Flat screen TVs keep getting thinner and thinner, which creates a great aesthetic, but it does make getting really good sound to go along with that fantastic picture extremely difficult. Squished tiny speakers with not much room for accompanying audio electronics just can’t do the trick. In fact, I am amazed how good some TVs sound given the constrained space. If you have a big flat screen with a beautiful picture, augmenting it with a better audio system can really enhance your viewing experience. Here’s a primer on how to connect various types of audio systems to your TV—receivers or soundbars with wired or wireless speakers.
What I am going to describe covers well over 95% of how home entertainment systems are connected today. You should be able to find a configuration that will work extremely well with your system. However, there are some unique pieces of audio equipment that may provide alternate solutions, but I won’t be describing all those optional configurations. I will touch on some of the more common exceptions at the end so you will get an idea of some different configurations.
Before getting into the various TV audio configurations, let’s start with a couple of definitions or descriptions of what I am talking about. One term I am going to use is “content source.” Fundamentally this refers to the source of content that you want to view on your TV. Content source can be a variety of devices but are most typically your cable or satellite box. Other content sources include media streaming devices like Apple TV or Roku, game consoles like XBOX or Playstation, BlueRay or other DVD players, and even a computer. All of these content sources simultaneously provide both video and audio signals for your TV viewing pleasure.
When I use the term “receiver,” I am referring to home theatre receivers that are essentially surround sound systems rather than a simpler stereo receiver. They can be any number of channels but are most often 5.1, 7.1, or 7.2 (for more description see this post). There is some ability to use a basic stereo receiver to augment your TV sound as well and I will describe how that works as well.
Connecting your TV to a Soundbar
Wired Connection: The simplest audio setup to connect to your TV is with a soundbar. All you need to do is connect the audio output port of the TV to the input port of the soundbar, and plug in the soundbar into a power outlet and away you go. Most soundbars will have multiple ways to connect to your TV, such as an HDMI, RCA, or optical ports. Depending on what your TV output ports are I would recommend using an optical or HDMI cable to connect the TV to your soundbar.
If your soundbar has a separate subwoofer, which I would highly recommend for richer low frequency sound, then it will typically come with a cable that connects the subwoofer directly to the soundbar, and the ports will be clearly marked on the back of both the soundbar and the subwoofer. The only other thing you need to do is plug the subwoofer into a power outlet and turn the power button on. Overall a very simple setup that should just take minutes to connect.
Most of the time the soundbar is placed directly under the TV, either mounted on the wall if the TV is mounted on the wall, or on the shelf that has the TV on it. If you are using the same shelf or table the TV is on, you just want to make sure that the soundbar doesn’t block the infra-red port usually on the bottom of the TV that allows your remote control to communicate with it.
Some soundbars, like the Vizio 5.1 Channel S4251w-B4, also come with a couple of satellite speakers that you can place behind your seating so you have sound coming from multiple directions. It will give you a surround sound effect, which most soundbars can’t do. The subwoofer and rear satellite speakers are wireless so there is no messing around with unsightly wires or having to figure out how to conceal them.
Soundbar Wireless Connection: There is no real need to wirelessly connect a soundbar to the TV since the soundbar is mounted or placed directly under it. The connecting cable is very short, it typically is not visible, and is very simple to install. Having said that, there were a couple of TV manufacturers like LG that could wirelessly connect to their own proprietary soundbar. I don’t think this is still available because there just wasn’t much need for that.
The place where wireless connectivity for soundbars makes sense is connecting the subwoofer back to the soundbar (here is a selection of options available at Best Buy). The distance between the subwoofer and the soundbar can be quite variable so wireless gives you that flexibility without having to mess with wires or the hassle of figuring out how to best route the wires in a clean and hazard-free fashion. Soundbars with wireless subwoofers are most often bought as a set, so connecting the soundbar to the wireless subwoofer is easily done through pairing the devices just like you would pair any Bluetooth type devices. Simply put the soundbar into pairing mode by pushing the pairing button and then turn on the subwoofer and they should automatically connect.
Can you pair a different brand subwoofer with a soundbar? That depends on the soundbar and subwoofer. I would suggest not doing that because there a lot of excellent brands and models to choose from of sets of soundbars with wireless subwoofers. The other thing about those sets is that they are typically engineered to be compatible in terms of the sound dynamics—power, tonal quality, etc. So why mess with that?
Connecting your TV to a Receiver
Wired Connection: As a reminder I am talking about connecting to home theatre receivers that are designed to augment TV video by creating a truly immersive surround sound experience. These receivers have electronics that can make the sound literally feel like it is crossing the room, in sync with the image. Whether it is a bullet whizzing by, a train going across the screen, or a helicopter cruising by, the image will look and feel like it is on the move.
There are two fundamental types of surround sound receivers that I will talk about. One simply creates full audio surround sound for your TV, and the other takes both the sound and video signals for your TV and becomes the centre or hub of your entertainment system. Most home theatre receivers on the market today are the hub type receivers where both the audio and video go through the receiver. The way to tell if you have a hub type receiver is if it has multiple HDMI input ports in the back of it. This will allow you to connect a variety of content sources to the receiver, and by simply changing the content source on the receiver automatically changes what shows up on the TV and simultaneously changes the surround sound audio produced by the receiver. The other nice thing about the central hub receivers is that many can actually enhance the video image before sending it to the TV. For instance, many will upscale regular HD to emulate 4K, so if you have a 4K TV all the non-4K content will be optimized for it.
The reason I will also talk about non-hub audio only home theatre receivers is that there are quite a number of these out there. They used to be the only thing available in previous generations so there are a lot of them around. I have a Marantz audio only home theatre receiver that is a fantastic unit, it produces excellent surround sound, and is a well-made unit that will last a long time.
For an audio-only earlier generation receiver, there Is usually more than one way to configure it with your TV. However, by far the most common is simply take the video output of your content source and connect it to the TV, and simultaneously take an audio output from your content source and connect it to your receiver. For instance most cable or satellite boxes have an HDMI output that you would use to connect to your TV HDMI input. The HDMI cable brings both audio and video to your TV. That same cable or satellite box will also have at least one, but usually two or more separate audio output ports. My satellite box has both an optical and RCA ports as audio out options. I use the optical connection to my Marantz receiver because it is a much higher quality connection.
I also have AppleTV and a DVD player connected to my TV as well as to my audio receiver, again using the HDMI connection to the TV and an optical connection to my Marantz receiver. The only issue with these earlier generation receivers is that when I change content sources, like go from my satellite subscription to AppleTV, I have to change the input source on both the TV and the receiver to make sure the sound and the video are the same.
Hub-type receivers are even simpler to connect to your TV and a lot more convenient. All you have to do is connect the HDMI output from all your content sources to one of the HDMI inputs on the back of your receiver. On the back of that receiver is at least one HDMI output that you simply connect to your TV. The advantage of this is that you simply switch sources on the receiver and both the TV and the receiver change simultaneously. Plus many receivers like the Pioneer VSX-1130-K can upscale regular HD video content to near 4K quality for your 4K TV.
Wireless Connection: It is definitely worthwhile considering connecting your surround sound system wirelessly to a variety of speakers. A wireless TV sound system is called wireless because the connection between the receiver and the speakers is wireless. It isn’t purely wireless because each component still needs to be connected to a power source. Just like the receiver needs to be plugged in, so do each of the speakers. However, because today’s homes typically have outlets scattered throughout each room, it should be easy to find an outlet close to where you want to place each speaker, but it is something you need to consider when designing your system.
One of the best wireless systems for Home Theatre is Sonos for a number of reasons. It is fully expandable, can operate in multiple rooms, and it can also play a variety of content sources for your TV sound plus stream music from a huge selection of Internet sources. It also has an extremely well developed app that you can use to control the entire system. The Sonos system is so flexible that you can start out with a soundbar and evolve it into not only a full wireless surround sound system ultimately but also to a full multi-room audio system that will pipe music throughout your home.
The simplest way to set it up is connect the Sonos Playbar to your TV using an optical cable and then connect it to your Wi-Fi home network wirelessly. You can then add a number of other Sonos speakers by simply connecting them to your Wi-Fi network. Then using your phone app you can connect them as a surround system. Sonos has a variety of speakers available, such as a subwoofer as well as Sonos Play1, Play3, and Play5 wireless speakers. You can start with a smaller system and add more speakers until you get the ideal surround system or full home entertainment system. The simple app on your Smartphone or tablet allows you to play the same music in each room or different music in each room.
You can seamlessly integrate wired speakers into your Sonos Home Theatre system by using Sonos:Connect. Simply connect Sonos:Connect to a receiver or other device that has wired speakers attached to it, it will simultaneously connect that to your other wireless Sonos speakers. Instantly you can have a hybrid wired and wireless home theatre system that is totally integrated. This means you can create a new home theatre surround system while utilizing some of your existing wired components.
Exceptions on Connecting Audio to your TV
Connecting Soundbars to Receivers
Generally soundbars are not designed to work with receivers because most soundbars have an amplifier built in that will work directly with the TV. There is an exception: passive soundbars. A passive soundbar doesn’t have electronic amplifier in it so it needs to be connected to a receiver or other device that has a built-in amplifier. By far most soundbars are not passive because they have built-in electronics that drive the speakers. If you try to connect a non-passive soundbar to a receiver, because both units have built-in amplifiers they will interfere with each other and won’t together.
Home Stereo Receiver
If you have a home stereo receiver you can use this to improve your TV audio experience. Although it won’t be a surround sound experience, depending on your stereo system it can be a big step up from listening to just the TV speakers. In order to connect your TV to your receiver, simply connect an audio output port from your TV to an auxiliary input port on your home stereo receiver. When you turn on your TV, also turn on your stereo receiver and select that auxiliary input and you can enjoy improved sound.
Another option is to connect powered speakers like the Kanto Yu5 Bookshelf Speakers directly to your TV. Again, just take the audio output port of the TV (RCA or optical) and connect them to the audio input on the main speaker. Instantly you have better sound for your TV without needing a receiver at all. Because the Kanto Yu5’s are also Bluetooth speakers you can also play music wirelessly from any of your Bluetooth content sources.
Connecting various audio sources to your TV to greatly enhance the sound need not be a daunting task.
There are lots of options and none of them are all that complicated so seriously consider enhancing your home theatre experience with a more immersive sound.