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.

The Problem With The Speakers In Your TV

All TVs come with built-in speakers. However, with today's 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. 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 both displays the images and produces the sound.

Connecting Your TV To An External Audio System

A better alternative to a TV's internal speakers is to connect the TV to an external sound system.

Depending on the brand/model of TV, there are up to four 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, all of which can enhance the listening portion of your TV listening experience.

NOTE: Using the following options requires you to go into your TV settings menu and activate the audio output features of your TV, such as switching the audio output from internal to external, or activating the specific option you plan to use.

OPTION ONE: RCA Connections

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

  • Connect cables from the analog audio output of the TV to a set of corresponding 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). With very rare exceptions, you cannot connect a TV directly to standard speakers.
  • The RCA connection outputs send a two-channel stereo (content dependent) from the TV to the external audio system.
  • If using this 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.
  • If connected to a home-theater-in-a-box or home theater receiver, check for additional audio settings, such as Dolby Prologic II or IIx. If so, then you will still be able to extract a surround sound signal from the stereo input signal.
  • On some TVs, instead of RCA style audio output connections, a mini-jack (3.5mm or 1/8-inch) output may be provided. In this case, you can use a stereo mini-jack to RCA adapter cable.

    NOTE: It is important to point out that 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 are planning to purchase actually has the analog audio output option. If not, you may have to upgrade to a new 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.

    • To use this option, connect the digital optical output from the TV to a corresponding digital optical input on a soundbar, home-theater-in-a-box system, or home theater receiver (just as with the RCA connection option).
    • 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.
    • 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.

      This feature allows 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.

      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.

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

      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 only 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 also need to have a similarly-equipped Samsung soundbar, and for LG, the same conditions apply.

      The Bottom Line

      You don't have to suffer through the thin sound that comes out of your TV speakers. Using one of the four options above, you can elevate your TV listening experience for TV programs, streaming content, or other audio sources that are routed through your TV.

      Also, if you have an external 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 television picture but listen to the sound and 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.