POLK COMMAND BAR SOUNDBAR
A COUPLE OF Consumer Electronics Shows ago I was visiting the booth of Sound United, the parent of Polk Audio, when a friendly executive invited me up a narrow staircase to a private meeting room. Once I was sworn to secrecy, a long, thin, black travel case was brought out and laid on the ground, and its buckles were snapped open for the big reveal. I half expected it to house a bazooka of some sort. Instead, what popped out was the prototype of a thin spear of a soundbar that appeared to have an Amazon Echo Dot sunk into its middle. Polk’s team was rightfully excited about their new project. The smart speaker was just beginning its explosive push into people’s homes, and no one had yet combined Amazon’s increasingly popular Alexa voice control technology with a soundbar. It seemed liked a perfect fit for the emerging market. So, in a way, it really was Polk’s new secret weapon.
The Command Bar was finally released for sale in summer 2018, concurrent with the launch of the Alexa-enabled Sonos Beam soundbar, which I reviewed in the September issue (see soundandvision.com). As the only two of their ilk, they beg comparison. But let’s first have a close look at Polk Audio’s Smart soundbar offering.
At $300, the Command Bar is priced aggressively and provides a robust feature set for its cost. It’s 43 inches wide by 2 inches tall and 4 inches deep at the middle, tapering off on both ends to about 3.25 inches. Build quality is typical for the price point: lightweight (just 5 pounds) with a molded plastic case, but with admirable fit-and-finish.
Polk’s soundbar has a pair of forward-facing active drivers mounted near each end: a 1.25 x 3.25-inch oval-shaped paper pulp midwoofer and 1-inch coated silk dome tweeter. Open ports on each endcap help to reinforce bass, but the bar is not meant to be used without the supplied wireless subwoofer, which sports a downfiring 6.5-inch paper pulp driver in a ported, molded cabinet. Despite its two-channel configuratioin, the Command Bar has 5.1-channel Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. There is no option to add discrete surround speakers.
There is, however, ample connectivity. You’ll find two 4K/ Hdr-compliant HDMI 2.0a inputs plus an HDMI Arc-enabled output, which allows direct switching of HDMI sources without forcing the TV to perform those duties (with possible denigration to the source signals), as is done with the Sonos Beam. There’s also an optical digital input for legacy TVS. One of the HDMI inputs is intentionally situated in a recess where an Amazon Fire TV Stick streaming dongle (or comparable product) can be plugged in and fully hidden, with a nearby active USB port supplying power. Alexa’s compatibility with Amazon Fire media players allows voice command for some functions, including searches, requesting content from specific streaming services, and transport controls.
The supplied, contoured remote is 6 inches tall and has a nice, solid feel. I was impressed with its ergonomics. Behind the sealed, rubberized face are membrane buttons alternately raised or recessed to allow the user to differentiate by feel in a dark room. Along with a volume rocker and mute there are dedicated buttons for the subwoofer bass level and for Polk’s patented Voice Adjust technology to sharpen dialogue. Four dedicated buttons activate Movie, Sports, Music, and Night listening modes, and there are also dedicated buttons to select the wired inputs or onboard Bluetooth. Play/pause and transport keys work with streaming music services or the aforementioned Fire TV Stick for track advance and such. The same keys also worked with my Oppo Blu-ray player thanks to HDMI-CEC.
Finally, an Alexa button at the remote’s top drops the volume and puts the Command Bar in listening mode in case it has trouble hearing your wake-up command over music or a loud movie soundtrack. I never really needed it: The speaker drivers are intentionally mounted at the bar’s ends to inhibit interference with the two-microphone, directional far-field array that captures voice commands, and it worked well for me. Although I sometimes had to raise my voice over really loud soundtracks, I mostly found the system sensitive even from long distances.
Beyond Polk’s remote, you’ll find that HDMI-CEC enables the volume rockers to work on the Command Bar if you pick up your set-top box or TV remote; no programming should be required for most leading TV brands. Alternatively, you can program any remote to operate the bar via an Ir-learning feature.
As for Alexa, once awakened you can ask her to change the volume, the bass/subwoofer level, and the
Voice Adjust. She’ll activate any of the listening modes, and also select any of the inputs, including Bluetooth.
It’s worth noting that, although the Command Bar’s control panel looks and behaves like an Echo Dot (right down to the multicolored light ring that acts as an indicator for volume and various other functions), it lacks the full voice capabilities of a standalone Echo smart speaker. As with the Sonos Beam, there are limitations pending ongoing firmware updates, which in this case includes Alexa voice calling and messaging. The Command Bar also lacks multiroom functionality to send music to other rooms via any of the usual platforms (Chromecast, Airplay 2, or even Amazon’s own MRM that allows sharing of music on some specified Echo speaker models; Polk says a firmware update for the latter is forthcoming). On the other hand, most functions you’ll want to control by voice are there, including home automation (via Philips Hue lighting and Wemo smart devices, for example), music
from the Alexa-friendly services (Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora, iheart Radio,
Tune-in), audio books from Audible, and the usual queries about the weather.
So, how does Polk’s Command Bar sound? Pretty darn good... for a $300 soundbar. To begin with, it was surprisingly authoritative. It played really loud and clean, having no trouble hitting peaks in the 95to 98-decibel range with both music and movie soundtracks in my large space. At loud but more typical volume, the Command Bar did a great job tracking dynamic swells and peaks when called upon by audio effects or a big crescendo. On the minus side, it suffers from at least one of the faults we generally complain about with soundbars: a lack of front-to-back image depth that would otherwise add dimensionality and body to instruments and vocals.
My only other complaint— also common with inexpensive soundbars—was that the supplied subwoofer couldn’t always keep up with the bar. It did go low for a small, plastic sub; frequency sweep tones in my studio revealed noticeable output at 40 Hz and above, and there was no obvious sonic gap at the crossover to the bar. On the other hand, while it delivered punchy impact with action movie soundtracks, it could also
'The Command Bar did a great job tracking dynamic soundtrack swells and peaks when called upon.'
sound one-notey and overwhelmed when pushed and didn’t do as well handling driving bass lines in music or orchestral scores. Fortunately, Polk’s controls provide some ability to adjust the sound. I found it best to keep the bar in its Music mode for all content, including movies, and then use the Bass and Voice rockers on the remote to optimize the sound. I also found that propping the front of the bar on my 26-inch-high TV stand for better aim at my ears improved its projection into the room.
Thus tuned, the Command Bar delivered a fairly wide and tall image that nicely matched the height of my TV’S 60-inch screen and went beyond its edges. The early battle scenes in Wonder Woman, in which Diana first crosses the No Man’s Land into German-occupied territory and then helps liberate the town of Veld in Belgium, is a non-stop frenzy of gunfire, exploding bomb shells, shield-deflected bullets, and crashing metal and concrete. The Command Bar brought it to life and delivered the effects with solid visceral impact. Dialogue was clean and well reproduced, and it was easily adjusted to taste with the Voice control, a click of which gave the vocals a touch of etching to help them stand out from background chaos without adding any edge to the overall sound.
Though the Command Bar is best-suited to TV sound, music on it was quite palatable. Even with compressed streams from my George Winston Radio station on Pandora, the bar exhibited good timbre and decay on piano notes, and only disappointed in its ultimate lack of fullness and dimensionality. When I got into feeding a variety of CD tracks to the bar via my Oppo disc player, I noticed that it was discerning enough to like high-quality recordings and not readily gloss over poor-quality ones; it wasn’t all-forgiving. But a superb recording like John Mayer’s “Movin’ On and Getting Over,” from The Search For Everything, projected Mayer’s huge, up-close vocal and gave impressive realism to the bluesy guitar links and finger snaps and other percussion. This is a $300 soundbar, after all, so it’s not a system that I would necessarily recommend to serious audiophiles. But as a secondary music system, it will satisfy even critical ears for day-to-day music listening.
After having positive things to say about the $399 Sonos Beam is the last issue, I made it a point to compare the standalone Beam (without extra-cost surrounds or subwoofer) with the Command Bar on some movies and music tracks. The Beam is a compact speaker (just 26-inches wide) that sounds reasonably full without subwoofer support and relies on spatial processing to spread its soundstage. It’s clear sonic advantage over the Command Bar is the extra dimensionality the processing imparts, which adds texture and weight to instruments and voice (helping to round out George Winston’s floating piano notes, for example). But the Beam couldn’t come close to matching the
Polk system’s visceral impact with bass effects, and it couldn’t play nearly as loud. Furthermore, the Beam’s spatial processing affects vocals, making them sound subtly but artificially reverberant and recessed. It couldn’t bring John Mayer into the room in quite the same way as the Command Bar did or provide the same level of midrange detail. Still, the Beam boasts other benefits, including the Sonos multiroom music platform and the ability to add surrounds or a subwoofer, albeit at significant cost.
If you’re married to the idea of an Alexa-enabled soundbar, both the Command Bar and Sonos Beam have their place and create engagement in a different way. But what can’t be questioned is that the Polk has serious chops, and, at $300, it noticeably overdelivers on features and performance. I don’t hesitate to recommend it.
Polk’s feature-packed soundbar offers Alexa voice control and above-average sound quality. For $300, there’s plenty here to like.