The Roku Smart Soundbar was one of our favorite new devices of 2019, thanks to a novel combination of the company’s reliable streaming software and quality sound output. And it might have just got shown up by its smaller, cheaper Streambar sibling.
The $129.99 Roku Streambar is as easy to sum up as any device can be: Imagine the Roku Smart Soundbar, but in less than half the size. Nearly identical to its predecessor as a hybrid speaker/streamer, the new Streambar is significantly smaller, making it more friendly to a wider variety of home entertainment centers.
So did this serious level of shrinkage ruin Roku’s year-old Soundbar triumph, or is it further proof that size doesn’t matter? Let’s find out.
As someone who has used a Roku Smart Soundbar on a daily basis for most of the past year, I feel uniquely qualified to say that the Streambar is almost exactly the same thing in a smaller form factor. This is not a bad thing, as the Smart Soundbar is largely very good at killing two birds (i.e., 4K/HDR streaming and enhanced audio) with one stone. Both devices connect to a TV via an HDMI ARC port or a combination of regular HDMI and optical ports. But the main difference here is one of size: The Streambar is about 14 inches wide as compared to the Soundbar’s 32 inches.
Soundbars can be a godsend since modern TVs are too thin to have good speakers, but they can also be just a little too big for bedrooms or smaller living rooms. Maybe, for example, you’re the kind of person who keeps a TV on a dresser instead of a traditional entertainment center. The Roku Streambar seems tailor-made for those physical conditions where an average-sized soundbar wouldn’t fit. Thankfully, the reduction in size hasn’t obliterated the nice sound quality that made last year’s Smart Soundbar a worthy investment.
I don’t live in a big enough apartment to accurately judge if there’s a noticeable drop-off from the Soundbar to the Streambar in more spacious environments, but I couldn’t really tell the difference in my testing. Bass still kicks in pretty hard for something that small, while more subtle aspects of audio (like quiet dialogue) come through more clearly than they would through crappy TV speakers. Roku brought back features like the “Night” volume setting, which lessens the impact of big noises in case you don’t want to wake your neighbors while playing Call of Duty. Just like the Soundbar, it doubles as a solid Bluetooth speaker for music and podcasts, too.
Again, I say all this with the caveat that the Streambar’s sound output might very well suffer in situations other than my own. The Soundbar contains more drivers because it’s larger, so it’s not hard to imagine it having a fuller overall sound. I just don’t think most people who are in the market for a cheap audio supplement will notice.
Roku didn’t reinvent the wheel when it came to streaming capabilities here. The Streambar, much like its older brother, is a 4K- and HDR-compatible streamer that can display video at up to 60 frames per second in compatible apps. I watched a Major League Baseball playoff game on the Streambar that looked as sharp and ran as smoothly as it would have on the older Soundbar.Â
HDR also does a nice job of enhancing black and white areas of the screen, if you have a TV that can utilize it. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting on some big-name streaming apps to support it.
If there are any measurable differences in streaming quality between the Streambar and Soundbar, I didn’t see them. The same can’t exactly be said for user experience.
The Roku Streambar has the exact same user interface as the Soundbar and other Roku devices. Once I linked my Roku account, it even arranged my apps to how I had them on the Soundbar. It’s a perfectly reasonable UI that millions of people are already intimately familiar with, so why change it?Â
Unfortunately, it’s showing its age a little bit. Maybe this is an overreaction to the excellent UI on the recent Chromecast with Google TV, but Roku’s menus just feel a tad bit sluggish these days. It’s nice that everything is in the same spot every time you boot it up (unlike algorithmic interfaces on other devices), but navigating around the menu is mildly slow.
The remote, by the way, is also totally unchanged. It still has a voice search button that makes navigation much easier if you don’t feel like doing it the old way. If you’re not a fan of talking into a remote, though, it’s nowhere near as snappy as the new Chromecast. Roku also lacks a system-level “Continue Watching” feature like the Chromecast has, for what that’s worth.
I also noticed some small, but still annoying bugs in my time with the Roku Streambar, even with the latest system software installed. For example, I’ve encountered two brief instances where trying to change the volume setting from normal to night mode sent the menu through a loop, meaning I had to scroll several times horizontally to reach something that should’ve taken two button presses at most.
Roku also supports Spotify Connect, which is a nifty little feature that lets you spool up Spotify on the Streambar from your phone. This mostly works fine, but I did have one experience where the Spotify app wouldn’t correctly play audio until I restarted the Streambar. Not the app, but the device itself. None of those bugs were especially ruinous, but the Streambar software could stand to be slightly more polished at this stage.
Lastly, Roku had an opportunity to fix one of the Soundbar’s problems by including a built-in Ethernet port. It did not do that. Instead, you have to buy a $13 USB dongle just to use a hard wired connection, which is pretty important for things like 4K streaming.Â
While the older Roku Smart Soundbar might be a marginally better product than the Streambar overall, thanks to its larger size and less buggy software (at least at launch), the Streambar indisputably makes more sense for most people. This is a powerful little soundbar that’s perfect for those of us who have spent the better part of 2020 cooped up in our bedrooms.Â
That said, the Streambar only makes sense if you’re lacking 4K/HDR streaming and audio equipment. I say that because the Chromecast with Google TV is a better (and cheaper) pure streaming device than the Streambar, and should be your first choice if you already have adequate speakers.Â
Roku, Soundbar se SW Cabasse Stream Bar, Digital media player, Soundbar
World news – US – Roku Streambar review: Big sound in a little body