On the heels of the announcement of the recent Roku TV Ready program, smart TV platform developer Roku announced today a firmware update that will bring a full 5.1-channel surround experience to owners of Roku or onn-branded Roku soundbars, wireless speakers and wireless subwoofers.

In short, the new capability will enable owners of the recently introduced audio gear — which includes Roku and onn-branded Roku Soundbars featuring an internal Roku streaming player –to pair over WiFi with Roku’s separately sold wireless speakers and wireless subwoofer to present a true 5.1-channel surround sound experience.

According to Roku’s official statement “the Roku OS software update will enable surround sound expansion of the Roku Smart Soundbars, making it easy for customers to use Roku TV Wireless Speakers to expand their systems with room-filling multichannel sound for TV, movies and music.”

“We have spent a lot of time doing better and better audio, and we truly believe that a better audio experience is a better streaming TV experience,” said Mark Ely, Roku Retail Product Strategy VP. “When you have great sound the picture just looks better, and you become more engaged with the action on the screen. We continue to invest in this with our team in Denmark, our team in Cambridge, U.K., and through the continued expansion of our facilities in California.”

Ely said Roku is able to develop software with Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to deliver great sound in lower-cost packages than ever before. Further, Roku audio devices are built with expandability in mind so consumers can add capabilities to their home entertainment system over time.

The announcement follows Roku’s unveiling prior to CES 2020 of a Roku TV Ready certification program that enables manufacturers (including Sound United and TCL) of certain third-party branded (Denon, Marantz, TCL etc.) AV home theater components — like AVRs and soundbars — to easily connect with and setup those products to work seamlessly with Roku TVs .

Now Roku is further expanding its role as a manufacturer of Roku sound systems adding full multi-channel surround sound to connect with both Roku TVs and even many non-Roku TV-based television sets.

Previously, Roku had introduced in 2018 a pair of wireless speakers designed to work only as out-boarded sound replacements for the tiny built-in speakers in various brands of Roku TVs on the market. The new firmware update now allows those wireless speakers to be paired with the Roku Soundbar and Subwoofer introduced last summer to serve as true rear-channels for a full 5.1-channel experience.

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Roku is positioning the value-added experience as an affordable way to get full multi-channel surround sound impact from its audio components. Because the wireless speakers connect to the soundbar, the old Roku-branded versions can now be used as wireless rear-channels on Roku TVs and non-Roku TVs alike. Previously, they had been designed to interface only with Roku TVs.

As we previously reported here in our review of the Roku Wireless Speakers, Roku Soundbar and Roku Subwoofer, each component puts out very impressive room filling sound for both TV programs and music. But until now, those approaches lacked true multiichannel surround sound support, with most of the sound stage coming from the front near the television screen. We await Roku’s 5.1-channel firmware rollout and will bring you a review of the supported rear-channel enhancement once that’s delivered.

We can say that from a brief demo we witnessed at CES 2020, the overall impact of the experience was very impressive and we are eager for a hands-on tryout.

The system will not support object-oriented surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, but Roku said all Roku Smart Soundbars support Dolby Audio, “which delivers an enhanced surround sound experience when streaming content from compatible platforms such as Netflix, the Apple TV app, Disney+ and more, as well as any input source.”

The Roku/onn Soundbars connect to televisions via an HDMI 2.0 port with Audio Return Channel (ARC) support or via a digital optical audio (SPDIF) connection. They do not support the new eARC capability, however.

Roku executives said it set out to develop a system that was extremely simple use and setup. After the Roku Subwoofer is connected to a TV and the wireless rear speakers and wireless subwoofer are plugged into a power outlets, they can all be connected together by going into setup mode (hold down “The Home” button for several seconds), and then select various features that the user wishes to add (they all get added at the same time without the need for multiple processes). Each component is embedded with Roku OS software and are designed to quickly synchronize together. The system auto balances the volume of the speakers, soundbar and subwoofer for optimal effect.

Roku adds to its audio components various sound modes offering several listening features. For example, Roku has its own form of auto sound leveling to balance the volume of ads with regular programming; users can also set the sound to tune down the low frequencies from the subwoofer a few clicks to avoid disturbing neighbors at night. Also included is a speech clarity mode that elevates dialog slightly above the background sound so viewers understand everything being said in the program.

With the new firmware update, those function settings will be easier to get to by simply pressing the * button on the Roku remote. In addition, Roku is adding some new sound modes including “Movies and TV” which takes the ambient sound inside the stereo signal, separates it out and redirects it to the rear speakers to fill the back end of the room.

In addition, for music listening the signal processing system is set up to copy the front left and right channels to the rear left and right channels to fill the room. When listening to true 5.1-channel content, listeners simply turn off the signal processing to get full native 5.1-channel surround sound.

At the same time, Roku announced new onn-branded (Walmart’s house brand) Roku Wireless Speakers will be added to the discount store chain’s Roku product lineup to support the currently available onn-branded Roku soundbar and subwoofer packages. Roku said the onn wireless surround speakers are expected to be found on Walmart shelves and Walmart.com in February.

Current retail pricing for the onn-brand Roku Soundbar and onn-brand Roku Subwoofer is $129 each. The new onn-brand Roku Wireless Speakers will sell for $149 a pair, making the total price for a full onn 5.1-channel Roku Surround Sound package $400 (available only through Walmart).

Roku-brand audio components are available through the Roku.com website. In addition the Roku-branded soundbar and subwoofer are availabe from Best Buy. The Roku-branded audio components are very similar in look and performance to the onn versions, but have a small step up in performance and price. The Roku-branded Wireless Speakers are available only on the Roku.com website ($199 for the pair) and ship with two remotes, for those who wish to use them as front-channel speakers (in rear channel mode volume is controlled via the soundbar remote). The onn-versions of the wireless rear-channel speakers are said to be virtually the same in performance to the Roku-branded ones, but have a slightly different cosmetic design and omit the remotes.

By Greg Tarr

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