What HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) Is

Introduction to HDMI Audio Return Channel

Audio Return Channel Illustration
Audio Return Channel Illustration. Image provided by HDMI.org

HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) is a very practical feature that was first introduced in HDMI ver1.4 and works with all later versions.

What HDMI ARC allows, if both a home theater receiver and a TV have compliant HDMI connections, and offer this feature, is that you can transfer audio from the TV back to a home theater receiver (this is where the use of the term Audio Return Channel comes from) and listen to your TV's audio through your home theater audio system instead of the TV's speakers without having to connect a second cable between the TV and home theater system.

How Audio Return Channel Works

If you receive your TV signals over-the-air via antenna, the audio from those signals goes directly to your TV. Ordinarily, to get the audio from those signals to your Home Theater receiver, you would have to connect an extra cable (either analog stereo, digital optical, or digital coaxial) from the TV to the home theater receiver for this purpose.

However, with the Audio Return Channel feature, you can simply take advantage of the HDMI cable you already have connected to the TV and the home theater receiver to transfer audio in both directions.

In addition, other audio sources connected directly to the TV via internet, digital, or analog audio inputs may also be accessible via the Audio Return Channel function.

However, it must be noted that HDMI ARC features are provided at the manufacturer's discretion — Check the user manual for the specific HDMI ARC-enabled TV for details.

Steps To Activate Audio Return Channel

Home Theater Receiver with HDMI-ARC Connection
Home Theater Receiver with HDMI-ARC Connection.  Image provided by Onkyo

It must re-emphasized that in order to take advantage of Audio Return Channel both your TV and home theater receiver must be equipped with HDMI ver1.4 or later, and the TV and home theater receiver manufacturer has included the Audio Return Channel as an option within their implementation of HDMI.

One way to determine if your TV or home theater receiver has the Audio Return Channel option is to see if any of the HDMI inputs on the TV and the HDMI output of the home theater receiver have an "ARC" label in addition to the input or output number label designation. If ARC is provided, it will be assigned to just one HDMI input on the TV and one HDMI output on a home theater receiver.

To activate Audio Return Channel, you will also need to go into the TV's audio or home theater receiver's HDMI setup menu and click on the appropriate setting option. In some cases, when HDMI-CEC is activated on a home theater receiver, Audio Return Channel is automatically enabled.

Inconsistent Results

Although ideally, Audio Return Channel should be a quick, an easy, solution for sending audio from a TV to a compatible external audio system, there are some inconsistencies, based on how specific TV makers decide which of its capabilities to include.

For example, in some cases, a TV manufacturer may only provide the ability of HDMI ARC to pass two-channel audio, while in other cases, both two-channel and an undecoded Dolby Digital bitstreams can be accommodated.

Also, in some cases, HDMI ARC is active only for over-the-air broadcast and, if the TV is a Smart TV, its internally accessible streaming sources.

However, when it comes to externally connected audio sources — if you have the audio from your Blu-ray Disc or DVD player connected to the TV (instead of directly to your external audio system), the ARC feature may not pass any audio or just pass two-channel audio.

It is also important to note that even though Audio Return Channel uses the HDMI physical platform, advanced surround audio formats, such as Dolby TrueHD/Atmos and DTS-HD Master Audio/:X are not accommodated at all on the original version of ARC.

HDMI eARC

HDMI eARC Comparison Chart
HDMI eARC Comparison Chart. HDMI Licensing

Although there are some limitations with ARC, as part of HDMI ver2.1 (which was announced in January 2017), eARC (Enhanced ARC or Enhanced Audio Return Channel) was announced.

This upgrades ARC capability by accommodating the transfer of immersive audio formats, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, as well as audio from Smart TV streaming apps. In other words, on TVs that include eARC, you can connect all of your audio and video sources to a compatible TV and the audio from those sources can be transferred from the TV to an eARC compatible home theater receiver via a single HDMI cable connection.

The eARC capability is being built-into select TVs and home theater receivers beginning with the 2018/2019 model years.

Unfortunately, TV makers don't always publicize what audio formats are necessarily supported on each specific TV, and not all details are outlined in the user manual.

However, since the introduction of the original Audio Return Channel feature in 2009, all TVs and home theater receivers incorporate HDMI ARC, but activation steps may vary for different brands/models — check your user guide for the exact steps needed to activate for your device.

Some Sound Bars Also Support Audio Return Channel

Yamaha YAS-108 Sound Bar with HDMI-ARC Connection
Yamaha YAS-108 Sound Bar with HDMI-ARC Connection. Yamaha Corporation

Although Audio Return Channel as initially designed for use between a TV and Home Theater Audio system, a select number of soundbars also support this practical feature.

If the soundbar has its own built-in amplification and an HDMI output, it may also feature Audio Return Channel. If you already own a soundbar that has an HDMI output, check for the ARC or Audio Return Channel label on the sound bar's HDMI output, or check your sound bar's user guide.

Also, if you're a shopping for a sound bar and desire this feature, check the features and specifications, or do you own physical inspection at the store if units are on display.

For more technical information on Audio Return Channel, check out the HDMI.org Audio Return Channel Page.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Audio Return Channel (ARC) is not be confused with Anthem Room Correction, which also goes by the moniker "ARC".