How to listen to your Smart TV’s Apps in surround sound

Note from January 2019: This post is still as relevant today as it was when I first wrote it, and I still get messages from people saying how useful the info is.  Hope you find it useful too!

A couple weeks ago, I talked about how A/V receivers are avoidable if you really don’t want one.

This post is for the rest of us — the people who love our surround sound and like having a quality A/V receiver, but we also have a smart TV with cool apps of its own.  If you’re like me, all your components (Blu-Ray player, game system, cable box, etc) plug into the A/V receiver, which sends the video to your HDTV while sending the audio to your external speakers. That means the apps built-in to the HDTV aren’t connected to your good surround sound speakers. The apps have to use the crappy speakers built into your TV. What’s a sound-loving techie to do?

Have no fear. There is hope.

A digital audio out port.

Note #1: These methods are good for getting any sound off your HDTV and back to your receiver.  For example, your HDTV may have an over-the-air antenna built-in that you like to use.

The good news is that if your TV has built-in apps then it also probably has a “digital audio out” port (see photo). Most brands have been including digital audio ports on their HDTVs for years, so even older sets should have one. Bonus points if your digital audio port can send out a full Dolby Digital 5.1 signal (refer to your TV’s manual for any possible limitations on its digital audio port).

Note #2: When using your TV’s digital audio out port, you’ll also want to set your TV so that it will send out a “fixed” audio signal even when the TV’s internal speakers are muted and/or turned off (as they should be).  See your TV’s manual for this. There’s usually a menu setting for this.

An analog audio out port.

Note #3: If your TV does not have any kind of digital audio port — and you’ve really, really looked for it — it might still have analog audio outputs (see photo). These can work too, but the sound won’t be as good. And if you’re really desperate, you can use your TV’s headphone jack to get audio back to your receiver, but you can forget about any kind surround sound at this point.

Method #1: Treat your TV as a separate audio component

Simply plug your TV’s audio-out into an empty input on your receiver (preferably one set aside just for audio, like the CD input.) When you use your TV’s built-in apps, just set the receiver to that input.

The upside: You can do this with just about any receiver, even a really old one.

The downside: It’s a pretty crappy solution. You won’t be able to use the TV apps concurrent with video from your cable box or blu-ray player. You will only be able to see video provided by the apps themselves. For Netflix and the like, that’s not such a problem, but for others, it might be.

This method is okay if you have a newer TV but an older receiver.  This is also the method to try if your TV does not have a digital audio out port. (If you only have a headphone jack, use a headphone-to-RCA adapter to connect it to an empty analog input on your receiver — no surround sound, but it should still be better than your TV’s built-in speakers.)

All the methods below are preferable to this one, if possible.

Method #2: Use your receiver’s “TV” input port.

If you have a new-ish receiver, it may have a port set aside specially to receive audio from your TV.

Note the digital audio jack labeled “Optical (TV)” in the center of the picture.

This port should play nicely with your Smart TV. I say “should” only because every manufacturer has their own idea of how things ought to work.

Method #3 Use an assignable digital audio port on the receiver.

Look to see if your receiver has at least one audio port labeled “assignable.”

This receiver has two assignable ports. Most receivers only have one, but one is all you need.

If so, you’re in luck. This is my preferred way to get sound from a Smart TV. Again, you’ll need your manual to see exactly how it’s meant to be used (and how to set it up), but the basic gist is this:  Connect your TV’s audio-out port to an “assignable” port on the receiver.  You then set your receiver so that whenever you switch to a particular HMDI input, instead of using audio supplied by the HDMI cable, it’ll use the audio from this port instead (which comes from the TV).

Note:  If you connect your TV to the receiver via component cables (and not HDMI), this method might not work.

Real life example:  On the receiver in my family room, I noticed that there’s an assignable digital audio port that goes with the SAT/CATV HDMI input.  I plugged the digital audio output from the TV into that port.   The sound from my DirecTV box now travels via HDMI through the receiver to the TV… and then that sound keeps traveling back into the receiver.  When I’m watching TV, the audio doesn’t sound any different.  But because the sound is technically coming from the TV and not directly from the DirecTV box, whenever I load up the Netflix app built-in into the TV, that sound plays through the speakers, too.  Make sense?

Method 4: Be the first person in America to actually use your receiver’s Audio Return Channel (ARC)

Technically, the most current HDMI standard comes with the ability retrieve sound from your TV automatically. It’s called ARC. If you have both a relatively new TV and a relatively new receiver, this could be your best (and easiest) option.

Note the letters “ARC” on the HDMI-out port.

The set-up is dead simple: If you have both a TV and a receiver that supports ARC, a single HDMI cable between them can send information bidirectionally.  In other words: It can send video from the receiver to the TV, but it can also send audio from the TV to the receiver. No special set-up required. Just one cable.

Receivers with this ability will have the word “ARC” next to its TV output.  HDTVs with this ability will have the word “ARC” next to one of its inputs.

Not only is ARC intended to send audio signals from your TV back to your receiver, but it’s also — theoretically — able to send remote commands, too, though I haven’t been able to test this ability myself. At the least, you’ll probably need a TV and receiver made by the same company, and the company will have to make sure to include the necessary firmware that’ll make this happen. If I were you, I’d be happy just getting the audio to work right.

Note: ARC functionality isn’t limited to TVs and receivers. Some soundbars feature the specification, too.

Also worth noting: Older HDMI cables might not work with ARC. If both your TV and Receiver support ARC and but things aren’t working, you might want to try a new HDMI cable.

If your TV’s digital audio port only sends out a stereo signal (as many do), ARC could be a way to get full 5.1 channel surround sound back to your receiver.

ARC is supposed to kick in automatically once the TV and receiver sense each other, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep your TV and receiver manuals handy. This is a relatively new standard, which means some companies might be implementing it differently. (i.e. You might have to go into the menus and turn the feature on.)

For further reading about ARC, you can check out this piece at HDGuru.

So there you go. Four ways to get sound from your Smart TV back to your receiver. Bon chance.

UPDATED JANUARY 2019 —  ARC has become a much more reliable — and established — feature.  But your usage may vary.  My advice:  Try it first, but prepared to try one of the other options.

If, after reading this, you think you might need a new receiver, here’s some I think represent a good value. All are under $500 (as of this writing) and all feature ARC (mentioned above), as well as a dedicated port for TV input.  The Onkyo appears to be an especially enticing offer…

Yamaha RX V683BL

Yamaha RX V385

Sony STR DH790

Onkyo TX RZ620