Review: Roku Soundbar, Sub Offer Big Sound On A Budget
Roku is now selling its first Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Wireless Subwoofer, which are positioned as affordable step-ups from entry to mid-range products in their respective categories, and after spending a few days with both items, we were impressed to find significantly larger and more immersive home theater sound to complement a wide range of flat-panel televisions.
Unlike the Roku Wireless Speakers introduced last year, the Roku Wireless Soundbar ($179.99 suggested retail) can be used with more than just Roku TVs. The company developed the soundbar for use with a variety of brands and models, giving users of non-supporting brand TVs access to Roku’s popular built-in streaming platform in addition to an audio performance boost in most cases.
The Roku Smart Soundbar and the Roku Wireless Subwoofer are sold as two separate products that can be easily linked together. Each product sells for a $179.99 suggested retail. The Roku Subwoofer can be paired to either the Roku Soundbar or Roku’s Wireless Speakers (after the connected Roku TV is updated to Roku OS v. 9.2) that were introduced last year as add-ons for Roku TVs only.
In addition, users will find the Roku Soundbar incorporates a Roku media player that performs in a similar way to the company’s new Roku Ultra 4K/HDR streaming adapter. For best connectivity results the soundbar, which uses the new Roku OS v 9.2, works best when connected to a Roku TV that is also running the v. 9.2. This is also a requirement for linking together the Roku Subwoofer with either the Roku Soundbar or the Roku Wireless Speakers.
We found the sound from the Roku Smart Soundbar to be impressively clear and loud, with well-defined bass by itself, although with the Subwoofer connected the bottom-end features more impressive rumble and vibration to help listeners feel the effects of explosisions and the punch of bass drums as well as hear them.
Used separately or with the subwoofer, the Roku Soundbar provides a substantial improvement in sound over the small speakers used in most flat panel televisions — particularly most Roku TVs — giving movies and music a more dynamic sound while vocals are consistently clear and positioned front and toward the center of the screen.
This is not a contender for better surround sound producing gear, like high-end Dolby Atmos soundbars with more drivers, features and digital signal processing (DSP) settings that sell for hundreds of dollars more.
Rather the package is nicely positioned to complement mid- or low-priced flat panel TVs where the sound can be too thin and dialog ill-defined and muddy.
The soundbar has four front-firing drivers positioned toward the left and right ends of the unit. Roku uses its digital signal processing expertise to produce a psycho-acoustic center channel from which most of the dialog is delivered. This is impressively clear and loud, as if the dialog was delivered by a dedicated center driver and appears to be coming from the action on screen.
Roku provides a selection of listening modes to further enhance dialog clarity for the sort of listening situations that might arise, such as Night Mode that keeps dialog clear while reducing the surrounding effects to avoid disturbing people in other rooms or adjoining apartments.
As with any speaker, the room acoustics will have a big effect on how both items perform. Due to the relatively compact size or each unit — the soundbar measures 32-inches and subwoofer is essentially a 12-inch cube — the package doesn’t take up a lot of space making it ideal for smaller rooms or dorms. We found that smaller rooms tend to work best for sound quality as well, with reflection from walls helping to provide a better sense of immersion.
However, we didn’t find that we were fooled into thinking sounds were coming from over head or behind us. Everything seemed to be coming pretty much directly at us from the screen. Also, due to the short length of the soundbar, we did notice a lack of separation of the right and left channels. Watching TV from a reclining position, head tilted to the left or right of center screen, we sensed that the sound was coming from the driver closest to our ears.
For better separation and a wider sound stage we prefer Roku’s Wireless Speakers, if you have the room and budget for it. Tonality is similar between the speakers and soundbar, but the wider sound stage created by spacing the speakers farther apart delivers a more convincing sound experience for movies and music alike. Coupled with the new Roku Subwoofer really puts the Roku Wireless speakers over the top by adding deep bottom to a well-defined top end and mid range for this price bracket.
For music listening we found the Roku Smart Soundbar to be a solid performer. Even older fare, like The Everly Brothers Greatest Hits and some of Chuck Berry’s Chess classics streamed over the Roku Plex Media app delivered astonishingly clear sound and musicality from these vintage 50’s recordings.
Switching to some more recent and harder AC/DC selections gave the Roku Subwoofer a workout, allowing us to feel the hard pounding bass accompanying the thundering guitar chords. This enabled us to almost understand every word of Brian Johnson’s soulful screeching vocals.
The subwoofer is a floor-positioned black box with a 250 Watt down-firing 10-inch driver that disperses reflected tones 360 degrees out from the unit’s base. This does an admirable job of delivering loud low audible accents to car crashes, explosions and low hiphop bass tones. It won’t take the place of an IMAX/DTS certified home theater set up with four subs in each corner of the room, but it is more than sufficient to power a 55-inch flat-screen to enjoy a moment of reality escape when a full home theater system is out of reach.
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Setting up the subwoofer with the Roku Soundbar is incredibly intuitive. After plugging in the subwoofer, pairing with the soundbar is started by holding down the home button on the Roku remote for 5 seconds. From there, subwoofer level adjustments can be set via the (*) button menu and selecting “less bass” or “more bass” options.
When moving the soundbar and subwoofer between TVs, a reset button on the back of each device can be pressed to trigger setup with another TV.
The Roku Smart Soundbar has one HDMI ARC input (the preferred method of connecting to the television), one optical digital (primarily for HDMI televisions without sufficient HDMI ports) input, an Ethernet port and a USB port, the latter for playing back media files from a thumb drive or external hard disc. Roku supplies a HDMI cable and an optical digital cable in the box with the soundbar. When connected to the HDMI-ARC output on a television set, sound from other source devices connected to other HDMI inputs on the display comes through soundbar. We found this worked without a hitch on a connected TCL 5 Series Roku TV, and a non-Roku LG B9 OLED TV, alike. When a DirecTV set-top box was connected to HDMI 1 on the LG TV and the soundbar was connected to the TV’s HDMI-ARC port, we were able to tune in satellite TV stations on the television and listen to the sound on the Roku Soundbar, using the soundbar’s remote control to operate volume and power. We had to use the DirecTV remote to change channels, however.
The look of the Roku Smart Soundbar is pretty much what you would expect from a compact soundbar. It measures 32-inches long, 3 inches tall and 3.5-inches deep with rounded front corners and an overall mat black finish. The top back and bottom of the soundbar are made of textured plastic, while the front and ends of the unit are wrapped with a matching metallic grill that conceals the the drivers. A centrally located LED is placed behind the grill and is colored white to signal the unit is on, red and orange to indicate it is in connection mode and green to signal it has fully connected with the television. Volume is controlled from the side-mounted buttons on the remote which trigger the television’s on-screen volume indicator.
Roku puts two mounting connectors on the back of the Roku Smart Soundbar enabling users to mount the soundbar to an optional wall bracket below a mounted television screen. But we expect most people will simply place the soundbar on a tabletop surface in front of the television. The size of the soundbar is small enough to fit easily in front of most televisions, particularly Roku TVs with claw-style feet positioned at each end of the screen. The soundbar fits nicely between the stand feet on the 49-inch TCL Roku TV we used in our tests, without protruding significantly into the viewing area. However, with some non-Roku TV designs where tabletop mounts sometimes extend outward in front of the middle of the screen, this could be a problem and should be taken into consideration.
The optional Roku Wireless Subwoofer allows users to add on deep vibrating bass without the need to run a connecting cable between the sub and the soundbar. The subwoofer only needs to be plugged into a power outlet; the soundbar and sub begin pairing almost seamlessly after a quick setup process.
The Roku Subwoofer is a plastic mat black one foot cube with rounded corners. The overall look of the subwoofer matches that of the Roku Smart Soundbar. Both items blend in with the surroundings nicely without standing out.
Roku includes a remote control with volume controls and mute buttons on the right side of the device. However, the handset did not include a mini-headphone jack for private listening as remotes included with some of Roku’s step-up media players do. Users can speak commands to perform voice searches via a mic in the remote. The new Roku OS update helps improve the process significantly. Roku’s remotes are almost all identical in appearance. The soundbar version offers quick access buttons for Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu and The Roku Channel. It omits the two programmable quick access buttons found in the latest Roku Ultra set-top box, however.
Roku includes a powerful built-in Roku TV platform, similar in feel and features to the latest Roku 4K/HDR Ultra media player. Navigating around the home screen and changing apps and channels was quick and snappy. Rewinding a program takes only a few seconds. If the soundbar is connected to a Roku TV, the Roku streaming software platform in the soundbar integrates with the Roku TV platform, giving you all of the controls unique to the Roku TV operation along with the standard Roku smart TV user experience, including hundreds of apps and thousands of available streaming movie selections. Of course, the smart TV operation from the soundbar will be of greater benefit to anyone connecting this to a non-Roku TV, because you will get the full Roku streaming experience as an add on to whatever streaming capabilities the connected TV has or doesn’t have. For Roku TV users, the Roku streaming platform will be essentially redundant.
The Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Wireless Subwoofer offer good quality sound with deep bass and clear dialog. They won’t deliver elaborate surround sound but the soundbar’s DSP modes provide the ability to adjust bass, voice and night volume levels for optimal listening from affordably-priced flat panel televisions that don’t have the best on-board sound systems, like many Roku TVs. In fact, we found the best experience using the Roku Soundbar and Roku Subwoofer was in tandem with Roku TVs, although the audio add-ons can be used satisfactorily with other brands of TVs as well.
The size of the Soundbar is better suited to screen sizes of 49- to 55-inches. Any Roku TV larger than that really should be used with the Roku Wireless Speakers, which now can be made to sound even better with the new Roku Subwoofer after an update to the Roku OS v 9.2 is delivered to the Roku TV (as this was posted the upgrade was coming soon through a staggered rollout). This will give you the best sound separation and help to better fill larger rooms.
For anyone looking to save a little more money, Roku and Walmart are offering a very similar pair of Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Wireless Subwoofer under Walmart’s new “onn” brand. Those versions will sell for $50 less apiece, but the “onn” soundbar will only output 40 Watts of peak power versus the Roku Smart Soundbar’s 60 Watts. It also uses different drivers, and a Roku IR remote with TV power controls.
The onn Roku Wireless Subwoofer, which like the onn Roku Soundbar sells for $129.99, features a 10-inch driver like the Roku Wireless Subwoofer, but is slightly smaller and outputs 150 peak Watts of power versus the Roku Wireless Subwoofer’s 250 peak Watts of power. That means slightly less punch, which could be advantageous in smaller rooms but likely not as full or rich sounding in larger ones. We didn’t have the onn versions available for comparison.
Both the Roku Smart Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer are products that are highly recommend by HD Guru for anyone on a budget looking to add big, immersive sound for not big money.
We therefore award the Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Wireless Subwoofer five out of five hearts.
By Greg Tarr
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The Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Wireless Subwoofer used for this review were company loans.