Polk Audio has made a name for itself with solid budget- and mid-range audio equipment, and over the past year, it’s been dipping its toes into the smart speaker segment. Its latest connected offering is the Polk Assist, a $200 speaker that’s basically a Google Home on steroids – at least on the audio front.
Given that the Home now costs just $100 (down from its original price of $130), the Assist is twice as expensive as Google’s own offering. I put the Assist through its paces over the past few weeks to see if it delivers twice the aural pleasure for its asking price.
Design and features
The Assist is a little taller and wider than the Google Home, and comes in somber shades of black or gray. Unlike the Home, you can’t dress it up with interchangeable panels. That said, it feels solid and well built, and the four buttons (volume, play/pause, and the Assistant invoke button) are easily accessible on the top panel.
The overall design isn’t anything to write home about, but I like the way it looks on my home entertainment console just fine. I do wish it came in more interesting hues, though.
As far as functionality goes, the Assist is on par with the Home: it responds to voice commands and questions, controls your smart home gadgets, and lets you beam audio to it via Chromecast and Bluetooth.
Setup works just the same, too – once you’ve plugged it in, you’ll need to configure it through the Google Home app on your phone to get started. So yes, you’re not getting any bells and whistles for the extra cash you’re spending over and above the Home’s asking price.
The Assist sounds great for a mono speaker of this size. It gets a fair bit louder than the Home, while delivering considerable detail and clarity. It’ll easily fill a bedroom or a small living room with sound, without straining much at either end of the spectrum. It also easily outperformed Amazon’s $84 Echo and the larger $100 Echo Plus.
That said, I’d have preferred a rounder sound profile that eased off on the treble a bit. And since this is a mono speaker, you’ll find that it has considerably less headroom than anything with a dedicated subwoofer for bass – like the Polk Audio Signa S1 soundbar that my review unit sat next to in my living room.
That’s not a fair comparison, but this is a more expensive Google Home alternative, and I mentioned that last bit just so you know you’re getting a decent upgrade and not a world of difference.
However, it feels like Polk dropped the ball on the far-field microphone array that’s supposed to help the speaker pick up voice commands from across the room. It works well enough when there’s nothing playing or if you’ve got the Assist set to a low volume – but it won’t be able to hear you at 80 percent volume or higher, and you’ll have to pause playback through your phone or the onboard buttons before you can talk to Google Assistant. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it annoyed me every time I received a call or had to answer the door.
Who’s the Polk Assist for?
If you’re sold on the idea of a smart speaker and don’t want to settle for what Google’s shilling at $100, the Polk Assist offers better audio quality and higher output for double the price.
Unlike the two cheaper Home speakers which feel like they’re fine for listening to podcasts while I cook, the Assist actually has me excited to settle into a little listening party for one in my living room with new and familiar albums alike.
Since the price of the Home dropped, this no longer feels like the best bang for your buck. If Polk had built in a couple of extra features – like an AUX input to connect other audio sources, or an AUX out to give your older speaker system instant Chromecast capabilities – I’d have got on board far more easily. Still, it’s a solid little speaker that can put a smile on your face if you’re all about that wireless streaming life.
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