25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

Roku Smart Soundbar Review: Great Sound, With a Roku Player Built In

Wired 03 May 2020 02:00

The Roku Smart Soundbar is exactly what you think it is: a soundbar with a Roku player built in. An entertainment turducken, it stuffs half a gajillion media apps inside a streaming player inside a speaker system. Just add a TV and couch and you've got a complete home theater package.

Plop the 32-inch-long log under your TV’s chin, plug it into your HDMI port, and you’re set to start consuming audio and visual content galore. That’s the pitch anyway, but unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. Even after the expectedly kludgy setup process, there are some little complications that pop up during daily use that make the experience imperfect.

Before I go any further, I should note that this review is for the regular Roku Smart Soundbar, and that an onn.-branded Roku soundbar also exists. That one is cheaper ($130 instead of $180) and exclusive to Walmart. It has smaller drivers, though, and only puts out 40 watts versus the regular Roku soundbar’s 60 watts.

Feel a Connection

The Roku ecosystem consists of thousands of channels, including the big names like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and lesser known players like Vudu, GoNoodle, and CuriosityStream. It’s super convenient to have all your media outlets in one place—plus, seeing all those apps clustered together on your Roku’s home screen helps remind you of just how many streaming services you're paying for.

The soundbar comes with a dedicated remote, which has a built-in microphone that enables you to use voice commands to control the volume, search for movies, or launch specific channels. The Roku app, which you can download onto your phone and pair with the soundbar, works as a more expansive controller. It’s useful for searching for titles, and for typing in account usernames and passwords with your thumbs. You can also cast videos to your television from the other apps on your phone, assuming the app you’re using has a Roku channel to match. You can pump sound from another device, like a videogame console, that’s connected to the TV via HDMI, though that’s where it gets tricky.

You will only have a seamless experience if your TV is equipped with an HDMI ARC port. This feature is common in newer or more expensive TVs. It’s a form of the HDMI standard that lets your TV send audio back to the soundbar. If your television does not have HDMI ARC, you’ll also need to connect an optical audio cable (one comes with the soundbar) to get sound from anything else other than the internal Roku player.

This arrangement gets a little messy if you want to switch between audio inputs—if you have more than one game console, for instance. To get audio from another device to come through the Roku soundbar, you have to manually change the audio input on the TV (for me, this required using a separate remote) and then disconnect the Roku’s HDMI cable, but leave the optical cable attached. I found myself scrambling for wires like an old-timey switchboard operator whenever I wanted to play some Horizon Zero Dawn. Apparently, that’s the sacrifice you have to make if your TV is more than a few years old.

Sound Off

But on to the most pertinent question: How does the soundbar … sound? In short, it’s pretty dang nice. Four 2.5-inch drivers pump the sometimes thunderous vibrations throughout the room. Just about any good soundbar option is going to be leagues ahead of the tinny speakers inside your TV, but Roku’s entry is excellent. Perhaps it may not satisfy the audiophile who will settle for nothing less than the immaculate sound waves of something that’s just stupid expensive, but I think it makes movies and shows sound great.

The bass can be a tad overpowering sometimes, especially if you’re watching a talk show or a program that’s mostly voice-over. I don’t really need a YouTube video essay to rattle my picture frames. That said, the lumbering lows are lovely for movies and games. Even a sound as simple as the little bloop when you use the telescope in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rings out with a satisfying rumble. The soundbar’s range keeps the audio from feeling muddled, but it also meant that I had to frequently flip through multiple audio options to match whatever was playing. (More on that in a minute.)

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