Ultra-thin, super high-resolution TVs have transformed our home entertainment experience, but have done so, generally, at the expense of quality sound.
Granted, I’m middle aged and probably have some hearing loss that makes it hard to hear the muffled voices that come from all my flat-screen TVs, but the booming sound bar industry makes it clear that I’m not the only one dissatisfied with the speakers that come with our newest 4K sets.
Expensive sound bars have become such an accepted part of the home theater setup that they usually have their own shelf or the TV screen is built high enough from the metal feet holding it up to make sure a 3-to-4-inch audio device doesn’t block the screen. They’re also usually three feet wide and considerably heavy.
That’s not an accurate description of Roku’s new $129 Roku Streambar: a 2-in-1 device (it’s a speaker and a 4K Roku streaming box) that’s only slightly larger and heavier than your average egg carton. Its small black and gray body almost disappears in front of my 65-inch TCL Roku TV.
The Roku Streambar ships with everything you need to connect to your TV and start streaming. There’s the four-speaker Streambar itself, an optical cable, an HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) cable — most modern 4K TVs now have dedicated HDMI ARC ports — a power cable, and the instantly recognizable Roku remote (batteries included).
Setup was especially easy for me because I already have a Roku system inside my TCL TV and a voice-friendly Roku remote that includes dedicated buttons for Netflix, Hulu and ESPN. The Streambar’s remote includes dedicated buttons for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and Sling. Fortunately, the Streambar instructions account for this situation and let you both skip the streaming setup and keep using the remote that came with your Roku TV.
Because the Roku Streambar is so small and light, it was easy to handle and move around as I plugged in the cables and walked through the ultra-simple setup.
My TCL immediately recognized the new sound system and, after a brief firmware update, immediately started playing audio through the tiny box’s four speakers.
Spread it around
The Roku Streambar’s slightly unusual, rounded-corner, quadrilateral shape points two speakers toward the front, presumably where you’re sitting in front of the TV,and one on either side toward the left and right walls and spaces. The hope is to create room-filling sound. The result is somewhat less so.
Despite its size, Roku Streambar can get very loud and I can finally hear every single syllable people utter on screen. Sound effects like explosions, rain, cars driving, basically everything that makes up the atmosphere of a film or TV show come through sharp, and bright. Deep bass sounds like explosions are loud enough, but there’s no woofer inside this small box, so it lacks any real aural impact.
The Roku Streambar also fails to cast any audio around the room to help create a more immersive audio experience. Whatever audio I hear is obviously emanating from that little box in front of my TV screen.
Honestly, I don’t mind this at all. Roku is charging just $129 for a significant audio upgrade and a complete streaming system. Even without the Roku streaming system that includes access to almost all my favorite services and a ton of free, if middling, content, the Roku Streambar is still an excellent value. It’s the audio upgrade for people who do not want a monster audio system in their living room or to pay $400 or more for decent sound, especially after they probably just spent at least that much on a 4K TV.
Roku’s included content streaming system is one of the best in the business. It has an easy-to-use, customizable interface (there are fun themes) and access to almost all the platforms you want (HBOMax is a notable exception). You can voice search by selecting the microphone icon and speaking into the Roku remote, which will launch a search across all included streaming platforms on your Roku device. There are no microphones in the Roku Streambar.
If you want more audio, Roku Streambar does work with Roku’s wireless satellite speakers and huge subwoofer for a true surround sound experience.
The system also supports Bluetooth audio if you want to stream directly from any Bluetooth-compatible system. To make the connection, you have to enable the device connection through your TV. Once that’s done, the music from your device, in my case my iPhone 11 Pro, plays through the Roku Streambar. It’s a scenario that perfectly illustrates both the ease of use and limitations of the pint-sized audio device. Billie Eilish’s voice on “Bad Guy,” for instance, sounded crystal clear and bright, but the thumping base is underwhelming. Not bad, just no real oomph.
Roku has also promised Apple AirPlay 2 support with a Roku system upgrade coming later this month. This will add the ability to stream from Apple devices like your iPhone, iPad and Apple TV. They’re also adding HomeKit support, which means you’ll be able to use Siri to control the sound bar and Roku streaming system. Roku’s system already integrates with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Roku Streambar is not the sound bar for audiophiles and, by itself, probably not the system for cinephiles, either. However, if you are looking for an affordable sound bar that doesn’t demand tons of shelf space, is dead-simple to setup, offers loud, crisp, clear, entertaining sound, and a complete Streaming content option, there may be no better choice that the Roku Streambar.