Review: Roku Streambar 4K sound bar, Bluetooth speaker and TV streaming
A sound bar can deliver a drastic improvement over a TV;s built-in audio experience. Throw in Bluetooth and you can stream audio from your phone. Roku have added in a third feature by combining sound bar and Bluetooth speaker functionality with their renowned 4K streaming system, turning any old TV into a smart one - but is it any good?
I first tested it with a Sony KDL46X2000 TV from circa 2007, which still delivers a fantastic picture, but lacks the smarts of current sets. Its sound is also lacklustre - I have to turn the sound up to hear narrative and rapidly reach for the remote whenever audio or action scenes inevitably deafen me. Bass and depth is also lacking. So I was interested to see whether the Roku Streambar would make a difference. I also tested it with a new Samsung QE43Q60R to see how it would fare against an already smart TV.
What is the Roku Streambar?
It's a 4K Dolby Audio sound bar that connects to your TV, providing access to streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Video (along with hundreds of lesser-known channels), the ability to cast mobile or PC content and also gives you a Bluetooth 5.0 compatible speaker for wireless streaming, You can also play some (basic) games, some for free, with ads or for a small fee.
It's relatively small in comparison to many sound bars, at 355.6mm wide, 60.9mm high and 106.6mm deep, and there are no buttons on the top or side. The rear offers an array of ports: power (via a proprietary low-powered 1 AMP PSU, not USB), optical, HDMI, USB and a reset button. Notably there's no on/off switch, like other Roku products, as it goes into low-power sleep mode when not in use and is therefore instantly available when you next power up your TV.
At the front of the mesh-covered bar is an LED. For the most part this is dimmly lit, which is exactly what you want, as it does not distract while you're watching TV. Only during powering up or when you're pressing buttons on the remote or app is it any brighter, signifying that it's receiving your instructions.
What's in the box?
Aside from the Roku Streambar you'll find everything you need to connect it to your TV. Firstly there's the power supply, which is similar to the small power bricks often supplied with laptops. A HDMI cable and optical cable are included, along with the small remote control and batteries. A small instruction booklet is also included.
Setting up the Roku Streambar
The Roku Streambar claims to work with any TV. That in itself is true, but how you connect it will depend on the age of your TV. Newer TVs from around 2008-2009 have ARC technology built into HDMI, which essentially allows two way passing of data. In this case video streaming goes from the Roku to the TV while any TV audio (regardless of what you are watching) will be passed back to the Roku.
Firstly, use the supplied HDMI cable to connect to an ARC-enabled HDMI socket on your TV. Unfortunately, the Sony TV that I used for my first test did not support ARC, and in Sony's infinite wisdom they decided to only output audio from the terrestrial aerial channel (meaning that it won't output audio if I use my Virgin Media Tivo box or a PlayStation). So for testing with this TV I was relegated to plugging the Roku into a standard HDMI (to test the TV streaming output) and to obtain audio input from my Tivo box via the optical cable - not ideal. This meant that the sound bar would only play sound from the Tivo, not any other device connected to my TV.
Furthermore, the Roku would therefore be unaware if I switch to another HDMI socket, meaning that while the TV was showing content from the PlayStation the Roku was happily still pumping out audio from the Tivo unless I switched it off. I should stress that this issue is more a problem caused by limitations of my hardware rather than the Roku Streambar, but it's worth checking first that your TV supports ARC or optical (on all inputs) if you want to connect more than one device to it.
On a side note, if you use the optical connector, don't make the same mistake as me - remember to remove the small clear rubber covers that protect the delicate fibre optic cable. They are easy to miss, and, like me, you'll spend a couple of fruitless minutes wondering why the cable won't go fully into the socket!
For my second test i plugged the Roku intp the Samsung, which immediately identified it as a 'home theatre' device, switched off its speakers and duly pumped the sound out of the Roku. None of the problems with the Sony were present here, and the connectivity was faultless throughout.
The Roku Remote
The remote is small, with the usual Roku branded label sticking out of the bottom. At the top is a power button, which can be usefully configured to power on/off your TV (not the Roku, which automatically sleeps when not in use). For those that intend to use the Roku exclusively for content this will be useful, however only the power and volume buttons that can control your TV - not useful for navigating terrestrial channels or switching inputs. Next are the Home and Left buttons, followed by the common arrows/OK combination. Underneath there's an array of six buttons that give access to voice control, on-screen options and general content navigation (back/forth/play/pause).. Finally, there's four dedicated buttons for Netflix, Google Play, Rakuten and Spotify.. The side sports a volume up/down rocker and mute button, The Roku remote works wirelessly with the Streambar but uses IR for the power button.
Configuring the Roku Streambar
Once I'd connected the HDMI, optical and power I was ready to go. Within 20 seconds of powering up the setup screen was displayed. After connecting to WIFI it immediately sniffed out an updated and proceeded to download and install it before proceeding. This was mercifully quick, and we moved on to configuration, namely setting up an account, configuring option payments for pay-per-view services (which I skipped) and then selecting channels. I was also prompted to download the app, which quickly connected to the Streambar. The process was similar to connecting services such as iPlayer or 4OD - a number is displayed on screen which you enter into the app to connect the two.
Although the box was light on instructions, save for a single 'quick setup' guide, I was pleased to see a video tutorial is included in the setup process. Many gadgets, including the likes of highly complex smartphones, ship with little to nothing in the way of instruction manuals, and rarely make any tutorial videos or documentation so readily available, so this will be welcomed by many. But in truth the process was not complex and I doubt it would cause many problems. The website also has much more detailed support content.
How does the Roku Streambar sound?
Short answer: very good in comparison to the TV. The Roku does what it says on the tin in this regard. Audio narrative is crisp, clear and much more understandable in comparison to listening on the TV. Music and action sequences are quieter than the standard TV output, but that's no bad thing as I often find that I had to yo-yo the volume control between action sequences. It can't compete squarely against a true 5.1 surround system, but it's not far off. Sounds are well-placed around the room and stereo is faithfully reproduced. I personally prefer the Roku to my own 5.1 setup, simply because it's easier to understand conversations and action/music sequences have much more depth while also being at a more appropriate volume in comparison to either the TV or 5.1 system. So, full marks for audio.
Using the Roku Streambar for Bluetooth audio and music streaming
Connecting via Bluetooth is the same as with any other speaker, but the Streambar supports more advanced connectivity to specific music streaming services. Open Spotify on your phone, for example, and allow it access to find network devices allows you to switch streaming from your phone straight to the Streambar within a few seconds. One minor downside is that you cannot navigate away from the app, say, to search for something to watch while listening to music. The same also applies to a standard Bluetooth connection - pressing the home button will stop all audio.
While reviiewing the Roku they released Roku OS 9.4, which included support for Airplay 2. This gives more features for those in the Apple ecosystem such as multiroom support, and adds yet another string to the Roku's bow.
The Roku interface
Navigation is simple - on the left is a menu with five options, keeping things nice and simple. Use the arrows and OK or right button to steer through options. During setup a number of standard streaming services will have been selected and enabled but you can easily add all of the popular ones, along with hundreds of weird and wonderful channels from around the world.
As mentioned earlier, during setup you have the option to enter payment details. When searching for movies you can choose to rent or purchase movies, and the Roku helpfully gives you the pricing options based on the services available.
The Roku App
In addition to using the supplied remote you can also use the Roku app. Layout is the same as the remote, aside from the dedicated four channel shortcuts and the addition of a virtual keyboard.
You can also access your channels list, switch devices (if you have more than one Roku) and perform searches. As with the main interface, the What's On page highlights new content, TV shows and movies.
You might think that having an app when you already have a remote is pointless, but I've found myself reaching for the app relatively frequently, usually when the remote was either the other side of the room or 'hiding'. Being able to quickly change volume, pause, play or rewind when the missus is sitting on the physical remote will probably prevent many an argument. ('For the last time, no I'm not sitting on....Oh.....')
A feature that Roku has over rival streaming sticks is the ability to push audio through headphones connected to your mobile - useful if you want to watch without disturbing others.
The only minor omission is that I could not find a way to access the on-screen settings menu. This might be useful if you're watching another media source and wanted to, say, tweak the audio settings. That said, it's hardly a showstopper.
How does the Roku Streambar compare to Virgin Media or Sky?
Having fallen out of love with Sky some years ago (after yet another box failure) I've been a Virgin Media customer for some time. The Tivo box also offers access to all of the core streaming services, and of course offers premium content such as Sky Movies, Sky Sports, etc. These are all available through apps such as Now TV or the Sky Store on Roku. You can also watch many live TV channels on Roku, but it won't be as simple as the standard channel guide on Virgin or Sky. If your broadband / telephone package is tied in with Virgin or Sky then you may not save much by removing some TV services and taking them up on the Roku, as you'll generally get multi-package discounts. I did also find a lot of weird and wonderful streaming channels that you'd never find on Sky / Virgin. So, the bottom line is that if you tend to watch less live TV and more streamed content then you are likely to quickly favour to the Roku.
Casting content from other devices
In addition to the earlier-mentioned Airplay 2 support, the Roku will stream content from other devices too. I was easily able to share my iPhone screen just by pulling down Control Centre, tapping Screen Mirroring and selecting Roku Streambar - within a few seconds content was on screen. You wouldn't want to play games over this, as there's a slight lag of about half a second, but for sharing a video or pictures its a simple and elegant method.
Furthermore, I was easily able to cast my laptop screen as well - swipe left from the side of the screen or tap the bottom-right notification icon and tap Connect - when Roku Streambar pops up tap it and your screen will be mirrored a few seconds later. Again, there's a fractional delay, but there was no sync issues of audio/video, so streaming videos would not pose any problems.
I've always had a penchant for gadgets that combine multiple solutions, and the Roku does this beautifully. It's a winning package due to the sound improvement alone. Throw in Bluetooth and Airplay 2 connectivity, Dolby Audio and 4K HDR streaming and you have a considerable upgrade to your TV's functionality.
If you've already got a smart TV then you may have some of these features, however the Roku's thoroughbred user interface might be an improvement and therefore preferrable to use. The only caveat would be to check that your TV has the required HDMI ARC capabilities, but even without this the Roku Streambar will be a welcome addition to any TV.