POLK COM­MAND BAR SOUND­BAR

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - By Rob Sabin

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.

SOUND QUAL­ITY

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.

COM­PAR­I­SON

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.

CON­CLU­SION

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.

The Ver­dict

Polk’s fea­ture-packed sound­bar of­fers Alexa voice con­trol and above-av­er­age sound qual­ity. For $300, there’s plenty here to like.

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