Need to know
- There are a variety of connections available, depending on the age of your TV, soundbar and other home entertainment devices, including Bluetooth
- Usually, the best solution is to plug your devices and soundbar into the TV separately
- Specific connection types are required to play certain surround sound effects and audio codecs including Dolby, DTS and PCM.
HDMI is the one stop, plug-and-play solution for most home entertainment devices, and it's usually the most simple way to connect your soundbar to your TV. But things can get a little more complex if you want the best possible audio or if you're using older devices.
For example, did you know that Dolby Atmos only works with a specific HDMI output on your TV? Some cables are also only capable of transmitting stereo surround, which means you're not utilising your new 5.1 soundbar to its full potential. Our guide will show you how to connect your soundbar to your TV and get the best quality audio out of it.
Connecting your soundbar to your TV via a cable
For most people, the best method is to plug your devices and soundbar into your TV separately so that all audio goes out via the television.
Most soundbars support these common cable formats:
- Optical (aka TOSLINK or digital RCA)
- RCA (the red and white stereo cables).
HDMI is the best option as it has enough bandwidth to support the highest quality audio currently available. This covers all the major codecs – Dolby, DTS and PCM, including the Dolby Atmos and DTS-X object-based surround formats. For a detailed explanation, see Getting the most out of Dolby, DTS or PCM below.
Optical is fine, but it can't transmit high-quality audio like HDMI. It also caps out at 5.1, so you won't hear the added surround effects offered by 7.1, Atmos and DTS-X soundbars. RCA does the job but soundbars only support it in the stereo configuration so it should only be used as a last resort.
These steps are basically the same regardless of whether you own a Samsung, LG, Sony, JBL or Bose TV and/or soundbar. However, some settings may have slightly different names depending on the brand and model.
Firstly, figure out your connection options. Look for an HDMI port on your TV and soundbar labeled "ARC" or "eARC". There are two versions that let you send audio to the soundbar via HDMI:
- Audio Return Channel (ARC): The original version of ARC that can deliver 5.1 surround including compressed Dolby and DTS.
- Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC): The latest version of ARC with additional bandwidth, which supports uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 surround as well as Dolby Atmos and DTS-X object based surround.
Note: This will not work if the soundbar doesn't have an ARC/eARC input. Both the TV and the soundbar need ARC/eARC in order for the handshake to work. If this is available on your TV and soundbar then use it, as you'll get the best audio experience.
If your TV is older or doesn't support ARC, you'll need to use the optical port. This is often called TOSLINK, depending on the manufacturer. Like HDMI, all you need to do is plug it in. If neither option is available you can use RCA and start looking for a new TV as it's probably time for an upgrade.
Adjusting the settings
Once you're all plugged in and everything is turned on, you'll need to tell your TV to send audio to the soundbar. You'll need to adjust two settings in the TV's audio options.
- Change the audio output from "TV speaker" to the cable type you used to connect the soundbar. This will be labelled "ARC", "eARC" or "optical".
- Look for a setting called "pass through" and turn it on or select it as the default audio option. This will tell the TV to take incoming audio from a broadcast or your external devices (e.g. set top box) and pass it through so the soundbar decodes it.
Some TVs give you the option to play audio through the TV speaker and soundbar at the same time. This can be handy if you only want to use the soundbar for things like movies, as audio will still come through the TV speakers even if the soundbar is turned off when you're watching the news for example. It's really a matter of personal preference so try watching your favourite movies and shows with the TV speaker on and off and go with whatever suits your ears.
ARC and eARC deliver the best audio quality. Look for inputs like the one pictured here.
Directly connecting a device
Some soundbars have one or two HDMI inputs that let you connect an external device rather than going via the TV. In this case, audio goes directly into the soundbar which then sends the picture to the TV for processing via HDMI out or ARC/eARC. It's basically the same approach you would use to connect things up to a home cinema receiver.
This can be useful if you want top quality audio but the TV doesn't support ARC. Let's say you're watching a movie on a 4K player. The 4K player will send the audio directly to the soundbar for processing while the image is passed through to the TV via regular HDMI. It's a handy little workaround for older TVs.
Connecting a soundbar with Bluetooth
Some soundbars include Bluetooth connectivity but this isn't designed to work with your TV. It actually operates more like a wireless speaker, the idea being that you can connect your phone, tablet or laptop if you want to listen to music or podcasts on your soundbar.
Though you may be able to connect it to the TV via Bluetooth, you'll face a lot of issues. Audio quality will drop, there will be lip sync issues which throws the timing out of whack, and it may be subject to interference if there are other Bluetooth devices nearby.
Getting the most out of Dolby, DTS or PCM.
Most movies, TV shows, games, concerts and so on, support Dolby, DTS or PCM multichannel sound. There are different versions of Dolby and DTS, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS-HD Master Audio, which increased quality and additional surround channels.
Soundbars can decode one, or more, of these and you can find this information on the box or in the spec sheet. However, manufactures don't tell you that you need specific cables to make the most of these options.
It all comes down to bandwidth. Additional channels and higher quality audio has more data and thus, needs more bandwidth. But some cable types don't have enough which limits your options. The rule of thumb is, when in doubt, use HDMI.
- Older versions of Dolby and DTS require less bandwidth, and can run through RCA, optical (TOSLINK), coaxial and HDMI cables.
- High-quality versions such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio need HDMI (version 1.3 or later).
You will also have access to different versions depending on whether your TV and soundbar support ARC or eARC.
- If your devices support ARC, then you can only hear the compressed versions of Dolby and DTS with a maximum of 5.1 surround.
- If your devices support eARC, then you can enjoy the top quality uncompressed versions called Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio The original version of ARC does not support these high quality formats as it doesn't have enough bandwidth.
What about Dolby Atmos and DTS-X?
A handful of soundbars can decode object-based surround technologies that add a sense of height to the mix. These need even more bandwidth than 5.1 and 7.1 so HDMI via eARC is your only option. The TV, soundbar and HDMI cable also needs to support HDMI version 2.1.
What happens if you use the wrong cable?
Though you'll still hear sound with older cable types, the TV and soundbar will downmix audio to a lower quality version that fits within the bandwidth limitation. For example, if you try to play an Atmos track via an optical cable, it will downmix it to the standard quality version of Dolby.
This is why it's important to buy the correct cables. Otherwise you won't be using the soundbar to its full potential.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.