How To Connect Your TV To An External Audio System

TV Audio Output Connection Options
TV Audio Output Connection Options - HDMI-ARC, Digital Optical, Analog Stereo RCA. Photo © Robert Silva - Licensed to Lifewire.com (formerly About.com)

In recent years, 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 operate well inside a cabinet. With little internal volume (that any speaker needs in order to push enough air to make 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. When shopping, check for audio enhancement features, such as DTS Studio Sound, Virtual Surround, and/or Dialog Enhancement and Volume Leveling. All of these can help but there are better options. Listen while you are at the dealer; if the TV sounds OK to you in a large dealer room, it may be an adequate solution at home.

Connecting Your TV To An External Audio System

You don't have to settle for those built-in TV speakers. 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.

You connect the cables from the analog audio output of the TV to a set of corresponding audio inputs on a sound bar, 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.

Using the RCA connection output option sends a two-channel stereo (content dependent) from the TV to the external audio system.

If using this connection option with a sound bar, check to see if the sound bar has any audio enhancement capabilities, such as virtual surround sound that can expand the sound stage 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 settings on those options, 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.

NOTE: 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. 

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 sound bar, 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.

ADDITIONAL TIP: A growing number of TV programs are broadcast 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 sound bars 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. 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 sound bar (rare), 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 home theater receiver. However, in order to take advantage of this option, both your TV and Home Theater Receiver/System or Sound Bar have to incorporate this feature (check your user manuals).

For full details on how this connection option works, read my reference article: Audio Return Channel (ARC)

OPTION FOUR: Bluetooth

Another option you may have to send audio from your TV to an external audio system is via Bluetooth. The practical 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 through another wrench into this option, is that the Samsung and LG Bluetooth options are not interchangeable. In other words, in addition to the TV, for Samsung TVs that are so equipped you also need to have a similarly-equipped Samsung Sound Bar, 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 sound bar, 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.

Just connect audio sources that originate from – or must pass through – your TV internally, such as over-the-air TV broadcasts. Or, if you have 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, too. In addition, check connection options that may be available to you should you decide later to connect the TV to an external audio system.

You may be surprised and some of the differences in sound quality you might find between specific brands and models of TVs.