How to Connect Your TV to an External Audio System

You don't have to put up with poor sound from internal TV speakers

With the arrival of 4K and UHD technology, TV picture quality improved dramatically. The changes reflect a gradual improvement in resolution and image quality that began with HD. But what about sound quality? Why hasn't there been a similar revolution in the world of TV audio?

This information applies to most televisions; including but not limited to those manufactured by LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio.

The Problem With TV Speakers

All TVs have built-in speakers. However, with LCD, Plasma, and OLED TVs, the problem is not only how to fit speakers inside thin cabinets, but how to make them actually sound good.

Speakers need space to push enough air to produce quality sound. Today's TVs obviously don't have much internal room to produce sound, so the audio always ends up sounding flat and lifeless.

Some TV manufacturers have made efforts to improve the sound on their speakers, but they still often fall short. When shopping, check for audio enhancement features, such as DTS Studio Sound, Virtual Surround, or Dialog Enhancement and Volume Leveling. Also, LG incorporates a built-in soundbar into some of its OLED TVs and Sony features innovative Acoustic Surface technology in their OLED sets, in which the TV screen produces sound as well as images.

Five Ways to Connect Your TV to an External Audio System

A better alternative to a TV's internal speakers is to connect the set to an external sound system. Depending on the brand or model of TV, there are up to five options that allow you to send audio from a TV antenna, cable box, or streaming device to an external sound system, such as a soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, stereo receiver, or home theater receiver.

RCA

The most basic option for improving TV listening is to connect a TV's analog stereo outputs (also known as RCA outputs) to an available external audio system.

Here are some basic steps:

  1. Connect RCA cables to the analog audio output of the TV.

    TV Analog Audio Outputs
  2. Connect the other ends of the RCA cables to a set of available corresponding analog audio inputs on a soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, stereo receiver, home theater receiver, or powered speakers.

    Soundbar Analog Audio Inputs
  3. Once everything is plugged in, turn on the soundbar, receiver, or whatever audio device you are using, then follow your TVs external audio setup instructions. 

    TV Sound Settings Menu Example – Analog Audio Out
  4. Select the input on your audio system that the TV is connected to in order to hear the sound. 

    The RCA connection outputs send a two-channel stereo output from the TV to the external audio system.

If using the analog connection option with a soundbar, check to see if the soundbar has any audio enhancement capabilities, such as virtual surround sound that can expand the soundstage for a more immersive listening experience. If connected to a home-theater-in-a-box or home theater receiver, check for additional audio settings, such as Dolby Prologic II/IIx or DTS Neo:6. If so, then you will still be able to extract a surround sound signal from the stereo input signal.

On many newer TVs, RCA or 3.5mm analog connections are no longer available. This means that if you are buying a new TV, and your soundbar or audio system only has analog audio inputs, you need to make sure that the TV you purchase has the analog audio output option. If not, you may have to get a soundbar or audio system that provides either the digital optical audio or HDMI-ARC connection options discussed in the next two sections.

Digital Optical

A better option for sending audio from your TV to an external audio system is the digital optical audio output connection.

  1. Connect a digital optical cable to the digital optical output on your TV.

    TV Digital Optical Audio Output Example
  2. Connect the other end of the cable to a corresponding digital optical input on a soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, or home theater receiver. 

    Soundbar Digital Optical Audio Inputs
  3. After connecting the cable follow your TV's and audio system's setup procedures.

    TV Sound Settings Menu Example – Digital Audio Out
  4. Select the digital optical input as your source to hear the sound.

    Depending on your brand/model TV, this option may not only provide a two-channel stereo signal but also a two or 5.1 channel undecoded audio signal. A growing number of TV programs are broadcast or streamed in Dolby Digital (either 2 or 5.1 channels), and some signals may also contain a DTS 2.0+ encoded signal.

  5. If you find that you are not hearing any sound on your external audio system coming from the TV using the digital optical connection, go into your TV's audio output settings and check for an option referred to as PCM. This may correct the problem. This occurs with some soundbars that may have a digital optical audio input option, but no onboard Dolby Digital or DTS 2.0+ decoding capability.

HDMI-ARC

Another way to access audio from your TV is with Audio Return Channel (ARC). To take advantage of this option, you have to have a TV with an HDMI connection input that is labeled HDMI-ARC.

TV HDMI-ARC Connection

This feature allows the transfer of the audio signal originating from the TV back to an HDMI-ARC equipped soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, or home theater receiver without having to make a separate digital or analog audio connection from the TV to the audio system.

HDMI-ARC Connection Example – Home Theater Receiver

Here's how it works: The same cable that connects to the TV's HDMI input (the one labeled HDMI-ARC) receives as well as transmits audio between the TV and the soundbar or home theater receiver. That means you don't have to make a separate audio connection between the TV and soundbar or home theater receiver, cutting down on cable clutter.

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

In order to take advantage of Audio Return Channel, both your TV and home theater receiver or soundbar has to be ARC-compatible, and it has to be activated (check your TV and audio system setup procedures).

Bluetooth

Another way to send audio from your TV to an external audio system is via Bluetooth. The main advantage here is that it is wireless. There is no cable required to get sound from the TV to the compatible audio system.

However, this feature is available on a limited number of TVs, mostly select TVs from Samsung (Sound Share) and LG (Sound Sync). Also, the Samsung and LG Bluetooth options are not interchangeable. In other words, for Samsung TVs that are Bluetooth-compatible, you may need to have a similarly-equipped Samsung soundbar; the same goes for LG.

Although the menu and setup steps vary from model to model, here are the basics:

  1. Turn on both your TV and the compatible Bluetooth-enabled speaker, soundbar, audio system, or headphones.

  2. Go into your TV's audio setup menu, select Bluetooth and start the pairing process.

    TV Sound Settings Menu Example – Bluetooth Audio Out
  3. Wait for confirmation that the TV and sound system are paired.

Bluetooth may be susceptible to syncing issues when used in conjunction with video.

WiSA

Although Bluetooth is wireless, LG now offers another way to connect a TV to a wireless speaker system with its line of select WiSA-ready OLED and NanoCell LED/LCD TVs. 

Partnering with WiSA (Wireless Speaker and Audio Association), select LG TVs have built-in firmware that communicates with a special plug-in USB dongle that looks like a flash drive. The dongle allows the TV to send sound wirelessly to one or more compatible wireless speakers or audio system.

WiSA USB Dongle
WiSA/LG Innotek

In order for the speakers to work, they have to be certified by WiSA. Compatible speakers are made by Bang & Olufsen, Klipsch, Polk Audio, Enclave, and Axiim, with more on the way. 

Once the wireless dongle is plugged in and the speaker(s) turned on, you simply navigate to the LG TV's audio setup menu and select Sound Out > WiSA Speakers. To perform any additional setup, go to Device List > WiSA Speakers

If you have a Roku TV, you can use Roku Wireless Speakers. However, these speakers can't be used with other branded TVs, audio systems, or Roku boxes/streaming sticks

The Bottom Line

You don't have to suffer the thin sound of built-in TV speakers. Using one of the five options above, you can elevate your audio experience for TV shows, streaming content, music, or any other media routed through your TV.

  • If you have a cable/satellite box, Blu-ray/DVD player, or another external source device, and you have an external audio system, such as soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, or home theater receiver, it is best to connect the audio output of those source devices directly to your external audio system.
  • Connect your TV to an external audio system for audio sources that originate from or must pass through your TV internally, such as over-the-air broadcasts. If you have a Smart TV, connect audio from streaming content, using one of the above options that you may have access to.