Roku’s Ultra 4K streamer gets the Bluetooth audio upgrade we’ve been waiting on

Roku is rolling out a new OS (version 11.5) for its streamers and Roku TVs. The update brings with it a wide range of new features, including one we’ve been hoping to see for some time: a Bluetooth audio output.

The new capability is coming to the company’s flagship Roku Ultra 4K streamer ($90), which previously only let you plug in a set of wired headphones to its remote control, or use the company’s smartphone app for private listening when watching TV. Following the update, the Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision-compatible Ultra will become more competitive with the best streamers like the Apple TV 4K and Amazon Fire TV family, both of which already offer Bluetooth audio output.

Along with the Bluetooth update, Roku will be adding features aimed at making it easier to discover new shows as well as follow ones that you’re already interested in.

The Buzz (US only) is a discovery portal that will feature regularly updated posts, trailers, and video clips from content providers including Apple TV+, Showtime, Starz, AMC+, and more. Viewers can “like” clips, add them to watch later, and follow specific topics.

A new Continue Watching list located within the Roku Home screen’s What to Watch section will let users easily jump back to programs they had previously been viewing. Another new feature, Save List, can be used to store programs from across multiple streaming apps including HBO Max, Netflix, Paramount+, and the Roku Channel, with more to be added in the future.

Roku Express (2022) and Wireless Bass

Along with the OS version 11.5 updates, Roku will be releasing two new hardware products: the Roku Express (2022) and Wireless Bass.

The $30 Roku Express (2022) is the company’s new entry-level streaming stick, and is said to have a faster and more powerful processor. It also comes with dual-band Wi-Fi support.

Roku’s Wireless Bass is a subwoofer designed specifically for use with the company’s Streambar, Roku TV Wireless speakers, and Roku TV wireless soundbar. The Wireless Bass adds low-frequency sound support, and can be placed in a room up to 30 feet away from Roku’s speakers and soundbars. 

Both the Roku Express (2022) and Wireless Bass are available for pre-order now with the Express shipping in mid-October and the Wireless Bass in early November. Roku also has a $250 Streambar plus Wireless Bass bundle available for pre-order, with shipping planned for early November.

The new Continue Watching feature of Roku OS 11.5 (top row). (Image credit: Roku)

Analysis: Roku’s expanding audio lineup primes it to compete with Amazon and Apple

These days, it’s not enough for a company to simply manufacture streaming hardware. Amazon, Google, and Roku have also made a push into the TV OS space, with Amazon and Hisense sets powered by Fire TV, TCL and Hisense sets powered by Roku, and brands such as Sony running Google TV along with TCL and Hisense. (Will Apple eventually make its own TV? We wouldn’t count that possibility out.)

Both Apple and Amazon sell speakers – the HomePod and Echo, respectively – that can be wirelessly connected to their streaming hardware for TV audio output. Roku’s growing family of audio products, which now includes soundbars, wireless speakers, and a subwoofer, meanwhile, allow it to not only compete with those big tech brands on the audio front, but in some ways exceed them by enabling a full 5.1 wireless surround sound experience.

The addition of a Bluetooth Audio output to the Roku Ultra might not be the most significant development, but it’s certainly a welcome one, and it arrives along with a major set of usability and content discovery updates to the company’s TV streaming platform.

And while Roku’s audio offerings are inexpensive, the company maintains its own design and engineering facilities spread between Denmark and San Jose, California and creates its own custom speaker drivers, DSP, and amplification as opposed to using off-the-shelf solutions for its products.

Between the Ultra’s Bluetooth audio output and the new Wireless Bass, Roku appears to be on an audio roll. The only other thing we can ask of the company is that its next wave of soundbars and wireless speakers include Dolby Atmos support.

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