The HDMI standard has become synonymous with video connecting as it’s widely used on TVs and monitors. You probably already know that it can carry an audio signal too, which is why we can find it on virtually every TV soundbar nowadays. But why do soundbars use HDMI?
Soundbars have HDMI because an HDMI cable can transfer digital audio signals at a significantly higher bandwidth rate than optical and coaxial cables. This also enables the soundbar to use Dolby Atmos and other innovative audio tech via HDMI.
The rest of this article will explain why soundbars have and use HDMI, if it’s better to use HDMI or Bluetooth, if you need HDMI ARC for your soundbar, and whether you should use HDMI or an optical cable for your soundbar.
Also read: Do You Need Wi-Fi for a Soundbar?
Using HDMI in a soundbar enables faster audio transfer rates than older audio connectors. Moreover, many soundbars have multiple HDMI input ports that allow you to connect other video streaming devices to your TV.
Many higher-end soundbars can send an audio and video signal to your TV. You can connect devices such as:
- a game console
- a digital TV receiver
- a streaming stick or box
This is the perfect solution if you have a lot of devices and not enough HDMI ports on your TV.
But aside from the added practical benefits, why do soundbars primarily use HDMI?
After all, there are audio other connectors on both your soundbar and your TV, such as digital optical (TOSLINK), digital coaxial, and even older analog ports in some cases.
To put it quite simply, they’re just not as good. HDMI isn’t perfect either, especially if all ports on your TV are occupied, but it’s a much newer and consequently faster interface.
You don’t need a lot of bandwidth for regular audio. Turn on YouTube and listen to a song with any cable through your soundbar, and you won’t hear a difference.
But if you watch a Blu-Ray movie or TV show, you’ll instantly notice the difference between HDMI and the other audio interfaces.
This is because HDMI supports advanced audio features like:
- Dolby Atmos
- DTS-HD Master Audio
- Dolby Digital Plus
- Dolby TrueHD
These advanced audio codecs and surround sound technologies transform how you experience the audio coming from your TV. Some of them will work via RCA or TOSLINK too, but not all.
The most notable one has to be Dolby Atmos. It advertises itself as an immersive 3D surround sound technology, and it actually works really well with compatible soundbars and TVs. You can only get it via an HDMI eARC cable because it demands a lot of bandwidth.
On the other hand, TOSLINK only supports CD-quality audio, whose bandwidth is a mere 384 Kbps. Again, not a big deal when listening to music or watching videos, but it matters with high-quality audio data.
It’s better to connect a soundbar with HDMI (guide) than Bluetooth. HDMI has a significantly higher bandwidth rate than Bluetooth, allowing for better sound quality and support for advanced audio features. Additionally, it’s a more reliable connection and is often easier to set up.
Bluetooth has its place on modern smart TVs. Since it’s a universal wireless standard, you can use it in multiple creative ways, not just for transmitting audio signals. For example, you can use a Bluetooth remote or gamepad for your smart TV. It’s also decent for Bluetooth earbuds in case you want to watch something quietly.
But you shouldn’t really use Bluetooth to connect your soundbar if you have any other option. Bluetooth is probably even worse than RCA or digital optical audio.
For starters, Bluetooth adds a small but very noticeable delay. So, you may see an actors’ lips moving a moment before you hear it.
Bluetooth also doesn’t support the same high data transfer rates as HDMI, which limits your new soundbar’s potential.
Plus, if the connection drops, there goes your audio with it.
HDMI is simply a much better choice, even though you’ll be forced to deal with ugly black cables hanging below your wallpaper living room TV.
You don’t need HDMI ARC for a soundbar to work. Most soundbars have several audio input ports on the back, such as optical audio and RCA. However, you need HDMI ARC if you intend to use an HDMI cable to transfer audio.
HDMI ARC stands for Audio Return Channel. eARC (enhanced ARC) is the next iteration that supports higher audio transfer speeds, so it’s backward compatible.
HDMI ARC allows the audio signal to go back to your soundbar after it goes into your TV. For example, if you hook up a streaming box to your soundbar with one cable and the soundbar to your TV with another, you won’t have to use a third cable for audio.
If you don’t have HDMI ARC, you need to connect a separate audio cable from your TV to your soundbar to get sound.
You should use HDMI rather than digital optical for your soundbar if possible. Although digital optical is an interface designed for audio signals, it has a lower data transfer speed than HDMI. HDMI can deliver better sound quality and technology compared to digital optical.
Interestingly, digital optical looks rather bad compared to HDMI. Non-audiophiles might assume that since digital optical uses optical fiber cables that it’s the best way to connect their soundbar, but it really isn’t. It’s an outdated standard that has never seen any major innovation.
Conversely, it seems like HDMI gets better each year. The latest standard is HDMI 2.1, and its support for eARC allows modern soundbars to get the best sound possible.
Soundbars have HDMI ports because HDMI can carry both video and audio simultaneously. It also provides high bandwidth rates, allowing soundbars to use modern audio technology like Dolby Atmos to achieve a more immersive experience.
Moreover, some soundbars have multiple HDMI input ports. You can use them to connect multiple devices through the soundbar (guide) to your TV to simplify your setup.