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

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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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.

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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