As any Alexa owner will tell you, having a voice-activated speaker in your house is pretty great. You can ask for the weather report, turn your lights off or request your favorite song. It has drawbacks too, including the speaker not "listening" as well you'd like, and in the case of Amazon's Echo line, delivering sound that's hardly worthy of your favorite tunes or movies.
Enter "smart sound bars." Not only are they designed to crank the volume up to cinema levels, but they can still hear you say "Alexa" without your having to shout. The Polk Command Bar is one of the first examples, although its release was overshadowed by the $399/£399/AU$599 Sonos Beam. Both sound bars have Alexa built in and improve your TV's sound significantly, and each has distinct advantages.
The Polk has the features to do pretty much everything you need a smart 'bar to do, including two HDMI inputs and the ability to switch between them with a voice command. The Command Bar is not as compact or pretty as the Sonos but then again looks aren't everything. It sounds better, and that's ultimately more important.
The Polk falls short of the Beam for multiroom music (a Sonos speciality) and flexibility -- Sonos already supports AirPlay 2 and will add Google Assistant later this year. Those capabilities could be worth the extra $100 for the right person, like someone who already owns a lot of Sonos or Apple gear. For everyone else, at this early stage in the smart sound bar race the Polk Command bar is my pick over the Beam for both sound quality and value.
The Polk Command Bar is available for $299 and comes with a free Amazon Fire Stick ($40). The sound bar will be coming to the UK later in the year for £349 and to Australia for an unannounced price -- I'd expect around AU$600.
It's hard to talk about the design of the speaker without first addressing the elephant in the room: yes, that thing that looks like anAmazon Echo Dot in the middle. It's not actually a Dot -- putting one of those inside a loud sound bar wouldn't work that well -- but the Polk's centerpiece is designed to look and act like Amazon's ring-topped device. The microphone array that lives inside is Polk's own design.
The Command Bar was created by the same team behind the excellent MagniFi Mini, and yet the only commonality is that the two sound bars share the same wireless subwoofer. The Bar's main speaker is pretty big at 43 inches wide and 4 inches deep. It houses a pair of 3-inch full-range drivers, flanked by two 1-inch tweeters placed at the extreme ends of the bar for better isolation from the microphones. The Bar's wireless 6.5-inch subwoofer is large and plastic but not unattractive.
The remote control is a step up from standard Polk fare and we liked its rounded feel. In addition to upgraded build quality, the clicker has a dedicated Alexa button. Unlike the Fire TV remote it doesn't have a microphone in it, but activates Alexa's listening mode on the sound bar. It's perfect for the times Sting is playing a little too loudly for Amazon's assistant to hear you say the "wake word".
While the shape of the sound bar is a little awkward for wall-mounting -- it needs to lie flat horizontally -- it is possible due to the included keyhole ports at the rear of the unit.
Polk wanted to call its first sound bar the Echo Bar, but according to the Polk representatives I spoke to, the name was ultimately shot down by CEO Jeff Bezos himself.
But what is in a name? Polk worked closely with Amazon on the speaker, both on its design and in designing new software to drive it. For example, Amazon has never had a speaker with multiple inputs before, and Polk wanted it to be possible to change between them with voice commands. As a result the Command Bar lets you change the input with just your voice, and more besides.
Compared with its stablemate the Polk MagniFi Mini, the Command Bar has a greater selection of features and connections. These include two built-in 4K HDMI 2.0b ports (4K HDR-compliant), one HDMI ARC output and an optical input for TV audio. One of those inputs is supposedly designed to accommodate a Fire TV 4K or the (included) Fire TV Stick and comes with a USB port for power, but it will also work fine with any other HDMI device, including Roku streamers. In addition the sound bar includes Wi-Fi (for access to Alexa) and Bluetooth.
Like the MagniFi series of sound bars, the Polk features numerous sound modes including the company's proprietary dialogue-enhancing technology, VoiceAdjust. In addition the sound bar comes with adjustable EQ settings for Movies, Music and Sports. Whether you use your voice or the remote, Alexa will announce the sound mode when you select it. At times asking Alexa to do things is a little clunky, but sometimes this is the only way to get functions to work, including the optical input ("Alexa, TV optical") and VoiceAdjust mode.
The biggest miss on the Command Bar's spec sheet is multiroom music -- the ability to work with other speakers around the house to play the same song simultaneously, or different songs in other rooms, and control it all with an app or voice. The MagniFi Mini has Google Chromecast's multiroom feature, but it's absent from the Command Bar, which also doesn't have any other multiroom protocols like Apple's AirPlay 2 or DTS PlayFi. We asked Polk about Amazon's Alexa multiroom feature, and they said they're "working to implement the feature" but they don't have specific timing though it's "a priority." If you want a smart sound bar that works as part of a whole-home system right now, the Sonos Beam is a better bet.
The best sound bars are ones that sound good with both movies and music, and while no affordable bar gets the balance perfect, the Vizio SB3621 and the Command Bar get closer than most. If I had to characterize the Command Bar, it would be as a home cinema bar first, and a music system close second. That's not a bad thing, as you'll most likely watch more TV than listen to Joni Mitchell if you're buying a system like this.
During my side-by-side comparisons with the Sonos Beam, I found that the Polk's wireless subwoofer helped provide extra low-end punch when it came to playing movies. It wasn't just good at boom-boom explosion time; the Polk sound bar also offered better dialogue intelligibility than the Sonos, which is even more important in most movie content. As I watched the supernatural thriller Crimson Peak, for example, the Sonos was able to convey a great sense of immersion, but it wasn't able to decode the specifics as successfully. The Polk managed to decode the spectral murmurings of the figure in Chapter 12 with ease, but the Sonos struggled.
The Sonos also exhibited its wider soundstage with music. Listening to a recording of Battles' "Atlas," John Stanier's drum kit sounded like it was recorded in a neighboring aircraft hangar, but the speaker was a little too screechy when the (admittedly-annoying) vocals came in. I wanted it to stop. The Command Bar seemed a lot smaller in size, but it distilled the drums and vocals into a more easily listenable shape. This trend continued with other tracks we played: the Beam sounded bigger, and the Polk more refined.
An important consideration when buying a smart speaker is how well it hears you when the movie or music is turned way up. In my listening sessions the Polk pulled out a little bit ahead of the Sonos. I almost never needed to use the voice remote with the Command Bar -- it usually heard me the first time, while the Sonos made me repeat "Alexa" at times. Responsiveness to the wake word did depend on content, and full-range music was harder than a television show for both speakers.
I also compared the Command Bar with Polk's own Chromecast-equipped MagniFi Mini, and the larger Command Bar again pulled ahead. The difference was most obvious with music. On The Mountain Goats' track "You and Your Memory," John Darnielle sounded even more adenoidal than usual on the MagniFi Mini. His voice gained a natural sound with the Command Bar that made it sound more like he was physically in the room. Due to its physical length -- with its drivers at the extremes -- the Command Bar also presented the music in actual stereo once the guitars came in, while the Mini just sounded like mono.
Lastly I tested the Command Bar's integration with the Amazon Fire TV Stick, plugged into HDMI 2 and the onboard USB, and set up on the same account and Wi-Fi. I was able to ask for TV shows, movies and apps without saying "Fire TV" and could fast forward and all the other things you expect from an Echo and a Fire Stick combo.
Though Polk's sound bar might seem a bit dinky -- like a plastic muffler with an Echo Dot squashed into it -- its performance is anything but. The Command Bar offers a big sound with deep bass and crystal-clear dialogue. It boasts better physical connectivity than the Sonos Beam and a more keenly focused sound for movies. It's also $100 cheaper.
Sure, the Sonos device looks a hell of a lot nicer, and offers features such as great multiroom streaming, but the Polk is the better deal for most people. Meanwhile, if the company continues to sell the MagniFi Mini, it may want to consider a $30-$50 price cut rather than risk it getting cannibalized by its own Command Bar.