Both Roku and Amazon recently introduced sound bars with integrated streaming platforms. While they’re similar, some distinct differences might help you decide which one to get.
If you have a beautiful, large 4K TV that’s thin as paper and light as a feather, you might have noticed one big problem: the speakers are awful. Most large TVs skimp on speakers to maximize screen real estate and maintain thin designs and affordability.
So, TV manufacturers have passed on the cost of speakers to you. However, the benefit is you can choose the best speakers for you. If you live in an apartment or smaller home—or you just don’t want to deal with the expense and complicated setup of a surround system—sound bars are a fantastic way to add better sound to your TV.
And Roku and Amazon now offer a two-for-one deal: if you buy a sound bar, you also get an integrated streaming platform (Roku or Fire TV, respectively). But which one is better? It depends on how much you want to spend.
Roku Streaming and Smart Sound Bar
Roku’s new sound bar ($180, at this writing) is a departure from its previous speaker offering. The company’s wireless speakers work with Roku TVs, but its sound bar isn’t wireless and works with any TV.
The device doubles as a 4K Roku streaming unit and handles all your streaming needs. Just plug the sound bar into an HDMI ARC port, and you’re good to go.
If you plug it into a Roku TV, you can continue to use the TV’s interface instead of the sound bar’s built-in Roku device. You can also control the Roku interface with Google Assistant (to some extent). The unit is capable of 4K HDR (HDR10) video, along with Bluetooth and Dolby Audio support.
Roku included four, 2.5-inch full-range drivers in the sound bar, so it should sound much better than your thin TV’s tiny speakers. But if you want more bass, Roku’s got an optional wireless subwoofer ($180, at this writing).
You can place this anywhere you have a plug within 35 feet of your TV and sound bar. You control it with your Roku remote, so for minimal effort, you should get noticeable bass from its 10-inch driver.
You can preorder both the sound bar and subwoofer now, and Roku expects to ship them on October 13, 2019.
Sound Bar by Anker, Fire TV by Amazon
Amazon wants in the sound bar game, too, but it’s not making the hardware. The terribly-named Nebula Soundbar—Fire TV Edition comes from Anker. As its name suggests, this is a sound bar with the Amazon Fire TV platform built-in. A Fire TV sound bar, if you will (was that so hard?).
At this writing, it’s $230, and you won’t find an optional subwoofer for it. Instead, Anker powers it with two, three-inch Subwoofers and two, 1.5-inch full-range speakers with two bass ports. The theory is the subwoofer provides all the bass you need, although we’re dubious as to whether Anker succeeded.
In addition to the audio, you get the Amazon Fire TV interface, and 4K HDR (HDR10+) and Alexa support. The sound bar doesn’t have microphones, however, so you speak into the included Fire TV remote to give Alexa commands.
You can preorder the Nebula Soundbar—Fire TV Edition now. It’s expected to ship November 21, 2019.
The Value of Streaming Sound Bars
Of course, you don’t have to buy a sound bar with an integrated streaming platform. You can always buy a Roku or Fire TV stick, and a sound bar and subwoofer combo, instead.
Whether you go with the Fire TV 4K Stick or the Roku Ultra Streaming Media Player, if you pair it with a decent sound bar, you’ll likely spend around $200. If you include Roku’s wireless subwoofer in your calculations, that’s less expensive than either of these sound bars.
However, Roku’s subwoofer is far more powerful than a low-end sound bar setup. And you also get something else with both these options—integration.
If you buy separate devices, you have to connect more cables, which makes more ports on your TV unavailable for other devices (like gaming systems). You also have more points of failure to troubleshoot, and possibly, more warranties to work through.
An all-in-one solution simplifies everything, and for some people, that justifies the extra cash.
Both sound bars have advantage and disadvantages. But most people will likely base their decision on the included interface.
However, if the choice is between a Roku streaming device or a Fire TV streaming stick, the answer will always be Roku. It has a more extensive catalog, its interface is easier to navigate, and it strives to be compatible with other devices. That’s not always the case with Amazon—until recently, Fire TV lacked a YouTube app due to a dispute with Google.
The two options are now more similar than ever before, and while Roku edges out a win, that doesn’t mean Fire TV is bad. And these devices are more than just streaming sticks—they provide premium sound too.
Based on the specs, the Roku Smart Sound Bar and optional Roku Subwoofer should sound the best, if that’s your main concern. However, it will set you back $360 to buy both units, which is no small sum.
Without the Roku Subwoofer, the Nebula Soundbar pulls slightly ahead. Although its full-range speakers are slightly smaller than the Roku’s, its bass speakers (with bass ports) should provide more oomph than the Roku. Again, you also get Alexa through the remote, as Fire TV’s voice controls are more extensive than Roku’s.
If $230 is more than you want to spend on a sound bar, you can still get the Roku Smart Sound Bar and just add the wireless subwoofer later. This might be the best choice, even if you can afford the Fire TV Soundbar.
Both sound bars are as similar as they are different, and both have an even spread of features. Of the two, the Roku interface is better, and that’s worth considering before you make your decision.
However, the main goal here is to make your TV sound better. If possible, try to listen to both devices when they’re available.
Short of that, buy the one you can afford. This is one of those cases, however, where more money buys you a better product. If you want the full Roku setup, but can’t afford to hand over $360 today, buy it in stages. You’ll appreciate the subwoofer all the more the day you add it to your system.