Roku Streambar adds audio capabilities to its streaming skills
By Jim Bray
Roku makes one of the greatest media streaming devices on the market – actually, several of them – but the company is also "streaming out" to new areas – including the introduction of a sound bar as well as some original programming to watch on its eponymous app.
It's pretty cool stuff, too.
Let's start with the "Streambar," the soundbar you can use to replace (and probably upgrade) the speakers built into your TV. Soundbars are nothing new, and in fact there are so many of them on the market that choosing one is probably a real treat.
But Roku's offers extra value, in that it is not only an audio device but it's also a fully-fledged Roku, with all of the streaming goodness that means.
One thing it isn't is a real audiophile device and, while I was a tad disappointed to find that, I wasn't surprised considering its size and price. And even though it may not be up there with the high-end speaker companies' soundbar offerings, it does elevate the audio quality from my TVs' internal speakers, which is a great start, and it also lets you operate the TV using the Roku's remote.
Mostly. And of course, it's a Roku, so it's marvelous in other ways.
The Streambar, which lists for about $190 Canadian dollars, also includes a voice-operated remote that works quite well and can make finding your specific program or app a heckuva lot easier than having to scroll around an onscreen keyboard for searching. You can even use it to control the built-in Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Stream music apps, too, as well as stuff like Apple AirPlay 2, Bluetooth, and Spotify Connect.
The sound bar offers a bass boost feature and it helps in the oomph department, but I noticed that even then, the audio quality isn't competitive with the Bose SoundTouch 30 that usually provides the audio in my living room. Oh, I wasn't surprised: the Bose is bigger and about three times the price. But I hoped it would be good enough that I could move the Bose elsewhere.
Ah, but that meant I could move the Streambar to my bedroom. Up there, we have an old 32-inch LCD TV that we use exclusively as a monitor for a Roku device. All we ever use it for is music to go to sleep by (thank you, Accuradio app on the Roku!), plus the occasional YouTube or other apps when the grandkids come over and want to watch something while roughhousing on the bed.
And the Streambar is absolutely perfect there! Not only does it work beautifully with the old TV, I can also control that TV with the Roku's remote (other than setting the TV's sleep timer) and I can also control the volume that way. And in that room and at the volume I use it, it sounds just fine and is still an obvious upgrade over the TV's tinny little drivers. I love it there!
As far as video quality is concerned, the Streambar offers full 4K computability, with HDR10 and HDCP 2.2 – so its video output is limited only by your TV's input. This is wasted in the bedroom, with its 720p monitor, but before I put it there it was driving a 4K TV and it worked just fine.
Setup is easy, and Roku gives you everything you need, including both an HDMI and an optical audio cable to connect it to your TV. You need the Audio Return Channel (ARC) HDMI input for the Streambar to stream sound that way – and that's why the optical cable is there: in case you don't have ARC capability. I didn't need it; the Streambar worked fine with HDMI ARC on both TV's to which I hooked it.
Roku says the Streambar lets you lower loud commercials, boost the volume of voices, and optimize the sound for night listening so you don't wake the house, and this is true, though it's no panacea. Still, it works well overall and I think Roku did a great job with this product, despite my "non-audiophile angst".
And, as mentioned, it does operate your TV, though it won't control all of its features. For example, it'll fire up the Panasonic 4K in the living room, but it won't change its input if I want to watch the satellite TV (you have to use the TV remote for that). And upstairs, it won't turn on the TV's sleep timer, nor will it operate its "energy saving" feature that lets me turn off the picture completely.
Not a big deal to me; heck, I didn't think expect that it would do as much as it does!
So, with Roku's Streambar, you get a somewheat "universal" remote, flexible connectivity, good sound and access to the thousands of apps Roku offers, opening your TV (especially "dumb TV's) to an unbelievable amount of entertainment choices, the variety of which should boggle your mind.
All for $190. It's a steal.
Roku Channels broadcast TV
Roku also introduced its own "broadcast" service a while back, called the Roku channel, and I must admit I find myself watching it more and more. It's a free service (once you pay for the Roku and your internet) that offers an amazing range of programming. And it's only one of innumerable Roku apps that do this.
Alas, it appears the days of "free" streaming are coming to a close. You can still watch stuff commercial-free with apps you pay for (Netflix, Prime, etc.) but the Roku Channel, Tubi, YouTube and the like are now adding commercials to their feeds. They're generally not too onerous, just annoying, and so far, I find the trade-off between "free" and "commercials" liveable because the ads are usually fewer than on broadcast TV. Hopefully that'll remain the case or one of these times I'll start whining about that.
The Roku Channel even offers some original programming now, thanks to its exclusive series Cypher. I haven't watched it because it doesn't interest me, but it looks like your typical (and well produced) TV drama – proving again that the mainstream TV networks are dead; they just don't know it yet and it couldn't happen to a more deserving group other than so-called news channels.
Roku has just announced some 30 new original shows, as well, and they're promising even more down the road. Check out their website for more info on what's being offered.
There are also some 30+ live streaming channels you can access directly from the Roku Channel. As with most such things, there's a lot of crap there (crap being in the eye of the beholder), but there's also some wheat among the chaff.
As if that weren't enough, Roku has also introduced a "Roku TV Ready" certification program that "allows consumer electronics brands to partner with Roku to make their products work seamlessly with Roku TV models". This seems reminiscent, a bit anyway, of the old THX certification program that started life as a way to ensure optimal audio and video quality for home theatre components.
Here, though, it's designed to help ensure that when you add new audio devices to your TV setup, they'll play nicely together because they've been tested and certified to be Roku TV Ready, providing a simple setup and easy access to on-screen volume and sound settings that can be controlled by the single Roku TV remote control.
They have a couple of pretty good companies lined up for the program already, too: some Denon and Definitive Technology soundbars are now "Roku Ready".
And don't forget the TV's you can now buy that have the Roku OS built in. I've only tried one of these so far, my review of which is here. It was a 65-inch TCL TV and the Roku interface was one of the best things about it other than price. Roku also powers TV's from Hisense, Sanyo, Sharp, RCA and Westinghouse.
Obviously, there are many good reasons to check out the Roku stuff. If you don't have a smart TV and want one, any Roku streaming device will do the trick (and they start at a mere 40 bucks, $50 if you want 4K).
And if you have a smart TV whose own online presence is annoying, a Roku can help you bypass that. For example, my primary TV is a 75-inch Samsung QLED and it's a fantastic TV. But if I leave it on my home network (and, therefore, the internet), it keeps putting ads on the menu screen and I find that completely unacceptable (you want to show me ads? I want you to pay me, or give me a discount or some compensation for your greed).
Thanks to that technological wrinkle, I only go online with the TV periodically, to see if there's a firmware update; otherwise, a Roku handles all the smart TV stuff, and it does it very well, and with less annoyance. It works great – and there's a lot more stuff available easily with the Roku than there is with the TV's built-in apps.
And of course, if you're not happy with your TV's dinky little speakers and want something better, the Roku Streambar offers an inexpensive alternative. It won't rock the house with the sound, but it'll upgrade your TV speakers appreciably while offering you an abundance of other audio/video goodness at the same time.
Sounds to me like a winning combination.
Copyright 2021 Jim Bray