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Does size matter when it comes to soundbars?

Great sound in a small size • Not too big for an entertainment center • 4K and HDR compatible

The user interface can be slow and buggy. • You need a dongle to use Ethernet

The Roku Streambar is a worthy successor to last year’s Smart Soundbar with impressive sound quality in a much more appropriate form factor.

The Roku Smart Soundbar was one of our most popular new devices of 201

9 thanks to a novel combination of reliable streaming software and high quality audio output. And it may have just popped up from its smaller, cheaper streambar sibling.

The $ 129.99 Roku Streambar can be summed up as easily as any other device: imagine the Roku Smart Soundbar, but it’s less than half the size. The new streambar is almost identical to its predecessor as a hybrid loudspeaker / streamer significant smaller, which makes it friendlier for a wider range of home entertainment centers.

Did this serious level of shrinkage ruin Roku’s years of soundbar triumph, or is it further proof that size doesn’t matter? Let’s find out.

The Good: Impressive sound, fits anywhere

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 in a smaller form factor. This isn’t a bad thing as the Smart Soundbar can kill two birds (i.e. 4K / HDR streaming and enhanced audio) with one stone. Both devices are connected to a television using an HDMI-ARC connection or a combination of normal HDMI and optical connections. The main difference, however, is in size: the streambar is about 14 inches wide compared to the soundbar’s 32 inches.

Sound bars can be a godsend as modern TVs are too thin to have good speakers, but they can also be a little too big for bedrooms or smaller living rooms. For example, maybe you’re the type of person who keeps a television on a dresser instead of a traditional entertainment center. The Roku Streambar seems to be tailored to the physical conditions under which an average sized soundbar would not fit. Thankfully, reducing the size didn’t ruin the great sound quality that made the Smart Soundbar a worthwhile investment over the past year.

It's a lot smaller than the soundbar.

It’s a lot smaller than the soundbar.

Image: alex perry / mashable

I don’t live in an apartment big enough to accurately assess if there’s a noticeable drop from soundbar to streambar in more spacious environments, but I couldn’t really tell the difference in my testing. The bass still plays pretty hard for something this small, while more subtle aspects of the audio (like quiet dialogue) come through more noticeably than through crappy TV speakers. Roku brought back features like the “Night” volume control, which reduces the effects of large noises in case you don’t want to wake your neighbors while playing call of Duty. Just like the soundbar, it also functions as a solid bluetooth speaker for music and podcasts.

Again, I’ll say all of this with the caveat that the sound output of the streambar can suffer very well in situations other than my own. The soundbar contains more drivers because it is larger. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine a fuller overall sound. I just don’t think most people looking for a cheap audio supplement in the market will notice it.

Roku didn’t reinvent the wheel when it came to streaming capabilities. Similar to its older brother, the Streambar is a 4K and HDR-compatible streamer that can display videos at up to 60 frames per second in compatible apps. I watched a Major League Baseball playoff game on the streambar, and it looked as sharp and ran as smoothly as it did on the older soundbar.

HDR also improves the black and white areas of the screen if you have a TV that can use it. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for some popular streaming apps to support this.

If there are measurable differences in streaming quality between the streambar and the soundbar, I haven’t seen them. The same cannot exactly be said for user experience.

The Bad: Outdated user interface, minor bugs, no ethernet port

The Roku Streambar has exactly the same user interface as the Soundbar and other Roku devices. After I linked my Roku account, my apps were even arranged as I had them in the soundbar. It’s a perfectly reasonable user interface that millions of people are already very familiar with. So why change?

Unfortunately, it shows its age a little. Perhaps this is an overreaction to the excellent UI on the current Chromecast with Google TV, but Roku’s menus just feel a bit sluggish these days. It’s nice that everything is in the same place every time you launch it (unlike algorithmic interfaces on other devices), but navigating the menu is a bit slow.

The remote control is also completely unchanged. It also has a voice search button which makes navigation a lot easier if you don’t feel like doing it the old way. If you don’t enjoy talking to a remote, it’s nowhere near as snappy as the new Chromecast. Roku also lacks a system-level “continue watching” feature like the one offered by Chromecast.

No ethernet port is a bummer.

No ethernet port is a bummer.

Image: alex perry / mashable

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 seen two short instances where trying to change the volume setting from normal to night mode would send the menu through a loop, which meant I had to scroll horizontally multiple times to reach something that was no more than two keystrokes should have required.

Roku also supports Spotify Connect, which is a nice little feature that lets you reel Spotify on the streambar from your phone. This works fine most of the time, but I’ve had an experience where the Spotify app didn’t play audio properly until I restarted the streambar. Not the app, but the device itself. Neither of these bugs were particularly ruinous, but the streambar software could be a little more sophisticated at this point.

Eventually, Roku had the opportunity to fix one of the soundbar’s problems through a built-in Ethernet port. It didn’t. Instead, you have to buy a $ 13 USB dongle to use a hardwired connection, which is pretty important for things like 4K streaming.

The judgment

While the older Roku Smart Soundbar is a slightly better product than the Streambar overall thanks to its larger size and fewer buggy software (at least at startup), the Streambar is undeniably more useful for most people. This is a powerful little soundbar that is perfect for those of us who have spent most of 2020 in our bedrooms.

However, the streambar only makes sense if you are missing 4K / HDR streaming and audio equipment. I say this because the Chromecast with Google TV is a better (and cheaper) streaming-only device than the Streambar and should be your first choice if you already have adequate speakers.

If you don’t, $ 129 will fix both of these issues right away.

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