Review: Polk Command Bar Offers Alexa with Attitude
Polk Command Bar
A good first-generation smart soundbar. Works most of the time and delivers good sound when it does. Expected updated to clear up issues with connectivity and sound, but they have not.
Polk Command Bar: It used to be when a house started talking to you, it was time for a chat with the local priest or vicar about some spiritual cleansing. But now everywhere I turn, my home speaks to me through Alexa and an Amazon Echo of some sort, sometimes when I want it to, sometimes not. My latest Alexa companion comes in the form of the Polk Command Bar.
The most recent addition to our Echo collection arrived from Polk in the form of the Polk Command Bar. Polk provided this as part of our new venture, BestEntertainmentReviews.com which needed a good sound system to add the right aural dimension to the television shows and Blu-rays under review.
The Polk Command Bar is really two devices in one. First, it is a soundbar. It pumps out sound from a television, including good base via its wireless subwoofer. And like other sound bars, it acts as a Bluetooth speaker. Second, the Polk Command Bar is a giant smart speaker, which the Amazon Echo Dot-like puck controller in the center of the bar clearly broadcasts. The ability to check on scores, answer questions about shows we are watching to occasionally control part of the experience
Overall, the Polk Command bar offers great front-facing sound with a more subtle bass through its wireless subwoofer. The built-in Echo features are easy to dismiss
The 43-inch wide, 4-inch deep, slightly less than 5 pound Polk Command Bar acts as the primary sound for my Samsung NU8000 65-inch television, which is outfitted with a Blu-ray player, an Apple TV and an Amazon Fire Stick.
From a specification standpoint, Polk Audio’s Command Bar leverages wireless through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth®. It includes two built-in 4K HDMI 2.0b inputs (Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDCP 2.2 compliant), one HDMI (ARC) output and optical input for TV audio. Plenty of hardware options for inputs and outputs. You will need to find the right mix for your television and device configuration.
The connection from the television to the Command Bar comes through a single HDMI cable via the ARC connection. This allows the television to receive volume feedback for on-screen.
There is also a dedicated HDMI port for an Amazon Fire TV Stick, and a USB port to power it, which is an elegant solution to the growing number of dongles and boxes demanding their own HDMI port (not to mention making it easier to access these devices without moving the entire television). Switching to either the Polk Command Bar or the Fire TV Stick as input invokes the Amazon Prime Video interface.
All the physical connections line up along the read of the Command Bar, keeping its front-facing profile clean.
I also connected the Command Bar to my iPad via Bluetooth®. With a house full of wireless speakers, I’m not sure it’s going to be used very often for pure music output, but who knows.
The sound bar does come with hardware for wall mounting should that be preferred over a table top.
For most home media rooms, the Polk Command Bar will serve well. The sound bar’s two 1.25 x 3.25-inch full-range drivers, two 1-inch tweeters and a ported, wireless 6.5-inch subwoofer bring good sound to our X x X room.
It doesn’t deliver true surround as it has no rear speakers, but the simulated surround far exceeds the capabilities of any built-in television speakers. While the sound bar doesn’t include a full equalizer, it does support built-in configurations for night, movies, music and sports which tweaks the components to maximize rich sound or dialog, for instance.
It would not be fair to compare the Command Bar to other speakers, but I can compare it to my old, jury-rigged stereo connected via an optical adapter that supports 5.1. That old 5.1 system blows away the volume and overall immersive experience of the Command Bar. But you know what, unless I’m watching Marvel’s Infinity War again, I don’t tend to turn it on. The Command Bar has become the de facto sound system because of its integration. Main clicker. Hit power. Watch.
Polk made the Command Bar a good citizen of the all-digital world. Volume control, the most used of the devices features, works with the Samsung television remote, the Xfinity remote and the Logitech Harmony Universal Remote. It also comes with its own remote that includes volume and base, along with the ability to invoke Alexa.
Unique voice controls start with the far-field microphone that picks up the Alexa prompt even during most loud action scenes.
For those who like each device to have its own remote, Polk includes a remote that supports volume for main sound and base, sound mode switching and an Alexa wake button that invokes the device’s microphone (unlike the Xfinity remote, you talk to the device not the remote). The remote also supports the switch to night mode, mute and input switching.
Voice commands include input switching, sound mode, volume and base levels and voice adjust.
Natural language voice control gets called into question when everything has voice control. Alexa is good at what it does, but it is competing with Samsung TV’s Bixby and Xfinity’s voice remote, which end up being more integrated into the overall viewing experience than Alexa. I tend to use Alexa to ask unrelated questions like weather, keep up with sports scores and turn on lights if I’m watching something after the home automation has already turned out the bedroom lights. While doable, using it to control the Harmony remote features just seems like passing off one service to another when the remote is right there to just do it.
My Polk Command Bar experience hasn’t been without its issues. Because it is always listening, it hears my daughters name which can sound close to Alexa. The sound of the television show or movie then disappears as the device seeks further input. We end up saying “Alexa stop” more once than during long viewing sessions.
The version of Alexa that comes with the Polk Command Bar also doesn’t support multi-room speakers, which isn’t a good thing when its the best smart speaker in the house. It also doesn’t support announcements or voice calling.
I have also experienced some WiFi connectivity issues which require a reboot of the device, which I have also seen in Echo dots, but not in the full-sized Echo devices which recover well from WiFi outages and other wireless hiccups.
I have also just had my sound go out from the Command Bar and switch to the television speakers. A quick reconnect from the television audio to the Command Bar remedies the drop, but it isn’t clear why this is happening. I’m working Polk engineers to figure it out and I’ll report back when I know more. The sounds also gets choppy occasionally, requiring an exit and re-entry to the channel being watched.
A great addition to our entertainment room for sound. Alexa functionality proves secondary to audio quality and Fire TV Stick integration. If you need a well-priced soundbar with good sound and advanced features, like Alexa that barks beyond its price tag, then the Polk Command Bar should be on your shortlist.
At $299.95, the Polk Command Bar offers a good value even without the Alexa features.
Alexa offers a voice upgrade to a soundbar that would be worth the price without the Alexa offering. The sound is as good as other speakers in this class without the Alexa functionality. The ability to mount an Amazon Fire TV Stick on the back of the speaker creates an elegant solution to the growing number of devices hanging off HDMI ports.
Lack of optional rear speakers for true surround sound a downside. Software issues like the inability to configure the Alexa wake word and support for multi-room streaming makes the Alexa integration less compelling.
The Sonos Beam offers the closest competition to the Polk Command Bar. While the Beam includes support for AiPlay from iOS, it doesn’t include Bluetooth. It also ships without a wireless subwoofer. At $399 the Beam doesn’t offer the flexibility or features of the Command Bar. Add-on the optional subwoofer and the Beam’s price jumps to $1,098. With that comparison the Polk Command Bar doesn’t just look like a real bargain, it is a real bargain.
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Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.
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