Gadgets for humans

Polk Audio’s Command Bar is my favorite Alexa speaker yet

Every audiophile knows about the “sweet spot.” It’s a place, in your room, where a perfectly tuned home theater sounds its best. Polk Audio’s Command Bar hits a sweet spot for Amazon’s Alexa: it never sounded so good.

The Command Bar is Polk’s attempt at snagging anyone who wants decent sound with zero fuss combined with Amazon’s Alexa. It comes with a separate subwoofer that sports wireless connectivity to the sound bar. The setup also supports WiFi (for Alexa) and Bluetooth so you can connect it to other devices for audio playback.

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the Command Bar is that it looks like it had an Amazon Echo Dot surgically grafted to it. And that’s a good look! I hate sound bars. They’re the most boring of the speakers, just a slab that you jam in front of your TV. The Echo Dot gives it some much-needed pizzazz.

Its design is intuitive. This device was actually built with full cooperation from Amazon, and it shows. Alexa works exactly like it would in an Echo Dot and the Command Bar comes with a place to plug in a Fire TV stick or Fire TV 4K. It even has a USB port to power those devices. And it has two HDMI ports so that it can support more than just your TV.

It comes with a small remote control that can handle most of the basic functions of the Command Bar. This includes a button you can press to summon Alexa, great for those times when the audio is too loud for the built in near-field microphones to hear you.

But the remote is one of the few areas where I felt let down. The speaker is quicker to respond to voice commands than the remote, for starters, making it feel laggy. It also only seems to respond if you’re standing up, pointing it directly at the speaker, and your mind is empty of negative thoughts. I’m being hyperbolic with the last bit, but suffice to say I didn’t enjoy using the remote.

And I’m glad I didn’t have to. The voice control works perfectly. Even the speaker-specific commands like “Alexa, switch to HDMI 1” worked great. If you’ve used an Amazon smart speaker before, the Command Bar provides everything you’re used to. And, even if you don’t care about virtual assistants, it’s fantastic to be able to control the volume without getting up when you’ve misplaced your remote.

But enough about looks and brains. The most important feature of any audio device is sound quality, and there are certain expectations when it comes to a Polk Audio speaker. Or, in this case two.

Sound bar specifications:

  • (1) 260W internal amplifier
  • (2) 1.25″ (3.18 cm) h x 3.25″ (8.26 cm) w (Oval) – Mid/Woofer
  • (2) 1″ (2.54 cm) d (Round) – Tweeter
  • Height2″ (5.08 cm)
  • Width42.95″ (109.09 cm)
  • Depth4″ (10.16 cm)
  • Weight4.95 lbs (2.25 kg)

And the subwoofer’s:

  • (1) 100W internal amplifier
  • (1) 6.5″ (16.51 cm) d (Round) – Subwoofer
  • Height 14.43″ (36.65 cm)
  • Width 7.4″ (18.8 cm)
  • Depth 14.5″ (36.83 cm)
  • Weight 8.65 lbs (3.92 kg)

This system isn’t going to blow the roof off of your party pad, but under the right circumstances it might piss off your neighbors. However, to its credit, it’s also tuned with a night mode that allows you to turn voices up while keeping the lows from booming – so, you can use it without waking up your roommate.

Part of the beauty of the Command Bar is its simplicity. You don’t open an app and run a diagnostic to determine the spatial reverb in your room; you don’t go through a lengthy EQ process when you set it up. And you definitely don’t spend hours at a time tweaking things to get the sound just right. With this device you’ll spend more time getting it out of the box than you will setting it up.

It has a movie mode that brings the boom, a music mode that makes things a bit more crisp, and the aforementioned night mode that highlights voices while suppressing the thumpy sounds. And those are your only options for sound shaping.

Normally the lack of even a basic EQ would be a deal-breaker. But, here, Polk Audio’s experience shines through: the speakers are tuned very well. And they sound very good, stopping just short of great. I was a teensy-tiny bit underwhelmed by the sound stage of the sound bar – it’s better suited for movies than music.

But those lost points are instantly regained by the surprising grip of the subwoofer’s nuanced bass. I found myself cocking my head to the side like a curious dog as I listened to it thump and follow-through, without distortion. I was unable to reconcile the speaker’s small size and relatively low amplifier power with its rich bass. It shouldn’t sound as good as it does.

The total package comes up to something which, judged entirely without the smart speaker features, I would recommend as an upgrade to internal TV speakers or listening to music through a crappy Bluetooth speaker. This isn’t a bargain bin sound bar; it’s a decent home theater speaker that Joe Plumber can actually afford. And if you take the smart speaker features into account, it’s probably the best value around for anyone looking to get Alexa and a home theater setup — it definitely is if you’re also a Fire TV user.

Without question Polk Audio’s Command Bar is my favorite Alexa speaker on the market. It’s like a gateway drug for future audiophiles (in a good way).

You can get yours on Polk Audio’s website for $299.95.

Published August 3, 2018 — 15:34 UTC