Last year, Roku threw its hat into the audio accessory ring with the Roku Wireless Speakers. These speakers sounded great, but they cost $200 worked only with Roku OS smart TVs.
Now, the company is expanding to the rest of the TV market with the Roku Smart Soundbar ($180): a slightly cheaper accessory that’s easier to fit into an entertainment center, and works with just about any TV set. For audiophiles who want room-shaking bass, the company will also release the Roku Wireless Subwoofer ($180), which is exactly what it sounds like.
I had a chance to go ears-on with both the soundbar and the subwoofer at a private demo in New York City, and both peripherals sounded good – considerably better than most smart TVs’ built-in speakers, at any rate. Both devices are on sale via Roku’s website as of today (Sept. 4), and will be available in retail stores starting next month.
Roku Smart Soundbar
The Roku Smart Soundbar is easily the more interesting device of the two. On the surface, it looks like a pretty standard soundbar. It connects to your TV via HDMI or optical audio cable, then gives you a much richer, more vibrant soundscape than you’d get with your tiny TV speakers. The device also supports Bluetooth, so you can play music from your phone, as well as USB thumb drives. However, the Bluetooth connection is just for playing audio from outside sources; you can’t connect the soundbar to a TV wirelessly.
What’s really interesting about the soundbar, though, is that it’s also a full-fledged streaming media player. There’s essentially a Roku Ultra built into the device, which means you get thousands of streaming channels, 4K resolution, HDR color palettes and a voice-search remote control. You can watch your favorite shows on Netflix or stream new albums on Spotify, and the soundbar sounds pretty good for both.
During my demo, I watched clips from Blade Runner 2049 and Avengers: Infinity War, and both films sounded much closer to what I remembered from the movie theater. In Blade Runner, the whirr of Ryan Reynolds’ flying car contrasted with the thunks of enemy harpoons, while in Infinity War, Thanos’s dialogue sounded menacing without drowning out any of the action in the background.
Roku Wireless Subwoofer
I had more mixed feelings about the Roku Wireless Subwoofer – but that’s partially because the venue wasn’t ideal for the demo. The subwoofer was off in a corner, fairly far away from the TV. We watched a clip from Captain Marvel, and while I felt a few vibrations when the titular heroine fired off her signature cosmic blasts, it was hard to tell how much different the bass would sound with only the soundbar.
Still, the wireless subwoofer does a few cool things from a design perspective. First of all, as the name suggests, it’s a wireless device (save for the power cord), meaning you can hook it up almost anywhere in a room. Second, it works with both the Roku Smart Soundbar and the Roku Wireless Speakers, so you don’t necessarily need to invest in the soundbar if you want to get better bass on your existing Roku TV.
One other inventive thing about the Roku Wireless Subwoofer is that it can automatically balance frequencies with either the soundbar or the speakers. In other words, if the subwoofer is hooked up, the soundbar or wireless speakers “know” to let the subwoofer handle all the bass frequencies. If you disconnect the subwoofer, the soundbar or wireless speakers will take the bass frequencies on themselves again. This means that you won’t get two sources of heavy bass sound, which could become jarring.
Better sound, more money
Overall, I’m more impressed with the soundbar than the subwoofer so far, but I’m also looking forward to testing out both gadgets in a more traditional living room environment. I’m also not sure how many people will want to invest in both products together. After all, if you buy the soundbar and the subwoofer at the same time, you’re looking at $360, before tax.
Still, there’s no denying that smart TVs don’t generally produce great sound, and these new Roku accessories aim to solve a legitimate problem. Tom’s Guide will have full reviews of both in the coming weeks.