Today’s thin TVs (both LED LCD and plasmas) leave little room for speakers. The result: limited frequency response, terrible dynamic range, very poor bass, and very little overall volume. The solution: connecting a soundbar or a sound system.
Sales wise, soundbars are the most popular choice today, as they come in a wide range of prices and widths.
There are several ways to get the audio from the HDTV to the soundbar. We examine the advantages and disadvantages of each after the jump.
HDMI is a single connector that carries audio from a source to the soundbar. The cables are inexpensive, $5.79 for a Amazon 6.5 foot Cable, and easy to connect. A single cable can carry up to five channels of audio plus bass for a subwoofer-equipped soundbar.
Getting the audio from the TV or source box (cable, satellite, Blu-ray etc.) can be accomplished in several ways, depending on the specific television and soundbar.
Method “A” uses HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). It’s found in many name-brand HDTVs. Simply stated, it turns one to the HDMI inputs on the TV into an HDMI audio output. For example, if you have four HDMI jacks on your television, and one is labeled ARC, that is the one you would use to run an HDMI cable from the TV to your soundbar. It is a digital connection and can provide up to 5.1 Dolby Digital to a soundbar. Well, 5.1 if the TV is able to output it, and the soundbar can handle it (not all can, more on this in a moment). In addition, all the switching is performed by the TV via its own remote control. For example, choose HDMI input 2 and that source’s audio (such as a cable box) will be sent automatically to your soundbar.
The one stumbling block is the number channels the TV can output through the HDMI ARC connection. For example, current Samsung TVs send only digital stereo (2.0) via ARC, while 2013 Sony and Panasonic TVs can pass up to Dolby Digital 5.1. If your soundbar is stereo-only, this isn’t an issue. If the soundbar (or surround sound system) is capable handling additional channels, it might only get 2.0 from certain TVs.
If a soundbar has an HDMI input, the TV’s HDMI ARC-labeled HDMI jack will behave as an audio output when connected. The downside is you give up an HDMI input on the TV (so 4 becomes 3 HDMI inputs and 3 becomes 2). For more on ARC, read our article HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) for your HDTV Explained.
A number of soundbars (and surround sound systems) have HDMI inputs and outputs. These can be connected to your source box(es) and process the audio (the number of channels it can handle depends on the source and the sound systems capabilities). When the soundbar has multiple HDMI inputs, you can use it to switch sources. These soundbars are also equipped with an HDMI output, with which you send video to your HDTV.
Many soundbars are equipped with a digital audio input. Today most use an optical input called Toslink. Most brand name TVs have digital audio optical “Toslink” outputs. All Toslink-equipped HDTVs will output digital signals up to Dolby Digital 5.1 that originate from the display’s built-in tuner and Internet streaming functions (if they are part of the display’s feature set).
Many HDTVs will also send digital audio from a connected HDMI source, but this feature is not universal. Check with the manufacturer to learn if it permits audio from connected sources to be fed through its Toslink output.
There can be a coaxial digital output on the TV and input on the soundbar, which is an RCA-type jack. These have fallen out of favor by most TV and soundbar manufacturers. If your soundbar has only a coaxial digital audio input and the TV only has an optical Toslink digital audio output, converters like this one can be used to convert optical to coaxial digital.
Good old analog audio, using two RCA-type jacks found on almost every HDTV connected to two RCA type jacks on the soundbar. This is stereo only, and is the lowest quality source. Generally, this is what you will find on inexpensive, entry level soundbars. We don’t recommend this type of connection if you can help it. Depending on the TV manufacturer, you may find the analog output will only pass audio from the display’s built-in tuner.
Sony HT-CT660 46-Inch Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer $345.93 Amazon
Sony HTST7 HD Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer $1298.00 Amazon
Samsung HW-F850 2.1-Channel 310 Watt Soundbar $970.39 Amazon
Harman Kardon SB 30 5.1 Soundbar and Wireless Subwoofer $799.00 Amazon
Pioneer SP-SB23W Andrew Jones Soundbar System $399.00 Amazon
All of the listed Soundbars are sold by Amazon direct . They stand behind their sales. Note: prices are correct as of posting and may change at any time, please verify with our links; Currently, most states do not collect sales tax on Amazon orders with the exceptions of AZ, CA, GA, TX, KS, KY, NJ, NY, ND, PA & WA. You always must pay sales tax (in states that collect it) when buying at a brick and mortar store.
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