Roku is doing the obvious thing: it’s creating a surround sound system that brings together the company’s Smart Soundbar, subwoofer, and Roku TV Wireless speakers for a more immersive audio experience. A software update, due in February, will allow owners of the Roku-branded soundbar to add the wireless speakers — previously only compatible with Roku TVs — and subwoofer to the mix. Roku uses Dolby audio (Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus), which is widely supported across Disney+, the Apple TV app, Netflix, and other streaming apps.
The audio components all connect to each other wirelessly, which is one convenience compared to traditional surround systems. Another is that sound settings (voice enhancement, volume leveling) are handled through Roku’s on-screen menus. Setting up Roku’s surround sound system takes just a few minutes: you hold the home button on the remote down for a few seconds and then a menu pops up for pairing everything together. There’s a sound check for making sure the rear channel left and right speakers are assigned properly, and then you’re done.
But there’s a weird snag in all of this: the whole proposition really doesn’t make a lot of sense for Roku TV owners. See, the Smart Soundbar has Roku’s software built in and doubles as a streaming gadget in its own right. But if your 4K TV already runs Roku OS, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of redundancy. Roku tries to explain some of that on this page. But it seems impractical to me. You’ll be dealing with two Roku remotes and two Roku interfaces. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to pair two sets of Roku TV speakers to form a surround setup: the soundbar is mandatory.
This solution is clearly designed for the many people who own TVs from other brands like Samsung, Vizio, LG, Sony, and others. Roku thinks it can simplify home theater in a meaningful way for those consumers. For non-surround audio, you can still choose to hear audio coming from all the speakers (with added ambiance) or just from the front speakers in regular stereo mode. In a brief demo back at CES, Roku’s system sounded quite good to me, but it obviously doesn’t match the experience of Atmos. If you’re after that level of enveloping audio, you might still be better off with a surround-system-in-a-box from the likes of Vizio.
Walmart is releasing a cheaper version of the wireless speakers that carry the retailer’s “onn.” branding for $149 (compared to $199 for the standard Roku set) in February. That could make for a cheaper way into Roku’s surround sound system. Oddly, Roku isn’t (yet) offering a discounted bundle of the $159 Smart Soundbar, $199 Roku TV Wireless speakers, and $159 subwoofer, but that might not be far off.