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Plenty of people do own a Roku TV, however. The smart TV platform is growing its market share every year -- three of the top five best-selling TVs on Amazon are TCL Rokus, for example. And if you have one of them, the company's new wireless speakers offer a painless way to improve audio quality.
Dialog sounds better than you'll ever get from your Roku TV's built-in speakers, and music has much more snap. Since this is a pair of actual stereo speakers, the image is wider and more involving than a sound bar. So getting these instead of a good sound bar must be a no-brainer right? Not exactly.
If movies and TV are your thing, a sound bar -- especially one with a wireless sub -- will still sound better. The Roku speakers' Achilles' heel is bass response, and action movies are particularly affected with a flattened performance compared to a bar like the crazy-cheap Vizio SB3621. This bass-shyness can also impinge on rock and electronic music, but overall the speakers still beat a bar for music, thanks to that wider separation.
The Roku wireless speakers are not the sound bar killer I hoped for, but they are articulate, ridiculously easy to set up, and ideal for music-loving Roku TV owners.
Roku announced its newest multiroom system -- Roku Connect -- at CES 2018. The announced TCL Roku Smart Sound bar may as well be vaporware, and Roku's first speakers don't even bear the "Connect" badge. But these speakers are already different from every other multiroom speaker in that they're TV-based, and use the streaming apps and audio on a Roku TV rather than on your phone.
I guess you could call these $200 stereo speakers "smart" because you can operate them via voice. But you can't just talk out loud like you would with an Alexa or Google Assistant speaker ("Hey, Roku"). Instead you'll speak into one of the included remote controls.
The company includes the tabletop Touch remote and an updated version of your regular Roku TV controller, and both have a microphone button. The Roku Touch remote, available for $30 by itself, is weird. Physically it reminded me of a more fully featured version of an Amazon dash button. It's got a bunch of controls to command the speakers and TV, the most useful being the volume and the TV power control. The two shortcut buttons aren't used to keep "favorites" as you might expect, but "favorite voice searches." In my experience it doesn't work that well for any but the most rudimentary of searches.
Roku says the second clicker is designed to be used around the house, outside the living room, and it is useful to be able to turn off the TV from across the house. Its voice button is touch-to-talk and the mic is designed to pick up your voice from a tabletop, rather than requiring you to hold it up to your mouth.
Does the TV need to be on to use this speaker for music? Yes and no. If you use Bluetooth, then no, but I found if I used Spotify Connect the TV would come on automatically. Roku says activating Fast TV Start should prevent the screen from coming on and you can press the star button to turn the screen off if unneeded.
Voice options and search are restricted to entertainment, just like other Roku devices. You can ask for video content from the main Roku channels or music via iHeartRadio, Pandora and TuneIn by voice. I found that the microphone can only be used for the most basic searches such as artist radio, as often requesting individual tracks didn't work. With the latest update the speakers and TV are now also Spotify Connect compatible.
Unlike almost every other TV speaker system available, the Roku TV Wireless Speakers are a stereo pair, with each unit roughly the size of a Sonos One -- about 6 inches tall. The units are paired out of the box and when you plug them in, the speaker's onboard voice assistant guides you through setup. No need to install an app, and the only wires you need to worry about are the power cord for each one. The speakers will play anything that's playing on your Roku TV -- whether it's audio from one of the streaming channels, or coming in via HDMI.
The television is the center of all interactions with these speakers -- even Bluetooth. While the speakers have a sync button, this isn't used to connect to your phone, just if you need them for setup. In order to set up Bluetooth you need to visit the Bluetooth section of the TV's menu. Bluetooth's main appeal is its simplicity, but having to use a TV remote to set it up completely negates this. Just use Spotify Connect instead.
There's no option to add rears or a sub, but if Roku Connect gets off the ground this could be possible in a future update.
The Roku TV Wireless Speaker is an engaging performer and much better with music than you'd expect from a set designed to complement a budget TV. It made my foot tap harder than one of my favorite all-in-one bars, the Yamaha YAS-108. The Roku has a wonderfully open sound that the boxy Yamaha couldn't match, which was no doubt helped by the Roku's discreet left and right channels.
I listened to plenty of music on the Wireless Speakers and found that simple folk or rock sounded best, with a surprisingly punchy sound and better stereo separation than any sound bar up to the $500 mark. In comparison, the Yamaha sounded small and lacked flair. Vocals, and by extension dialog, sounded crisp and clear. It was only when I introduced the Roku to complex tracks or those with deep bass that the cracks started to show.
The Roku speakers employ a limiter when there's excessive bass -- I could hear it plainly during the end of Life by The Beta Band. Though the speakers played the descending bass line better than any of the other bass tests I performed, the volume noticeably increased in the quieter section after the bass stopped.
But that test was composed of long individual notes, and I found instruments with bass transients like a bass drum could make the Roku rattle like a snare.
This tendency was particularly evident when playing movies with deep sound effects -- pretty much anything that is shown at the cinema, superhero movies especially. Some low-frequency information could become smeared and rattle, sounding like a rainmaker. If it wasn't for this effect it was the generally muted performance compared to the Yamaha that stood out.
I watched the 4K release of Saving Private Ryan and the opening scenes of bloodshed on Omaha Beach seemed sapped of impact. Explosions puffed rather than boomed and ricochets blipped rather than seeming deadly. The sound lacked dynamic heft. Then at the 10-minute mark, as Tom Hanks surveys the almost silent scene, the speakers rumbled like a window pane in a train carriage.
It was in this scene that the Yamaha pulled ahead of the Roku. While it lacked deep bass, the speaker did its best to convey the danger the soldiers were in. Guns burst realistically and there was a real dynamic heft. While the tiny speakers still rattled at the same point as the Roku, it was less noticeable.
It was only when I swapped out the Yamaha for the $150 Vizio SB3621N-E8 that the Omaha landing finally made sense. While it didn't zing or handle dynamics like the Yamaha did, the Vizio made explosions sound like explosions. The Vizio then made clear that the famous sequence is supposed to simulate ringing ears and not a rattling carriage.
If you're looking for an affordable sonic upgrade for your Roku TV and use the Roku assistant a lot, the Wireless Speakers are one of the most carefree upgrades you could hope for. Sure, a Vizio sound bar will be both cheaper and sound better with movies, but the trade-off is it takes a little more time to set up and doesn't sound as good with music.