Polk React Soundbar review: Alexa’s favorite affordable audio upgrade
A simple, effective system with room to grow.
Soundbars offer a simple way to upgrade the wimpy sound your TV pumps out of its relatively tiny speakers. And while soundbars are great on their own, they can’t quite compete with the audio output you get from a full surround sound system. The Polk React soundbar handily beats your TV’s built-in audio all by itself. But, this Alexa-enabled speaker allows you to build an entire setup piece-by-piece if you find yourself bitten by the surround sound bug.
What is the Polk React Soundbar?
Alexa compatibility allows for simple voice commands. Stan Horaczek
Right out of the box, the Polk React soundbar looks a bit like an Amazon Echo product. The soundbar itself sits 34 inches wide by just 2.2 inches tall. Nearly the whole thing sports a subtle gray fabric wrap, not unlike what you’ll find on Amazon’s first-party Echo speakers. The circular button array on top also strikes a resemblance to an Echo Dot.
At $250 retail, this isn’t a pricy soundbar, though it’s designed to compete with more expensive models including the excellent-but-expensive Sonos Beam. Polk touts the Alexa connectivity as one of its main features and it’s actually required if you want to get the best performance out of when you’re streaming music (more on that later).
The bar is just the start
In addition to the React soundbar itself, Polk also offers supporting gear to help build out an entire surround sound system. You can add a $200 wireless subwoofer, and a $200 pair of surround sound speakers to create an entire room full of gear for roughly $650 total. You don’t need to jump in fully if you’d rather add just the speakers or the sub. This kind of flexibility scores points in the Polk’s favor.
For this review, I spent some time with just the soundbar and then with the entire system built out.
Attaching the soundbar to your TV is dead simple. The primary connector is an HDMI ARC. You’ll want to make sure your TV supports HDMI ARC before taking the plunge. It won’t make a huge difference when it comes to sound quality, but remote control compatibility can get a little wonky over optical. If you have a TV built in the last decade, you probably have at least one ARC HDMI port, but it might be just one so check the labels on your set or in your manual to get the right connection.
It’s also worth noting that you can’t use both the optical and the HDMI on the Polk soundbar at the same time. Polk intends you to connect the soundbar to your TV and let that one connection do all the work. You don’t even get a headphone jack, though, that kind of connectivity has become much less important now that no one has iPods and smartphones stopped offering analog jacks.
Alexa joins the party
Once you plug in the power cable and the soundbar turns on, the Alexa app should automatically see the Polk soundbar and guide you through the process. Our test unit needed an update and Alexa told me about it and then automatically applied it. It’s a very easy setup. It’s almost Apple-level easy.
I can say the same for the other components in the system as well. As soon as the rear speakers and sub had power, they started trying to hook up with the soundbar. I had to re-pair the sub once because something got weird, but it was smooth sailing from there.
Digging into this Polk soundbar hardware
That understated fabric cover consoles a pair of mid-range speakers, two tweeters, and two passive bass radiators. This is a fairly barebones arrangement compared to some of the more advanced models out there that have a dozen or more meticulously placed speakers throwing sound in every direction around your room. Those also typically cost considerably more than $250.
The accessory speakers of this Polk soundbar take a similarly basic and utilitarian approach. The sub is a black box that’s plain enough to fade into the landscape of your living room once you’re used to it. The rear speakers look, well, like speakers. If you’re looking for something truly designer or space-age like the Apple HomePod, you’re best to look elsewhere.
Let’s watch some movies
Before you dig into your favorite flicks, you’ll want to choose one of the preset sound options the Polk React soundbar offers. Music, movie, and sport modes accompany a special night mode that’s designed to make your rumbly sound system a little less offensive to the rest of the people in your house or apartment building.
I didn’t notice massive differences between the three main modes, but the night setting does seem more subtle than the rest. Sport also dropped the bass a bit in the mix, but it keeps the highs bright and clear so it’s easier to hear people talking.
I chose the stylish action flick, Gunpowder Milkshake on Netflix to really give the soundbar a listen. On its own, the React provides plenty of volume and punch–the gunshots had the jarring impact the filmmaker intended. When it comes to immersion, though, experienced audio ears may start to notice the relatively small number of drivers inside. You’re essentially listening to a pair of stereo speakers inside the bar, which means you don’t get quite the same in-your-face effect that comes from a system with a true center channel.
Adding the secondary speakers to this Polk soundbar
Once you attach the surround speakers, the React system predictably offers much better immersion. Each speaker packs a single driver inside, which keeps the units relatively compact. Since this was a review, I simply sat them on shelves behind my couch, but you could easily permanently install them if you don’t have a surface on which to stick them.
The subwoofer also did its job, pumping out decidedly more rumble during on-screen explosions and anything else with lots of low-end. The soundbar itself relies on passive radiators for low-end, which easily bests your TV’s built-in speakers, but can’t compete against something with real power behind it.
Interestingly, you’ll notice that the system changes the soundbar’s output to accommodate the subwoofer’s presence in the mix. The soundbar pumps out less low-end to get out of the sub’s way, which is smart and happens automatically.
I found the sub’s output punchy and clean, but it did get a little muddy when I first set it up directly next to my TV cabinet. Moving it around and giving it some space around the unit helped make it sound tighter and cleaner.
What about music?
I use Spotify as my main music streaming service and this Polk soundbar plays nicely with Spotify connect. As a result, I had no issue connecting and playing tunes via my phone or using Alexa voice commands. Alexa doesn’t support every platform, however. So, if you’re relying on YouTube Music or Apple Music to pump out jams, then you’ll have to rely on the React’s built-in Bluetooth connection. Hooray for platform-specific features.
Overall music playback sounds good but not mind-blowing. If you’re relying on the bar itself, it certainly sounds better than listening through your TV or even most of Amazon’s own Echo speaker line. Because Alexa finds itself so integrated into the soundbar, however, it does support features like whole-home audio. That’s a big selling point for pricier soundbars like the Sonos Beam and you can get it cheaper here if you’re committed to the right platforms.
I played some Kendrick Lamar and my daughter opted for some Neutral Milk Hotel in order to get a feel for the sound. The sub comes in clutch when listening to bass-heavy music, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The extra rumble wasn’t as necessary with more guitar-driven tracks.
Weirdly, the included remote has controls for tweaking bass levels, volume, and highs (which it calls “voice”), but it doesn’t include any music controls for play/pause or skipping tracks. You can do so using your voice and Alexa or control it via your phone, but buttons would have been useful.
Ultimately, the React offers some really handy wireless features, which makes it feel like a Sonos system, even if it doesn’t quite sound like a Sonos system.
Who should buy this Polk soundbar?
For $250, the Polk React soundbar represents a fairly profound upgrade over most built-in TV speakers. Add in the subwoofer and the accessory speakers and you’ve got a fairly great-sounding system for the same price as a Sonos Arc soundbar on its own.
There are some tradeoffs. It doesn’t support the popular Dolby Atmos surround format, which has gained wide support over the past few years. It also pretty much requires that you buy into the Alexa ecosystem to get the most out of it. If you’re already heavily invested in Apple’s HomePod ecosystem (you’re probably not) or the Google’s Nest Audio platform, then you should probably look elsewhere.
If you’re coming in fresh and you want a dead-simple, but very noticeable bump in your home theater sound, then the React will get you there and leave you with money left over to rent some movies. Might I recommend Encino Man?