Can add a wireless subwoofer and surround speakers
Night mode and voice volume level adjustment
No Dolby Atmos, DTS-X, or DTS Virtual:X support
No eARC support
Remote control’s flat buttons are difficult to find in the dark
With its clean and nuanced sound, built-in Alexa with multi-room audio functionality, and support for additional speakers, the Polk React now ranks as our favorite budget soundbar (at least until something else beats it).
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Polk Audio has made a name for itself by churning out top-quality audio gear at reasonable prices, and the sweet-sounding yet affordable Polk React soundbar is another example.
Costing just $249 (and at press time, it was on sale for $199), the Polk React arrives with impressive sonics that belie its budget price range. While there’s no Dolby Atmos, the Polk React makes the most of its four drivers, delivering detailed, supple sound and impressive bass for an all-in-one soundbar. And if you want to upgrade the React’s audio, you can add Polk’s optional wireless subwoofer and/or surround speaker kit (more on that in a bit).
While the Polk React lacks object-based Atmos sound, it does come with built-in Alexa, allowing you to not only check the weather and control smart home devices but also tee up tunes from Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, and other streaming services. The React can also join Alexa speaker groups, a nifty trick for a sub-$300 soundbar.
The Polk React isn’t the best choice for those who want their living rooms swimming in immersive Dolby Atmos sound; for that, you’ll need to up your budget by a couple of C-notes. But with its clean and nuanced sound, built-in Alexa with multi-room audio functionality, and support for additional speakers, the Polk React now ranks as our favorite budget soundbar.
The Polk React comes with a four-driver array that powers the left, center, and right channels, including two 96 x 69-mm mid-range drivers and two 25mm tweeters, while a pair of 110 x 100-mm passive radiators provide the low-frequency effects.
The React supports both Dolby and DTS audio, and it also packs in Polk’s virtual surround-sound technology, but it does not support object-based Dolby Atmos or DTS:X audio, which means you’ll have to do without immersive 3D sound. In fact, Polk Audio only recently bowed its first Dolby Atmos soundbar, the Polk Audio Signa S4, although its existing MagniFi 2 soundbar (read our Polk Audio MagniFi 2 review) does boast a 3D audio mode that delivers virtual height cues.
You can upgrade the Polk React with the wireless React SubRemove non-product link ($199) and/or the Polk SR2 wireless surround kitRemove non-product link (also $199). Adding both the subwoofer and the surrounds to the React will turn it into a full-on 5.1-channel system. Of course, ponying up for the extra speakers will jack the total price up to $650 (as with the React itself, these optional speakers are frequently discounted), and in that price range, you will find some enticing soundbars that do support Dolby Atmos. Polk supplied me with both the Reach Sub and its SR2 wireless surround kit for evaluation, and I’ll discuss their performance later in the review.
Inputs and outputs
Sitting in a rear cavity of the Polk React’s main housing is a single HDMI-ARC interface, along with an optical (Toslink) input for legacy TVs that lack HDMI outputs. There is also a USB-A port that supports firmware updates only.
Because the React has only the one HDMI-ARC port, you can’t connect video sources (such as streaming video sticks, game consoles, and Blu-ray players) directly to the soundbar; instead, you’ll need to connect your video sources to the HDMI inputs on your TV, which can then send audio back down to the soundbar via its own HDMI-ARC interface (an HDMI cable is included in the box).
Unfortunately, the React’s HDMI-ARC port doesn’t support eARC, an “enhanced” version of ARC with the bandwidth to handle lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. If you’re more into streaming rather than physical media, however, the React’s lack of eARC support won’t matter that much, given that Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are typically found on Blu-ray discs rather than streaming services. If eARC support is a priority, however, you’ll need to spend more on a pricier soundbar, and don’t forget that your TV must also support eARC.
Installation and setup
Measuring 34.02 x 4.76 x 2.2 inches (WxDxH), the Polk React has a compact, low-profile design that should allow the unit to sit in front of most TVs without blocking the bottom of the screen; even with my low-slung LG C9 OLED TV, the top of the 2.2-inch-tall React barely grazed the bottom edge of the display.
Another option is to mount the React under the TV, and the soundbar has rear mounting holes for that very purpose. A mounting template and a pair of spacers are included, but you’ll need to supply your own screws.
I had a couple hiccups connecting the Polk React to my home wireless network, but the process was still relatively simple. Once I had the soundbar powered up, I opened the Alexa app on my phone, and I was immediately greeted by a “Polk React Sound Bar can be set up” alert.
Following the prompts, I was instructed to scan a QR code on the back of the soundbar; I did so, but within a few moments I got stuck with a “Provisioning Failure” warning. After one more failed attempt with the QR code, the Alexa app prompted me to pick a Wi-Fi network (which I’d previously added to Alexa) from a list, and the connection then proceeded smoothly, no wireless password needed.
If you choose to pony up for the React Sub and/or Polk’s SR2 wireless surround kit, they’re easy to get up and running. You just plug each speaker into a power outlet (the power cords are long enough to give you some latitude in terms of placement), press and hold the Connect button on the back of the React, and then press and hold the corresponding Connect button on one of the speakers. Within a few seconds, Alexa reported that the speakers were ready to go.
Buttons, indicators, and remote
Sitting on the Polk React’s top panel is a circular, four-button interface that might remind Alexa users of an older-generation Amazon Echo, complete with a microphone mute button, two volume buttons, and an “Action” button that can wake Alexa as well as stop timers and alarms.
Moving to the React’s front panel, there’s a long, thin light bar that glows blue whenever Alexa is listening or speaking. The light bar also serves as a volume indicator that glows white when you press the volume buttons.
Just below the light bar is a multicolor LED that flashes depending on the input source, the audio format, or the sound mode. For example, the LED glows white when one of the TV inputs (either HDMI-ARC or optical) is active, or blue when a Bluetooth device is connected. The light also tells you what audio format (PCM, DTS, or Dolby) is detected, and whether Night Mode is enabled.
The Polk React comes with a remote similar to those we’ve seen bundled with other Polk soundbars, including the MagniFi 2 that we reviewed earlier this year. Many of the buttons on the remote (including the music modes) are perfectly flat and edgeless, making them difficult to find in the dark.
The main volume and mute buttons, however, have smooth indentations that make them much easier to detect with your thumb. A backlight would nonetheless help immensely.
Built-in Alexa and Spotify Connect
While the Polk React lacks such niceties as AirPlay 2 or Chromecast, it does feature built-in Alexa. At its most basic level, Alexa on the Polk React allows you to adjust the soundbar’s volume with voice commands, although that’s arguably easier to do by just pressing the volume buttons on the remote.
You can also ask Alexa to do pretty much anything that she can do on an Amazon Echo speaker, from checking the weather and reading the news to setting alarms and controlling smart home devices. In our home, for example, saying “Alexa, popcorn” makes Alexa turn off our downstairs lights, turn on the TV, and change the TV’s video input to our Apple TV streaming box.
Even better, you can ask Alexa to play tunes on the soundbar. A wide range of music services is compatible with Alexa, including Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Deezer, iHeartRadio, and more. (I’ll describe how music actually sounds on the Polk React in a bit.) And because the React supports Alexa Multi-Room Music, you can add the React to Alexa speaker groups, perfect for streaming tunes throughout your home.
Finally, the Polk React is a Spotify Connect device, which means you can select the React as a playback device in the Spotify app and tee up Spotify playlists on your phone.
Before I leave Alexa, I will note yet again that soundbar makers need to add a discrete volume setting for the voice assistant. As it stands, if you crank the main volume control for the Polk React, Alexa’s voice will get loud–potentially very loud–as well. Polk Audio isn’t alone in this annoying quirk, and hopefully discrete volume settings for Alexa and Google Assistant will become a thing in 2022.
The Polk React comes with four audio modes: Movie mode enables the React’s virtual surround effects, thus boosting the apparent width of the soundstage; Music mode is tuned for stereo audio sources; Night mode compresses the soundbar’s dynamic range for late-night listening sessions; and Sports mode emphasizes dialogue.
If you want to boost dialogue levels without (for example) sacrificing virtual surround effects, you can press the Voice up/down buttons on the remote.
While you won’t hear Dolby Atmos height cues from the Polk React, you will hear clear, precise, and surprisingly punchy sound for a budget all-in-one soundbar, complete with an impressively wide soundstage and solid oomph from its passive radiators. Of course, the Polk React’s surround and low-frequency performance are greatly enhanced once you add the Polk React Sub and the SR2 wireless speaker kit. But if you’d rather stick to a budget or you want to keep things simple with a second TV, the React on its own can still deliver the goods, whether you’re streaming a Marvel movie or grooving to a relaxing Spotify playlist.
I began my testing with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on the iTunes Store (since the Polk React doesn’t support eARC, I didn’t bother with my UHD Blu-ray of Episode V, which has a lossless Dolby TrueHD soundtrack with Dolby Atmos metadata). Zipping over to the Imperial Pursuit chapter, I was impressed by the deep roar–well, deep for a pair of passive radiators, anyway–of the Millennium Falcon’s engines as the corkscrewing freighter evaded a trio of Tie Fighters, while the Rebel Snowspeeders back on Hoth whizzed around in a wide soundstage that belied the React’s narrow form factor. I’ve heard better from pricier soundbars, naturally, but not from anything within the React’s $250 price range.
Switching to Apollo 13 (I did watch the UHD Blu-ray for this one, as the iTunes version appears to be suffering from an audio bug), the rumble of the Saturn V’s engines as it rose off the launch pad was satisfyingly deep, while James Horner’s soaring score sounded clear and crisp without crossing over into harshness. I even noticed some subtle surround effects as the fuel pumps gurgled and when the astronauts jettisoned the tower. To paraphrase one of Apollo 13’s flight controllers, the React’s performance during this thrilling sequence was right down the middle, in a good way.
Curious to hear how the React handled long stretches of dialog, I teed up a second-season episode of The West Wing, and the React’s dedicated center channel did a nice job of delivering the show’s famous walking-and-talking segments clearly without skimping on W. G. Snuffy Walden’s sweeping opening theme (and this was in Movie mode, mind you, not the dialogue-focused Sports mode). Nudging up the Voice buttons on the remote did a solid job of boosting the dialogue even further without adding unwanted shrillness.
For music, I began by streaming Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” from Spotify via the Polk React’s Spotify Connect functionality. I’m accustomed to dialing my expectations down when it comes to music on a sub-$300 soundbar, but I was pleasantly surprised by the React’s surprisingly detailed, nuanced performance; I could make out the timbre of The Boss’s reedy vocals as well as the crisp percussion, while the rising synthesizers sounded pleasantly (but not overbearingly) warm. Chet Baker’s “Solar” had an atmospheric spaciousness that kept Baker’s trumped front and center, while the pulsing baseline of Billie Eilish’s “Oxytocin” felt powerful yet controlled. Again, other, more feature-packed soundbars may deliver more detailed and refined sonics, but not at the React’s $250 price point.
I also did some listening with the Polk React Sub and the SR2 wireless speaker kit, and as you might expect, they added depth and heft to the React’s audio performance. The Sub, for example, gave the giant feet of the Imperial Walkers added oomph as they thudded into the snow in Empire, while the SR2 surround speakers made those Rebel Snowspeeders buzz around and behind my head. (I did feel that the surrounds were a tad hot, but trimming the surround levels with the remote fixed that problem.) But while the Sub and the SR2 kit certainly augment the React’s sound and they’re reasonably priced (not to mention frequently on sale), they’re not essential either, given how good the React sounds on its own.
Our previous Editors’ Choice for budget soundbars, the excellent Denon DHT-S216H, certainly rivals the Polk React in terms of sheer audio quality, and the Denon soundbar packs in virtual 3D audio courtesy of DTS Virtual:X. But the all-in-one DHT-S216H lacks a built-in voice assistant and networking connectivity, which renders multi-room audio a non-starter, and while you can add a wired subwoofer, you can’t add any additional speakers. The Polk React, on the other hand, does have built-in Alexa, as well as multi-room audio support, great sound for the price (lack of Atmos, DTS:X, or DTS Virtual:X aside), and it can be upgraded later with a subwoofer and surround speakers. Given those factors, the Polk React has the edge, thus taking the Denon DHT-S216H’s place as our favorite budget soundbar.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.