In this era of the ever-shrinking soundbar, thin is most certainly in. Particularly in the sub-$500 market, the goal for most soundbar manufacturers seems to be making the bar as short and shallow as possible. See my recent review of the $500 VIZIO SB4551-D5 as an example. That soundbar measures just two inches high by two inches deep, but you'll notice that it's still 45 inches long. When we think soundbar, we think long, skinny box--and that part of the design really hasn't changed.�
Perhaps that's why Polk's MagniFi Mini soundbar might catch your eye as you peruse the many soundbar options available for $200 to $300. It doesn't really look like soundbar at all. To my eye, the MagniFi Mini looks more like a Bluetooth speaker--and technically, it is a Bluetooth speaker. One that just so happens to come with a wireless subwoofer and a host of TV-friendly features that you won't find in many Bluetooth speakers.
The MagniFi Mini ($299.95) measures 3.2 inches high by 4.2 inches deep, but it's only 13.4 inches long. This is a 2.1-channel soundbar with six drivers--a pair of 0.5-inch tweeters and four 2.25-inch midrange drivers. The wireless sub, which measures 14.4 by 14.4 by 7.4 inches, features a 6.5-inch down-firing woofer. The complete system is powered by 150 watts of amplification.
Even though Matthew Polk has long since departed the company that bears his name, his technological contributions live on...and one of those patented technologies, called SDA, is the driving force within the MagniFi Mini. SDA uses the principle of interaural crosstalk cancellation to help broaden the soundstage. Interaural crosstalk occurs when the time-delayed sound emanating from the left speaker is heard by the right ear and vice versa. SDA uses passive circuitry in the crossover network to cancel these time-delayed sounds by feeding an out-of-phase signal to the opposite speaker.
In previous multichannel Polk soundbars, the technology helped improve the sense of surround envelopment without the need for dedicated surround speakers. In the two-channel MagniFi Mini, SDA is employed to help this small speaker produce a big, broad soundstage. All four of the Mini's midrange drivers work at the same time--with one pair of L/R speakers emitting the stereo signal and the other pair emitting the inverse signal to create the crosstalk cancellation.
In addition to built-in Bluetooth, the Mini also has 802.11ac Wi-Fi and support for Chromecast built-in, so you can stream audio from any Cast-compatible application on your mobile device or computer. The nice thing about Chromecast versus Bluetooth is that it hands off the audio signal to the soundbar, freeing up your mobile device for other tasks.
The MagniFi Mini arrived in a secure box-within-a-box, and all the accessories (including a six-foot optical digital cable, 6.5-foot HDMI cable, and six-foot auxiliary cable) were neatly packaged. Despite its small stature, the Mini feels like a sturdy, well-built speaker. The 3.88-pound cabinet has a trapezoidal shape with rounded edges. An acoustically transparent fabric grille wraps all the way around, while the top panel has a brushed-black finish with a rubbery button panel that offers buttons for power, source, Bluetooth, Night Effect, and volume.
Front and center on the soundbar is a vertical array of five LEDs that light up in different colors and configurations to provide feedback on things like volume level, bass/voice level, source, Bluetooth/Chromecast usage, and Dolby Digital signal input (the soundbar has Dolby Digital but not DTS decoding, which is pretty common). All the different LED options are clearly explained in the manual. They might seem confusing at first; however, once you've used the soundbar for a bit, I think you'll find them to be quite helpful. I know I did.
The subwoofer also has a rounded cabinet design with the same brushed-black finish as the bar's top panel. There are no individual adjustments or audio connections on the sub itself--just a power port and an LED light that indicates whether or not it's paired with the soundbar. When I connected the power cables to both devices and plugged them in, the soundbar and sub immediately paired with each other, with no action required on my part. I moved the system to multiple locations throughout the course of the review, and I never experienced any pairing problems between them.
The supplied IR remote also has a nice build with a rubbery top surface. It includes buttons for power, mute, volume, each source, and Night Effect (which reduce bass and overall dynamics while enhancing vocal clarity). There are up/down controls for bass and Polk's Voice Adjust function, which isolates and adjusts the vocal channel level. Each sound mode has its own button, too: you can easily switch between movie, sports, and music modes. The remote control can't be programmed to control other devices; however, you can easily teach its codes to your TV or set-top box remote.�
The MagniFi Mini's back panel includes a 3.5mm auxiliary input, an optical digital audio input, and an HDMI ARC port that allows you to receive the Audio Return Channel signal from your TV's ARC-enabled HDMI output. Take note: This is not a traditional HDMI input, so you can't connect an HDMI source to it. It's only designed as an ARC port to receive audio back from your TV. A USB port is available, but it's for factory use only. Finally, there's an Ethernet port for a wired network connection, as well as a Wi-Fi reset button.
With most of these lower-priced soundbar options, the common connection scheme is to run the AV sources into your TV and then pass the audio signal from the TV into the soundbar--usually via optical digital audio. The Mini is the first bar I've auditioned to include the HDMI ARC port, which gives you a bit more flexibility to feed your TV audio back into the soundbar via HDMI, leaving the optical digital audio input free to connect to another audio source, if desired. And, if you connect via HDMI to a TV with CEC, your TV remote will automatically control the Polk's volume and mute. Of course if the TV lacks HDMI ARC, then you'll need to use the optical digital or 3.5mm aux input to receive those signals.
I auditioned the MagniFi Mini in two different residences (house and apartment), connected to three different TVs (a Samsung UN65HU8550 LCD TV, an LG 65EF9500 OLED TV, and older Samsung LN-T4681 LCD TV) with a variety of source components. During my official movie auditions, I fed optical digital audio directly from my Oppo UDP-205 player to the MagniFi Mini.
I also experimented with music playback via Bluetooth and Chromecast. I had no issues pairing the bar to my iPhone 6 and MacBook Pro via Bluetooth, and signal reliability was excellent.
You can set up Chromecast directly via the Google Home app. When I opened the app on my iPhone, it immediately recognized that a new device was awaiting setup, and the process of adding the Mini to my Wi-Fi network was simple and straightforward. What's nice about the Google Home app is that, at least in the iOS version, it shows you links to all the Cast-compatible apps that are already loaded on your device--in my case, that included Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. Just hit the link to launch the app, then hit the "Cast" button to send music to your MagniFi Mini. It was easy, and it worked great.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
I began my evaluation of the MagniFi Mini in my apartment living room, which is made up of bare, angled walls, sliding glass doors, and wood floors. There are a lot of signals reflecting around that room when I watch movies and TV shows, and oftentimes it's difficult for me to hear dialogue clearly, especially when I'm trying to keep the volume lower in the evenings. Male vocals, in particular, sound muffled and fuzzy, so I often resort to headphone use.
To see how the Mini would handle this environment, I binge-watched season three of Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle--a show that bounces between dialogue and classical music. Season three is also filled with a lot of operatic singing. I instantly liked what I heard from the MagniFi Mini. It presented a nicely balanced sound. With a couple clicks up on the VoiceAdjust function, male and female vocals were crisp and clear without sounding thin or overly artificial.
As with most small soundbars, the midrange was somewhat lean, but the blend between the subwoofer and soundbar was good. The sub filled in the lower registers nicely without drawing too much attention to itself, and I didn't hear male voices in the sub. As I've stated in the past, I don't like to hear a lot of bass boom with my TV shows, and the Polk sub exhibited good control over the bass. I didn't have to play the volume up/down game to keep dialogue and bass in balance. When I did feel the need for a little more bass, I could easily get it with a couple clicks of the remote's bass control. And in those moments when I did feel compelled to push the volume to hear the music in all its glory, the Mini showed off its dynamic prowess, with a bigger sound and a more spacious soundstage than you'd expect from a box so tiny.
The living room in the house is completely different type of room: a big, carpeted room that flows into the dining room, kitchen, and upstairs walkways. Yet the Mini had no problem filling this room, either--whether I watched movies or streamed music to it.
I did some direct A/B comparisons with VIZIO's SB3821-C6, a 2.1-channel soundbar that uses dual 2.75-inch drivers with a separate five-inch subwoofer. Brent Butterworth actually sent me this VIZIO as an example of a low-priced soundbar that performs well, so it's no slouch. With an episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the VIZIO soundbar had a little more meat in the midrange, but the Polk produced cleaner dialogue, and its soundstage was more spacious. Also, the Polk sub had more control over the pounding bass notes, whereas the VIZIO sub was pretty boomy.
In two of my favorite movie demos--the Lobby Shooting Spree in The Matrix and chapter 11 in Ironman--both the VIZIO and Polk had impressive dynamic ability. The VIZIO bar is three times bigger than the Polk, yet the Polk's SDA technology did a more convincing job of producing a broad soundstage. Bullets seemed to reach farther and wider out into the room.
Again the VIZIO had more midrange presence, but the Polk's bass performance was tighter and cleaner, and its high-frequency effects were clearer and more precise. The Mini definitely emphasizes high frequencies in order to deliver that clarity. If you prefer a more laidback sound, the Mini may not be the best choice, but I never felt that the high frequencies were bright, harsh, or grating. I just appreciated how clear and clean things sounded.
I also compared the MagniFi Mini with Fluance's $250 AB40 soundbase, which is a single-box solution that puts four 3-inch drivers and two tweeters into a flat cabinet designed to sit under your TV. The Fluance cabinet is almost larger than the Polk Mini soundbar and subwoofer cabinets combined.
I cued up chapter five from the San Andreas Blu-ray disc, the scene where the earthquake begins. This was an interesting comparison, as it really highlighted the differences between the one-piece soundbase and two-piece soundbar approaches. In terms of dynamic ability, the two products were quite similar--which speaks to the impressive prowess of the tiny Polk--but their sonic qualities were very different. Obviously, the Fluance's larger drivers and cabinet allowed to it reproduce a much fuller and richer midrange and give some space to all the scene's dense, chaotic sound effects. The higher frequencies were more subdued, and dialogue was a little less clear. With the Polk, the dialogue was easily discernible through all the chaos, and the dedicated subwoofer was better able to reproduce the lower-end rumbles of the falling building and explosions. But you do lose some weight and presence in those midrange effects.
As part of my music auditions, I streamed some AIFF files over Bluetooth, including Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage." This is a big-sounding recording, and the SDA technology did a nice job of conveying that sense of space, and the two-piece speaker/subwoofer combo allowed for a much fuller, more complete presentation than your typical Bluetooth speaker.
But I also appreciate that the SDA technology didn't make music sound too artificial or processed to achieve that bigger sound. More straightforward recordings like The Bad Plus's "1979 Semi-Finalist" and Tom Waits' "Long Way Home" still had a natural quality, albeit with the same high-frequency emphasis I heard with movies. The bass and VoiceAdjust controls on the remote do make it easy to tailor the low and high frequencies on the fly to obtain your preferred balance--and the bass notes in these tracks were tight and well controlled.
One thing I do want to point out is that the MagniFi Mini definitely has a sweet zone directly in front of it, where it sounds the best and most natural. Presumably due to the SDA technology and the way the drivers perform the crosstalk cancellation, if you're standing or sitting way off to the sides, you hear some odd effects. For me, this was most obvious when using the MagniFi Mini as a Bluetooth music speaker. With music sources, I was more inclined to be moving around the house as I listened--whereas with movies and TV, I was almost always positioned right in the sweet zone.
The Mini has a fairly limited number of connection options, but it's on par with--and in some cases better than--other similarly priced soundbars. Some competitors might provide two digital audio inputs, while the Mini substitutes the HDMI ARC port for one of them. True HDMI input/output pass-through is generally reserved for higher-priced soundbar systems.
The remote control works great and has a lot of helpful buttons, but I do wish it had a Bluetooth button. Whenever you want to enable a Bluetooth source, you have to walk over to the soundbar and hit the top-panel Bluetooth button. Other products I've tested, like the VIZIO and Fluance models, have a direct Blueooth button.
Comparison & Competition
There are a number of 2.1-channel soundbar options in the $200 to $300 price range. The VIZIO SB3821-D6 is the updated version of the model I used for comparison. Like the Polk, it's a 2.1-channel system with 2.75-inch drivers and a 5.25-inch subwoofer. It has both Bluetooth and Chromecast support, and it has more connections options--but no HDMI ARC support. Its MSRP is $219.99.
JBL Cinema's SB250 ($299.99) and Klipsch's Reference R-10B ($299.99) are 2.1-channel options with Bluetooth. The Bose Solo 5 TV soundbar ($249.99) has a larger cabinet design but no subwoofer. Zvox offers the one-piece AccuVoice TV speaker for $249.99 or its one-piece SoundBase.570 for $299.99. Yamaha's soundbar lineup includes one-piece bars like the YAS-107 that cost less than $200 and two-piece soundbar/sub combos like the YAS-203 that carry higher price tags than the MagniFi Mini.
Polk's own MagniFi One sells for the same price as the Mini but has the longer form factor of a traditional soundbar, with larger three-inch drivers and a seven-inch subwoofer--but no SDA or HDMI ARC connection.
I'm thoroughly impressed with Polk's MagniFi Mini. It delivers exactly what I want in a soundbar--clear dialogue, controlled bass, and great dynamics--in a very petite, easy-to-place package. It's also got a nice set of features for the price. Pretty much all the competitors in this range offer Bluetooth, but things like Chromecast and the HDMI ARC connection are harder to find.
Yes, the MagniFi Mini is a great choice for a smaller space like an apartment, dorm room, or bedroom, but don't let its small stature fool you into thinking that it can only perform well in really small spaces. This little guy punches far above its weight class and deserves a serious look from anyone shopping in the $300 soundbar category.
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