Roku Smart Soundbar review: Plenty smart, but short on sound

Roku's Smart Soundbar is big on streaming, short on sound

Roku Smart Soundbar review: Plenty smart, but short on sound

“Roku's Smart Soundbar brings the streaming goods, but leaves the sound behind.”
  • Sleek, simple design
  • Streaming works well
  • Easy setup
  • Impressive leveling feature
  • Flat, compacted soundstage
  • Sharp dialogue can create distortion
  • No sub or EQ controls on remote

Why put a video streamer in a soundbar? As devices like Roku’s Smart Soundbar continue to crop up, it’s a question I have to ponder.

After all, virtually every TV is already a streaming device, while add-on streamers are a dime a dozen (and nearly as cheap). For Roku, which is making the same pivot as Apple to focus on services over hardware, this marriage of sound and stream may be more about finding new ways to deliver its software than actual utility.

Still, if you somehow need to upgrade both streaming and audio at once, Roku’s latest does seem like a solid solution, especially at just $180. Unfortunately, while the streamer within is unsurprisingly aces, the “sound” part of this equation comes up short. As such, Roku’s Smart Soundbar feels like a rare (if subtle) miss from the company that continues to beat the big boys by building a better box.

Minimalism à la Roku

There’s a kind of sexy-austerity we’ve come to expect from Roku devices: Stealth-black color scheme, matte plastic accents, and suave curves, all of which are found in the Smart Soundbar. As with the impressive Roku Speakers, the soundbar also adds a fabric grille to the equation, along with an unassuming profile that stands less than 3 inches tall and under 32 inches long to easily disappear beneath your TV.

A lack of any onboard controls or front display makes the bar even more discreet, with only a single LED upfront to give any indication it’s on. That’s by design, of course, as the real goods lie within the on-screen interface, which doesn’t just house a fully loaded streamer, but also audio settings like EQ control, speech clarity, bass modes, and even Bluetooth pairing.

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Succinct? Definitely. But the fact that you can’t even pair a phone without first turning on the TV and scrolling through settings feels limiting at times.

Also somewhat limiting — for sound adjustment anyway — is the remote, which (surprise!) looks just like virtually all other Roku remotes. There’s no bass or treble, no sound modes, and not even a single audio effect — but there is a quick key for ESPN+. Again, all settings must be handled inside the box, or more to the point, on your TV screen.

Also inside the box are four 2.5-inch drivers, two each for the Smart Soundbar’s stereo channels. If you’re wondering about a wireless subwoofer, there’s none in the slim package, but Roku is happy to sell you its proprietary add-on sub if you’re willing to double down on that $180 price tag. It’s a great way to either allow you to customize the system or to be upsold more gear, depending on how you look at it. Either way, if you want cinematic sound, you’ll want the sub.

There are few devices as slick and intuitive to set up as a Roku.

Those with small children or light sleepers in the house will appreciate the bar’s sound-leveling system and night mode, both of which are easily accessed in the settings. The leveling, in particular, works surprisingly well if you need to flatline dynamics entirely. And while I wish there was a separate subwoofer level, if you like to set and forget, you’ll appreciate that the soundbar automatically adjusts when incorporating the wireless sub.

Plug and stream

There are few devices as slick and intuitive to set up as a Roku, especially if you’ve already got an account. That said, it does take a while to get a Roku streamer online, and the Smart Soundbar is no exception. After plugging in and connecting to your TV’s HDMI ARC port, simply navigate to the proper TV input and the system holds your hand through every step, including connecting to your network, shopping for apps, and registering your device.

Adding the Roku Subwoofer is also quite simple — just go into Settings, then Pair Devices. (Though, if the sub has already been paired before, you’ll need to reset it via the Reset key on the back.) Pair Devices is also how you pair a phone via Bluetooth.

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Other ways to stream music include via Spotify Connect or through any of the streaming apps Roku supports, like Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, TuneIn, SiriusXM, and others. Unlike many Wi-Fi bars these days, though, there’s no multiroom audio component.

The HDMI ARC connection will allow you to source sound both to and from the TV, and (likely) control soundbar volume and power with your TV remote. If your TV doesn’t have ARC, you can connect to any HDMI port and send sound from the TV via its Optical digital audio output, but there’s no analog input available on the soundbar, so you’ll need Bluetooth adapter for that vinyl spinner.

There’s also no spare HDMI input at the back, meaning the system apes one of your TV’s ports, but since streaming is built-in, I’ll call it a draw. Like the $100 Roku Ultra, a USB input at the back allows you to playback stored media.

Roku, take the wheel

Once you’re all set up, it’s time to stream, Roku style, and that’s certainly the best element of this soundbar. As with all Rokus, the remote is simple yet powerful, there are thousands of apps to choose from, and everything is laid out in intuitive rows. There’s also the Roku Controller app that lets you listen through your phone, which is good because, unlike the Roku Ultra, the Smart Soundbar’s remote lacks a headphone jack.

You will get Roku voice control built-in, however. The microphone button allows for search across apps by show, movie, actor, and more. New features for the latest Roku OS include “zone” searching for things like holiday films or even movies in 4K.

Sound comes up short on depth, details, and balance.

As with other such systems, search can be hit or miss, but it generally does a good job of finding your query, including serving up content on your subscribed services alongside paid ones.

Like most Rokus, the Smart Soundbar offers 4K HDR at 60fps, but no Dolby Vision, which is something Roku may have to reckon with in the near future. Unlike Yamaha’s affordable YAS-109 and other “smart” soundbars, there’s no voice assistance outside the Roku world, so Google or Alexa need not apply.

You forgot about the ‘sound’ part

The easiest way to describe the Smart Soundbar’s audio performance is uninspired. The sound signature focuses mainly on the midrange and upper bass, with some smooth work and peppered detail in that region, but overall, sound comes up short on depth, details, and balance.

While it’s certain to outdo your TV sound, the underpowered system seems to be fighting to overcome its limitations at times, whether that’s by compressing dynamics, smooshing together dialogue with bass boost engaged or, on the other end, getting shouty up top.

roku smart soundbar review subwoofer rs 5

That last trait was notable with or without the Speech Clarity feature engaged. Brighter voices, from Black Panther’s Shuri to Friends’ Rachel, come off pinched and sharp. In fact, multiple times while watching older sitcoms like The Simpsons on Disney+, voices bordered on distortion, breaking up in the higher frequencies.

The small length of the bar and its lack of any virtualization makes for a pretty narrow soundstage, which feels more compacted than competitors like Vizio’s SB3621 or Yamaha’s YAS-109.

That’s not to say there aren’t some nice moments to be had, but they’re highly dependent on the quality and type of content you play. Prestige dramas sound best. The bar did particularly well with the luscious scenes from His Dark Materials, like the clack of Ms. Coulter’s heels along her luxe apartment’s radiant marble floors. The orchestral soundtrack of The Mandalorian is also well rendered, particularly the blended horns at the end of the first episode. When the action ramped up, though, I kept wanting more punch from the explosions and blasters.

Adding the subwoofer is definitely a notable improvement that not only lends cinematic punch but also allows the soundbar to do more in the higher registers. But with or without it, sound gets flat as a pancake quickly when things become chaotic. Meanwhile, more poorly mixed content, such as Mickey Mouse’s 1936 classic Thru the Mirror, reveals more shrillness than I’d expect, even for a budget bar.

Our take

Roku’s new Smart Soundbar has (nearly) all the streaming goods you’d want, and on that point alone, it does offer some real two-for-one value. But when it comes to sheer sound quality, you can do better for less.

Is there a better alternative?

I don’t have another streaming/soundbar hybrid to recommend, not only because they’re such a specific use case, but also because the last one we tested, JBL’s Link Bar, is nearly the opposite of this one in the wrong ways: Sound is solid, but streaming is meh and the price is too high. We’ll let you know how Anker’s Nebula Fire TV soundbar turns out when we get it.

As such, when it comes to smart soundbars I recommend the aforementioned $200 Yamaha YAS-109 and its Alexa specialties, while those simply looking for a capable audio upgrade will enjoy the $180 Vizio SB3621 (and its included subwoofer).

How long will it last?

With such a specific type of bar, how future-proof it is could depend on how you’re going to use it. As an entry-level sound system, it doesn’t have any of the latest technologies like HDMI 2.1, and it also doesn’t offer any smart assistance outside of Roku’s system. Its 4K HDR streaming element is ready for just about anything, though, with the exception of Dolby Vision.

Should you buy it?

No. While this bar could possibly be a viable choice for those who must have a streaming bar (whoever that may be), you can easily find good sound and streaming in separate packages, letting you mix and match your setup however you please.

Editors' Recommendations