Aside from UHD Blu-ray and a few special broadcasts like the Olympics, the only way to watch content in native 4K/UHD HDR on a compatible display is via online streaming. Virtually all 4K/UHD HDR-capable TVs include onboard streaming apps, but outboard streaming receivers often offer a greater selection of content providers. Among the most bountiful streamers are those from Roku, with access to over 500,000 movies and TV shows from thousands of providers.
At the top of the Roku lineup is the Roku Ultra ($100), which offers 4K/UHD HDR content along with programs in SDR and lower resolutions. I got one as a streaming source to use in TV reviews, but then decided to review it directly. The specific model I have is the 4660, which replaces the 4640 from 2016.
The Roku Ultra’s most significant feature is its ability to stream 4K/UHD HDR content at up to 60 frames/second from providers that offer it. The unit also offers a 4K Spotlight channel that aggregates 4K/UHD HDR content from the various providers. As of this writing, they include 4K Universe, Amazon, Cooking Panda, Curiosity Stream, Fandango Now, Netflix, Plex (playback of media on your local network), Roku Media Player (playback of media on a connected USB storage device), Smithsonian Earth, Spectiv, Tastemade, Toon Goggles, UltraFlix 4K, Vudu, and YouTube. Among these, I know that Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube offer HDR content; some of the others might as well, but I didn’t check them all.
Speaking of high dynamic range, the Roku Ultra supports HDR10, but not Dolby Vision. It will pass a Dolby Atmos bitstream to an AVR or soundbar, but it does not support DTS:X immersive audio. Lower resolutions are upscaled to 4K/UHD. It can also be used with HD (1080p) displays—which, of course, are not capable of rendering 4K/UHD HDR content.
Many streaming providers require a recurring subscription to access their content (e.g., Netflix, Amazon, Hulu), while others charge by the title to rent or own (e.g., Vudu). In addition, there is some free content on the Roku Channel and others, though many such titles do come with commercials. Perhaps most annoying is that a lot of Hulu content includes commercials, even though you pay a monthly subscription fee. Also, the Roku Channel inserts commercials into its free content seemingly randomly, often in the middle of scenes.
The Roku Ultra is powered by a quad-core processor, and it can connect with your home’s network via W-Fi (802.11ac MIMO dual-band) or an Ethernet cable (10/100 Base-T). Other connections include HDMI 2.0a, USB for media-file playback from an external storage device, and a microSD card slot for storing more channels than the internal memory can accommodate.
The Roku Ultra’s connections are simple.
One feature I really like is an 1/8″ headphone jack on the remote, which lets you listen without disturbing anyone else in the home. Few TVs have headphone outputs anymore, so this is quite welcome. If you want to use speakers but still keep things relatively quiet, a night-listening mode reduces the audio dynamic range so you can hear everything at a lower volume. However, enabling this mode also limits the output to two channels; I don’t see why it can’t reduce the dynamic range in all 5.1 channels of a surround soundtrack.
Another cool feature is screen mirroring from a compatible Android or Windows device. Unfortunately, it can’t mirror the screen of an Apple or Google device. However, it can display videos, photos, and music from these devices—as well as Android and Windows devices—using the Play On Roku function of the free Roku mobile app. I use the Apple ecosystem exclusively, so I didn’t test this feature.
I’ve heard some concerns that the Roku Ultra outputs video only at 60 fps, which makes it impossible to watch 4K/UHD HDR content on some of the latest Sony 4K projectors. This is the default setting, but you can change it to output the native frame rate of the content. You can also set the HDR subsampling mode to 4:2:0 (the default) or 4:2:2. Both of these controls are buried deep in the Settings menu.
The menu system will be familiar to anyone who has used a Roku before. A list of options on the left includes the home screen, movie and TV stores, news, search, streaming channels, and settings. On the right are the channels (streaming providers) you have selected to include in a graphic array.
The Home menu will be very familiar to Roku users.
The remote is small and simple, and because it uses radio frequencies (RF) to communicate with the Roku Ultra, it needn’t be pointed at the unit. it’s not illuminated, but the buttons are easy to find by feel. Also, there are dedicated buttons to access Netflix, Sling, Hulu, and HBO Now. I especially like the Home and Back buttons, which make navigation through the menu system easy. Also included are power and volume up/down buttons for the TV, which use the remote’s infrared (IR) capability.
The Roku Ultra remote is small and simple. The A and B buttons are used primarily with the few available games.
Setup was a snap. I simply connected the AC power, HDMI, and Ethernet cable—I don’t use Wi-Fi for streaming if I can help it—and a setup wizard appeared. It automatically detected that the remote had no batteries; after I installed them, it connected to the remote. It then asked if I was using a wired or wireless network connection; after I selected wired, it automatically updated the firmware in less than a minute.
Next, it asked me to press OK so it could auto-detect the type of display. When I did, the system froze. After I cycled the power (unplugged and replugged the AC power cable), it detected a 4K/UHD display with HDR capabilities and HDCP 2.2—all of which is correct for my Sony 65A1E OLED TV.
The next step was configuring the remote’s power and volume buttons for the TV. When I tested the automatic attempt, the buttons didn’t work. I could have manually entered the brand and model number, but I didn’t want to control the TV volume and power anyway, so I specified that I’d do it later. (In fact, I did it later from the Settings menu, and the automatic process worked this time; it was super easy and quick.)
Finally, I had to activate the Roku Ultra from my Roku account by going to the Roku website using a computer or mobile device. If you don’t have an account, you set one up online. Either way, you enter a code that appears on the TV and complete the setup by selecting which channels/apps you want to appear on your home page. At this stage, you can add any paid subscriptions you already have or start free trials of the providers that offer them.
I started with Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, the new 4K/UHD HDR original anthology series on Amazon. Episode 2 is “Autofac”—a chilling look at a fully automated factory and Amazon-like drone-delivery system that continues to mindlessly manufacture and deliver consumer goods to the few survivors of an atomic holocaust while polluting what’s left of the ecosystem. It looked great, with bright highlights and great shadow detail. For example, in one scene, a character is in a dark underground area of Autofac wearing a bright head-mounted light. The light was very bright, yet I could clearly see the details in the shadows around him.
There was only one problem: The audio level was very low, and the audio dynamic range was very wide, leading me to ride the volume control. Turning on the Roku’s night-listening mode helped, but the output is then only two channels.
Next, I turned to Netflix for an episode of its 4K/UHD HDR original anthology series, Black Mirror. Season 4, episode 1 is “USS Callister,” a near-future extrapolation of jacked-in MMO games in which one of the creators of a game based on a fictitious version of Star Trek torments digital clones of his co-workers within cyberspace.
The Netflix menu says it’s HDR, but it didn’t really look HDR. The brightness wasn’t noticeably higher than SDR, except in a couple of shots of the transporter beaming people. And the black of space was pretty deep, but not as deep as the interstitials (moments of full-screen black between scenes). I checked the TV, and it thought it was getting HDR, so I have to assume that’s just how the episode was graded. The audio dynamic range was not as wide as it was on “Autofac,” but the level was still pretty low.
YouTube offers an HDR channel with tons of 4K/UHD HDR content, including some demo reels from TV manufacturers such as LG, Samsung, and Sony. The “LG Jazz HDR UHD 60fps” demo looked gorgeous, with deep blacks and rich colors. I also took a look at a clip called “Helium Fire,” which was shot on a Red Helium 8K camera. It shows a fire eater in a dark warehouse, and the fire is mostly hard clipped, though the black level is very good. Also, the audio level and dynamic range on this YouTube channel is no problem.
I’ve recently thought I’d like to rewatch the series Andromeda, one of Gene Roddenberry’s post-Star Trek concepts that ran five seasons from 2000 to 2005. Well, I wanted to see the first season, anyway. It started out with some interesting characters and premises, but after co-creator and writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe was fired, the show went downhill fast.
I used the Roku’s voice-search function, saying “Find Andromeda.” Of course, there are several shows and movies with Andromeda in the title, but the first one in the list was the Roddenberry series. It’s available from several sources, including Amazon (free with Prime membership), ComicCon HQ (free), the Roku Channel (free), and Vudu ($2/episode).
I didn’t have ComicCon HQ in my list of providers, so I tried the Roku Channel, which inserted commercials into the show at seemingly random points—not at the existing commercial-break points, which was very annoying. I’m an Amazon Prime member, so I ended up watching it there with no commercials.
I’m pretty sure Andromeda was originally shot and presented in HD, and on the Roku Ultra, it looked really good. It’s SDR, to be sure, but with surprisingly good upscaled detail and a nice, deep black of space.
The Roku Ultra is everything I’ve come to expect from a Roku streamer. The remote and menu system are simple and straightforward, and the amount of available content is vast. The 4K/UHD HDR content generally looks spectacular, though the audio level was sometimes lower than, say, my Dish Hopper 3 satellite receiver. I suspect the variations in video and audio performance I saw and heard were due to the providers, not the streamer itself.
The Roku Ultra is a fine 4K/UHD HDR streamer. If you don’t feel a need for Dolby Vision, it is well worth its $100 price tag.
Sony XBR-65A1E OLED TV
Denon AVR-X6200W AVR
PSB Image T65 front L/R, C60 center, S50 surrounds, SubSonic 6i subwoofer
Cable Matters 6′ certified high-speed HDMI (Roku Ultra to AVR)
Fibbr Ultra Pro 10-meter fiber-optic HDMI (AVR to TV)