After teasing a 5.1 surround sound solution with the introduction of wireless speakers in 2018 and a soundbar in 2019, Roku is finally doing the thing. If you already own a Roku Soundbar you’ll be able to add additional speakers and a subwoofer for a 5.1 surround sound experience. More importantly, it will actually be super easy to set up and cost half as much as a similar system from Sonos.
Once you’ve experienced a 5.1 surround sound setup, it’s tough to go back to your TV’s built-in speakers, or even just a soundbar. But right now, 5.1 systems are split into three categories. The first is the cheap box systems like what you can get from Vizio. Soundbar, sub, and satellite speakers are all included in the box. Set them all up, tinker a little, and you have decent 5.1 surround. Or you can spend a lot of money ($1,000 or more) and build out your own system with a wide range of speakers, amplifiers, and an AV receiver. Home theater enthusiasts love this setup because it’s infinitely customizable and will sound great, but it’s also time-consuming to set up and really, really pricey.
Finally, there’s...Sonos. Sonos has cornered the market on easy to set up 5.1 systems that you can build up at your own speed and that will sound as good as the big fancy custom setups. But Sonos is not cheap. It’s nearly $1,600 for a Sonos soundbar, sub, and two satellite speakers. Sure you can spread out that cost into more agreeable chunks—a $600 sub here, a $200 satellite speaker there, but it’s still costly.
Roku is hoping to do the same thing...only at a price more people would be willing to pay. First, you’ll need the soundbar. That’s required, and $180. You can get the sub at the same time which brings the cost up to $300 total. Or you can buy it separately for $180. Then it’s time to buy the speakers. They come as a pair for just $200. That means a total setup is $500 to $560, depending on whether you buy the sub with the soundbar or not.
Roku’s setup is more than $1,000 less than Sonos’s. There are caveats, of course. You’re relying on the Roku ad factory to effectively subsidize the cost of your system. Roku’s wireless audio system won’t let you stream music directly from the internet as the Sonos system will, or optimize audio for the room you’re in. There’s also no built-in Alexa or Google Assistant as you’ll get with the Sonos One speakers.
As for how much you’ll compromise on audio quality...I’m not sure yet. To get a good understanding of how one system compares to the other, you need to listen to them side by side. I didn’t get that opportunity when I checked out the Roku system back at CES. A Roku representative played a demo reel of films for me, which sounded nice and seemed to give some clear distinction between the left and right rear channel—though the three separate channels the soundbar handle didn’t have quite as much distinction. Then the rep played a clip of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” which seemed to sound as rich and bass-heavy as when I listen to it while wearing a great pair of headphones.
A Roku rep continued to walk me through the setup process for speakers. As with all things Roku, it was incredibly simple: You turn on the speaker, navigate to the setup menu in the soundbar’s built-in Roku, and choose the speaker you want set up. You still have to deal with the garish and outdated UI that Roku is known for, but overall I get the appeal—even if I would like to spend more time with the system before I go calling it a Sonos killer. Roku appears to have crafted a very affordable and very clean-operating 5.1 surround sound system that can be built at your leisure and set up with little fuss.
A software update allowing the various speakers to work together as a surround-sound system will come to Roku boxes in an update in February. In February you’ll also be able purchase much cheaper versions of all four speakers from Walmart under the Onn brand. The Onn-branded Roku soundbar will retail fro $130, the sub for $130, and a pair of wireless speakers will cost $150. That means a total system will cost just $410...provided you’re OK with buying your speakers at Walmart and don’t mind the Onn branding.