In the battle for voice-assistant supremacy, Amazon’s feisty assistant Alexa has taken the lead over both Google and (especially) Siri, emigrating from Amazon’s own smart speakers and Fire TV streamers to third-party speakers, fridges, thermostats, and a host of other smart home devices. It was really only a matter of time before Alexa took on the living room and, as the folks at Polk figured out early on, one of the easiest access points to your living room is also one of its most popular products: The soundbar.
Polk’s new Command Bar, spun out of its MagniFi soundbar series, impressed at CES 2018 with its ability to control basic Fire TV operations with your voice thanks to an array of microphones — and what appears to be the top of an Echo speaker — built right in.
Unfortunately for Polk, both Sonos and Amazon got to the living room first; Sonos with its Beam soundbar, and Amazon with its Fire TV Cube streaming box. Both devices have already mastered Alexa to a large degree. Yet, as Polk is finding out the hard way, Alexa can be an unwieldy minion to control. While there are some great things about the Command Bar, you’ll want to read on before deciding to invest your $300 here.
Out of the box
As mentioned, the Command Bar appears to spawn from Polk’s MagniFi series, evidenced by what appears to be the exact same subwoofer that comes paired with the stout (and tiny) MagniFi Mini soundbar. That said, pulling the Command Bar from its L-shaped package reveals an aesthetic all its own, the most obvious design trait being the Echo-esque disc in the center, rimmed with LEDs to give you a visual cue that, yes, Alexa is listening.
The mics pick up Alexa commands impressively well.
At just under 43-inches wide, the fabric-sheathed bar dominates your TV stand, eschewing the subtleties of Sonos’ stubby Beam, but this also allows Polk to shove the speakers to the sides for a wider stereo image and less potential interference with the center-mounted microphones.
Accessories in the box include an HDMI cable, a digital Optical cable, and a rounded, rubber-topped remote control with AAA batteries in tow. It’s worth mentioning that most soundbars in this price range don’t come with HDMI cables, so thanks, Polk!
Features and design
Unlike Sonos’ stealthy Beam, which all but disappears beneath your TV, the Command Bar looks a tad awkward on display. The bar widens in the center for its microphone array and eye-catching control dial, while the ends stick out like tapered wings, capped with glossy sound ports. Controls loaded onto the Alexa disc include volume buttons, mute, and a voice button to call your digital taskmaster to action.
Wrapped in the Command Bar’s fabric frame are four speakers, including two oval-shaped woofers measuring 1.25-inches x 3.25-inches, and dual 1-inch tweeters, all powered by a claimed 260 watts. The subwoofer boasts a 6.5-inch down-firing driver pushed by 100 watts.
In a cubby at the back of the bar are an ample set of connection points — especially for a bar priced at just $300 — including an Optical input, an HDMI ARC connection to interface with your TV, and dual HDMI inputs, one of which is designed to perfectly fit a Fire TV Stick. Polk is so cozy with Amazon at this point that you can actually pick up a Fire TV Stick from Polk’s website, but if you have one of the newer Fire TV dongles (essentially shaped like a rectangular Chromecast) the side-mounted HDMI port makes for a rather awkward fit. You’ll want a Fire TV product of some sort to get the most out of the Command Bar’s Alexa functionality, though, and $40 is a pretty accessible entry point if you don’t already have one.
The Command Bar’s mics pick up your Alexa commands impressively well from their centralized location, even when video is cranked, but in case Alexa can’t hear you, the remote offers a call button and microphone. Other basics on the remote include volume, bass, and voice control, input switching, and buttons for each of four sound modes (including a night mode).
Setup: All together now
Due to the Command Bar’s need to interface with your internet network and other devices like the Fire TV, setup is a bit more involved than your average bar. Once you’ve plugged everything in and connected the bar to your TV via ARC HDMI with the included cable (or the optical cable if your TV doesn’t have ARC), your next move is to download the Polk Connect app and follow the instructions to hook up to your network.
For Alexa functionality, you’ll also need to register the Command Bar to your Amazon account (or create a new account) via the Alexa app. If you want to use Fire TV functionality, you must also link the bar and Fire TV through the app, making sure both devices are registered under the same Amazon account. Linking the devices is done through the app’s “Music, Video, & Books” section. We think this should be in the Settings section instead, but that’s certainly not on Polk.
Alexa, I’m sleeping
Alexa loudly calling out these dreadful words woke me out of a dead sleep on three separate occasions during the week the Command Bar was in my home. Anyone who’s seen the granddaddy of modern sci-fi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, knows all too well how menacing a few mundane words can be from the mouth of an “AI” in the wrong context. The first time it happened, I was searching the room for my baseball bat, before my brain clicked in and recognized what had occurred.
“TV HDMI!” are the dreadful words that woke me out of a dead sleep several times
As it turns out, according to Polk, the Command Bar’s “announcing the input name at unwanted times” is a known issue which “some initial unit users may have experienced.” A patch is in the works, slated for release within a “week or two” of publication. Though this was the most troublesome of the Alexa issues we encountered, it’s one of many indications (including a required update directly from Polk’s PR team when we got the unit) that the Command Bar’s software is essentially still in beta while Polk works out the kinks.
Our other gripes with Alexa control seemed to stem from either miscommunications or limited functionality. Unlike the Sonos Beam, for instance, you can’t turn on your TV with the Command Bar, a feature that really helps drive home the “hands off” lifestyle Alexa is designed to promote.
On the communication side, some functions are just picky. Turning the Voice Adjust dialog enhancer up or down demands a very specific command order: “Alexa, set Voice Adjust to 4,” and even when we performed the command correctly, Alexa didn’t give us verbal recognition. Other iterations, such as “Turn Voice Adjust up” resulted in comedic responses, such as “The Up was an American rock band formed in Detroit, Michigan in early 1967.” Interesting!
The point is, incorporating voice assistant commands into your home theater setup can be extremely touchy, even when working as programmed, which is why the high marks across the board for both the Sonos Beam and the Fire TV Cube (Amazon born and bred though it may be) are impressive.
We found volume control to be the Command Bar’s most useful Alexa feature. Raising volume with the “Volume Up/Down” command isn’t all that helpful as it’s only a minor tick in either direction but saying “raise volume to 50” or “lower volume to 20” can be quite useful. Of course, you’ll lose sound for some of the action while Alexa completes the command, but it’s definitely better than searching for a rogue remote — especially if you’re wandering in the kitchen. Alexa is also nice for switching inputs (though, we would have loved a visual cue outside the single LED in front), or sound modes.
We found volume control to be the Command Bar’s most useful Alexa feature.
Like other Alexa-supported speakers, the Command Bar also works great with Amazon Music or (if you’ve entered it as your go-to music service in the Alexa app) Spotify. In fact, Bluetooth streaming from the phone is where we enjoyed Alexa best, allowing for more intuitive interaction and more ambiguous commands; “Alexa, play Strawberry Fields,” instantly called up the Beatles tune without quibbling about the fact that the song’s actual title is Strawberry Fields Forever.
It should be noted, though, that while the Command Bar can perform broader Alexa tasks, like checking your calendar or even telling a joke, as with most Amazon third-party devices, it’s not an all-out replacement for an Echo speaker. Things it can’t do include voice calling, messaging, multi-room music, named timers and reminders, and a few other functions.
Sound performance is where the Command Bar really does punch above its weight (not surprising considering Polk’s pedigree in the audio realm), outclassing Sonos’ subwoofer-free Beam.
The Command Bar is especially capable at the far ends of the frequency spectrum, issuing the same full and musical bass we enjoyed with the MagniFi Mini, alongside clear and detailed treble. Little details like the jingle of a set of keys, or the tap of a heel on a smooth wooden surface really pop, while dialog is always front and center. In fact, throughout our testing, we never found ourselves reaching for the Voice Adjust controls (outside of Alexa testing, that is).
Thanks to its wide stance, the Command Bar also offers a fair bit of stereo expansion and movement, allowing for better immersion and realism for both TV and movies. The wider soundstage is especially handy for the suspension of disbelief with larger TV screens.
One place we’ll knock off a few points is at the middle of the sound, where the bar doesn’t offer as much warmth or dimension as we’d like. Depending on the scene, things can also get a little tight in the upper midrange, where sharper consonances occasionally border on distortion.
For the vast majority of our time, though, the Command Bar offered enjoyable and powerful sound with all the clarity in detail you could ask for in a bar of its size and price point.
Polk offers a one-year warranty for the amplifiers within its soundbars, along with a three-year warranty for the speakers.Our Take
Polk’s ambitious Command Bar offers impressive sound for the money and a boatload of features, but some bugs left in the Alexa system keep us from recommending you press the buy button just yet.
Is there a better alternative?
For those eyeing improved sound and worry-free Alexa control, Sonos’ Beam is the clear choice right now. Its sound may not be as full or powerful as the Command Bar, but it offers more Alexa functionality and — at the moment — better execution.
If you just want Alexa control for your home theater, we recommend you buy the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which uses CEC and IR blasters to go well beyond any other Alexa device for the living room, all at just $120. And in that case, might we suggest pairing it with Yamaha’s YAS-207? It offers killer sound, more cinematic audio features than either the Beam or the Command Bar, and the entire bundle will still only run you around $400.
How long will it last?
We’re hoping (and expecting) the Command Bar to age like a good wine as Polk sorts through the software troubles and locks in more (and better) Alexa features. As far as the build quality, we’ve had nothing but good luck with Sound United (Polk’s owner) in the past, and expect the same here.
Should you buy it?
No. While we’ll reserve judgement in the long term as new updates roll out, for now, Polk’s Command Bar just isn’t ready to run your living room.