A soundbar will revamp your TV's audio—here's how to connect one
By clicking one of our links you're supporting our labs and our independence, as we may earn a small share of revenue. Recommendations are separate from any business incentives.
So, you got yourself a soundbar.
Maybe you just upgraded your TV, and wanted great sound to match the picture quality. Maybe you were having trouble hearing dialogue, or you just wanted a better way to listen to music playlists. In any case, you decided, "Yes, I do need a soundbar." Now it's time to set it up.
Even if you haven't pulled the trigger on a soundbar yet, you may be wondering if you can even use one with the TV you have—that's fair, too. Whether you're in the setup process or just not sure what the deal is with connecting a soundbar to your TV, here's what you need to know.
Pretty universally, soundbars connect to your TV via either an HDMI cable or an optical cable, sending sound from the TV to the soundbar's speakers. If you just bought a soundbar, those cables are very likely already in the box, but if not, they're easy enough to find online. You can get an optical cable for around $9 on Amazon, or an HDMI cable for around $7. As always, you don't need expensive or fancy cables, especially when they're only running a foot or two between the TV and the soundbar.
The next thing you need to do is figure out whether you have ports that will work with a soundbar. It's very likely you do, but better to know what you're doing from the get-go. What you want to look for is an optical audio out port on the back of your TV, and/or an HDMI port that's labeled "Audio Return Channel."
Your optical port should be labeled something like "optical audio out" or "digital audio (optical)," and it may even have a red light or red glow to it because of the way optical cables work (hint: it's lasers).
To find if your TV has an ARC-compliant HDMI, you just need to look over the HDMI inputs. If one of them is an ARC input, it'll say something like "HDMI 2 (ARC)." There's no qualitative difference between the sound between optical and ARC, except that most AV receiver systems require an ARC setup to send the right metadata to a multi-speaker system. Assuming you're only setting up a soundbar or at most a soundbar with an included wireless subwoofer, you can use either ARC or optical.
Note that some media devices—like the Xbox One game console—have their own optical ports, but it's better to run the soundbar directly to the TV in most circumstances. By connecting the soundbar to the TV's optical port, you'll be able to hear all connected devices' audio automatically through the soundbar.
Technically, which connection you need to use depends on your speaker/soundbar setup. Optical audio can carry the standard 2.1-channel setup (basically, if you just have a soundbar or a soundbar/sub, optical is fine), as well as digital 5.1. But if you have a larger system or are using Dolby Atmos (upward firing) speakers in your soundbar, you'll have to use HDMI (ARC) to carry the audio. For most people just getting started in the world of soundbars (or the short-lived LG soundplate), they'll be dealing with two-channel (stereo) audio and optical will be fine.
In the typical case, assuming you've unboxed a standard 2.1-channel soundbar or bought one of the popular soundbar/sub combos—such as our favorite under $200, the Polk Audio Signa S2—all you need to do is connect the optical audio cable between the soundbar and TV, and make sure the soundbar/subwoofer are plugged in.
Generally, once you turn the TV (and soundbar) on, they'll be connected/set-up. Likewise, if a soundbar includes a wireless sub-woofer, there's a strong chance you won't need to do anything to pair them but plug them both in—they're meant to be paired already, but if not, there'll be clear instructions about how to go about doing so.
Many modern TVs will automatically send audio through the optical cable while continuing to utilize their internal speakers. However, this can sometimes lead to synchronization issues, assuming that there's even a bit of delay between the internal speaker output and the soundbar over optical. If this happens (you'll hear what sounds like echoing), the easiest thing to do is simply turn your TV speakers all the way down. You don't really need both sources, and hearing the soundbar is what you bought it for.
When using only the optical cable, some (older) TVs may need to be switched over to the correct output. If the soundbar/sub are plugged in and powered on and you can't hear them, you may need to go into your TV's audio menu and select between "TV speakers" and "external" or "optical." If things still aren't working, double-check that your optical cable is properly inserted into both the TV and the soundbar on both ends—this trips more people up than you'd think.
Sometimes, if a soundbar and subwoofer are blending particularly well, it'll be hard to tell that the sub is working. An easy thing to do is place your hand against the speaker surface to check that it's vibrating. If it is, it's synced up and working with the soundbar. If not, you might need to re-pair it with the soundbar—or if it has its own volume control on your soundbar remote, you may just need to turn it up.
It's understandable if you're under the impression that your soundbar needs to be made by the same manufacturer as your TV. There are occasionally advantages to say, pairing a Vizio soundbar with a Vizio TV, or a Samsung soundbar with a Samsung TV, but outside of more complicated audio pass-thru situations, pretty much any soundbar will work over optical or ARC with your TV.
If you haven't bought a soundbar yet, don't fret too much about shopping around. Naturally, we have recommendations.
If you've got a bigger/fancier 65-inch TV, you may want to check out some bigger/fancier soundbars. Check out our roundup of the best soundbars under $500, or just go ahead and check out our top-rated 'bar, the Sonos Beam.
If you're looking for something a bit more reasonable price-wise, check out the best soundbars under $300, where we found the JBL Bar 2.1 offered the most robust sound and features for that price range.
Of course, you can find awesome soundbars for pretty cheap, too, so check out the best soundbars under $200 if you're just looking to get way better sound on a budget. Our top pick in that price range is the excellent Polk Audio Signa S2.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real advice from real experts.