it up without ripping out the router you’ve already got installed, and even have two Wi-Fi networks working alongside each other, if you like.
But does it actually work? Well, yes – it’s been speedy and stable in our testing, which involved connecting up a lot of phones and tablets and smart home gear to try and test the Orbi router and Orbi Voice to their limits. In terms of both stretching strong Wi-Fi to the corners of the house and keeping multiple devices connected at the same time, the Orbi Voice passes with flying colours.
In the bedroom furthest away from the router we were getting 22 Mbps speeds on our regular Sky Q network and 27 Mbps speeds from the Orbi Voice satellite – not the most scientific of tests, but it shows how the setup can give your network a boost.
Netgear Orbi Voice: Alexa
The strong and fast Wi-Fi performance of the Orbi Voice shouldn’t come as any real surprise – this is a hardware range that has long been one of our favourite mesh networking options, and considering it’s packed with the same tech as the regular Orbi satellite nodes, we weren’t expecting anything less.
It’s in the smart speaker capabilities that the Netgear Orbi Voice really begins to start looking like a compelling proposition. You can think of the Orbi Voice as just another Amazon Echo, once you’ve connected your Amazon account through the app, giving you everything from music playback to the latest sports scores.
And we’re pleased to report everything works as advertised. The time taken to respond to the initial “Alexa” command and the thinking time the Orbi Voice needs seems to be just a fraction longer than it is with a regular Echo, but it’s not a problem. Alternatively, you can get Alexa to listen by tapping a button on top of the Orbi Voice.
You can queue up tunes from Spotify or Amazon Music, set timers and alarms, hear your upcoming schedule read out to you, find out what the weather’s going to do, answer just about every query from the web, and so on and so on. If you’ve connected smart home kit to Alexa, you can control this too.
While not as stylish in terms of looks as the actual Echo range, the Orbi Voice is a very good substitute for one of Amazon’s own speakers. Alexa continues to get better and better over time as well, and recently we’ve been noticing the gap between it and Google Assistant going down to virtually nothing.
Netgear Orbi Voice: audio
Netgear has packed the Orbi Voice with a 35-watt amplifier, a 3.5-inch woofer, a 1-inch tweeter and a passive bass-reflex port, which have all been tuned and approved by engineers at audio legend Harman Kardon. On paper at least it should excel.
In reality the sound coming from the Orbi Voice is good without ever getting up to a great level – it’s much better than an Amazon Echo, but not quite as impressive as something from the Sonos range, for example
We tested the Orbi Voice with a range of different music and audio sources. Bass is strong and powerful but occasionally a little on the muddy side, while mids and trebles were respectably sharp most of the time. In terms of volume you’ll have no complaints: at top whack the Orbi Voice can easily fill a room or even a whole house or flat (if you live somewhere relatively compact).
There’s no Bluetooth here, so you’ll need to either play something through Alexa, or choose the device in Spotify on the desktop or your phone – the Orbi Voice appears as a Spotify Connect device, so if you use Spotify, playing tunes couldn’t be much easier.
Unless you expect the very best in audio quality, you’ll be perfectly happy with what the Netgear Orbi Voice can produce in terms of sound. There are obviously better speakers out there, but they’re very expensive too.
Netgear Orbi Voice: verdict
The Netgear Orbi Voice ticks a lot of boxes: it works well as a mesh Wi-Fi networking system (really well), as a smart speaker (really well), and as a standalone speaker (pretty well). Why buy three devices when you can get everything together in one?
The price is a steep ask when you compare it to other mesh networking systems, or other smart speakers, but as a complete package we think the Netgear Orbi Voice justifies the cost. At the moment, Netgear only offers the RBS40V Netgear Orbi Voice in a bundle with the RBR50 Netgear Orbi router, but it has said the speaker will be on sale separately at some point in the future.
If you’ve got an existing Orbi satellite network then, you’ll eventually be able to add the Orbi Voice as an extra satellite node without having to pay for another router. If your home isn’t already well supplied with smart speakers then you can do worse than get the Orbi Voice installed and boost your Wi-Fi at the same time.
On the other hand, if you do already have a selection of Amazon Echo and Sonos One speakers installed, then the Netgear Orbi Voice isn’t quite so appealing – its audio performance is undoubtedly good, but it’s not the best around, and there are no wireless protocols like Bluetooth or AirPlay here.
Overall though, the Netgear Orbi Voice is an impressive bit of kit, and something you’ll get years of reliable use out of. The only questions are whether it fits in with what you’ve already got set up, and if you can afford it.