Roku to power smart speakers, sound bars and whole-home audio

The streaming specialist debuts a licensing program for smart audio devices and expects the first to ship this fall. The first partner will be TCL.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
3 min read
TCL S305 series Roku TV

Smart Roku TVs and streamers will soon be joined by smart Roku speakers and sound bars.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku TVs routinely earn high marks in CNET's reviews for their ease of use, superb streaming options and, in one example, excellent image quality.

Watch this: Roku smart speakers are coming

Unlike its streaming devices, however, Roku doesn't actually manufacture the TVs. Instead it partners with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), brands including TCL, Sharp, Hisense, RCA, Hitachi, Insignia and, as of today, Magnavox. The licensing program has been quite successful. Roku TVs regularly appear on Amazon's best-sellers list and the company claims that in the first three quarters of 2017, one out of every five smart TVs sold in the US was a Roku TV.

Now Roku wants to move beyond streaming sticks and TVs to smart speakers -- think Amazon Alexa and Google Home -- and sound bars . It has a new licensing program for makers of those products, aimed at tying them together into a whole-home entertainment ecosystem, complete with -- as rumored -- a voice-controlled digital assistant. 

The first OEM to announce participation in the program is TCL, the No. 1 TV maker in China and the biggest seller of Roku TVs in the US. It will debut its first non-TV Roku device at its press conference at CES on Jan. 8. 

The program includes two basic levels of functionality.

  • Roku Connect : Devices with this functionality can connect together wirelessly, similar to whole-home audio system like Sonos, and be controlled with voice commands from a TV remote. It will allow a Roku TV to easily pair with a Roku Connect sound bar, for example.
  • Roku Entertainment Assistant: A voice assistant designed by Roku and optimized for home entertainment , it will enable voice commands on voice-supported Roku devices. According to the press release: "For example, customers will be able to say, 'Hey Roku, play jazz in the living room' and a smart soundbar with Roku Connect will begin playing music -- even if the TV is turned off."

Here's Roku CEO Anthony Wood:

"Consumers will love the benefits of a home entertainment network, such as having more affordable options, adding one device at a time, using their voice, having a simplified set up and Wi-Fi connectivity, and holding just one remote control. And, of course, OEM brands benefit by offering their products in a more appealing way to our already large and engaged audience of millions of active accounts."


Roku-powered speakers, sound bars coming this fall

Both Roku Connect and Roku Entertainment Assistant will be rolled out as free software upgrades to existing Roku TVs and Roku streaming devices.

Beyond TCL, Roku hasn't yet announced any other manufacturing parters for speakers and sound bars. It expects the first examples to ship this fall, however, to coincide with the TV and device software updates.

Roku has "reference designs" for both categories of products. The reference sound bar is designed to work with any TV that has a HDMI ARC connection, but is "expected to have features to allow it to work better with a Roku TV." The reference smart speaker "extends audio from another device for a multiroom experience."

I asked Roku's representatives whether agreeing to use Roku's system was exclusive or whether a Roku speaker could also potentially integrate other digital assistants like Google Assistant or Alexa. They said it was possible as long as the device had only Roku Connect, but that devices running the full Roku OS could not also integrate those other assistants.

The first speaker to combine Google Assistant and Alexa is the Sonos One, and I expect more such combination "choose-your-own-assistant" devices to follow. The smart speaker market is highly very competitive, and dominated by those two software players, so Roku's focus on entertainment, sound bars and its own TVs -- as opposed to ordering pizza or an Uber -- makes sense. I'm most intrigued by Roku's potential to simplify whole-home entertainment at a lower price than Sonos. We'll see how it all plays out, and how well Roku's voice assistant performs, when actual products appear later this year.

Updated January 4th with clarification from Roku on how other digital assistants work with Roku Connect and Roku OS.