At first this seemed like an odd name for a home theatre soundbar: the Polk Command Bar. What’s ‘command’ got to do with anything? But it soon became clear why it is so named. This isn’t just a soundbar to reproduce audio. You can talk to it.
For the last year or two everyone’s been talking about smart speakers — speakers to which you can give verbal commands. You tell them to do something (within their capabilities), and they go and do it. Often that means simply asking them to play some music. Sometimes it might be to control some other smart device in your home.
Mostly everyone has focused on the smart speakers from the main vendors of the competing technologies: Amazon (with its Alexa system), Google (Assistant) and to a lesser extent Apple. Their speakers aren’t too bad for what they are: compact all-in-ones. But we, who like our music, want more. So some home theatre receivers now accept commands from Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, or both. But you still need a device from the system vendor to listen to your voice.
But not with the Polk Audio Command Bar. This has Amazon Alexa built in, so you can give
it commands directly. We will return to all that, but we should point out that Polk Audio is a long-standing loudspeaker company, so the Command Bar works perfectly well as a soundbar, quite independently to the Alexa thing.
The bar is a little over a metre wide and only 50mm tall. It can be wall-mounted thanks to a couple of slots on the back ready to hook over screws, so could sit quite neatly under a wall-mounted television. The body seems to be a sturdy plastic, and it weighs a little over two kilograms.
Inside it has two 32mm × 83mm oval midrange drivers and two 25mm tweeters. Polk Audio calls this a driver ‘array’, so we’re not certain if there may be some fancy processing going on in there. They are provided with 160W of power.
Bass is handled by a separate 100W subwoofer that connects wirelessly. This has a downwards-firing 165mm driver. The subwoofer enclosure is ported and also fairly light in weight at less than 4kg.
On the top is a four-button control cluster of the kind that appears on Amazon’s own Echo devices. Two buttons are for volume level and one is an ‘Action’ button. That makes Alexa pay attention and mutes the sound. The final button stops Alexa from listening. An LED ring around the control cluster shows moving lights conforming to standard Alexa practices.
There are two HDMI inputs and one HDMI output. All support Ultra-HD Blu-ray standards. An optical audio input provides for older TVs. A USB socket provides power for devices. There is no analogue audio input.
The subwoofer is pre-paired to the soundbar. You just power it up and after a few seconds a small green light comes on, indicating that the connection is operational. There are pairing buttons to re-establish the connection should things somehow go wrong.
Included with the Command Bar is an optical cable and a HDMI cable, so it’s ready to connect to your TV one way or another.
speaker unit is required, because
the Polk is not merely Alexa-ready,
it has Alexa inside.
To get going with the soundbar as a soundbar, things are utterly simple. Plug the parts in, make sure your TV has CEC/ARC switched on, and that’s it. Your TV sound will come out the sound bar instead of the TV’s speakers. Change to the relevant input on your TV and relevant input on the soundbar and you can play back your Ultra-HD Blu-ray discs. The Command Bar understands PCM, Dolby Digital and DTS audio. If you’re playing a disc with DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD, the player will know from the HDMI connection about the formats supported, and use the DTS/Dolby Digital alternative audio.
The other side of things requires a special Polk app, which is free from the app store relevant to your phone or tablet. This requires you to sign into, or create, and account with Polk. And then it guides you through setting up Alexa to work with the soundbar. We aren’t huge Alexa users, only having installed a couple of Echo Dots, the smallest of the Alexa gadgets. However it took us less than five minutes to get set up. In short, the app will have you select the Command Bar as an access point, you’ll enter your Wi-Fi network password and then the app will use this to connect the Command Bar to your Wi-Fi network, switching your phone back to its former connection.
You will also need the Alexa app on your phone in order to manage Alexa functions. You’ll probably get a free trial of Amazon Music Unlimited. (We’ve long since used up our free trials, so we use Spotify.)
Once we’d completed the set-up, we asked the Command Bar what the time was: ‘Alexa what’s the time?’ She answered almost instantly. Then she said she needed to update herself. That only took a couple of minutes. Oddly, according the Alexa app, afterwards the Command Bar was running ‘Device Software Version 0’.
Then we told her to play Spotify. She said she would but then she hung with the blue light rotating around her status circle. We did what we always do when anything computery plays up: we rebooted the bar.
There is no power switch. The Command Bar stays on all the time, at least at some level, so that Alexa can listen for her name. So to reboot we pulled the power, waited a minute and then plugged her back in. After the Command Bar was fired up we said ‘Alexa Play Spotify’. After a few seconds, some random Spotify music appeared. It wasn’t to our taste. So, ‘Alexa, play Amanda Palmer on Spotify’. Success.
We figured we might as well connect our phone via Bluetooth. How? ‘Alexa connect my phone’. She then talked us through it. The connection was via the SBC codec. There is no hands-free calling capability.
The Command Bar was remarkably good at hearing us. Even when we had music blaring at a quite high volume, near the limits of the unit, and we were sitting across the other side of the room, we could say with moderate force ‘Alexa’ and she’d mute the sound and listen. It seemed to us to work significantly better than any Google Assistant speaker we’ve yet tried. But if it can’t hear you, you can press the ‘Action’ button on the remote control, and that will lower the volume and have Alexa listening intently.
Obviously the Command Bar is connected to the network and can stream certain audio services from the internet (TuneIn radio is another). But it is not compatible with such things as DLNA or AirPlay.
Want to watch something from the set-top box plugged into HDMI 2? ‘Alexa, switch to HDMI 2’. You’re across the room and the remote isn’t to hand, and the phone rings. ‘Alexa, pause the music’. Or ‘Alexa, volume down’. Or ‘Alexa, mute’.
Just as we were typing that, Spotify’s random selection of Amanda Palmer tracks came to her 2013 TED Talk. It’s a wonderful talk, but it’s hard to write while such a thing is going on. So, ‘Alexa, next track.’
For listening you can choose from three different playback modes: music, movie and sport. (Press the remote button or tell Alexa to change mode.) The differences between them were fairly modest. Polk is a hi-fi company, so it would seem to want to keep things as accurate as possible. We generally used the Music mode, even with movies.
The remote also has three level controls: volume for playback level, bass to set the relative subwoofer level, and ‘Voice’ to adjust the centre channel, if there is any.
Given the hardware constraints imposed by the modest cost of this system, Polk has done a fine job of engineering. It has made a soundbar that sounds nicely balanced, with reasonable bass. When we played things like Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’, there was quite good detail and again that smooth, respectable sound. The bass was clean and clear, and extended enough to convey the kick drum with reasonable authority.
It was much the same with movies. Vocal clarity was excellent, music smooth and the impact of action content was fairly good.
The limitations of the system come when you try pushing it hard. Up at very high levels the sound harshened noticeably and lost some of its composure. So not suitable for the true home theatre room, especially as there appears to be no attempt to fake surround sound.
But what it will do is enhance the sound of any TV quite enormously. We used the Command Bar with a TV packing a rather good harman/kardon-designed collection of speakers. There’s no way we’d want to return to using that TV’s built-in sound system after having employed the Command Bar.
Want to improve the sound of your TV and truly move into the third decade of the 21st century
in one inexpensive move? Say hello to the Polk Audio Command Bar.
Polk Command Bar
+ Smart Alexa control
+ Good, inexpensive upgrade for TV sound
+ Excellent ability to hear commands despite loud playback
- No support for streaming local media via AirPlay, DLNA or Chromecast
Rated power: 160W for the soundbar, 100W for subwoofer
System frequency response: 40Hz-22kHz
Soundbar drivers: 2 x 25.4mm tweeters, 2 x 32mm by 83mm oval bass/midrange
Subwoofer driver: 1 x 165mm
Inputs: 2 x HDMI, 1 x optical digital audio, Wi-Fi
Outputs: 1 x HDMI
Other: USB for powering devices
Soundbar dimensions (whd): 1091 x 51 x 102mm
Soundbar weight: 2.25kg
Subwoofer dimensions (whd): 188 x 367 x 369mm
Subwoofer weight: 3.92kg
Distributor: Westan Australia