Hands On: Roku Smart Soundbar and Subwoofer

Roku's claim to fame continues to be its ease of use. With new additions to its audio, it continues that tradition by making it simple to upgrade TV sound. The budget-priced Smart Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer are not intended as a whole home-theater surround system. Still, they are affordable, a good value for the price, and you can be pretty confident that even those who are technology-challenged can set it up on their own. 

Roku's foray into audio began last year with wireless speakers that work with a Roku TV. This year, the company has released a 32-inch soundbar with a built-in Roku streaming player. At $180 ($150 on sale until the end of the year), this is a value-priced soundbar that has two-channel audio from four 2.5-inch full-range drivers. It does not have simulated surround sound but is 4K compatible and supports HDR10.

The Roku Smart Soundbar is intended to connect to a TV's HDMI ARC (audio return channel) input. There is no video pass-through on the soundbar. If you want the soundbar to play audio from your cable box, game console or disc player, you must connect the device to the TV. For those TVs that do not have an ARC-enabled HDMI connection, there's an optical audio input (cable included). 

Setup is similar to any Roku device where you choose the language, connect to the network, auto-detect display type, and create or sign in to a Roku account. Roku has a video that shows step-by-step basic instructions for those who need more hand-holding. To control the TV power and automatically change to the Roku's input, be sure to enable CEC in your TV's settings.  

There is no equalizer; you can change sound settings to best suit the video or music while it is playing by pressing the star key (*) on the remote. Bass can be adjusted to reduce or boost bass. Two levels of speech clarity can be added. Speech clarity also brings sound effects forward. At the beginning of Toy Story 3, Woody's plastic clicking footsteps were distinguishable from thudding bags. A leveling or night mode can help to keep sound volumes from blaring during commercials or action scenes.  

Roku also recently released a subwoofer that can enhance the soundbar audio or add to Roku TV speakers and Roku wireless speakers. It sells for $180 or can be purchased in a bundle with the soundbar for $300.) An improvement over the built-in TV speakers, the Wireless Subwoofer can provide low-frequency effects and bass so you can feel the rumble. The subwoofer is simple to set up with either the Roku wireless speakers or the new Roku soundbar. 

As it is wireless, the subwoofer needs only to be plugged into a power outlet. Bass is non-directional, so the subwoofer can be placed anywhere in the room. Before adding the subwoofer, I had to be sure that the Roku TV was set up with the wireless speakers already connected (or that the soundbar was set up). The pairing light on the back of the subwoofer blinks when first plugged in. To pair the subwoofer, I held down the home button on the remote for five seconds, which brought up the "pair new device" menu. Choosing "subwoofer" automatically paired and upgraded firmware, then played a test low-frequency sound.  

The downward-firing 10-inch driver gives a subtle rumble that becomes more obvious at louder volumes. There is no way to change crossover settings. To improve the effect, I found that it was best to go into the Roku TV (or soundbar) sound settings and choose the Bass Boost sound mode, then turn the volume up. I tested it with the beginning of Star Wars IV: A New Hope . The Roku subwoofer added an appropriate rumble from the engines of the Star Destroyer, as it glides into the scene, and from the ensuing battle. 

It's not fair to compare Roku audio with high-end surround-sound systems. Still, if you are looking for better sound than your TV offers, or simply want to improve sound for those technologically challenged friends or family, the Roku Soundbar (or Roku TV and speakers) and Roku subwoofer create a more immersive TV viewing experience. 

For more information, visit roku.com