What is HDMI ARC?

To get the best audio possible from your TV or Blu-ray player, you need the right gear. But, this gear goes beyond getting a soundbar or 5.1 speakers. The connections between the devices are just as important. That’s why HDMI ARC has been so important for audiophiles for so long. 

But, what is HDMI ARC?

How do you use this connection to get the most out of your entertainment system? Let’s see what HDMI ARC is and how you can set up your home theater to get the most out of this connection. 


What Does HDMI ARC Mean?

HDMI ARC stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface Audio Return Channel. This is a dedicated audio channel built into an HDMI port. It allows for a single connection to handle both video and audio between the TV and a paired device such as a Blu-Ray player.

HDMI Over The Years

Most folks are familiar with HDMI since that is the main video and audio cable used for TV and computer setups. HDMI ports have been around since 2002 with the release of HDMI 1.0. Here’s how HDMI has evolved over the years: 

  • 1.0: Released in 2002, this format could display 1080p resolutions and supported 8 audio channels
  • 1.1: Two years later in 2004, this upgrade to HDMI added support for DVD-Audio.
  • 1.4: In 2009, ARC was introduced as part of HDMI 1.4. This also saw support for 4k resolutions and Dolby TrueHD sound quality
  • 2.0: By 2013, this new version of HDMI allowed for four audio streams and output to 32 audio channels
  • 2.1: In 2017, the most recent version of HDMI could output up to 10K resolutions and support eARC for object based audio like Dolby Atmos. 

What Is an Audio Return Channel?

An audio return channel is what allows an HDMI connection to return sound in addition to video displays.

Without this dedicated channel, you’d need a separate audio cable, like digital optical, to send the audio signal.  

However, not all HDMI ports on a TV can output audio.

Most TVs today have one or two ARC-enabled HDMI ports that allow you to connect both video and audio to your device. Other HDMI ports will have associated audio ports that require secondary cables to connect to the device. 

The main benefit of an ARC for home theaters is the reduced cable management to get the setup working. One cable is always easier to manage compared to two or three.

Also, you can cut back on the maintenance needed for the setup since you have fewer cable components that can be the source of a failure when something is wrong. 

However, you need to use a high-speed HDMI cable to use an HDMI ARC port. Without this high-speed cable, you won’t be able to get the crisp sound that’s possible out of your home theater entertainment system using an ARC. 

HDMI ARC port on TV

How to Use HDMI ARC For Your Home

So how do you use an HDMI ARC for your home set up?

Let’s take a look at what you need to do to get an HDMI ARC working for your home theater. 

Does Your TV Support HDMI ARC?

Not all TVs support an ARC connection. The easiest way to check if your TV can support an ARC connection is to check the ports on the back of the TV.

The HDMI ports that can handle ARC support will have ARC printed next to the port. If you don’t see ARC printed anywhere on the back of the TV, you won’t be able to use HDMI ARC.

You’ll want to make sure you have an audio device that can handle ARC, too. Audio devices need to be able to receive HDMI ARC signals, and not all audio devices support it. 

You can do the same thing with an audio device as your TV: check the back of the device and see if ARC is printed next to any of the HDMI ports. Any port that has ARC printed next to it will be good to go. 

The user manual for your TV or audio device will also show you the port layout of the device. The graphic should label each of the ports for you, including which ones support an ARC connection.

The Right HDMI Cable

Additionally, not all HDMI cables will be good to go for an audio return channel. In general, most newer, high-speed HDMI cables will support the audio return channel, but some older cables may not support it.  

The easiest way to tell if your HDMI cable is good for high speeds is to check the label on either end of the cable. The plug at each end of the cable will have a label on it that lists the specs for the cable, including a high-speed designation.

If your HDMI cable supports these higher speeds, they’ll definitely advertise it!

If you don’t have a high-speed HDMI cable, then check out your local cable store or online. Most HDMI cables on the market right now are high-speed cables to use with HDMI 2.0 or HDMI 2.1, which are perfect for HDMI ARC.

HDMI CEC 

CEC, or Consumer Electronics Control, is a feature in many HDMI devices. HDMI CEC lets a user control HDMI devices connected to the CEC device with that device’s remote. In other words, you could raise or lower the volume of a Blu-Ray player connected to a TV that has HDMI CEC enabled. 

CEC isn’t always a guaranteed thing, though. The drivers can be finicky, especially when you mix and match brands and generations of gear. Some TVs, especially TVs that aren’t smart TVs, also just don’t support this feature. 

A universal remote will solve most of these issues if you come across them. You might also need to turn your gear on in a certain order. All of these headaches will stem from what devices you have and how new or old it is. 

Setting Up HDMI ARC

Once you’ve got the cables and devices you need for your entertainment system, it’s time to hook up everything. Here are the steps you should take to get your ARC going the first time around: 

  1. Make sure your TV and audio device support HDMI ARC: Without a dedicated HDMI ARC port, you won’t be able to use this function. 
  2. Enable ARC on your TV: Go into the Settings menu and enable ARC. This is usually found under the TV’s Audio category of settings. 
  3. Connect your high-speed HDMI cable to your TV: Plug one end of the HDMI cable into the back of your TV in the HDMI ARC port.
  4. Plug the other end of the cable into your audio device: Plug the free end of the HDMI cable into the HDMI ARC connector on the back of the audio device. 
  5. Repeat the above for each audio device: Connect as many audio devices as your TV can support with HDMI ARC. 

With these steps, you should now have an entertainment system that uses your TV as the switcher. You can use the TV’s remote control to switch between the different ports, going between TV, movies, or video games as you like. All of these devices should output through your audio system if done correctly. 

Using Your Sound System as a Switch

If your soundbar or sound system supports more HDMI ARC ports, you can use it as the switcher instead.

To do this, you’ll follow the steps listed above. However, your soundbar should be the central hub for all your HDMI connections. Only one HDMI cable will go from the TV to the soundbar. 

By using this setup, your surround sound soundbar will be your switcher. The remote for the sound system will let you control the volume and other audio settings for all of the connected devices. Your TV remote will only see use as a way to turn on the TV or access any apps if you have a smart TV.  


Disadvantages of HDMI ARC

While HDMI ARC is great for many home audio setups, it’s not a perfect audio solution. As more breakthroughs in audio quality and audio systems have happened, there are some downfalls to using HDMI ARC:

  • Limited audio protocols: HDMI ARC was designed for digital audio outputs like Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM audio, not newer protocols like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X.
  • Downgraded audio quality for unsupported protocols: If you run Dolby Atmos or DTS:X through an ARC, you’ll have the audio downgraded to a 5:1 audio channel. 
  • Severe cases mean lower audio quality: In some severe cases, an ARC might convert an audio signal to a lower quality than what you get from a normal ARC output. 

eARC and HDMI 2.1: What It Means

When HDMI 2.1 released in 2017, it brought a few major upgrades to the table.

Specifically, HDMI 2.1 brought eARC, or the Enhanced Audio Return Channel, to the market. 

Enhanced Audio Return Channel, thanks to a higher bandwidth potential, lets an HDMI connection support more advanced audio protocols like Dolby Atmos. These audio protocols need higher bandwidth in order to send all the data to the speakers of the sound system. Because HDMI 2.1 offers three times as much bandwidth capability as HDMI 2.0, it’s perfect for supporting these protocols. 

However, you need specific HDMI cables to support eARC in its entirety. HDMI 2.1 cables have been out for a few years now. So, many electronics stores offer these cables, making them widely available. Still, check the label on a cable before making the purchase. 

Also, some TVs offer no or partial support for eARC. You’ll need to go through your user manual or the settings on your TV to see if you can find any eARC support for your devices.


Summary

ARC audio connections have been around for a while and have improved steadily over time. To get the most out of HDMI ARC, you need two things: devices with the right HDMI ports and cables that can support the bandwidth you want to output. 

Without the most recent HDMI 2.1 upgrades, you won’t be able to output audio protocols newer than Dolby Digital or DTS. To output Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, you’ll need an eARC-enabled device and HDMI 2.1 cables to get the newest sound experience.   

Still, setting up these systems is as simple as getting the right gear, plugging it all in, and enabling a setting on your TV or sound system. Once you’ve followed these simple steps, you’re ready to enjoy your audio entertainment experience!

Tim Wells

Tim Wells got his first computer at the age of ten and hasn't stopped tinkering ever since. After discovering Android TV boxes in 2013, he created a popular Android PC Review website and guided it to over 8 million pageviews before stepping away in 2018. After a brief hiatus from the industry he's back at the helm of AndroidTVNews.com to bring Android TV and TV boxes to the forefront of the streaming world. When he's not writing, he spends as much time as he can with his beautiful wife and his bulldog.

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