The annoying downside to soundbars is that very few entry-level options give you an easy way to upgrade to a larger speaker system. Spend a couple hundred dollars for a basic bar now, and you’ll be stuck buying a brand new center speaker if you want to upgrade to a full surround sound system—with dedicated surround speakers and a subwoofer—down the line.
That’s why I’ve become a fan of the new Polk Audio React line of home theater speakers. The main Alexa-enabled bar, subwoofer, and surround speakers are each sold separately, so you can start with the bar, then purchase the other pieces to fill out your full 5.1 system at your leisure.
You could buy an entire 5.1 soundbar system as a package for less money overall than what you’d spend assembling a Polk React system piece by piece, but you’d have to drop all the cash at once. With each component of the Polk React costing just a couple hundred bucks, and purchasable separately, it’s an affordable path to great surround sound for those with lighter wallets.
When you unbox the main React bar you’ll quickly notice the round Alexa unit built into the center of the top of the bar. It looks as though it was melted into the main speaker housing. The small plastic circle offers the same controls you’ll recognize from other Alexa devices, including the ability to mute the microphone if you don’t want to use Amazon’s smart assistant for anything.
I spent the vast majority of my time interacting with this cloth-covered rectangle via my TV’s own remote, thanks to Polk’s smart inclusion of an HDMI ARC port that lets me use my TV’s remote to adjust the soundbar’s volume.
That said, it was useful to use Alexa to set quick kitchen timers and other things I typically do with a smart speaker or my phone, right on the soundbar. You never miss a cookie-baking timer if your TV show is literally interrupted by your soundbar’s chime.
In addition to the soundbar, Polk Audio sent me the rest of the React surround-sound system to test. Setup of the powered surround speakers and wireless subwoofer was a breeze, thanks to easy instructions from Polk for pairing procedure, though you’ll want to make sure you have outlets (or extension cords, in my case) that reach within about six feet of each speaker. The included power cables are longer than most but a bit short for larger rooms.
The entire black system is classy and nondescript enough that it easily gets lost in most spaces, which is either a benefit or a drawback, depending on your aesthetic sense. Personally, I like devices like this to blend into the background.
I tested the soundbar first on its own and later added the subwoofer and surrounds, to simulate how I feel most people should buy this system. Even on its own, I was impressed with the 34-inch bar’s ability to project warm, bassy sound throughout my listening space. The audio was fuller and richer than I’d expect from a bar this size, and that made it well suited to stand-alone listening.
Once I added the subwoofer and surrounds, things got significantly more immersive, edging near what I’d call a truly cinematic home listening experience. One thing I had to do as I added components was use the included remote to balance the sound to my space. The built-in calibration changes the audio settings as you add speakers, helping to keep everything sounding as good as possible. While the recalibration didn’t give me results that were as dramatic as I wanted, it was in no way terrible.
The addition of a subwoofer made the soundbar a bit bass-heavy. I also thought the surround speakers needed a bit of a boost in volume in my space. As always, I recommend using your ears and adjusting the overall system to your taste—which you can also do using the remote.
If I put myself in the shoes of someone who just needs a soundbar with the idea that they might want to upgrade to a full home theater setup down the line, the Polk React becomes one of the best options I can think of.
You can spend more cash on modular soundbar systems from companies like Sonos or Bose, both of which will sound better overall. For slightly worse sound but similar functionality, you can spend very nearly the same price assembling a similar modular system from Roku’s soundbar, subwoofer, and TV speaker components. Other than that, you’ll have to buy full speaker systems (like Vizio’s 5.1 system) to get surround sound.
If you’ve just spent months saving up for a new TV, it can be tough to stomach the news that you definitely need a soundbar to go with it. No matter what speakers are built into your TV, chances are they sound bland and anemic compared to a full-size speaker made for complementing whatever’s on screen—movies, sports, concerts, video games, and shows. (Yes, you should really get a soundbar.)
The Polk React line lets you start somewhere affordable and grow your system from there, making it a great option for people who just dropped most of their savings on the screen. If that sounds like you, a React system is well worth a listen.