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Guide: How to improve your TV audio

22 Oct 2014 | Tommy Lindegaard |

You have just spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on a TV, but when you watch the first movie on your brand-new TV you find the sound flat and boring. So how do you improve TV audio to match the great picture quality?

There are many different solutions to improving audio. In this article we will only cover the most common solutions, and hopefully answers some of your questions. We will also tell you how to best connect the TV and audio system.

Improve your TV audio

The best sound is also the most expensive
An old-school 5.1 or 7.1 surround setup may seem like something from the past or an expensive solution t, but there is no denying it; you get the best sound with a 5.1 (or more) setup consisting of an AV receiver, a subwoofer, 2 floor-standing speakers, a centre speaker and left and right back speakers. However, it is also the most expensive solution as it will often cost you $1000+.

Typical floor standing speaker

Most modern AV receivers also have Zone 2 or even Zone 3 terminals for extra speakers. That means you can connect two speakers in your kitchen, bedroom or somewhere else. One of the 5.1+ setups’ downsides is that you need several cables, especially if you want speakers in different rooms.

In some Hi-fi forums the term WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) is often used to describe how stylish speakers or other AV components are, because the décor of our living room is important.

All-in-one, for better or worse
Because 5.1 offers more immersive sound, most TV manufactures have started developing and selling 5.1 systems to fit their TVs. Oftentimes the “Home Cinema” systems also include a Blu-ray player and smart-TV functionality such as apps for streaming services.

Some systems are wired, whereas others are wireless, but the common downside of these all-in-one systems is the lack of potential add-on functions. It is often impossible to add more speakers to the systems after your purchase, or update the Smart TV functions later.

5.1 All-in-one speakers

However, these systems often offer great value-for-money, but make sure to listen to the product before you buy - not all speaker systems offer great sound. Sometimes it is worth downsizing to a 2.1 system if you want to save some money.

Wireless is the talk of the town
In recent years, many consumers have started investing in wireless speaker systems such as Sonos or other multi-room systems. A few TV manufacturers have developed in-house version, comparable to Sonos. Among them is Samsung.

However, most of these systems are locked to one particular brand. Samsung’s WAM speakers , for example, will only work with Samsung’s 2014 Smart TVs.

Samsung WAM and Sonos

The great thing about these Multiroom systems is that you can get rid of the cable clutter, and that you can extend the system to other rooms in your house. If you buy enough speakers you can create true a 5.1 experience in your living room, but it will cost you and for the same amount you can get far superior sound by buying a traditional 5.1 system with a big receiver and separate speakers.

Sound bars are easy and affordable
The fourth and last option is a sound bar or one of the new “sound boxes”. The sound bar is designed for those who want to hang the TV on the living room wall, whereas the sound box is meant to be placed under the TV or on TV furniture.

Sound bar

Both solutions typically come with a subwoofer, which is often wireless, to embrace the deeper tones in movies and music. As with most of the other audio solutions you can easily use a sound bar on a TV of a different brand. Another plus is price, as these sets are often very affordable. The downside of a sound bar is the missing upgradability. You cannot connect other speakers to your sound bar.

Quite a few sound bars claim to offer 5.1 surround and it may be true that the sound bar has 5 speakers and a subwoofer, but it will never be possible to replicate the experience of a true 5.1 setup with separate speakers. Placing 5 speakers in a 1 meter bar will sound will at most sound like glorified stereo. If it is super cheap it might even sound more like mono, no matter how many speakers it incorporates. However, the sound bar is still a great and affordable solution to improving TV sound.

What audio connection is the best?

Before buying new audio equipment, you might want to take a closer look at your TV. Here you will find a range of ports and unless your TV is from before 2006 you should find at least one HDMI port and probably also an optical port. Maybe even a 3.5mm (1/8in) mini jack connector.

Before going into details, we should emphasize that HDMI is typically the best solution. But it is not the end of the world if you have to use an optical cable either. However, the mini jack is analog and since everything in your TV is digital the TV will need to convert its digital sound to analog, which will decrease sound quality. Also, it can only carry stereo.

 Phone cable and port

HDMI and optical are both digital and can provide 5.1 sound – as long as your audio system supports it. Since the signal is digital the quality of the cable is not really important, unless you need long cables of 5 meters or more. In a digital world you either get a signal or you don’t.

Optical cable and port

In a stereo setup, optical cables are lossless. However, the optical standard supports 5.1 surround, but only in DTS and Dolby Digital, which both are somehow compressed. Furthermore, optical cables are rarely longer than 10 meters in length as the signal would otherwise get too weak to reach its end destination. So, optical cables are best for short distances or for low-end or mid-range audio systems.

If you own a high-end system we strongly recommend that you use HDMI.

HDMI cable and port

HDMI is in many ways superior to optical as it can carry lossless signals, even in a 7.1 surround setup. Furthermore, HDMI can carry video signal and offers various functions such as ARC and CEC, which I will explain in a second. Prefer HDMI whenever it is possible.

HDMI ARC explained
ARC is an abbreviation of “Audio Return Channel”, but what it means is simply a connection that can send audio both ways. Note that your TV typically only has ARC in one of the HDMI ports.

ARC is a handy function if you want to watch Netflix on your smart TV and want the audio routed through a sound bar or an audio system. Without ARC, you need to add an additional optical or jack cable.

However, even though ARC is a great feature, it is not lossless. It can handle compressed Dolby Digital and even worse; some TVs will only give you stereo through ARC. ARC’s lossy conversion is only an issue if you want a 5.1 surround experience, so it should only apply to you if you own a mid or high-end speaker system.

HDMI CEC explained
CEC is an abbreviation of “Consumer Electronics Control” and it lets you use your TV remote to control the audio volume on a receiver, or even use the TV remote to control a Blu-ray player. CEC will help you get rid of some of those extra remotes.

However, HDMI CEC is rarely labeled like CEC on products. Although most TVs, Blu-ray players and receivers implement CEC it is often called something different. Sony has labeled CEC as Bravia Link or Bravia Sync, Samsung has named it Anynet+, LG calls it SimpLink and Philips has labeled it EasyLink.

Still, CEC should in theory be compatible cross-brand so you can use a sound bar from Sony with Bravia Link even if you own a LG TV with SimpLink. You need a HDMI cable version 1.2 or newer to use CEC, which means that most of your existing cables are probably fine.

Today, most TVs come with CEC with a few exceptions. Samsung’s 2014 plasma TVs do not offer CEC, but all of LG, Panasonic, Sony and Philips’ TVs offer HDMI CEC.

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