Roku's Affordable Smart Soundbar Is a No-Brainer

Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

If you’ve been thinking about buying a fancy new Roku, I have some great news for you. You could spend $100 and get the top of the line Roku Ultra. Or you could spend $180 and get the Roku Smart Soundbar which essentially has a Roku Ultra in it. The math is simple: pay 80 extra bucks, get soundbar. If you’re really feeling wild, you could spend 180 more bucks ($360 total) and get the hulking Roku Subwoofer. If you buy both at once, you get an even better deal!

I’ve spent the last two weeks testing the new Roku Smart Soundbar, and I have to admit that it’s fine. Heck, I’d go so far as to say it’s pretty good for a soundbar that costs slightly less than a set of AirPods. I’ve also been testing the Roku Subwoofer and have slightly stronger feelings about that thing. I love it. It is way too big, but that’s because it has a 10-inch subwoofer that moves a ton of air. The bass box is powerful enough that I actually worried about getting complaints from my neighbors while watching relatively tame television, like The Crown.

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Both of these products round out Roku’s audio offerings in an essential way. They work with any TV. If you follow Roku news, you might remember that a year ago, the company released the Roku Wireless Speakers which are excellent but only work with TVs running Roku’s operating system. The company says this is because it ensures the setup process is easy and the connection is seamless. Although there are a lot of TVs running Roku’s operating system these days, Roku clearly wants to sell speakers to everyone, and that’s how we ended up with the Roku Smart Soundbar and Roku Subwoofer.

While I don’t like to put grades on things, I feel like a straight up “B” is what the Roku SmartSoundbar would earn if it needed a letter grade. It’s certainly not the worst cheap soundbar I’ve ever tested, but it’s far from the best. The Roku Smart Soundbar lacks Dolby Atmos support which, in my opinion, limits its appeal, since Atmos is one of the most exciting things happening in home audio at the moment. The soundbar also lacks the option to add satellite speakers for a complete surround sound experience, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Roku rolled out an option to pair it with the wireless speakers and the subwoofer for a 5.1 situation in the future. This seems possible because the soundbar itself has four 2.5-inch drivers in a 32-inch enclosure, a setup that could easily handle left, middle, and right channels. Meanwhile, the Roku Wireless Speakers seem like they’d just need a software update to become satellite speakers. But I’m just guessing at this point.

The fabric that wraps around the soundbar feels sturdy if not a little luxurious.
Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)
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For now, the Roku Smart Soundbar is a solid and affordable upgrade to pretty much any built-in TV speakers on the market. You won’t get the spine-tingling detail that much more expensive soundbars, like Sennheiser’s $2,500 Ambeo soundbar offers. You won’t be spending a month’s wages on a soundbar if you get the Roku Soundbar either. I actually think that the audio quality on the Roku Soundbar is more comparable to the Sonos Beam, which is a great product, but also a bit expensive at $400. The Roku rig absolutely sounds better than the Samsung TV Mate, which is slightly pricier at $200.

If you’re noticing that I’m talking about price a lot, that’s good. Roku has long been in the good-value business, and its new audio products are no exception. The $180 Roku Subwoofer is a classic example. It’s a dead simple wireless subwoofer that doesn’t require you to buy a bundle. That means if you already own a soundbar and wish you had a subwoofer, Roku will sell you one for a pretty decent price, and then you too can be anxious about annoying your neighbors with your surprisingly throaty Netflix series about the monarchy.

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To give you an idea of the size of the Roku Subwoofer, I flipped it on its side to expose the woofer and put a Cherry Coke next to it.
Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

What tripped me up about these new products is the Roku inside of the Roku Smart Soundbar. The company says it’s basically a Roku Ultra LT, which is an excellent set top box that handles 4K HDR content and has a quad-core processor making it snappy to navigate. This is great if you don’t already own a set-top box or streaming stick or other Roku equivalent. In effect, you’re getting two products in one and eliminating some clutter around your TV. You can also use a different sort of set-top box, like an Apple TV or Fire TV, and just use the soundbar as a soundbar. If that’s your plan, though, I personally think that this Vizio 5.1 surround sound system is a better deal at $250 for the soundbar, subwoofer, and two satellite speakers.

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If you own a TV powered by Roku’s operating system, the proposition is very similar. I tested the Roku soundbar with an old dumb TV, and it worked exactly as advertised. When I tried plugging it into a TCL 6-Series (powered by Roku), I initially only heard audio out of the soundbar if I had selected the Roku Soundbar as an input and then accessed content through it. The Roku Soundbar essentially gives the TV a second, independent Roku, which seemed to confuse my TV at first. A quick reset of the soundbar resolved this, so it was hardly a big deal.

What does bug me is that the soundbar does not yet work with the Roku Wireless Speakers, so I still feel like folks who already own a Roku or another set top box, Vizio’s cheap surround systems can do more for about the same amount of money. For a bit more money, you could also try Vizio’s new Dolby Atmos systems, which I love.

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Photo: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)

Like I said at the top, if you don’t own a Roku or a soundbar, this proposition is a no-brainer. The Roku Smart Soundbar will solve both problems at a very appealing price. If you don’t own a subwoofer, I must admit that the Roku Subwoofer is the right kind of powerful at the right kind of price. You can buy them together for $300 which, if you consider that you’re also getting a powerful Roku set-top box mixed in there too, is a great deal.

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This all makes me wonder what Roku’s grand plan for home audio really looks like. Now the company makes a soundbar, a subwoofer, and wireless speakers—the three components you need for a basic surround sound system. But right now, those three things don’t work together. You need to own a Roku-powered TV to use the Roku Wireless Speakers. Meanwhile, the Roku Soundbar is best-suited to TVs that aren’t running the Roku operating system. The Roku Subwoofer works with both the Wireless Speakers and the Smart Soundbar. In fact, one of those two things is required. Who knows, maybe Roku will combine all of these Roku audio products into a Voltron of awesome surround sound at a super cheap price. Roku would not confirm to me if this was indeed the plan, but the company also didn’t deny it.

For now, it sure does look like Roku has a bright future in the home audio arena. Their gadgets are good and cheap, and everything works together with the popular Roku steaming software. Sure, it’s all backed up by a half-billion-dollar ad empire. But boy does that subwoofer thump.

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README

  • The Roku Smart Soundbar is great solution for audio as well as a streaming system
  • Audio quality is only okay on the soundbar
  • The Roku Subwoofer is huge but packs great bass
  • The soundbar doesn’t currently work with the Roku Wireless Speakers, but really, how many Roku speakers do you need?
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About the author

Adam Clark Estes

Senior editor at Gizmodo.

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