For years I have been running a home theater PC (HTPC) to play my Blu-Ray movie content. First with Windows Media Center, and more recently with Plex Home Theater. For the most part it has been a great experience and has provided me with a platform to play my movie content, and most importantly, has allowed me to enjoy the native quality of the Blu-Ray and the ability to pass high definition sound tracks (TrueHD, DTS-MA) directly to my receiver. These things have become critical to me.
Recently I came across the new Roku 4 and decided to investigate. I have a been a Roku user for years and own three Roku 3 units. I always felt they offered the best overall experience and had a multitude of options for additional content. On my main setup, I use my Roku for content other than movies, and on the rest of my TV’s I use them for everything else. The integration of Plex makes Roku a natural choice for me. When I read about their new version I was intrigued by the new Roku on paper. It had the potential to combine everything I need into one small box, a dream we all have to simplify the number of items we have attached to our TV’s. There was one particular feature that peaked my interest and that was the possibility of pass-through audio.
The Roku 4 spec sheet was vague, but after doing a bit of research it appeared it had the potential of supporting pass-through audio. I did not much care about 4K yet as there is little content and what is there is compressed for streaming. The one existing limitation of the older version had was down sampling of the audio which is why I never used on my main setup. This is OK on other televisions, but not acceptable in the living room where everything is fed into my Onkyo receiver. I immediately ordered one as the potential for replacing my HTPC seemed feasible and within reach. If this device worked I would be able to save on power, space, and get the simplicity of a one stop solution which would allow me to eliminate one additional box under my TV.
Setup on the Roku 4 is extremely simple. Setting up the main unit took only a couple of minutes and after logging into my account using my computer, it updated all the apps and channels that I had configured on my account. The whole process took about 10-15 minutes including a firmware update for the Roku itself. Once that was done, I had to log into the various accounts and channels (a painful process) that require a unique account. I then stepped through all the audio, video, and network settings and everything was ready to go…
Now that everything was set up, I was excited to test the audio capabilities of the Roku 4 using Plex. I loaded a movie that contained a DTS-MA sound track. I looked at my receiver, and to my disappointment it showed that it was outputting DTS not the DTS-MA I expected to see. I went back to audio settings and tried every combination to see if I could get the audio to pass through natively but no luck. Everything I tried produced the same result.
Next I tried a movie with a TrueHD sound track hoping that would provide me different results. It did provide different results, but unfortunately it was worse. The movie would not even load if it contained only a TrueHD audio track and if Plex was set to the native video resolution. To clarify, when I rip my movies, I use no video compression and I only leave the HD audio track. All other audio is stripped out. After spending another 30 minutes playing around with settings I came to the conclusion that this was not going to work.
Before I sent the unit back I thought I would get some input from their tech support to see what they would say as it appeared this device did not do as I hoped it would and allow pass-through of the native audio sound tracks to my receiver. I contacted their tech support and was able to chat with a live person even though it was 9 pm PST. I explained the issue and all that I had done to resolve the issue. After going back and forth having me try a few things including a full reset, they said they were sending me a new unit as they believed the unit was defective (even though I did not think the unit was actually bad). I asked the agent just to make sure if I was interpreting their spec sheet correctly, and that the Roku 4 was designed to allow for audio pass-through, and they confirmed that indeed it should. Given the lack of other options, I agreed and they immediately sent me a new unit. They were extremely responsive and pre shipped a new unit all without the use of a credit card and without receiving the old one first. Though I was skeptical this would correct it I was very pleased with the customer service they provided.
I had contacted them on a Tuesday evening and by Thursday of the same week I had a new unit. I could not wait to get home and try it out. After I hooked it up, I went through the setup again and immediately went to Plex to test the same two movies I had used with my original box. Unfortunately, my suspicions were confirmed and the new unit did exactly the same as the original. After doing additional research and some further testing, I concluded that Roku has a different interpretation of what “pass-through” and HD is than I do. It will not play full resolution HD nor will it allow the native playback of HD sound tracks. It certainly will not, based on what I experienced, be able to replace my HTPC for movie playback. If it cannot playback full bit rate 1080P content then it does not come close to being able to replace my HTPC, certainly not until they patch this unit so that it can live up to its potential.
Overall Impression, Limitations, and Conclusion
In addition to not allowing pass-through or direct play, I found the unit is a bit sluggish for having a quad core processor. The menus and interface are snappy however when you start a movie playback it is actually slower than I expected and under certain conditions, even slower than the Roku 3. When playing Terminator-Genesis, it took 7-8 seconds just to start the movie and that was with a reduced bit rate. To add insult to injury, I could not even play any movies using “direct play” from Plex without stutters, lockups, or error messages. It forced me to lower the bit rate before it will play to avoid getting error messages. I know this is a new product and future firmware may address some of these concerns, however in the meantime the unit is truly a disappointment for home theater enthusiasts. The idea and vision that this unit would replace an HTPC is far from reality, especially if you want to play full resolution video/audio native content and not be forced to down sample in order to play it.
I guess we will have to wait for the Roku 5 (or 6, 7, ???) and maybe then they will figure out that users who want to play 4K and HD content will not want to down sample bit rates for video or to hear the audio as it was recorded. In my view of this unit, Roku has made some misleading claims on the capability of this unit. They want you to think it will play 4K and HD content but in reality, it only does it on reduced bit rates which defeats the purpose. If you have a Roku 3, do not bother to upgrade unless you need faster wireless. If you are in the market for buying a unit, buy the Roku 3 as you will not be giving up anything especially if you have it attached to Ethernet. Though I was very pleased with their customer service, to say I am disappointed with this version of the Roku would be an understatement. I have already requested an RMA from Amazon and will be returning this unit and hooking back up my Roku 3 which actually works better until such time that they figure out what HD means.