Compact soundbars like the Vizio M-Series 2.1 and the Yamaha SR-C20A offer improved TV sound in a small package. 4K HDR streamers like the Chromecast with Google TV and Roku Streaming Stick Plus deliver better streaming to any TV. Until now, however, no product has combined the two into a single, do-it-all package under $150. That's what the Roku Streambar does, and it does the job very well.
The Streambar follows the footsteps of last year's Roku Smart Soundbar with a smaller size and more affordable price. Usually the biggest issue with hybrid devices is that they've compromised too much in some area, and while the Streambar isn't sonically perfect -- its lack of bass is its biggest weakness -- it makes up for that with excellent sound for dialogue and an ability to fill a room that belies its tiny footprint. Sure, it lacks a subwoofer, but even without one it can still beat your TV's speakers .
Then again, so can a lot of other soundbars. If you want superior sound and don't need streaming, the Yamaha SR-C20 or Vizio V21 are better choices. The Roku Streambar is cheaper than either one, however, and makes perfect sense for people who don't already have a good streamer hooked up to their TV. If you want to be able to hear your TV better, particularly vocals, and also enhance its streaming capabilities, it's an excellent value.
Editor's note, Dec. 3: Due to its performance, size and price, we're giving the Roku Streambar our Editors' Choice award as our favorite budget soundbar. While there are newer soundbars that outperform the Roku, they are also more expensive, and none includes video streaming onboard. This review first appeared on Oct. 14, 2020.
What it is
The Roku Streambar is a 2.0-channel soundbar with side-firing "wide" speakers, and the company says its onboard streaming capabilities are equivalent to those of the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. The system will process 5.1 audio, which means you can upgrade the system at a later date with Roku's wireless subwoofer and surround speakers or the Walmart-exclusive Onn products.
The main differences between the Streambar and the original Roku Smart Soundbar are size and shape. The Smart Soundbar is 32 inches wide, while the Streambar is much more compact at 14 inches. Although I haven't heard the two side by side, I can pretty much guarantee the larger cabinet generates more bass.
The Streambar includes Roku's voice remote, which lets you issue commands by speaking into the clicker. On the side, the remote includes volume controls and mute. The shortcuts at the bottom include Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu.
The Streambar offers "simple volume modes" which "lower loud commercials, boost the volume of voices and optimize the sound for night listening" as well as adjusting bass levels -- handy for controlling an external sub. It's worth noting that since I performed this review in October 2020 Roku has added a series of additional sound modes, which now include Music, Movie, Night, and Speech. I aim to test the new sound profiles as soon as I can.
Connectivity includes an optical digital input and HDMI with audio return channel capability. It's designed to connect to a TV and if you have other devices, such as a game console, you'll need to use your TV as a switcher. The soundbar is also equipped with Bluetooth and Spotify Connect, while Apple AirPlay 2 support is coming soon.
How it performs
The team at CNET has written at length about our experiences with Roku streamers so I won't dwell on the bar's streaming capabilities here. Suffice to say it's our favorite streaming platform and the Streambar is more of the same. The menus were familiar and simple, the response speed and picture quality were as excellent as expected and the voice remote was a joy to use as always.
Instead I'm going to focus on sound quality. The Streambar is smaller than most soundbars but after I plugged it in I was struck by how naturally it performed with dialogue. There was no chestiness on male voices -- a problem with some soundbar/subwoofer combos -- and dialogue had the articulation that made it easy to follow the story. I had been listening to a pair of Elac Uni-Fi 2.0 speakers immediately preceding the Streambar and it was easy to imagine that I still was. Given that vocal articulation is the Elac speaker's priority this is probably the highest praise I could give the Roku speaker.
Of course there were differences, almost certainly due to the Roku's tiny cabinet. When I compared the Streambar with the Yamaha SR-C20 the Roku's lack of bass or even midbass was immediately apparent. With Mad Max: Fury Road the Roku again made dialogue understandable while also making it appear to come from around the room. The Roku's side-firing speakers really do help create a large image. In comparison the Yamaha speaker's Virtual:X software did a similarly good job distributing sound around my listening space, but when Max spins up his Charger's engines, the Yamaha pulled ahead.
The Roku is so physically tiny that the engines and onscreen explosions in Mad Max had little impact. The Yamaha was able to better capture the roar of the cars and the blast that catapults Max into the air. The Yamaha lacked the oomph that a dedicated sub can bring, but was a better fit than the Roku for people who want to watch more than the news and dramas.
The lobby scene from the The Matrix was next and the Yamaha offered more of a balanced sonic mix, with less high-frequency and more low-end. The Roku sounded a little shrill in contrast, particularly with the falling bullet casings. Changing the sound mode to bass boost helped a little, but the Yamaha was better.
Adding the $130 Onn subwoofer to the Roku helped quite a bit. Finally I could hear the chugging bass score, the shotgun blasts had more impact and the falling shell casings weren't as piercing or irritating. If you are looking for an easy, economical upgrade to the Streambar, the Onn subwoofer is recommended.
With music the Roku again lagged behind the Yamaha for the same basic reason -- lack of bass response. There isn't a dedicated music mode, which is a shame for people who want to use the Streambar for listening to tunes from their phones or music apps like Spotify. Songs like Doves' Cathedrals of the Mind sounded hollow on the Roku, despite its excellent vocal articulation, and again the Yamaha made the song fuller and more engrossing.
Should you buy it?
If you want real home cinema thrills you still need to spend more than $130 on a soundbar -- although the Roku's ability to add the subwoofer and rear-channel speakers does give you a clear upgrade path if you want. The $130 Roku Streambar is for people who value small size and simplicity yet still want better sound and streaming for their TV. It's easy to connect and set up (one cable!), it's just as easy to use and its streamer behaves like an ordinary Roku in every respect. And that's a good thing.
First published Oct. 16 2020.