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Polk Omni SB1 review: Sound bar makes movies thrilling and intelligible

If you're looking for a higher-end sound bar with excellent movie sound, advanced streaming features and full control of the intelligibility of dialogue, then the Polk Omni SB1 fits the bill well.

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Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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5 min read

Not many sound bars cost as much as the Polk Omni SB1, but not many perform as well, either. Its wireless sub provides plenty of movie punch and its VoiceAdjust feature, which actually helps to make muddy dialogue intelligible again, is one of its best features.

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7.5

Polk Omni SB1

The Good

The Polk Omni SB1 is an elegant sound bar that presents movies with gusto. The VoiceAdjust feature is great for boosting the intelligibility of movie and TV dialogue. The addition of Play-Fi enables advanced streaming features with better sound quality than Bluetooth. The wireless sub has its own volume control, which enables tweaking according to the content you're enjoying.

The Bad

Despite the high price, the main unit is plastic and may not fit all decors. Due to the small size of the woofers some lower-mid warmth is lost. The unit lacks Bluetooth and the Play-Fi app isn't as intuitive or fully featured as Sonos' app.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for a higher-end sound bar with excellent movie sound, advanced streaming features and full control of dialogue intelligibility, then the Polk Omni SB1 fits the bill well.

Beyond sound quality the Polk is a striking-looking sound bar which offers some wireless streaming-music features, including Play-Fi and Spotify Connect, while also taking a big one away: Bluetooth.

Sure you can get better performance with music for half the price with the Pioneer SP-SB23W , but that sound bar can't match the Polk's home theater impact. As long as you don't miss Bluetooth, the Polk delivers enough features and cosmetic enhancements to make the high price worth it for the right user.

Design

There are two schools of thought when it comes to designing audio components: one is to make it blend in, and the other is to make it a statement piece. Since the Omni SB1 isn't your typical nondescript black box, it sits in the latter category, but it's by no means obnoxious or ugly.

To our eye the SB1 has a touch of science fiction about it with the "viewing deck" rectangle in the center and winglike shape. The color scheme is gunmetal gray and the aggressive look is punctuated by the metal grille across the front. Unfortunately the rest of the body is plastic.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The sound bar has a full set of controls on top and a series of LEDs across the front that "illustrate" several functions. It looks cool, but an alphanumeric display would have been more useful.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While it looks very similar to the cheaper Polk MagniFi, the SB1 features both a larger subwoofer and a wider SurroundBar (43 inches versus 38 inches). The 14-inch square subwoofer is wireless and comes in the same gray color scheme as the 'bar.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The remote control is a small credit-card-style clicker with not one but three (!) different volume controls -- one each for bass, the VoiceAdjust feature and overall system level.

Features

The Polk Omni SB1 is a 3.1-channel sound bar that features a voice-boosting feature called VoiceAdjust, which is designed for boosting dialogue in movies or vocals in music. The VoiceAdjust is a combination of a simple volume control for the center channel and signal processing to elevate vocals from background noise.

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Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Another notable feature is the inclusion of the Play-Fi streaming standard, something the cheaper MagniFi doesn't have. Play-Fi first launched in 2013 as a competitor to streaming hardware manufacturer Sonos and offered streaming from phones and network devices. It can also access streaming services such as Pandora and Internet radio stations, and is controllable by a dedicated Polk Omni app.

The platform recently added Spotify Connect, which, in the glaring absence of Bluetooth, will probably be the most often used streaming feature on this device.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The SB1 lacks HDMI, like most sound bars, but even so its connectivity is a little skimpy. For physical connections you get a 3.5mm input, an optical port and a USB slot -- which can be used to charge mobile devices or connect an Ethernet adapter. Wireless connectivity comes in the form of dual-band Wi-Fi.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Given that the sound bar has the DTS-owned Play-Fi system, it is a little surprising to find that it can't decode a DTS audio stream from DVDs or Blu-rays, and we confirmed this with testing. The Omni SB1 is Dolby Digital only.

Performance

The Omni SB1 is a midprice sound bar reaching for high-price quality, and it almost gets there. When we compared the Omni SB1 with the very best current sound bar, the significantly more expensive Definitive Technology W Studio , the Omni SB1 put up a good fight.

Polk makes big claims for its VoiceAdjust Technology, which lets you set the Omni SB1's center speaker's volume level relative to the left and right channels' volume via the remote. Not only that, there appears to be some equalization and processing applied to dialogue to enhance intelligibility. Most of the time we preferred the sound with VoiceAdjust set to near the minimum level, but it's easy to make adjustments on the fly to achieve whatever level of intelligibility enhancement you require. VoiceAdjust Technology might be especially useful for poorly mixed movies or for people with hearing loss, who can ramp up voice level as much as they need it. Bass level is also adjustable from the remote.

The scenes where Jake rides a flying banshee on the "Avatar" Blu-ray demonstrated the Omni SB1's home theater muscle. The thundering rush of the waterfalls sounded powerful, thanks in large part to the Omni SB1's potent subwoofer. Dialogue was clear, even in scenes where Jake battles the Hammerhead Titanothere.

For comparison we switched over to the Pioneer SP-SB23W sound bar and wind, dialogue and the banshee's flapping wings sounded clearer, compared with the thinner Omni SB1. However, the OmniSB1 produced a wider soundstage and thanks to its bigger sub, bass sounded deeper and more visceral.

The difference in bass was especially evident with the car chase scene in "Batman Begins," where the SP-SB23W could not keep up with the Omni SB1 when it tried to deliver the full force of car crashes, screeching tires and the throaty roar of the Batmobile's engine. The SP-SB23W can't touch the Omni SB1's high-impact home theater prowess.

The tables turned with Peter Gabriel's "New Blood: Live in London" concert Blu-ray. The SP-SB23W sounded more accurate and had better soundstage depth, bass definition and bass clarity than the Omni SB1. It wasn't bad, but the SP-SB23W was better. The much more expensive Definitive Technology W Studio system ran circles around both sound bars, it had deeper bass, more extended treble and superior dynamic range.

Finally, we were taken aback by how good the Omni SB1 sounded with two-channel music. Jazz, rock, even classical were all well served by the Polk. A lot of sound bars suck the life out of two-channel music, so it sounds thin and small, but the Omni SB1 maintained its composure better than most.

Swapping to Play-Fi, things were a little hit-and-miss. On the plus side music sounded just as present as it did with disks, and with Voice all the way down and the sub at about a third, vocally led music sounded especially captivating. Only a lack of upper bass meant that particularly strident tracks could be overly screechy or lacking in warmth, and vocals tended to get lost when instruments were mixed hard left and right -- potentially a Digital Sound Processing issue.

Conclusion

At $700 the Omni SB 1 is at the higher end of the sound bar scale, but it has the looks and sound quality we expect at that price. It's pretty simple to use and the Voice Adjust feature works very well. Our main reservations include the lack of Bluetooth and the occasional unreliability of Play-Fi, but otherwise it's a strong choice.

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7.5

Polk Omni SB1

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Sound 8Value 7