How To Connect Your TV To An External Audio System

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

TV Audio Output Connection Options - HDMI, Optical, RCA

Picture quality standards have increased dramatically for TV viewing, but, not a lot has changed in terms of TV sound quality.

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

The Problem With The Speakers In Your TV

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 sound good. With little internal volume (speakers need room to push enough air to produce quality sound), the result is thin-sounding TV audio that falls short of complementing that big screen picture.

Some manufacturers have made efforts to improve sound for internal TV speakers, which can help, but often still falls short. When shopping, check for audio enhancement features, such as DTS Studio Sound, Virtual Surround, and/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 displays the images and produces the sound.

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.

With very rare exceptions, you can't connect a TV directly to standard speakers.

Depending on the brand/model of TV, there are up to five options that allow you to send audio received by the TV via antenna, cable, streaming sources (if you have a smart TV), or route external AV sources that may be connected to a TV, to an external sound system such as a soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, stereo receiver, or home theater receiver, for better sound.

OPTION ONE: RCA Connections

The most basic option to improve 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 (speakers that have their own built-in amplifiers - such as many computer speakers).

    Soundbar Analog Audio Inputs
  3. Once everything is plugged in, turn on the soundbar, receiver, etc... and 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 (content dependent) from the TV to the external audio system.

  5. 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 so that you get more of a "surround sound"-type listening experience.

  6. 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 and/or HDMI-ARC connection options discussed in the next two sections.

OPTION TWO: Digital Optical Connections

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

Here is how to take advantage of this option.

  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 access a two or 5.1 channel undecoded audio signal that a home-theater-in-a-box or home theater receiver can decode properly. 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.

OPTION THREE: The HDMI-ARC Connection

Another way to access audio from your TV is with Audio Return Channel (HDMI-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

The way this is physically done is that the same cable that connects to the TV's HDMI input connection that is labeled HDMI-ARC, not only receives an incoming video signal but can also output audio signals originating from within the TV back to a soundbar or home theater receiver that has an HDMI output connection that is also ARC compatible. This 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

To reiterate, in order to take advantage of Audio Return Channel both your TV and home theater receivers/system or soundbar has to incorporate this feature and it has to be activated (check your TV and audio system setup procedures).

OPTION FOUR: Bluetooth

Another option you may have to send audio from your TV to an external audio system is via Bluetooth. The advantage of this option 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, to throw another wrench into this option, the Samsung and LG Bluetooth options are not interchangeable. In other words, for Samsung TVs that are so equipped, you may need to have a similarly-equipped Samsung soundbar, and for LG, the same conditions may apply.

Although the menu and setup steps may vary across TV brands and models, 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 initiate pairing. 

    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 Lip-synch issues when used in conjunction with video.

OPTION FIVE: WiSA

Although Bluetooth is wireless, beginning with the 2019 model year LG Electronics 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 enables 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 speaker(s) are turned on, you go into 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 through the thin sound that comes out of your TV speakers. Using one of the five options above, you can elevate your TV listening experience for TV programs, streaming content, or other audio sources that are 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, or, if you have a Smart TV, connect audio from streaming content, using one of the above options that you may have access to.

If you don't have any of above options available or, if you are using your TV in a small or secondary room where connection to an external audio system is not desirable or practical, pay attention not just to TV picture but listen to the sound. Also, check the audio setting options that may be available. In addition, check connection options that may be available to you should you decide later to connect the TV to an external audio system.