The different sound standards and getting the best quality audio can be complicated. One of the most basic things that you need to get right is whether or not you’re using HDMI ARC with your soundbar or not. But how does HDMI ARC even work with soundbars in the first place?
HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) allows you to minimize the number of cables and controllers you need by requiring only one HDMI connection from your TV to your Soundbar, with all other HDMI connections running to the TV.
If you’re not sure if your soundbar has HDMI ARC, it’s easy enough to check, and most newer units do. Your TV has to have an HDMI ARC port, and there is a little setup you’ll need to do to get it right, but first off let’s discuss a little more about how HDMI ARC works.
Put simply, HDMI ARC allows your home theater to use that “Return Channel” on the HDMI cable to do some two-way communication between your home theater equipment. This means fewer cables, and more advanced control because you don’t have to connect an HDMI to the TV first and then run a separate audio cable to the TV to the audio equipment.
In addition to fewer cables, this also allows you to use a single remote for your entire setup, instead of multiple remotes for your TV, receiver, etc. If you’ve heard of eARC, which stands for “enhanced” Audio Return Channel, all of this is true for that standard as well, except that eARC has a little bit more functionality. Check out our article with a detailed comparison if you want to read more about this.
Using HDMI ARC with soundbars is pretty straight forward, provided all of your equipment supports the standard. First, you’ll want to check out the HDMI ports on the back of your TV and make sure they’re labeled with “ARC” or “TV-ARC”.
Then, you’ll have to make sure your soundbar is equipped with HDMI ARC as well. Do this in the same way you checked your TV: find the ports on the back and look for the “ARC” label. You’ll want to make sure you’re connecting your TV to the soundbar with these specific ARC ports.
And the cable: any HDMI cable made after 2009/2010 should work, so the odds are that at least one of the HDMI cables you already have laying around will do just fine. Lastly, when you’re actually connecting your equipment and testing things out, there’s one setting you’ll need to change on your TV: go into settings and find the audio options and make sure that “CEC” is “Enabled”.
And as far as the content, you’ll want to make sure that all of the media equipment you have is connected to the TV, not the soundbar. So if you have a game console, a receiver, or a streaming stick, connect all of those to the HDMI ports on the TV that aren’t being used by the “ARC” connection.
The TV will route the audio from all of those sources to the soundbar properly, so nothing needs to be connected directly to the soundbar besides the TV.
If you haven't purchased a soundbar already, by this point you probably understand how much the HDMI ARC feature brings to the table and the next question is how hard will it be to get it. Is it a common standard on soundbars? More importantly, is it going to set you back in the price department?
Unfortunately, unlike the HDMI standard which is ubiquitous at this point, HDMI ARC and its upgraded cousin eARC aren't really diffused through the soundbar industry yet. A quick search on Amazon shows that the bestselling soundbars fro Vizio, TaoTronics, and even Bose don't have HDMI ARC baked in. That said, the standard is propagating through the industry and there are plenty of options available.
For a good low-budget solution, check out the Monoprice SB-200 Premium Slim Soundbar (on Amazon), which does have HDMI ARC. A good upgrade we'd recommend is the Sonos Beam (on Amazon), which has HDMI ARC and also comes with the quality of a trusted brand-name like SONOS.
And, if money is no object, you can get the closest thing to truly cinema-quality sound with the Nakamichi Shockwafe Ultra (also on Amazon), which comes equipped with HDMI eARC. If you think you might be interested in this unit be sure to check out our review.
Although HDMI ARC is a high-tech standard doing some interesting things with your audio channels, it’s not perfect.
First, HDMI ARC is limited in the number of speaker channels it can support. The maximum number of channels that ARC can serve audio to is 5.1. That means if you have a more advanced soundbar like the Nakamichi Shockwafe Pro 7.1.4 Channel Soundbar (on Amazon), HDMI ARC will limit that. The same is true for any soundbar with more than 5.1 channels.
And it’s not just surround sound setups above 5.1 channels that get clipped, there isn’t any support for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X either. That said, the eARC standard does expand the capabilities here, allowing for 7.1 channel surround sound and higher-end audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X
Although HDMI ARC sounds like a one-size-fits-all solution, there are times when you’d probably prefer to use the HDMI ports on the soundbar directly. If the media you’re streaming and the soundbar you’re using support more than 5.1 channels, you’ll want to route the media cable directly to the soundbar.
This may feel like a step back, but you can still take advantage of the ARC standard by routing the audio directly to the soundbar through the media device’s HDMI connection, but still connecting the TV and Soundbar through an ARC connection. You still end up with fewer cables and fewer remote controls this way, while maximizing the sound quality.
If you were reading closely, you saw few references to HDMI eARC above. The 'e' there stands for 'enhanced', and what it means is exactly what you might guess: eARC is a more enhanced version of ARC. Specifically, the data transfer speed is much higher on an eARC connection, high enough to support higher quality audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
Although HDMI ARC is finding its' footing in the industry, eARC is way behind. There are only a few top dollar units supporting the eARC standard, like the Shockwfe Ultra discussed above. What's more, you have to remember that the TV has to support eARC as well, and the price tag for your whole system really starts to grow if you're requiring eARC of everything.
You'll likely need to purchase a new HDMI 2.1 cable to run between these eARC connections as well, which means, for now, it's the high-end option. Soundbars will surely start having ARC, and even eARC as a default eventually, but that's likely several years out at least.
To summarize, HDMI ARC works with soundbars by allowing a return channel through the Television, which minimizes cables and simplifies the remote control situation. If you want a simple setup with easy sound management HDMI ARC, or the more advanced HDMI eARC standard, are spec.s you should prioritize when it comes to your soundbar and TV.