Hands-On: Roku Makes Surround Sound Simple

Roku is aiming to simplify the process of setting up a home theater by making it easy to pair its subwoofer and soundbar with its wireless speakers.

With last month’s Roku OS update, you can now create a more immersive sound experience by using a pair of Roku TV Wireless Speakers with the Roku Smart Soundbar. Make no mistake about it, though: This is basic home theater, designed for folks who want a simple, no-fuss path to surround sound.

“We want to simplify home theater the same way we simplified streaming, and we’re taking a big step towards that vision by expanding our Roku Smart Soundbars to support surround sound capabilities,” said Roku VP Mark Ely. “We want customers to be able to expand their system over time without having to spend a lot of money or run wires throughout the home. The Roku Smart Soundbar is an incredible two-in-one device that adds exceptional sound and powerful streaming to a TV. And when Roku TV Wireless Speakers and a Roku Wireless Subwoofer are paired with the Smart Soundbar, you get truly enveloping surround sound without breaking the bank.”

Setting up the Roku system is, indeed, easy. The speakers actually guide you through setup. The first step is to make sure your TV is set to HDMI ARC before you connect the soundbar to it. Next, you place the wireless speakers in the back of the room, plugging each into an AC outlet. Once powered-up, the speakers talk to you — telling you, for example, you to press the home button on the remote for five seconds to get to the pairing screen. Then you click the checkbox next to Speakers. The soundbar will automatically find the surround speakers and send a test tone to each speaker so you can verify operation.

Adding the subwoofer into the mix is a simple matter of clicking the checkbox next to the subwoofer on the pairing screen and repeating the procedure noted above.

Because I had previously for my tested the speakers with a Roku TV, I had to press the reset button on each speaker before I could pair them with the soundbar.

The soundbar supports Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus and automatically detects the incoming format whether you’re streaming from Disney +, Netflix, Apple TV Plus, or another service. To test my new Roku surround sound setup, I settled in to watch a couple 4K movies on PLEX and Disney+.

I started with an old go-to audio demonstration from my days of selling home-theater systems: the opera scene from The Fifth Element that cuts between the singing diva and a swashbuckling fight back stage. As the sounds of opera and mayhem filled my room, I was transported to the theater on Fhloston Paradise but I couldn’t hear some of the more nuanced sounds — like the opening of a metal box or quiet footsteps.

In an effort to keep things simple, Roku provides only a handful of audio settings on the soundbar. There are three settings for bass and speech and a night mode that levels out the dynamic range. Boosting the bass and setting speech clarity to high helped bring out some of those nuances, while expanding the sense of ambience and immersion, which added to the excitement.

While watching Avengers: Age of Ultron on Disney+, I was impressed with the sound’s directionality in the scene where the Jarvis robot attacks the Avengers: Thor’s hammer seemed to soar around the room while windows broke to my right.

The bottom line: Roku delivers a fairly credible surround-sound experience for the current price of $450 — $300 for the Roku Smart Soundbar bundle — which includes a built-in 4K Roku player, a voice remote, and wireless subwoofer — and $150 for the Roku TV Wireless Speakers. {Prices revert to $360 and $200, respectively, after March 31.) While the system doesn’t support video mirroring or Chromecast, you can stream music from a mobile device using Bluetooth.

The thing about Roku is, you could send the system reviewed here to the most tech-skittish member of your family and not have to worry about getting a call for help.