HDMI vs HDMI ARC: Which’s Best for Your Home Theater?

HDMI quickly took over the industry by letting people use viewer cables that offer much better video quality. However, you might’ve noticed that some TVs have HDMI ARC ports. While you don’t have to use these ports for some displays, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these beneficial inputs.

HDMI inputs receive audio signals from external sources and play them through the TV’s built-in speakers. On the other hand, HDMI ARC inputs can receive and send audio signals, which lets you use one cable for both audio and video if you’re using sound bars or external speakers.

HDMI vs HDMI ARC

Throughout this post, I’ll break down the differences between HDMI and HDMI ARC, what you should know about them, and how to connect them.

Also read: HDMI vs HDMI Mini: The Ultimate Showdown of Size vs Utility

HDMI vs HDMI ARC – Key differences

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The difference between HDMI vs HDMI ARC lies in the type of signals that they can send and receive. HDMI and HDMI ARC can both receive video files. However, HDMI can’t send audio signals to external devices.

If you use HDMI ARC, you’ll only need one cable to connect your TV to soundbars, speaker systems, and so on. On the other hand, connecting an HDMI cable to a regular HDMI input on a sound system and a TV won’t do anything.

Review the following for the biggest differences between HDMI ARC and traditional HDMI inputs.

HDMI inputs

  • Can’t send audio signals to anything; they can only receive them.
  • Most TVs have multiple HDMI inputs.
  • Has been around longer.

HDMI ARC inputs

  • Can send and receive audio signals.
  • Most TVs have only one HDMI ARC input.
  • Relatively newer technology.

Other than these dissimilarities, HDMI and HDMI ARC inputs are quite similar. They can receive video and audio signals, they use the same cables (for the most part), and the primary device (i.e., your TV) needs an external power source to provide electricity to the HDMI cable and the HDMI or HDMI ARC input.

Here is a detailed comparison table of HDMI vs HDMI ARC:

FeatureHDMI CableHDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel)
PurposeTransmits high-definition video and audio signalsAllows for audio signals to be sent in both directions
Signal TypeVideo and audioAudio only
ConnectorsStandard HDMI connectorsHDMI ARC connectors
BandwidthSupports high-bandwidth signals up to 18 GbpsLimited bandwidth compared to standard HDMI
FunctionalityPrimarily for outputting video and audio signalsPrimarily for sending audio signals from TV to sound system
CompatibilityCompatible with most modern devices with HDMI portsRequires both TV and sound system to support HDMI ARC

Can I Use a Normal HDMI Cable for HDMI ARC?

You can use a normal HDMI cable for HDMI ARC inputs because the ARC is simply the receiver type, not the cable type. However, older HDMI cables sometimes don’t work with HDMI ARC. The vast majority of modern HDMI cables support ARC systems, though. 

When using an HDMI cable for HDMI ARC, make sure you use a high-quality, high-speed HDMI cable for the best results. Your HDMI cable can greatly influence the HDMI ARC input’s quality. 

CNET explains that speed and compatibility are the two most important factors to consider when using an HDMI cable with an HDMI ARC input. You won’t find a single ARC cable on the market because they don’t exist.

A good HDMI cable can make a world of difference when using HDMI ARC. For example, the iBirdie 4K HDMI Cable (available on Amazon.com) supports HDMI ARC at impressive speeds of 18 gigabytes per second.

iBirdie 4K HDR HDMI Cable 6 Feet, 18Gbps 4K 120Hz, 4K 60Hz(4:4:4, HDR10, ARC, HDCP2.2) 1440p 144Hz, High Speed Ultra HD Bi-Directional Cord 26AWG

This multidirectional cord can be used for traditional HDMI inputs or HDMI ARC inputs. You can choose between 3 to 50 feet (0.91 to 15.24 meters) to suit your entertainment system.

The last thing you should know about using a normal HDMI cable in an HDMI ARC input is that HDMI splitters can hinder audio quality.

This varies from splitter to splitter, but it’s important to consider the potential downsides. These splitters are common for those who want to put audio signals through multiple external devices.

HDMI or HDMI ARC: When Should You Use Them?

You should use HDMI if you want high-quality videos playing through your TV. However, you should choose HDMI ARC if you want high-quality videos paired with sending audio signals to your sound system. If you rely on your TV’s internal speakers, you don’t need to worry about HDMI ARC.

In fact, I’d recommend using HDMI ARC when connecting soundbars to multiple devices or even if you want to connect a gaming console to a soundbar.

Connect the gaming console to the soundbar via a normal HDMI input and cable, then connect the soundbar to the TV with an HDMI cable plugged into the TV’s HDMI ARC input.

HDMI inputs are very common for basic video hookups, such as connecting a laptop to a TV. However, they’re not ideal for optimal sound if you’re using an entertainment system. Switch the cable to your TV’s HDMI ARC input with the steps found below.

How To Connect HDMI ARC

HDMI ARC

To connect HDMI ARC to your external audio devices, simply connect a high-speed HDMI cable to the HDMI ARC input on your TV, then connect the other end to your preferred external audio source. Everything you play through the TV will deliver audio through the external device rather than your TV.

Here’s a detailed step-by-step guide:

  1. Connect any high-end HDMI cable to your TV’s HDMI ARC source input. Check the back of your TV (or whatever device you’re plugging the HDMI cable into). Many of these inputs have the HDMI’s input number and ‘ARC’ next to them. For instance, you might see ‘HDMI 1 ARC’ on the back of the display.
  2. Connect the other end of the HDMI cable to your external sound system. Again, your sound system should have HDMI ARC on it. Most sound systems only have one or two HDMI inputs. The vast majority of these inputs work with HDMI ARC because that’s one of the few reasons you’d plug an HDMI cable into a sound system.
  3. Blue Cine Tech recommends turning off your TV’s internal speakers in the settings menu. You can also mute your TV if you have a remote specifically for the external sound system. This allows you to control the volume without having to turn the TV down every time you watch it.
  4. Navigate to the HDMI ARC source on your TV. This works exactly like changing to any other source on your TV. Tap the Input or Source button on your TV or the remote until the source says ‘HDMI 2 ARC’ (using the previous example). You’ll be able to see the video and control the audio from this source.
  5. Adjust the volume on your remote or directly on the sound system. This works just like changing the volume and other sound settings on a traditional TV remote. Slide the volume up and down, control the bass, and more. It’s fairly straightforward from this point on.

What Happens if I Don’t Have HDMI ARC?

If you don’t have HDMI ARC, you’ll have to use digital optical audio cables. Connect the cables to the TV and the desired external sound source. You can connect another HDMI cable to the TV and the sound system if it’s also displaying a video file.

The good news is that most modern TVs have HDMI ARC. If your TV doesn’t have any ARC-labeled inputs, check the user’s manual to know if any of them are compatible. If not, you’re out of luck. You’ll have to use digital audio optical cables to connect your TV to the soundbar (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means there are more cables involved).

That being said, there are a couple of benefits you’ll find when using HDMI ARC inputs compared to digital audio optical cables. For instance, many users report better sound quality. Read on for more information about whether or not using your TV’s HDMI ARC input will help everything sound a bit better.

Does HDMI ARC Improve Sound?

HDMI ARC can improve sound quality if you’re using a high-quality cable. HDMI ARC typically transfers better signals because it only relies on one cable rather than a cluster of cables that are likely old, worn, or loose. HDMI ARC also transfers faster audio and video signals.

Hello Tech reports that using an HDMI ARC input is the best way to achieve high-quality sound from your external audio devices. These high-speed cables don’t lag as much as digital audio optical cables, nor do they tangle as frequently. However, there are a few reasons your sound system’s quality might decline if you switch to HDMI ARC.

Consider these issues before using HDMI ARC to try to improve your TV’s sound quality:

  • Your HDMI cable’s length affects the sound quality, especially if you have a low-quality cable (longer cables can take longer to transmit audio signals).
  • Loose connections will undoubtedly limit your sound system’s quality, whether or not you’re using HDMI ARC.
  • Some sound systems don’t have HDMI ARC inputs, so you won’t be able to access this feature (even if it’s plugged into your TV’s HDMI ARC input).
  • An HDMI cable’s labeled speed is often overlooked, but it affects the sound quality and transfer rate.
  • High-end digital audio optical cables are still significantly better than low-end, slow HDMI cables when using HDMI ARC inputs.

Final Thoughts

While HDMI and HDMI ARC have a few differences, they can often be used interchangeably for regular internal speaker videos and audio clips. You don’t need special cables for HDMI ARC, and using the same cable can improve audio quality and minimize clutter from your home entertainment system.

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