What is the Polk React?
The Polk React Soundbar is the latest affordable model from a company that's made a niche for itself in this particular segment of the market. When it comes to sub-£500 soundbars, Polk has fashioned a line-up that concentrates on getting the basics right, rather than trying to deliver unconvincing immersive audio.
The previously reviewed Polk Command Bar was a great example of this approach, with a two-channel layout, separate wireless subwoofer and built-in Amazon Alexa for just £250. The similarly-priced Polk Signa S3 beefed up the sub, added Chromecast, but dropped built-in Alexa and worked with Google Assistant instead.
Now we get the Polk React Soundbar, which takes a slightly different approach by retaining aspects from both the previous models such as built-in Alexa, increased connectivity, and certain design flourishes, while splitting off the wireless subwoofer as a separate product called the Polk React Subwoofer.
The result is an increase in sound quality, but a corresponding increase in price. The React Soundbar costs £249, and the React Subwoofer is £179, which means the combined 2.1-channel system will set you back £428. There's also the option to add the SR2 wireless surround speakers (£159), if you fancy a full 4.1-channel system.
While the soundbar on its own remains relatively inexpensive, the full system is nearly £600. This puts Polk's React Soundbar combo up against some very capable competition, so it needs to deliver in terms of sound quality. Let's find out if it does...
The Polk React Soundbar takes its design cues from both the Command Bar and the Signa S3, combining the best of both to produce an elegant and attractive soundbar that should sit under your TV without drawing attention to itself. The curved cabinet measures 864 x 57 x 121mm (WxHxD), weighs in at 2.9kg, and is large enough for TVs up to 65 inches in screen size.
The cabinet uses a low-profile form factor, and like the Signa S3 there's a fabric grille covering the front, sides and top. The React is well made considering the price, and its unassuming appearance ensures it doesn't draw attention to itself or block the screen and IR remote sensor. Like the Command Bar, there's a round control panel in the top centre of the cabinet for Amazon Alexa.
The additional wireless subwoofer is also well-made, and uses simple matte black styling that allows it to be inconspicuously placed in the corner of the room. The sub sits on two large feet that raise the downward-firing driver off the ground, plus there's also a downward-facing bass port for added depth. It measures 218 x 348 x 419mm (WxHxD), and weighs in at 7.5kg.
Connections and Control
The Polk React Soundbar has a fairly basic set of connections, but they're enough to make the most out of its inherent capabilities. There's only a single HDMI connection that supports ARC (audio return channel), but this isn't really an issue because the soundbar doesn't support lossless audio.
In terms of other physical connections, there's also an optical digital input, an auxiliary input and a USB port for service use. When it comes to wireless connections, there's built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
In terms of control, you can use your voice thanks to Alexa, plus there's a central circular section that looks like someone has merged an Echo Dot with a soundbar. Here you'll find physical controls for volume up and down, mute, and action. Polk also includes a full-sized remote control finished in matte black. It's comfortable to hold and easy to use with one hand.
There's a host of control options including a decent remote and, thanks to Alexa, your voice
The remote has all the buttons you need, including power, volume, and mute, along with keys to select HDMI-ARC or Bluetooth. There are also controls for setting the bass level, voice level, and choosing between four different EQ modes (Movie, Music, Sport, and Night). There's a button for activating Alexa, plus controls for the optional wireless surround speakers.
Features and Specs
The Polk React Soundbar has two speakers built in, each composed of a 1-inch tweeter, an oval midrange woofer measuring 96 x 69mm, and a 110 x 100mm passive radiator. If you want deep bass, you really need to invest in the Polk React Subwoofer with its 7-inch woofer, plus there's decoding for lossy Dolby Digital and DTS with 2.0, 2.1 or 4.1 channels depending on the configuration.
Polk has built an Amazon Alexa into the React, turning this soundbar into a fully-functioning smart speaker
One of the main features is the inclusion of built-in Amazon Alexa, turning the soundbar into a fully-functioning smart speaker. This is different from devices that simply work with Alexa, so there are built-in far-field microphones and a full Alexa voice service. This allows you to control the soundbar, play music and ask Alexa questions, just as you would with any other Alexa speaker.
There are four sound modes: Night, Sport, Movie, and Music. The Night mode reduces the bass and dynamic range; the Sport mode expands crowd sounds but also enhances commentators; the Movie mode boosts the bass to give films more impact, but also adds spacial awareness to give them more scale; and finally Music delivers two-channel stereo without any processing. Polk's Voice Adjust technology is also employed to deliver clear, easy-to-understand dialogue where necessary.
The Polk SR2 wireless surround speakers are designed to be used with the company's Magnifi and React soundbars to create a multi-channel system. The speakers are easy to setup, with custom tuned drivers and built-in amplifiers. Each speaker measures 199 x 114 x 103mm (WxHxD), and weighs 0.83kg.
Set Up and Operation
The Polk React Soundbar is easy to set up, with a choice of stand or wall mounting using holes at the rear. The soundbar and subwoofer are paired by pressing the manual sync buttons at the rear of both units, and there are indicator lights to show successful pairing. The sub might require some careful placement (best to avoid corners), and judicious use of the bass adjustment control to get the front soundstage balanced.
Polk provides everything you need in the box, including both HDMI and optical digital cables. To make a Bluetooth connection simply press the Bluetooth pairing button, and you can connect the React Soundbar to your Wi-Fi network using the Alexa app.
There's a choice of star or wall mounting, setup is easy, and Polk even includes an HDMI cable
The display on the front of the soundbar is composed of a single LED that changes colour to denote the type of content, source and mode selection. In reality it's almost impossible to remember all the different colour combinations, but since the soundbar includes Alexa, it's largely redundant.
You can control the React using your voice, the provided remote, or even your TV remote if you're using the HDMI connection and your TV supports CEC. If your TV doesn't support CEC or is connected via the optical input, then your TV might use some of the preloaded IR codes. However, even if it doesn't, there's still the IR learning function.
Then all you need to do is connect your sources to the TV before sending audio back via ARC, if that's an option, or use optical digital if not. An LG 77C9 OLED TV was connected to the React Soundbar via HDMI-ARC, and then a Manhattan T3-R, a Panasonic DP-UB820 and a Sony PS4 were all connected to the TV. In addition, Amazon Alexa was connected to the Wi-Fi network for streaming, and Bluetooth was evaluated using an Apple iPhone X.
The Polk React Soundbar is an excellent two-channel unit, and since it's sold separately from the React Subwoofer, I'll address the soundbar on its own first. Polk has sensibly decided to eschew claims of object-based immersion, and instead concentrated on delivering a decent set of stereo speakers. The company is somewhat cagey about how much amplification there is in the soundbar, but it's certainly capable of going loud without sounding strained or distorting.
At this price point, any soundbar claiming to support Dolby Atmos or DTS:X is using psychoacoustic processing to deliver immersion from two or three channels. This is rarely convincing and if you truly want to enjoy object-based audio, you're better off choosing a soundbar that has upward-firing drivers (although this will also cost more). Polk's decision to ensure a quality two-channel delivery with the option to expand to 2.1 or 4.1 makes sense at the target price bracket.
Some might bemoan the lack of lossless support but, given the limits of regular HDMI-ARC and optical digital, this is understandable, and in reality you're unlikely to notice the difference. This soundbar is being made to a specific cost, and concentrating on basic sound quality makes perfect sense. The lack of a dedicated centre speaker is also less of an issue than you might think, and dialogue always remained clear and focused on the screen.
Testing started with some music, and listening to the album In Memory of My Feelings by Bernard Butler and Catherine Anne Davies reveals a detailed and cohesive delivery. The female vocals are clear, well-defined and free of any sibilance, while Bernard's guitars and sweeping production really fill the front of the room. The passive radiators produce some reasonable bass, which gives the drums a decent kick, and overall this is a solid sonic performance.
The Soundbar produces a clean and detailed delivery, but if you want bass you really need to add the Subwoofer
The Music mode is definitely the preferred option with two-channel, essentially delivering the audio unmolested and retaining all the clarity and detail. This mode is probably best for other types of content as well, because it simply feels more balanced. Having said that, the Sport mode can bring out the commentary better, the Game mode will emphasise effects, and the Movie can add a greater sense of bass to the Soundbar on its own.
However, if you're a film fan and you like to really feel a modern blockbuster, you're going to want to add the React Subwoofer. This connected to the Soundbar without any issues, and immediately produced a solid low-frequency foundation that was well integrated. The sub enhances everything, and with music the drums have more percussive kick, films and games greater impact, and even Sean Pertwee's voice-overs on Masterchef: The Professionals enjoy a deeper baritone delivery.
The Soundbar and Subwoofer combined produce an excellent 2.1-channel soundstage, with plenty of width, some nice placement of effects and a solid low-end kick. Watching TV shows like The Boys on Amazon Prime reveals an enjoyable over-the-top delivery that suited the on-screen action, while a film like Monster Hunter on 4K Blu-ray produces a bass-heavy mix the gives the sub a thorough work-out despite being limited to lossy decoding.
As mentioned, the Music preset gives the most balanced delivery and, despite the lack of a dedicated centre speaker, dialogue is clear and well-defined. But if you feel the need to clarify dialogue, the Voice Adjust feature is very effective. There isn't any sense of surround, even in Movie mode, which is what you would expect from a 2.1-channel configuration. However, if you want greater immersion, you at least have the option of adding the SR2 surround speakers for a full 4.1-channel system.
- Expansive front soundstage
- Sub has plenty of depth
- Amazon Alexa built-in
- Good fit and finish
- Expansion options
- Subwoofer sold separately
- Limited to lossy codecs
- No immersive audio
Polk React Soundbar and Subwoofer Review
Should I buy one?
The Polk React Soundbar and Subwoofer are an excellent combination that delivers an expansive front soundstage. The audio quality is impressive, and the well-integrated sub produces a solid foundation of bass. There's decent stereo separation and, as a result, music sounds great. The same is true of TV shows, games and movies, with the sub proving particularly useful with the latter.
You can buy the React Soundbar on its own, which would definitely sound better than your TV, but the lack of bass will ultimately be noticeable, especially with movies. So for the best results you really need to add the React Subwoofer, which means a combined cost of £428. Thankfully, the React combo still holds its own against similarly-priced 2.1-channel soundbar systems.
While it doesn't include immersive audio that's no great loss, and soundbars claiming to support Dolby Atmos and DTS:X using psychoacoustics rarely sound convincing. The lack of a dedicated centre channel isn't an issue either, and nor is the single HDMI-ARC port because the soundbar is limited to lossy codecs anyway. Polk has wisely chosen to concentrate on doing the basics well.
The inclusion of Amazon Alexa is a nice feature to have, turning the soundbar into a fully-functioning smart speaker. It also provides a degree of voice control, although the provided remote is reasonably good for a soundbar. There are some useful sound modes, and Polk's Voice Adjust technology remains very useful at providing clear and easy-to-understand dialogue.
Overall, the Polk React Soundbar is worthy of recommendation, in part because it's a capable performer and in part because you can build the system over time. You can start with an accomplished soundbar, and then add the excellent wireless subwoofer or even wireless surround speakers as and when, allowing your system to grow with your needs and your budget.
What are my alternatives?
The good alternative is the Yamaha YAS-209, which is a 2.1-channel soundbar with a wireless subwoofer. It costs less than the React Soundbar and Subwoofer combination, and adds an HDMI input and support for DTS Virtual:X.
In most other respects the two soundbars are quite similar, both are limited to lossy audio, have built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, various sound modes and there's a Clear Voice feature. They also sport similar designs, build quality, and comparable remotes.
The YAS-209 is impressive sonically, producing a solid overall performance with both movies and music. There's a decent front soundstage, excellent clarity, plenty of bass and an energetic delivery, making this excellent soundbar and subwoofer combination a great all-rounder.
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