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.