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Next Up to Get Smart: Soundbars

Walk the show floors of CES in Las Vegas this week, and you’ll see a whole lot of smarts. Smart speakers, smart lights, smart washing machines. The latest product category to jump on that bandwagon are soundbars, with a promise to unite audio and video streaming in one single device. And thanks to new apps and features, soundbars may finally lose their bad rep.

Let’s face it: Soundbars have always been the ugly stepchild of home audio devices. They look sort of awkward, never really seem to fit the size of the TV, and are despised by music lovers and home theater fans alike. The only reason that soundbars existed has always been that another product — the speaker built into your TV — is even worse.

This week, Roku and its consumer electronics partner TCL were among the first companies to show off a smart soundbar at CES. Part of Roku’s push into the smart speaker market, TCL’s Roku Soundbar will come with integrated microphones for voice control.

TCL didn’t have a working model to demonstrate the soundbar’s functionality at their booth, but a demo video showed much of the functionality that one would expect from a smart speaker: it will let users ask for music, set timers, and control their connected TV, if it happens to be a Roku-powered model as well.

A prototype of the device shown at TCL’s booth did feature a number of buttons for play/pause and volume control as well as to link the speaker via Roku’s new multi-room audio technology, dubbed Roku Connect. The company got its hands on much of this technology when it acquired Danish home audio startup Dynastron last year. A previous demo video of Dynastrom’s solution showed devices that could easily be paired and unpaired with physical buttons.

TCL Roku Soundbar

Roku isn’t the only company looking to make soundbars smarter. Chances are you’ll hear a lot more about this product category in the coming months — maybe even from your internet and TV service provider. That’s if things go according to plan for Voxtok, a European home audio startup that was recently acquired by French set-top box maker Netgem. During CES week, the two companies demonstrated their very own smart soundbar with multi-room audio support dubbed the Soundbox.

The device goes beyond the functionality of Roku-powered soundbars by also doubling as a video streaming device. Connect your TV to it, and you’ll be able to access to music services like Napster and Deezer, as well as video streaming apps like Amazon Video, YouTube, and Netflix.

And thanks to its background in home audio, Voxtok has put music at the front and center, adding automatic content recognition and other features that help consumers build their music libraries.

Voxtok plans to eventually sell a high-end version of the Soundbox directly to consumers, but the first units are going to be white-labeled and distributed by TV operators. A first customer is already signed up, and will begin shipping Soundboxes to its customers this quarter. “It’s a game changer for the industry,” Voxtok’s VP of marketing Thibaut Dabonneville said.

Some have doubted whether there really is space for another smart speaker category, but Dabonneville argued that smart soundbars bring features to the table that standalone speakers can’t. “We all have connected speakers, but they’re not that smart,” he said.

Smart soundbars can benefit from the connected TV, while at the same time offering features that the TV can’t — at least not out of the box — like advanced music apps, or even the ability to turn the TV screen off when you just want to listen.

However, smart TVs likely won’t go down without a fight against smart soundbars. Case in point: Sony demonstrated a TV at CES this week that featured what the company called “acoustic surface” technology. Instead of building a speaker into the TV, it essentially treats the entire screen as a speaker, vibrating it invisibly to the human eye.

Better-sounding TVs could ultimately lead to an existential crisis for this new generation of soundbars. Because in the end, soundbars can be genius-level smart, and they still will be soundbars. Which means that no one will buy them unless they have to.

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