A year after its first foray into the home audio market, Roku is back with 2 new products that promise to marry TV streaming with smart sound: A $180 soundbar that doubles as a Roku video streaming device, and a $180 Roku subwoofer to add some bass to either the soundbar or the company’s bookshelf speakers.
The Roku Smart Soundbar connects to your TV via HDMI, and effectively includes a full-blown Roku streaming box, capable of streaming 4K Ultra HD HDR video. This means that you won’t need any additional devices, or even a smart TV, to watch videos from Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube or the company’s own Roku Channel.
The soundbar measures 32 inches, and packs four 2.5-inch tweeters. It uses HDMI ARC, which allows TVs to send audio both ways, so you can also use it to amplify the sound of anything you might watch with your cable box. Older TVs without HDMI Arc can be connected via optical audio, but there is no analog audio connectivity.
The device includes a typical Roku remote, complete with mic button for voice control. There’s also an option to control the soundbar with an external Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker, but the soundbar itself doesn’t have far-field microphones on board.
The Roku Wireless Subwoofer is a bit simpler, and doesn’t come with built-in video streaming. The idea is instead that you buy it as an add-on. At launch, it will only work with the Smart Soundbar, but the company is working on making it compatible with its bookshelf speakers as well.
During a brief demo, both products sounded good, and definitely better than TV sound by itself. However, don’t expect the Smart Soundbar to beat a Sonos soundbar or other premium-priced devices with Dolby Atmos in a head-to-head competition. Roku’s emphasis is clearly on price and usability as opposed to mind-blowing audio quality.
To that effect, the company has also once again added its own smart audio features. This includes the ability to amplify dialogue, and also a night mode that equalizes the entire soundscape to make sure that a sudden car crash in a movie won’t wake up the entire house.
Speaking of whole home: Roku’s Smart Soundbar is not yet able to pair with the company’s bookshelf speakers, either for 5.1 audio setups, or for multi-room audio, but Roku product management director Sheldon Radford told Variety that the company is considering adding such features.
Radford also clarified the status of the company’s homegrown voice assistant. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the company stopped developing the assistant, but Roku took issue with that assessment. “Voice is still an important part” of the company’s audio platform, Radford said, while adding: “It’s evolved over time.”
Roku’s entry into the home audio market has been a bit rocky. The company announced a partnership with TCL to build a soundbar together at the beginning of 2018, but that product never made it to market. The company’s bookshelf speakers, which exclusively work with Roku TVs, have only been sold via Roku’s website. Roku’s new Smart Soundbar and Subwoofer products will be available online as well as at Best Buy in October.
At the same time, the company may still partner with consumer electronics manufacturers to build Roku-powered audio equipment. “There is opportunity there,” said Radford. “We look at both models.”