Review: Update Adds New Dimensions To Roku Sound
We finally got a chance to try out Roku’s new 5.1-channel surround sound firmware enhancement to its family of home theater sound products, and after a good run-through, we love it.
As we previously reported in our review of the Roku soundbar and subwoofer when they hit the market over the summer, the setup is easy and in-use settings and adjustments are relatively straight forward and intuitive. That doesn’t change with the new update that allows adding on wireless rear-channel speakers to the mix.
In case you missed the earlier announcement, Roku revealed that it had developed a firmware update allowing Roku (and Walmart’s onn.-branded Roku) soundbars to add new onn.-branded Roku wireless speakers (or Roku’s previously available version available on its web site) as true rear-channel speakers. Previously the Roku-branded wireless speakers were developed as a soundbar alternative for Roku TVs. In that configuration, they offer a nice wide 2-channel experience with surprisingly deep bass and bright clear vocals. But as rear-channels, these mighty mites take on new dimensions.
We found the 5.1-channel setup works best when the system is connected to a Roku TV, although it can be used with many non-Roku TVs as well. It appears the newer and more sophisticated the TV model, however, the better the integration. We did run into a problem connecting the Roku speakers and soundbar to a 6-year-old LG basic Full HD smart TV via HDMI-ARC port on each device, though this appeared to be an issue more with the television than the audio gear.
The complete package offers a convincing surround sound sensory experience with clearly defined separation of the five audio channels and a virtually directionless bass from the subwoofer. The experience translates well from movie watching to music listening as well.
In case you are wondering what all of this is going to cost, the regular price of Roku Smart Soundbar runs $179.99 (manufacturers suggested retail price), the Roku Wireless Sub also runs $179.99 and the Roku TV Wireless Speaker set are $149.99 (sale price) from the Roku web site. That’s $509.97 for the package. But Roku is offering a $450 special promotional price right now (with the purchase the Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Wireless Subwoofer bundle). Alternatively, the complete Walmart onn.-brand Roku surround setup is available exclusively at Walmart for under $390. Just keep in mind that the Roku-branded soundbar and subwoofer offer a slightly better level of performance.
That’s a significant savings over most of the competitive 5.1-channel soundbar packages on the market, and the performance is a major upgrade over many two-piece soundbar options. The system does not support true object-based oriented surround sound with over-head effects like those in full-blown Dolby Atmos and DTS:X supported systems, but those run substantially more money, and frankly, the immersive effect from the Roku package doesn’t lack much by comparison.
We found the system handled transcoded Dolby Atmos to Dolby Surround soundtracks from streamed movies like Justice League very well. In fact, we could almost feel a power blast cross right over us from the left to the rear right channel speakers during one of the movie’s fight sequences.
As we previously reported, the Roku soundbars are constructed with four premium drivers that pump out impressive right and left channels along with an effectively clear center channel experience. These also produce a surprisingly deep bass sound for such a small soundbar, but we really recommend getting the wireless subwoofer for the full floor and wall shaking effect. The 10-inch subwoofer driver produces very powerful, and surprisingly clean sound on most of the movie content we sampled. However, we found we needed to tone down the bass from the subwoofer a notch in the soundbar settings for a more realistic music listening experience.
The soundbar menu allows for easy switching between movie and music modes; the movie mode handles music quite well in titles like The Blues Brothers, where James Brown’s gospel church scene had our whole viewing room rocking as John Belushi turned handsprings down the aisle on screen.
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Dialog was distinct and clearly isolated from the center channel in front of us as the synchopated call and response of the gosepl chorus reverberated out of the rear speakers to the sides of our ears.
We compared the sound of the system to a value-positioned Denon DHT-S216 ($249) dedicated soundbar with DTS Virtual:X processing built in and not surprisingly the Roku presented a more powerful experience with less boxy tonality. Although with DTS Virtual:X turned on, the Denon experience cleaned up the hollow effect significantly while delivering a similarly nice wide experience, comparing the two side bars head to head.
The Roku system, on the other hand, gets the qualities that “Virtual:X” tries to simulate by using actual speaker channels all around the listening room (understandably, at almost twice the price). No contest there. No imaginative guesswork is needed to sense a sound effect to our left or right or the whole room reverberation of an enveloping soundtrack orchaestration. And the Roku was far easier to setup and use than the Denon, which requires memorizing a series of LED light codes on the front of the soundbar to discern its various listening modes and input settings.
What was very impressive to us was the way Roku’s system handles music. Listening to streamed 2-channel MP3 (320kbps/CBR) song files the system manages to present a synthesized multi-channel surround effect that opens the sound stage up, though it naturally lacks the depth and separation of a native 96 kHz/24-bit 5.1-channel music system.
Listening to “Got The Love” by the Average White Bad we found the pounding, heavy R&B beat engulfed us as the crystal clear horn accompaniment eminated from the front left, right and surround channels. The soulful main vocal pentrated the front of the room, seamingly from dead center of the sound bar. On the instrumental “Pick Up The Pieces” the saxphone melody bellowed out of the soundbar with clear, well-defined midrange while the funky guitar rythms maintained the groove from the right and left front ends of the soundbar, revererating through from the rears. All the while, a pulsating disco-esque beat kept our toes tapping to the bass-and-drum vibrations on the floor.
Impressed as we are, the system could use some level of auto room calibration or even manual rear-channel volume adjustment to better balance the rear effects on some song mixes.
As we previously pointed out, the Roku/onn. soundbars offer the added bonus of a full-on Roku media streamer built in, allowing purchasers to leverage the robust library of streaming A/V channels. It’s a bit redundant if you are using it with a Roku TV that has that built-in already, but for those looking to upgrade another brand of smart TV or a TV without a smart platform of any kind, this is a great solution.
Overall, we came away well impressed with the level of performance this seemingly simple (though we’re sure it wasn’t simple to develop) upgrade makes to the high-value-qualities of this soundbar package. We highly recommend this full package option to anyone looking to upgrade the hollow, tinny sounding speakers used in most of today’s flat-panel TV sets. It makes watching television a theatrical event.
We there therefore award the Roku Soundbar, Wireless Subwoofer and Wireless Speaker package five out of five hearts.
By Greg Tarr
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