Roku. Amazon Fire TV. Android TV. Three of the major players in streaming video now have sound bars with integrated operating systems.
What's that mean for you, the consumer? You've got an easy way to get pretty much every streaming video service into your TV — and an easy way to vastly improve the sound quality coming out of said display. And it's all in a single piece of hardware. No more sticks. No more audio handshakes that don't always work on the first try.
It's simpler, for sure. But is it necessarily better?
That's going to depend a bit on your setup. A single sound bar isn't going to sound as good as, say, a sound bar with rear speakers and a dedicated subwoofer. (I'm still using a Vizio Atmos-based system in the living room, and a less-expensive and older Vizio soundbar/surround setup in the bedroom.)
Depending on what you want, you could end up paying more for a lesser audio experience, but save an HDMI port in the process. Is that a worthy trade?
That one's up to you, not me.
Regardless, here's another look at the top all-in-one sound bars from the major streaming hardware manufacturers.
JBL Link Bar ($399)
This is the most expensive of the three options thus far. It's also the most prestigious, at least in terms of companies that do audio, as JBL has been doing this sort of thing for a long, long time.
And now it's got the power of Android TV and Google Assistant built in. That means the Link Bar can do pretty much anything your phone can do. Turn off the lights? Lock the door? Answer all kinds of other questions? Not a problem at all.
And because this is Android TV, there's a visual component. You'll get easy access to every movie and TV show you could possibly want to watch, you can see your security camera footage, and you can do it all in 4K. Plus, Chromecast is built in, so you can easily switch from watching something on your phone to watching it on your main display.
The Link Bar features a pair of 20mm tweeters, and four 44-by 80 mm racetrack drivers, with a total max output of 100 watts. It also has Bluetooth 4.2 on board, uses Wifi 5 (that's 802.11ac) to connect to your network — and Android TV can replace whatever operating system is backed into your current TV. It's got three HDMI inputs and a single ARC channel.
For the privacy conscious (and who isn't) there's a switch to turn off the mic array.
The 40-inch JBL Link Bar includes a power cable, an HDMI cable, and a remote control.
Amazon Fire TV Edition Anker Nebula Soundbar ($229)
This one's a bit of an odd duck. On one hand it's exactly what you think — a sound bar with Amazon Fire TV built in. And it's got Amazon Alexa via a voice remote.
It's that last part that's odd. Given the nature of this thing — and given the price — you'd almost expect it to have a microphone array for hands-free Amazon Alexa. But instead you have to use the remote control, just like the Roku or JBL models.
Is that a privacy thing? Is that to keep the Amazon Fire TV Cube up on a pedestal? And does it sound that much better than Roku's sound bar to justify the extra $50 in price? We'll have to find out.
Looks great, sounds great
It was only a matter of time, right? You can now get Amazon Fire TV baked into an Anker sound bar, so you've got fewer things to plug into your television.
Roku Smart Soundbar ($179)
This is the least expensive sound bar of the bunch, but that doesn't mean it's skimping on the specs.
The 32-inch sound bar is running the full Roku operating system. So you plug it in via an HDMI ARC connection, and it'll take care of everything else. That's all the audio. That's all the 4K video you want. That's HDR 10.
And because it's Roku, it's got the easiest interface that you can use on a streaming platform these days. (There's a reason Roku is so popular, and this is a big part of why.)
And the Smart Soundbar has an optional companion subwoofer, which also runs $179. So you can take care of the low end in the room while you're taking care of the pictures on the screen.
The Roku option
Audio and video, all in one!
The fewer things you have to plug into your TV, the better. And the Roku Smart Sound Bar combines easy-to-stream video with easy-to-connect audio in what may be the perfect entry-level consumer device.
Roku Wireless subwoofer ($179 at Roku)
Make the room go boom
If you're at all serious about audio, you need a subwoofer. And this one from Roku makes it a breeze because it's wireless, employs Roku Connect — and basically is how to do things.
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