Earlier this year, my home was infested with smart speakers—I've used a lot of them at this point. But I’ve never used an Alexa device as dedicated to the cause as the Polk Command Bar, a soundbar that wants to be an Amazon Echo so badly that it’s practically in cosplay. It’s designed to look like engineers smushed an Amazon Echo Dot right into the center of it. In many ways, that's precisely what Polk did.
Polk worked closely with Amazon’s Alexa team for two years to design the Command Bar, and had to get special approval to place an Echo-style glowing blue ring, along with mute, volume, and action buttons front-and-center. It’s more than just an Echo Dot caddy, though: It’s a fully integrated, non-removable part of the soundbar, and that’s to ensure that the response time and sound quality are as high as possible.
Once you get over the desire to try and yank out that Echo-like centerpiece, the bar will quickly disappear into your home entertainment setup. The speaker is covered in black plastic with an unobtrusive dark gray fabric covering the speakers on the sides. It’s incredibly light, 43 inches long, and 2 inches tall, making it a perfect fit under most TVs 46 inches-and-up.
Inside that tube of plastic and fabric are two tweeters for high-pitch sounds and two woofers for most of the mid-range noises you hear in movies and music. For a bass boost, just plug in the included floor-firing wireless subwoofer, which has a tall (14 inches) rectangular look that makes it easy to place next to the TV, or your couch if you want to really feel the boom.
Whether you connect it with the included optical or HDMI cables, the Command Bar sounds good, especially given its relatively low $300 price. Both music and TV/movies are much more enjoyable than the speakers you'll find inside most any television sold today, with deeper bass and far more presence.
It’s an entry-level package that gets the job done. It can process surround sound audio, but it’s still only a 2.1-channel—stereo—setup. Polk emphasizes voice and dialogue quality, even replacing its treble adjuster on the remote control with the word “Voice,” but the speaker itself has a somewhat small soundstage compared to competing soundbars, like the $400 Sonos Beam. The Command Bar easily gets loud enough to fill a room, but it doesn’t quite envelop you in sound.
Oddly enough, despite the focus on voice, there were times when I had a little trouble understanding dialogue coming from the Command Bar, and had to turn the volume up (or voice up) to make it out. I was usually sitting on my couch to the side of the bar and TV when this happened, but it did feel like the audio processing was a bit odd, at times. The subwoofer also adds warmth, but can get overwhelmed and feel like it’s thudding more than adding depth and immersion.
There are many reasons to avoid the latest Transformers flick, but it was especially grating to hear Michael Bay’s constant explosions on the Command Bar, and difficult to clearly make out some of the poorly-written dialogue without jacking up the volume in the heat of the action.
Complaints aside, the audio is more than sufficient and it’s fantastic to get a subwoofer in the box, let alone full Alexa support, for $300.
All-In On Alexa
Polk wants the Command Bar wants to be the Alexa soundbar. You can tell that from how it looks, and how it acts. Setting up a third-party Alexa speaker is usually a hassle, but Polk tries its best to simplify the process. You still need to download a Polk Connect app on your iPhone or Android phone and sync it to your Amazon account, but you don’t have to enable any Alexa Skills to get it working.
Once it’s up and running, just say “Alexa” and the Command Bar will light up and listen. It can tell you the weather and answer any other question Alexa can, along with control any Alexa-enabled devices in your home. Its far-field microphones managed to pick up my voice even during loud movies, which was surprising.
A simple, easy-to-understand remote control is also included, and has options to turn bass and voice up and down, or switch to different modes made specifically for things like sports, music, or Bluetooth streaming. I liked that it also appears as a streaming option in your Spotify app, although Chromecast support would have really sealed the deal.
The remote even has an Alexa button if you don’t feel like yelling “Alexa” all the time, and most infrared TV remotes should work with it out of the box. I have a 7-year-old Panasonic TV that works with my Command Bar volume, no setup required, which felt magical when I realized it was working without any setup. I didn’t enter TV codes from a booklet and pray for the best. It worked like wireless tech should.
If you’re feeling bold, you can put the remote down altogether…sometimes. Most every function in the Command Bar is accessible via voice, and if you plug in a Fire TV to your TV or right into the HDMI 2 slot in the bar, voice commands will open apps like Netflix or play movies you specify. I recently asked Alexa to “play Spider-Man: Homecoming” for me, and it took me right to the movie's Amazon page.
When voice search works, it’s a lot of fun. When it doesn’t, it’s maddening. No matter how many times I tell Alexa I want to “play The Profit on Hulu on Fire TV” it never ceases to proudly take me to “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet on Netflix.” As good as that animated movie might be, I just wanted to veg out and watch Marcus Lemonis build a business empire on reality TV. After failing at easy tasks like this, I opted to skip voice commands for the reliable remote control.
Amazon’s new Fire TV Cube is its first TV product made for full voice navigation, but even it feels cumbersome. If you own a Fire TV Cube, there’s also no reason to buy the Alexa-enabled Command Bar. It’s made for folks with standard Fire TV sticks. Sadly, they lack the Cube’s numbering and on-screen voice cues, making full voice navigation impossible. Generally, the Fire TV is great at guiding you to Amazon TV shows and movies, but not so good at knowing you want to go to apps like Hulu or Netflix.
Compared to controlling the sound bar via voice, updating is positively seamless. The Command Bar automatically downloads firmware updates (the ring turns purple when it does), which often seem to add new features. A recent update enabled Alexa wake sounds—I prefer to hear that familiar “blong” sound when I summon Alexa.
Members of the Polk team told me they’re working with Amazon to enable more Echo-exclusive features on the Command Bar. Right now, it’s incompatible with Amazon’s multi-room audio feature, and can’t call other Echo devices or use alternative wake words, but Polk hopes to add those types of features eventually.
The Polk Command Bar is not the best soundbar money can buy, but if you treat the Alexa features like a bonus (you can ignore them if you want), it’s a decent buy for $300. The sound, while not as immersive as I prefer, is better than almost any TV speaker. Many soundbar setups also don't come with subwoofer, either, preferring to up-charge customers who want better bass.
If you’re hoping Alexa will revolutionize the home theater experience, reset your expectations. In a year or two, the Command Bar may be a lot more capable, but right now it’s held back by Amazon’s voice assistant, which isn’t quite ready to own the living room. Thankfully, if you just want better-sounding movies and TV, that's reason enough to invite the Command Bar into your home entertainment system.