Roku Smart Soundbar review: A simple, potent streaming combination


Streaming TV is blowing up, from Netflix to Disney Plus to Apple TV Plus to HBO Max to… well, you get the idea. And that means media streamers are being built into not only smart TVs but also soundbars. I was pretty disappointed in the first hybrid soundbar-streamer I saw, the JBL Link Bar, but after reviewing the capable and affordable Roku Smart Soundbar, I’m thinking it’s a worthwhile combination after all, especially if you’re main priority is simplicity.

Like

  • The Roku Smart Soundbar combines a full-function 4K HDR Roku streamer with a soundbar in one affordable package.
  • Easy set-up and impressive sound from a single bar.
  • Optional $179 subwoofer is a cost-effective upgrade.

Don’t Like

  • Some competing streamer-less soundbars are less expensive and sound better.
  • No buttons on the unit (including power) and no remote finder as seen on the Roku Ultra.
  • The wireless speakers aren’t worth the upgrade, yet.

The Smart Soundbar upgrades both your audio and streaming experience with a single device and one remote — just add any TV. Its sound quality is good for a subwoofer-less bar and the streaming section works as smoothly I’ve come to expect from any Roku streamer, running the company’s simple software to stream thousands of apps to your TV. 

Roku also offers two optional add-ons — a wireless subwoofer that pumps up the bass $180 and wireless rear speakers that deliver true surround sound for $150. Both work well improve the bar’s audio capabilities. But if you’re choosing between them, I’d recommend the sub.

The bar has been rock-solid in my tests but there are some minor trade-offs made in the name of simplicity. For example, there are no buttons on the bar itself, which can be a pain if you lose the remote or need to quickly pair a Bluetooth device. And there’s the larger issue of redundancy: Roku streamers are cheap, most new TVs are capably smart and many separate soundbars are better overall values. But if you don’t already own a Roku or other streamer and want a soundbar too, the Roku Smart Soundbar makes a slick all-in-one entertainment system that’s ideal for older TVs or smaller living areas.

Design


Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike last year’s Roku Wireless Speakers the smart soundbar works with any TV (although pairing it with a Roku TV would be the height of redundancy since both TV and bar have Roku built-in). The design is slick for a sub-$200 soundbar with its rounded ends and seamless plastic construction. It bears a greater similarity to a Bowers and Wilkins Panorama than any of its budget competition.

The speaker is relatively compact at 2.8 inches high and 32.2 inches wide, and it includes a cloth-wrapped front with a single operation LED light. Behind that grill the unit incorporates four 2.5 inch full-range drivers.

There’s no controls or even a power button on the unit itself — just a Roku logo. Everything is handled by the remote.  As someone who misplaces the remote a lot I found the lack of buttons a massive hassle. While there is a remote finder on the Roku Ultra, there isn’t one on the soundbar. Yes, you can use Roku’s phone app to control the bar in a pinch, but that’s not ideal for many people.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

At the back of the unit is an HDMI ARC port, an optical port and a USB port for playing media files. There are also a couple of wall-mounting screw holes.

The Roku includes Bluetooth as well as compatibility with Spotify Connect if you use the Spotify app. Since the bar lacks buttons you’ll need to navigate to the Bluetooth tile on the TV to pair your device, although once a device is paired you can stream via Bluetooth with the TV off. The system will decode PCM and Dolby Audio soundtracks — no fancy immersive codecs like Dolby Atmos here.

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The Roku Smart Soundbar interface includes a Bluetooth tile for connecting phones


Sarah Tew/CNET

The Roku system includes 4K video and support for HDR10, which means that apps like Netflix and Vudu will look great on a 4K HDR TV.  

If you’re familiar with Roku TVs you’ll know that the interface offers all of the inputs at the top and they helpfully display the device each port is connected to. The Roku Smart Soundbar, on the other hand, doesn’t offer input switching. The idea is you connect the bar to the TV via HDMI and then connect everything to your TV. 

It’s not possible to switch manually to the optical audio input, and optical will only work if there’s nothing plugged in the HDMI port. Roku says the optical port is provided for TVs that lack ARC support via HDMI.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Roku comes with the company’s familiar voice remote. It lets you search with your voice by hitting a button in the middle of the wand, as well as offering volume controls on the side. It’s a fun little clicker. If you want to use Roku’s headphone feature to listen without disturbing others, using the Roku app is the only option because some Roku streamers, the bar’s remote doesn’t have a headphone jack.

For more bass the company offers a $179 Wireless Subwoofer as a complement. It’s a sizable unit for the money, too, at 12 inches cubed, and it incorporates a 10-inch driver. To disable the sub while it’s connected — say, if the neighbors complain during a loud movie — you can hit the “Bass Off” setting in the sound settings menu, accessible via the asterisk key.

In February the company added the ability to pair a couple of RokuTV Wireless Speakers with the system to use as rears, or you could use the $149 Onn Roku Wireless Surround Speakers, exclusive to Walmart.      

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Roku recommends placing the rears right behind the listening position but I found this makes them way too loud.


Roku

Setup of the soundbar was easy and much simpler than the competing Yamaha YAS-109, which needed a specific app (from a dozen Yamaha apps) to work at all. In comparison, the Roku steps you through every step of the process and I was ready to go in minutes. 

Adding the Roku TV Wireless Speakers took a little bit longer — I had to plug and unplug them from the power a few times before they registered. After they were connected I did have a slight issue with lip synch that I needed to fix via the M series Vizio TV (there’s are no sync controls on the unit).

How does it perform?

Video quality was fine and identical to other Roku units I’ve tested recently, such as the Streaming Stick Plus, and I didn’t notice the extended loading times I’ve seen at home on my older-gen Roku Ultra. My test Vizio 4K TV was able to glean and display the HDR information the soundbar was sending from The Mandalorian on Disney Plus. 

The sub-less Roku doesn’t offer much in the way of home cinema slam, but it has a convincing amount of clarity and pop with both music and movies. There is some bass weight in there for the music, but you may want to experiment with the controls nestled in the menus depending on the content.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

For example, I found the bass was a little overpowering for our test track Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The song sounded much better with the Reduced Bass setting enabled. I compared the sound against the Yamaha YAS-109 and found that the Yamaha made the song bigger and more majestic sounding, with still discernible bass. Yet no matter which sound mode I chose on the Yamaha, the song’s stabby organ chords sounded too harsh and difficult to listen to. Going back to the Roku I found the organ sounded much more, er, organic and integrated within the song.

The Roku doesn’t go all that loud, but least it doesn’t distort at maximum volume. It was still perfectly audible within the CNET’s compact testing room, however, and I found the dialog at the start Avatar’s Thanator chase scene admirably clear. There wasn’t as much of the jungle’s ambient buzzing, however, and neither was there any thump when the shell trees collapsed. There were glimpses of ambience on certain sounds, but it wasn’t as involving when the action ramped up: I felt a lack of danger or dynamics as the Thanator was attacking. 

The Yamaha’s dialog wasn’t as clear — Dr. Grace Augustine’s voice sounded a bit more chesty — but the jungle came to life: Bugs appeared from on high and the noises of the pachyderm thing that charges Jake reverberated around the room. The Yamaha offered more of a thump with the shell trees resulting in more drama, more dynamic range and more bass.

I also compared the Roku to my favorite budget soundbar, the Vizio SB3621. It has the unfair advantage of a subwoofer and made its prowess with the content clear. The jungle came alive, as it had before with the Yamaha, and the Vizio’s sub made my chair move in a way the sub-less Roku simply couldn’t. I needed to add the Roku sub for better punch, but it makes the product twice the price. It’s worth considering the sub though, as it makes it an even better system.

Lastly, I tried the soundbar with the Roku TV, and quickly found that while there’s different sound modes — movies and TV, music and surround only — there’s no way to control the volume of the surrounds. As a result I needed to experiment with placement, as the suggested setup in the picture above made the satellites too loud. The best surrounds are the ones you need to concentrate on to hear, and I found that about 3 foot away sounded good. 

While I found the the speakers and the sound bar were in sync they were both slightly out of sync with the TV but with a bit of adjusting the sound was acceptable. It did add a lot of ambience to movies, but was it worth the $150-$200 upgrade? No. Not in the same way that the subwoofer is. Get that first.

Should you buy it?

What do you want a soundbar for? Is it to play from your existing sources? Get the Yamaha YAS-109. If you’re starting from scratch or just want to keep the number of devices to a minimum, however, the Roku is a fine choice.

As good as the Roku sounds, it’s outclassed for home theater by the Vizio SB3612, and so if you’re not fussed about the streamer aspect, or having HDMI, the Vizio is a cheaper, better option. While its streaming is redundant for people who already have a Roku or other streamer in their system, the smart soundbar brings a wealth of content and enjoyable sound quality to older TVs for not very much money.



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