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TCL Roku TV Wireless Soundbar hands-on: Great sound, easy setup, limited appeal

This easy-to-use speaker makes your Roku TV sound (much) better, but it lacks physical connections and costs a bit too much.

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Roku is best known for its popular streaming devices, including the excellent Roku Express 4K Plus, but it also powers TVs and speakers. The TCL Roku TV Wireless Soundbar is an attempt to bring these two latter categories together. Compared against other soundbars at the price it certainly sounds good, but being totally wireless is its most limiting characteristic.

Also known as the Alto R1, the $179 TCL Roku TV Wireless Soundbar is a stereo speaker made exclusively for Roku TV models. That is, if you don't have a Roku TV, do not buy this soundbar: It won't work. It also won't work with a Roku streamer connected to a non-Roku TV. This product is strictly for owners of Roku TVs.

The Wireless Soundbar looks handsome with its faux-brushed finish and diamond-cut edges. It's 31.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall, and while it fit the 65-inch Roku TV I used for testing, the soundbar comes with a wall-mount kit as well. It offers a 120-watt output -- no subwoofer on board -- and includes a number of EQ settings including bass boost and night mode.

This soundbar's symbiosis with the television is unusual. The speaker relies on the TV to provide apps and Bluetooth/wireless setup. Like the Roku TV Wireless speakers, the TCL soundbar's physical input list is nonexistent -- there's no HDMI, optical or analog inputs. This is obviously a fundamental part of the design, but it does limit your options, especially in terms of devices you can connect.

Setup and performance

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Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Roku announced its wireless Connect system back in 2018, and while TCL announced a soundbar at the same time, it never appeared until now. One big appeal of Roku Connect is ease of setup, and indeed it was easy for me. The soundbar prompts you to hold down the Home button on your Roku remote when you plug it in. Be ready though: The voice startled me because I wasn't expecting it. Alternatively, you can manually go into the TV's menu, select devices and then soundbar. It could have been easier if the Roku TV had detected the soundbar when it first turned on -- similar to the Sonos setup process -- but if you can set up a Bluetooth connection you can set up this device.

Once connected the TCL was able to offer a big sound from a relatively inexpensive speaker. I compared it to the even smaller Yamaha SR-C20 soundbar, and each has its sonic merits. For music, the Yamaha offered better dynamics and bass with music, especially when listening to the sparse A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile. The TCL was pleasant, but lacked the bass thump of its rival. 

Yet it's TV and movies you most want to hear on this device, and with that I can report good news. Compared to the Yamaha, the TCL offered a better sense of space with the lobby scene from The Matrix (1:41:04) and more punch. 

I did encounter one issue with the TCL soundbar: I couldn't get the video and soundtrack of the Vudu version of the movie to sync no matter how much I unplugged and reset the TV and the speaker. There is no manual adjustment of lip-sync. This problem didn't happen with other apps, but it is an indication of how auto lip-sync can fail. While some wireless connections sync perfectly, some can introduce lag, and I found that a wired connection to the Yamaha, for example, didn't have the same issue. 

Should you buy it?

The Roku TV Wireless Speakers are the obvious alternative to the TCL, and while they also started at $180, they became $150 over time, and this is where the TCL should be priced too. The Roku speakers offer more flexibility because they can also work as rears for a Roku system -- including this TCL speaker as well. The TCL is a one-trick pony in comparison. 

At $180 the TCL is the same price as any number of fine soundbars -- including the excellent Vizio V21, which comes with a subwoofer, and even Roku's own Streambar Pro, which features a video streamer on board. Pretty much all of them work with any TV and let you connect devices via wires. If TCL can bring the price down, and Roku make it easier for people to manually correct lip-sync problems (or integrate automatic lip-sync correction like it does with headphones), then this soundbar would be a better buy.