Polk React Review: Affordable, Expandable, And Smart

Polk React Soundbar

“With great movie and music sound quality, it’s a valuable addition to a TV room.”

  • Slim, low-profile design
  • Easy setup
  • Very good sound quality
  • Affordable wireless accessories
  • Alexa built-in
  • No HDMI inputs
  • Remote is missing playback controls
  • Requires Alexa for Wi-Fi streaming
  • No Chromecast or AirPlay

By far the biggest benefit of buying a soundbar is simplicity. One speaker, two cables, and bam! Way better sound than your TV can do on its own. But as soundbars add on features like subwoofers, surround speakers, or voice capabilities, their price and complexity tend to go up as well.

Polk’s $250 React soundbar is designed to remedy this somewhat. On its own, it’s an Alexa-powered smart speaker that can deliver decent virtual surround sound. But you can also boost the system to a full 5.1 setup by adding Polk’s $200 wireless subwoofer and $200 surround speakers.

Does that $650 investment rival or beat the competition? Let’s check it out.

What’s in the box?

Polk packages up the React soundbar with everything you need to get going, including an HDMI cable, an optical cable, a remote control with batteries, a wall-mounting template, and wall mount hardware. There’s a fair amount of styrofoam to throw away (or recycle if suitable facilities exist near you) and a number of polybags too.

It calls very little attention to itself, which is exactly what you want in a soundbar.

Design

At just 34-inches wide, the Polk React should be easy to place in front of almost any TV and its 2.2-inch height means it’s short enough to avoid blocking the bottom of the screen (and any infrared receivers that might be located there).

Polk React Soundbar
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The (almost) completely dark grey fabric-wrapped exterior is perfectly neutral and calls very little attention to itself, which in my opinion is exactly what you want in a soundbar. I think it’s far more attractive than Polk’s first effort at a smart soundbar — the $299 Polk Command Bar.

On the top surface, it looks like someone punched an Echo Dot-sized hole into the speaker and then dropped an Echo Dot into it. This is not that far from the truth — that circular set of buttons and microphones are indeed the telltale signs that the React is also an Alexa smart speaker.

Unlike the Sonos Beam or Arc, or Bose Soundbar 300, using Alexa is central to the React’s setup, but we’ll discuss that further below.

Hidden behind the React’s fabric exterior are two midrange drivers, two tweeters, and two passive bass radiators. Also hidden (until they light up) are two LED indicators: A long, segmented horizontal bar that does double-duty as a level indicator for settings like volume and bass, as well as Alexa’s colorful, animated responses cues, and a small LED dot that lights up different colors depending on the source signal (blue for Bluetooth, green for Dolby Audio, etc.).

The React wireless subwoofer, like so many other subs, is a basic black box, but thanks to its rectangular shape, you may find it easier to hide behind or beside a couch than some of the more cube-like designs we’ve seen.

But I’m very taken with the optional Polk SR2 wireless rear speakers. They have a fabric grille that matches the React soundbar, and a trapezoidal shape that gives them a lot of flexibility in terms of placement. Their rubber feet let them sit comfortably on any surface while their standard speaker-mount threaded holes let you use a variety of third-party mounts and stands. Or, you can simply use the included mounting hardware. Surround speakers are rarely notable for their design, which makes the SR2 a refreshing change.

Connections

Polk React Soundbar inputs
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The React is fairly barebones from a connections point of view. You get a single HDMI ARC port for audio-only, an optical port in case your TV doesn’t support HDMI ARC, and a USB port. There’s no analog input, so don’t count on being able to connect an external wired sound source like a portable media player.

The procedure of getting the React set up using the Alexa app couldn’t be easier.

There’s also no way to use the optical and HDMI ARC as separate inputs. They’re mutually exclusive. Connecting one of them locks out the other.

Setup and configuration

Yes, it’s possible to use the Polk React soundbar on its own, without setting it up for use with Amazon Alexa, but if that’s your intent, I recommend finding a different soundbar. Wi-Fi access, multiroom audio, and smart speaker functions all require the Alexa app.

The good news is that the procedure of getting the React set up using the Alexa app couldn’t be easier.

Simply place the soundbar and connect it to your TV. If your TV has HDMI ARC, and you don’t mind sacrificing an HDMI port on your TV, use that connection — it will let the soundbar control TV volume/mute functions and vice versa. Otherwise, an optical connection is fine and won’t impact sound quality at all.

Plug in the power cable and open the Amazon Alexa app. Within a few seconds, the app will automatically recognize that the React is available to be set up and will prompt you to do so.

Polk React Soundbar with remote
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Pro Tip: If you’ve never downloaded or used the Alexa app before, take a few minutes to download it and create a new account or use your existing Amazon account. Doing this before turning on the React for the first time will make the process much smoother.

The Alexa app will walk you through a few steps like picking the React’s location in your home and choosing a default music service.

If you opt for the wireless subwoofer or SR2 surrounds, the process of adding them should be equally painless. All I had to do was connect them to power and the React automatically recognized them and created a wireless connection. A voice prompt even notified me that the SR2 speakers needed to be updated before they could work, and the React bar automatically performed that update and restarted itself. I’ve never experienced such a hands-off setup.

If you’ve been using your TV’s built-in speakers, the React will feel like a serious upgrade.

I say this “should” be painless because, for me, it was. However, our senior editor Caleb Denison also set up a React soundbar and found that adding the surrounds didn’t go quite as smoothly (see our video review above).

Sound quality

On its own, the React soundbar sounds really good considering its size and price. Unlike a lot of budget-friendly speakers, it maintains an excellent balance of frequencies. Higher registers like speech are clear and precise, the mid-tones are well-rendered, and the bass is far stronger than I was expecting given that the soundbar relies on passive bass radiators — not powered drivers — for its low end.

Polk React Soundbar
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

If you’ve been using your TV’s built-in speakers, the React will feel like a serious upgrade. Polk promises “big, detailed, virtual surround sound,” and I’d say the React largely delivers on this — at least in the “big” and “detailed” categories.

As far as simulating a true surround sound setup, it’s not quite as successful as, say, the Bose Soundbar 300. The React certainly provides a nice, wide soundstage that easily fills even moderately sized rooms with sound, but it doesn’t quite achieve the wraparound effect that the best virtual surround systems can do. This might be because the React bar is actually a two-channel speaker with discrete left and right drivers. When you’ve got to virtualize a center channel, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for virtualizing two surround channels as well.

Polk offers four EQ presets: Music, Movie, Sport, and Night. Music and Movie sounded very similar to me. Night tones down most of the lower frequencies, making it less likely that you’ll disturb other folks in your house who are trying to sleep, and Sport should really be called “speech” as it enhances higher frequencies for better dialog clarity.

The surrounds aren’t used at all when streaming music, which seems like a big missed opportunity.

The soundbar is also a really smooth performer when it comes to music, but this is where the Wi-Fi connection — enabled by the Alexa app — comes into play. The React has Bluetooth so you can stream music from any smartphone, tablet, or computer, but you’ll get way better quality if you stream using the services available within the Alexa app, or via Spotify Connect.

My only complaint is that the Alexa app doesn’t support some services. Tidal and YouTube Music are notably absent. And since the React doesn’t have AirPlay or Chromecast, you’ll have to use Bluetooth if your favorite service isn’t listed.

Adding the wireless subwoofer does exactly what you would expect. Low-end bass goes from something you hear to something you feel too, a critical component for fans of action movies.

Adding in the wireless SR2 surround speakers finally provides the missing depth, though as Denison points out in his video review, you need to crank the level on these speakers to get the most out of them. Annoyingly, the surrounds are just for 5.1 soundtracks. They aren’t used at all when streaming music, which seems like a big missed opportunity.

Controls and usability

The React’s remote control isn’t fancy, but that’s a good thing. It’s comfortable to use, it has dedicated buttons for all of the most important settings, and even though it’s not backlit, the white labels on the black, rubberized surface are easy to read even in a fairly dark room. If you don’t want to say “Alexa” before issuing a voice command, you can press the dedicated Alexa button instead.

I especially like that if you add the SR2 wireless speakers, the remote gives you volume and balance controls just for those channels.

The one missing component is playback control when streaming music, which is a strange omission. Given the React’s generous music options (including MP3 storage on a USB device) you’d think there would be at least a play/pause button.

Polk React Soundbar remote
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The remote also seemed to have difficulty relaying its infrared commands to the soundbar. I had to keep adjusting the angle of the remote as I pointed it at the bar — sometimes the button pressed registered right away, other times not at all.

In the instructions, Polk does warn that if a light source is pointed directly at the soundbar’s IR sensor, that could cause interference, but I’m fairly certain this wasn’t the case.

Bringing Alexa into the equation takes control to the next level. Not only can you use the React for the myriad tasks we can assign to smart speakers like telling us the weather forecast or setting reminders, but it also lets you summon any music or podcast from the available services.

Using Alexa or the Alexa app to control music playback is easy, but limited. You can access songs, albums, and playlists, but there’s no way to add new favorites or create playlists — all of this must be done in the relevant service’s app. It certainly can’t compare to what Sonos offers, but then again, the Sonos Beam costs considerably more.

I wish Alexa had TV-based capabilities like being able to turn the TV on and off, or changing inputs, but that’s not included at the moment.

Our take

Though it doesn’t offer the same versatility as other smart soundbars like the Sonos Beam or Bose Smart Soundbar 300, the Polk React is a great value for both movies and music, and can be easily — and affordably — expanded into a true 5.1 surround sound home theater system.

Is there a better alternative?

If you want a midrange soundbar that doubles as a smart speaker, there simply isn’t anything else on the market that comes close to the Polk React for the price.

If you’re willing to spend $150 more, both the Sonos Beam and Bose Smart Soundbar 300 give you a choice of voice assistant, better music streaming options, and better multiroom audio. But it costs significantly more to expand them into full surround sound systems.

If you just want a simple soundbar without any bells and whistles, the Vizio V21 is hard to beat at just $180, which includes a wireless subwoofer.

How long will it last?

Polk Audio has a reputation for making solidly-built speakers and the React appears to follow this trend. It comes with a one-year warranty on the amplifier and a three-warranty on the speakers. I expect it will last for many years to come.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Polk React is simple to use and sounds great for both movies and music. The ability to affordably expand it and use it as a smart speaker are handy extras.

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