Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

Roku’s surround sound system is simple, immersive, and not for everyone

Simple, immersive, affordable surround sound. That’s the promise of Roku’s new operating system update, which allows you to link up the company’s soundbar, sub, and Roku Wireless Speakers for a slick and concise surround setup that costs just $500.

On many fronts, Roku’s makeshift system delivers on its promise, booming and sweeping its way to some pretty sweet cinematic immersion. But, after spending some quality time with the newly minted setup, I can tell you it won’t be for everyone, especially those looking for a system as musical as it is cinematic.

Here are the highs and lows of Roku’s new Voltron-style surround setup.

Setup (no-fuss presumably)

Roku smart soundbar credenza side
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Roku’s new system is designed to be so easy to use that even your aging Aunt Freda can set it up and enjoy those mahjong tournaments on ESPN 7 in immersive surround. Roku shoots for a broad audience, so the system needs to be accessible for all. For the most part, that’s the case when it comes to setup, but there are some caveats to mention. 

The Roku Smart Soundbar is basically a Roku TV in soundbar form. You can stream directly from it and easily access the onscreen menu for everything from streaming apps to sound settings. Once you’ve got the bar set up and all components plugged in, pairing the wireless subwoofer and speakers to the bar is done by simply holding down the remote’s Home button for five seconds and selecting them from the on-screen menu. 

That’s assuming the new update that makes this possible goes off without a hitch, of course. Updates can be tricky, and you may need to hit the reset button on the speakers or sub, though the simple on-screen directions should make this clear. However, since the Roku Wireless Speakers were originally designed to pair to a Roku TV, they kept chiming improper directions about doing just that after I plugged them in. This may be something that’s worked out in the update (or a future one).

You’ll also need to find a place to set up the speakers behind (and to the left and right of) the listening position. This will likely require you to pick up speaker stands or find a console for them, etc. So, while the setup is simple, it isn’t necessarily a breeze for surround newbies.


Roku smart soundbar remote
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That’s not to say this system isn’t intuitive as all get-out — it’s Roku, after all — and operation is a snap once you’re up and running. Apart from the luxury of a built-in video streamer, easy access to on-screen sound settings, a signature perk of Roku audio gear, is perhaps the most useful feature.

A tap of the star key on the soundbar’s remote calls up a small but effective suite of settings, including leveling and night mode (for keeping the system from blasting during commercials or when the kids are sleeping), two settings to pump up dialogue (low and high), and a range of bass controls for the subwoofer. The settings are limited, but work well for those for whom a graphic EQ is as mysterious as quantum physics.

Like most modern soundbars, the system also works seamlessly with your TV remote for power and volume when connected via HDMI ARC (cable included). 

There’s also a cool feature called Expanded Stereo mode, which uses digital signal processing (DSP) to pump ambient sound into the surround satellites for stereo content. The Movies and TV mode, which is on by default, actually works impressively well, seeming to magically pull only the background effects into the back speakers for a more immersive experience. I was less impressed with the Music version when streaming Bluetooth, but it does give you a bigger soundstage.

Smart assistant support includes Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant for some basic functionality like streaming from select services, volume control, and turning the system on and off, while the microphone in the remote allows for searching streaming content via Roku’s operating system as well.


The opposite side of the coin that is Roku’s dead-simple interface is that, well, there’s not a lot you can do to tune the system manually. For control freaks like yours truly, the lack of incremental levels for the subwoofer and (especially) zero control over the satellites is maddening. While there are settings that raise or lower bass output, the only way to control the surround volume appears to be where you place them in conjunction with your listening position. 

Also somewhat frustrating is Bluetooth streaming, which demands you go through the settings via your TV for initial pairing. I’d rather just have an input key. That said, once you’ve paired to it, the system is designed to allow you to stream to the bar with the TV off (though for my TCL 6-series Roku TV, it seemed to turn on the TV when I turned on the bar).

Speaking of inputs, the options are limited. Unlike competitors such as Vizio’s $500 SB36512-g6 surround soundbar (which also tacks on Dolby Atmos, by the way), there’s no way to stream over Wi-Fi, or even a 3.5mm input. 


Image used with permission by copyright holder

When it comes to performance, the highlights of this four-piece system are easily the subwoofer and satellite components, which deliver power and immersion, respectively, that rises above what you’ll get from the vast majority of competitors at this price point. 

After connecting the sub, Roku’s booming test demo freaked out my normally quiet dog from a dead slumber, causing him to bark as viciously as a 15-pounder can at what he deemed a full-on invasion. The impressive little tub holds court in everything from major action scenes to acoustic tracks, offering clean and powerful bass that punches well above its weight when measured by both size and price point.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Meanwhile, the Roku Wireless speakers offer power and clarity that’s far above what you’ll see in most surround bars in this price class (or even well above it). Designed as stand-alone speakers for Roku TVs, their smooth-and-clear, dual-driver attack adds definition, detail, and poise to the swirling effects of action scenes, while swelling brilliantly with ambient sound in slower moments. 

The result is excellent immersion that really pulls you into the moment in films like Avengers: Infinity War and The Dark Knight. But the setup  also leaves something to be desired when it comes to the weakest link in this chain, the soundbar itself.

While the bar is the piece that ties it all together, it’s also the wild card of the system. Loaded with DSP, at times it can sound quite good, reveling in the meat of the sound for clean and detailed midrange effects and dialogue. At other times, you’re reminded of its stubby size, which limits its soundstage significantly, while it’s smaller tweeters seem to be stretching to produce more velocity, resulting in a shouty sound signature.

That goes for music playback, too, which often comes off flat and boxy. My first impression when I called up a Spotify playlist was that of disappointment as the soundstage seemed to collapse on itself significantly. The subwoofer helps take some of the load, adding punch to songs that hit hard and chocolaty bass to acoustic fare, but I often wished for more warmth and presence in the middle of the sound and more definition up top.

This wasn’t always the case — I certainly found myself enjoying some tunes, usually those with excellent mixing, but in general, Bluetooth streaming is lackluster. You can lean on the Roku Wireless Speakers a bit by engaging the Expanded Stereo Music mode, but it can’t really make up for the lack of musicality upfront. And perhaps ironically, I found myself wishing I was just listening to the twin speakers on their lonesome instead.


At $500, Roku’s mostly wireless surround setup has a lot going for it. It’s slick and simple to use, offers a great streamer built-in (assuming you don’t already have one), and provides compelling surround sound immersion for your favorite cinematic scenes. It’s not the best for music streaming, though, and while it’s easy to use, I find its limitations in both connection options and settings frustrating. 

If you love the simple and intuitive nature of Roku — and especially if you’ve already invested in one of these components — the full system might be a good option. Otherwise, you can get more well-rounded surround solutions from Vizio and other brands, often for less.

Updated 2/20/2020: This piece has been updated to clarify that basic smart assistant functionality is supported for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

Ryan Waniata
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Waniata is a multi-year veteran of the digital media industry, a lover of all things tech, audio, and TV, and a…
Polk’s $249 expandable React Soundbar packs virtual 5.1 surround sound and Alexa
Polk React 5.1 Wireless Soundbar with Alexa

Polk Audio has a new take on the connected soundbar experience, with the newly-announced Polk React, a $249 soundbar that can be expanded through an optional $199 wireless React subwoofer, and a $199 set of SR2 wireless surround speakers. All three components are available starting today from the Polk Audio website, Amazon, and other authorized resellers.

On its own, the React soundbar can deliver a virtualized Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 surround sound experience via HDMI ARC or an optical connection to your TV. Inside the soundbar are two mid-range drivers, two tweeters, and two passive radiators for bass. Adding the optional components makes it a true, discrete 5.1 home theater system, with no wiring needed.

Read more
Denon’s Dolby Atmos Home Sound Bar 550 takes versatility to a new level
Denon Home Sound Bar 550

When it comes to soundbars, there's no lack of awesome options right now, and CES 2021 is showing us that many more are on the way. But that doesn't mean there isn't room for new products, especially when they fill a previously empty niche. Denon's new $599 Home Sound Bar 550, which will be available in February 2021, seems to do just that.

The key to the Home Sound Bar 550's potential appeal is its vast array of features, combined with a price that places it between bedroom-sized soundbars like the $400 Sonos Beam and $400 Bose Smart Soundbar 300, and their larger cousins, the $800 Sonos Arc and the $800 Bose Soundbar 700.

Read more
Roku blazes a wireless audio trail for new soundbars at CES 2021
Element 4K Ultra HD Roku TV with HDR

Soundbars are immensely popular for one very good reason: Simplicity. A power cable and an HDMI cable are typically all you need to get one set up and connected to your TV. But Roku -- the king of simplicity in the streaming world -- thinks we can do better. Ahead of CES 2021, the company has announced that it has created a new reference design for a soundbar that doesn't need to be physically connected to a TV at all. Well, to a Roku TV, to be precise.

The reference design is an expansion of the existing Roku TV Ready program announced a year ago that lets Roku TV owners configure their audio gear using a simple on-screen interface. Now, any compatible soundbar will still be configurable via Roku TV Ready, but it won't require an HDMI cable. The system uses Roku's proprietary version of Wi-Fi -- the same Wi-Fi connection it uses for its Roku Wireless Speakers -- which lets you place a soundbar more or less anywhere you want.

Read more