Once just the maker of humble streaming boxes, Roku is slowly spreading into every facet of the home theater experience. First came the Roku TV, with the streaming platform built into modestly priced 4K sets. Last year, the San Jose–based company got into the audio game, releasing a pair of wireless speakers. If that was like a shot across the bow of entrenched home theater brands, then Roku is poised to unleash the full barrage: Today, the company unveiled two new Roku-branded speakers for your television.
The Roku Smart Soundbar is the main attraction. It’s a twofer: a speaker with a Roku player built in. It plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, and you get a 4K streaming platform and booming audio all through one cable. It’s important to note that this new Smart Soundbar works with any brand of TV—you may remember that Roku’s previous wireless speakers were compatible only with a Roku-branded TV. If you already have a Roku TV, you could still use the soundbar with it, but you’d be getting redundancy in features, since both products have Roku streaming players built in. And if you already have Roku’s wireless speakers, you should know that the new soundbar will not pair with them. Really, the soundbar is aimed squarely at new customers who don’t have any Roku products already.
The player built into the soundbar is equivalent to Roku’s existing Ultra player. It offers 4K, HD, and HDR video, with support for Google Assistant and Amazon Echo. The soundbar also comes with a Roku remote, which has dedicated buttons to switch to the user’s connected Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming accounts. If you want to connect to the soundbar via Bluetooth and stream songs from your phone, you can do that too.
I got the chance to demo the Smart Soundbar last month. The actual sound that comes out of the bar is crispy Dolby audio, delivered through four drivers. Roku says that the listening experience was designed with TV-viewing in mind. To that end, there are three presets aimed at optimizing the audio as you watch. The “speech clarity” preset is exactly what it sounds like, making it easier to discern what the characters are talking about. An automatic volume leveling feature aims to keep you from scrambling for your remote every time there’s a jump or dip in the volume when the scene changes. (Also: No more blaring commercials assaulting your eardrums when a show cuts away to pay the bills.) The “night mode” preset does the same sort of smoothing out, but in a more extreme fashion, so a sudden explosion or swell in music won’t wake your housemates. The soundbar also pulls audio directly from the TV, so there’s no need to plug a game console into the speaker. Just connect everything to the TV and the soundbar detects the audio sources automatically.