Netgear Orbi Voice Review: Mesh Favorite Adds Alexa

Netgear takes a good thing and makes it better by adding speakers and Alexa voice control to the company's Orbi mesh router kit. While the muddy sound can't compete with what the likes of Sonos produce, the Orbi combines enviable range with top throughput. At $430, the Netgear Orbi Mesh WiFi System with Orbi Voice Smart Speaker (RBK50V) can fill a home with data and tunes.

Netgear Orbi Voice Specs

Wi-Fi Spec802.11ac/tri-band mesh kit with speaker extension
Number of Antennas/Removable6/No
PortsFour 1Gbps LAN, USB 2.0, power
ProcessorQuad-core 710 MHz
Memory/Storage512MB/4GB
Wi-Fi ChipQualcomm IPQ4019
Peak 802.11ac Performance607.2 Mbps
Range105 feet, router only
Size8.6 x 6.5 x 4.9 inches

Design

The latest member of the popular Orbi family, the Orbi Mesh WiFi System with Orbi Voice Smart Speaker (RBK50V) may have a mouthful of a name, but it combines the powerful Orbi RBR50 router with the new RBS40V speaker extension. Currently available only as a pair that sells for $430, the RBS40V speaker extension will soon be sold on its own for $300.

If you thought that Netgear's Orbi original RBR50 router was as big as home networking gear gets, think again. The RBS40V extension is more cylindrical, measures 8.6 x 6.5 x 4.9 inches and is about one-third larger. It looks enormous compared to the likes of the Samsung SmartThings or Eero mesh disks and is roughly double the size of the Sonos One extension speaker, which lacks the Orbi Voice's networking abilities.

Inside, the RBS40V extension has not only Netgear's signature tri-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi gear, but also a 35-watt amplifier, 3.5-inch woofer, 1-inch tweeter and passive bass-reflex port. This Orbi has been tuned by engineers at Harman Kardon and is covered in an inoffensive gray fabric. Along the top is an array of four microphones that listen for Alexa commands.

The colored LED ring on top of the Voice satellite glows blue when everything is working well and Alexa is listening for a command. When this ring glows white, the router is ready to connect to an extension, but if the LED blinks red, something has gone wrong with the device.

This Orbi has been tuned by engineers at Harman Kardon. Along the top is an array of four microphones that listen for Alexa commands.

Each Orbi device has six antennas and high-power signal amplifiers to grab weak signals. The RBR50 router is rated at AC3000 and can work with up to three extensions. It sets up 2 x 2 streams for its primary 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands as well as a 5-GHz 4 x 4 backhaul portal between the extension and the router.

The back of the RBR50 router has a power port, an on/off button, a recessed reset key and a sync button for connecting with extensions. There's a good assortment of ports, including one input (for a broadband connection) and three output gigabit-Ethernet connections (for downstream networked accessories). The Orbi also has a USB port for a printer or data drive, but this port uses the older USB 2.0 spec.

By comparison, the RBS40V extension gets by with a pair of Ethernet connections. The back has power, reset and sync keys, while the top has on/off buttons for its microphones and speakers. There's also a button to get Alexa's attention.

MORE: Best Smart Home Hub

You can increase and decrease the volume by sliding a finger over the semicircular volume control, but there's a lag of a couple seconds. On the downside, neither device has a headphone jack, RCA audio or Toslink connections to plug in off-the-shelf speakers.

Performance

Based on Qualcomm's IQP4019 Wi-Fi chip with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage space for firmware and settings, the Orbi RBR50 sets up an 802.11ac network that can move up to 3 Gbps. This Orbi uses MU-MIMO techniques to satisfy several clients, and it uses beam forming to customize the signal to the receiver's hardware. Together, the RBR50 and RBS40V can fill a 4,500-square-foot home, according to Netgear.

Overall, this kit tore through our networking testing using Ixia's IxChariot benchmark software, which simulates a busy network. Able to deliver 607.2 Mbps at 5 feet, the RBK50V Orbi Voice kit outdoes its cousin, the RBK40, and its 543.5 Mbps as well as the Eero's 573.7 Mbps, beating them by 11 percent and 6 percent at the same distance.

RBR50 continues to lead where it counts, with 563.9 Mbps, 543.6 Mbps and 498.9 Mbps available at 15 feet, 50 feet and 100 feet, versus 451 Mbps, 450 Mbps and 250.3 Mbps for Eero. At 150 feet, the Orbi RBR50 had throughput of 359.9 Mbps compared to Eero's 229.9 Mbps, a 36 percent advantage.

On the other hand, the Orbi RBR50 fell short on our penetration tests, delivering 361.2 Mbps through a metal wall. The Linksys Velop kit outperformed the Orbi, with 560.0 Mbps, or 35 percent more throughput. Similarly, the RBR50 pushed 430.5 Mbps through a soundboard wall (versus 550 Mbps for the RBK40) and 376.5 Mbps up a floor (compared to the Eero's 471.2 Mbps).

With a RBS40V satellite connected, the pair pushed 355.1 Mbps in a single-hop topology. That's 25 percent off the pace set by the Orbi RBR40 router connected to an RBK40's extension. This coverage was enough to fill my 3,500-square-foot home. The Orbi router had a range of 105 feet, slightly off the RBK40's class-leading 125 feet.  

It ran without a problem over a week of daily use and easily passed our informal saturation test, in which I played an internet radio station on a Macbook Air and videos on a Surface Pro 3 and iPad Pro tablets while a Samsung TabPro S moved data on and off a network-attached storage system. Even when I listened to music through the Orbi Voice's extension speaker, the sound and video played without a skip, stutter or dropout.

MORE: Best Smart Home Deals

While impressive in terms of networking, the Orbi RBSV40's audio quality was muddy and lacked the midrange richness that the Sonos One does so well. You can't use two RBS40V extensions to create stereo sound, which you can do with the Sonos One, and you're limited to using only two extension speakers.

Setup

Netgear continues with one of the easiest setup procedures for creating a mesh router network, but with the Voice extension, the process has grown to over 15 minutes long. The pre-paired devices ease the installation and allow the use of an iOS or Android app or a connected web browser; to get started, type, "orbilogin.com".

Netgear continues with one of the easiest setup procedures for creating a mesh router network, but with the Voice extension, the process has grown to over 15 minutes long.

With the RBR50 router connected to my broadband connection and located next to the RBS40V extension, I powered both up and started the setup process with the iOS app on my iPad Pro. After agreeing to Netgear's license and deciding to use two-factor authentication but not my Facebook account to log in, I snapped the QR code on the router's bottom to install the Orbi app.

Once the router rebooted, I connected my iPad Pro to the router's Wi-Fi network using the password printed on the underside of the Orbi unit. The software scanned and found the router, and I entered the number of satellites I had. After a second reboot, the software found the Voice extension, and a couple minutes later, it was set up.

Because Orbi devices come with semirandom network names and passwords, for security's sake, it's a good idea to change these settings. I finished by answering two security questions and declined the offer to use the same password for the network as for entry into the administrative settings.

After a final reboot, everything was set. I loaded the Circle app for parental control and moved the units to where I wanted them to live. The speaker extension worked like a charm 65 feet from the Orbi router, connecting my entire home.

With everything set up, I logged in to and synced the gear with my Alexa account.

I asked Alexa to tell me the weather and turn the router's guest network on and off. Then, I kicked back to stream music from my Spotify and Amazon Music accounts. The Orbi also works with Pandora and iHeartRadio but not with music on a phone or a networked server.

Configuration

As is the case with the setup, customizing and configuring the Orbi can be done either with its app or online via the browser interface. Regardless of which you use, the main dashboard screen not only shows which extensions are connected, but also has links to online clients, a network map and rudimentary Wi-Fi settings.

I particularly like the internet speed test and that you can quickly change the password. Unfortunately, the app lacks more-technical things, such as ways to adjust the router's maximum-transmission unit or perform port forwarding.

If you dig deep into the app's interface, you'll find presets for five different types of music, as well as treble and bass adjustments for the extension's speakers. A full graphic equalizer would have been better for adjusting the Orbi's output.

There's also a link to Disney's Circle parental controls, but I was flummoxed by having to go between the Netgear Orbi app (for monitoring and customization) and the Circle app (for parental control). With the free Basic edition of Circle, you can block ads, set up a profile for each member of the family, pause an internet connection for dinnertime and set a variety of types of subject matter as off limits for children.

If you want to track overall web usage and set up a bedtime, when the web is turned off automatically, you'll need to pay $4.99 for the Premium edition. There’s a one-month free trial of that edition.

Smart-Home Integration

While Orbi lacks a consolidated home-automation interface, which is a key feature in other mesh routers like Samsung's SmartThings, it can use Alexa as a voice interface. After logging in to an Amazon account, I was able to turn the router's guest network on and off.

One of the best-performing mesh kits around, the Orbi Voice is easy to set up, uses Alexa voice control, and can be configured with a browser connection or an app.

Like other network-equipment makers, Netgear includes a one-year warranty with its Orbi gear, and you can summon help from the Orbi app. On the downside, Netgear offers only 90 days of support, which is enough for all but the hardest setups. Orbi's competitors include at least a year of support. There's a handy Voice manual as well as 24-hour support technicians waiting for your call, email or chat session.

MORE: Best Amazon Alexa Skills - Top 50 Cool and Useful Things Alexa Can Do

Bottom Line

Netgear Orbi Voice breaks new ground for home networking by combining voice interaction with a mesh router and a speaker satellite. One of the best-performing mesh kits around, the Orbi Voice is easy to set up, uses Alexa voice control, and can be configured with a browser connection or an app. However, the kit's sound is less than ideal.

At $430, the RBK50V kit is an integrated alternative to a separate data network and wireless speakers. It excels at performance and is more than adequate at listening for Alexa commands and playing music. This kit is unique in the world of home networking but remains one of the most expensive and largest networking devices you can buy for the home.

Credit: Netgear/Tom's Guide

Create a new thread in the Off-Topic / General Discussion forum about this subject
No comments yet
Comment from the forums
    Your comment