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Roku Ultra review: This 4K HDR streamer lets you keep your old AV receiver

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Call it the "cascading upgrade effect" (CUE). Every time some newfangled home theater format comes along, like high-definition, 3D, 4K or high dynamic range, you have to upgrade everything associated with it. Not only do you need a new TV, but you also need a new source device, sound bar or AV receiver.

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8.3

Roku Ultra

The Good

The Roku Ultra can access more TV shows and movies in 4K and HDR than most rival devices. It has the most features of any Roku streamer, and unlike the Chromecast Ultra it actually includes a remote (and an Amazon Video app). Roku's ecosystem offers more apps, better search and more customization than any other. The optical audio output means you can use it with older receivers and sound bars.

The Bad

It's more expensive than the Roku Premiere+. Content in 4K and HDR is still uncommon, and your HDR TV probably already has compatible apps. Unlike some of those TVs, the Ultra doesn't work with with Dolby Vision HDR. Some app interfaces are less polished than on rival devices.

The Bottom Line

If you own a 4K TV and an AV receiver or sound bar that doesn't pass 4K HDR signals, the Roku Ultra is a great 4K streaming choice.

The Roku Ultra provides relief from CUE. It's a source device that serves up the latest 4K and HDR video streams from Netflix, Amazon and more, yet it lets you keep your current not-quite-brand-new audio system intact. The secret? Its optical digital audio output.

Most of today's 4K streaming devices, including the less expensive Roku Premiere and Premiere+, the Google Chromecast Ultra, the Nvidia Shield and the Xiaomi Mi Box, lack that optical output. Instead they pass audio via HDMI. That's fine if you're connecting them directly to the TV, but many people use an AV receiver or sound bar for switching. If you'd rather not upgrade your receiver or bar to a current model that passes 4K and HDR, the Ultra's digital audio output is a great thing to have.

Roku Ultra comes with 4K, HDR, lotsa fixins

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You may already own other 4K streaming options, such as a 4K game console, 4K Blu-ray player or the smart TV system built into your TV (many of which also have optical outputs that help you avoid CUE). If you're fine using those for now, feel free to skip the Ultra. On the other hand, no other single device can match Roku's selection of 4K and HDR apps and services, and no smart TV system is as simple to use or updated as regularly.

Long story short? For people with the right combination of gear, the Ultra is our top choice in 4K streamers.

The ultimate Ultra FAQ

So what's 4K HDR streaming anyway? New here, eh? No problem. Many internet video services, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Vudu and YouTube, stream some of their TV shows and movies in 4K resolution, which promises higher video quality than their other streams. A few of those services offer an even smaller amount of content in high dynamic range (HDR), promising even better quality -- higher contrast, more realistic colors and other improvements. We say "promise" for a reason: often the differences are tough to discern, even for trained eyes like ours.

The Ultra can also serve up lower-quality streams too, and it can access all of the thousands of apps that any other Roku can. Most apps, including heavy hitters like Hulu, HBO Now/Go, Watch ESPN and Sling TV don't offer 4K or HDR yet, or restrict it to certain devices. Historically Roku gets 4K and HDR streams before many other devices, but there are always exceptions. Hulu's 4K, for example, is currently restricted to the newest game consoles.

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Amazon and Netflix stream in HDR on select shows and movies, often original series like "Goliath."

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Should I get it if I don't have a 4K HDR TV? No. Unless you anticipate buying a new 4K HDR TV very soon, my advice is to get the Roku Streaming Stick or another non-4K device and save the money. If your TV has 4K but not HDR, the Roku Premiere (without the "+") might be worth getting instead.

Why shouldn't I just stick with my smart TV system? You can, but it might be annoying. Every 4K HDR TV we've seen has apps that support 4K and/or HDR. Depending on the TV you have, and what services you enjoy, you might be perfectly fine streaming without an external box. On the other hand, Roku in particular has more streaming apps that offer 4K, HDR and standard video streams, and makes those apps and streams easier to find and use. It's also updated more often than most smart TVs, and provides a single, convenient source for all your internet video.

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Why do you like Ultra better than the competition? The main reason is the selection of 4K HDR apps. As of January 2017, Roku devices like the Ultra offer 4K from 17 apps: Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, Plex, Roku Media Player, Fandango Now, UltraFlix4K, 4K Universe, Curiosity Stream, Toon Goggles, Tastemade, Smithsonian Earth, ifood.TV, Picasa, Flickr and 500px. That's more than any other streaming device. Roku also streams HDR from Netflix and Amazon, two of the three biggest services that offer it today. (The third, Vudu, doesn't yet deliver HDR streams to Roku, only to smart TV systems with Dolby Vision.)

How does it compare to the Roku Premiere or Roku Premiere+? All offer 4K video and have the same apps and processor (so they all operate equally fast) but there are some major features differences.

The $130 Ultra has all of the following features:

  • Compatibility with both 4K and HDR streams*
  • Remote: Point-anywhere instead of having to aim, allowing you to stash the box out of sight*
  • Remote: Connect headphones for private listening*
  • Remote: Finder function to locate the clicker if it goes missing
  • Remote: Search via voice.
  • Connectivity: microSD card slot that (when you insert said card) can help apps load faster*
  • Connectivity: Ethernet port for wired connections, which can be more stable than Wi-Fi in some situations*
  • Connectivity: USB port for playback of video files from connected drives
  • Connectivity: Optical digital audio output

*Feature also available on Premiere+ ($100) but not on Premiere ($80).

Between the three our favorite is the Premiere+, and we recommend it over the Ultra for most people. But if you really want the Ultra's extras, particularly the optical digital output, it's worth the extra $30.

We only recommend the $80 Premiere to people who own a 4K TV that lacks HDR compatibility, and even for those people the Premiere+'s extras might be worth it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Will it work with my AV receiver or sound bar? Yes. The Ultra is the only current 4K Roku device to have an optical output, so it can pass surround soundtracks to any device with a matching input. With the Premiere+ and Premiere, your receiver or sound bar has to pass 4K and/or HDR signals via HDMI, and most such devices sold before 2016 do not. See below for more details.

Does it support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats? No, it only supports HDR10. Of course many HDR TVs today, namely those from Samsung and Sony, don't support Dolby Vision either, so if you own one of those, you're not missing anything with the Ultra or other HDR10-only devices.

But my TV has Dolby Vision. Should I get still it? If you have an LG TV with Dolby Vision HDR and want the best image quality, I recommend using the built-in Netflix, Amazon and Vudu apps instead of the Ultra, because Dolby Vision on those TVs provides somewhat better image quality. The same goes for Vizio TVs with Netflix and Vudu, but since Vizio TVs lack an Amazon app altogether, getting a 4K Roku makes more sense. It's my go-to recommendation for owners of Vizio 4K HDR TVs who want to add Amazon capability.

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David Katzmaier/CNET

What's the deal with that optical output?

As I mentioned above, it's important only to users with older (as in 2015 and earlier) AV receivers and sound bars that lack the most modern HDMI connections. Is that you? Here's a quiz to find out.

Do you:

  • Have an audio system (typically an AV receiver or sound bar) you want to use with your Roku?
  • Connect your devices to your receiver or sound bar for switching, as opposed to the TV directly?
  • Have a receiver with HDMI inputs that are not 4K and HDR compatible? (typically 2015 and earlier)?
  • OR have a sound bar with a free optical digital audio input?

If you answered "yes" to three out of those four questions, the Ultra is probably a better bet for you than the Premiere+. That's because its digital audio output can be connected to your older receiver to deliver surround sound. You'll still need to connect the Ultra's HDMI output directly to your 4K HDR TV, and program your receiver and/or universal remote properly, but that's cake, right?

By the way, you might be able to get away with using the Premiere+ anyway if your TV is one of the models that pass surround sound via the optical digital audio jack or ARC. It all depends on your gear.

In my tests the Ultra's digital audio output worked as expected, delivering surround sound from sources where it was available (like videos marked "5.1" on Netflix and Amazon).

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David Katzmaier/CNET

What else should I know?

To go with its superior app support, Roku's interface is the best on the market, providing a simple list of apps you can add to, delete and arrange anywhere you want (just like your phone, but without folders). Competitors, namely Amazon Fire TV with its new update and Apple TV with its new TV app, could challenge Roku's interface superiority, but until I test them I can't say for sure. No matter what, Roku still offers more TV-centric apps than either one, and unless you're a chronic Amazon or Apple buyer, it makes the best all-around choice. (But note that Apple TV's current hardware doesn't support 4K resolution or HDR.)

Roku uses the newest Netflix interface, complete with family profiles and moving video backgrounds, as well as the updated Amazon interface. On the other hand many other Roku apps, such as PlayStation Vue and HBO Now, have worse interfaces than on other devices, as they just use Roku's generic blocky template.

One big difference between Roku's 4K boxes and competitors is the emphasis on making 4K easier to find. There's a separate "4K spotlight" app that surfaces individual 4K and HDR TV shows and movies across a few providers, although unfortunately Netflix isn't one of them. There's also a row in that app that highlights 4K-capable apps. A similar list exists under the "4K content available" heading on Roku's app store, which shows all 17 of the 4K apps I mentioned above.

The Roku Ultra does offer voice search on the remote, but it's not as good as the competition. Apple TV with Siri and Amazon Fire TV with Alexa, and even Android TV from Google, all provide more voice options than Roku's simple voice search capability.

Like most modern streaming devices, responses on all of Roku's new boxes were about the same in my testing: lightning-quick across every app I tried, and stable without major usability issues.

HDR and 4K video on all of the apps I tried on multiple TVs looked as good as expected. Watching HDR from Netflix ("Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes") and Amazon ("Goliath"), I compared the Ultra to the built-in apps of the Sony XBR-65X850D and the Samsung UN65KS8000, and there was no discernable difference between the two sources.

The difference between 4K HDR and high-def ranged from nonexistent to a good deal better, depending on the app, the TV and the content in question, but the main thing to know is that once you're actually streaming 4K and/or HDR, you're watching the highest-quality video a particular provider can dish out. Don't expect to be blown away by the difference, however, especially between 1080p and 4K. HDR provides a more noticeable improvement, but in many cases (such as "Marco Polo") it can also be subtle. (Note that the preceding two paragraphs reference tests performed on the Premiere+, not the Ultra, but I expect the Ultra to have identical performance in those tests.)

Happily Roku seems to have fixed the issue I saw on the Premiere+, where the unit mistakenly puts out 1080p HDR on Netflix after waking up from sleep. I tested both the Ultra and the Premiere+ and both worked fine.

Another issue did crop up, however: a lip-sync issue with some Amazon 4K HDR videos ("Sneaky Pete" and "Mozart in the Jungle"), where the video was slightly behind the audio. It wasn't terrible, and I didn't notice it on Netflix or another Amazon video I tried (Goliath), so I'm more apt to blame Amazon than Roku, but it wasn't a problem watching the same videos via the Sony X850D's built-in Amazon app.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Is the Roku Ultra right for you?

The best thing about Ultra is that it's a Roku. It takes everything good about that platform -- the industry's best app selection, a dead simple interface, universal search across more than 100 apps that doesn't prioritize any one content source or store (even presenting results by price), a sweet headphone-jack remote -- and adds 4K and HDR.

If you're in the market for a 4K HDR streamer with an actual remote and Amazon access, it comes down to the Ultra versus the Premiere+ versus the Nvidia Shield. If you don't mind paying extra for its gaming and other advantages, the Shield rules (now that it has Amazon video). If you want the best deal and don't need an optical output, get the Premiere+. If you do need that optical jack (unavailable on either the Premiere+ or the Shield), want its other features or simply like Roku better than Android TV, the Ultra is your best bet.

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8.3

Roku Ultra

Score Breakdown

Design 9Ecosystem 10Features 9Performance 8Value 7