Everything You Need to Know About ARC (Audio Return Channel)

Published On: May 4, 2015
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Everything You Need to Know About ARC (Audio Return Channel)

Are you still listening to your smart TV's internal apps through the TV speakers, even though a perfectly good AV receiver is sitting just a few feet away? Adrienne Maxwell explains the setup process and potential benefits of the Audio Return Channel function.

Everything You Need to Know About ARC (Audio Return Channel)

  • Adrienne Maxwell is the former Managing Editor of HomeTheaterReview.com, Home Theater Magazine, and HDTVEtc.com. Adrienne has also written for Wirecutter, Home Entertainment Magazine, AVRev.com, ModernHomeTheater.com, and other top specialty audio/video publications. She is an ISF Level II-certified video calibrator who specializes in reviews of flat-panel HDTVs, front video projectors, video screens, video servers, and video source devices, both disc- and streaming-based.

Audio-Return-Channel-thumb.jpgSmart TVs are great, right? The ability to access services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and VUDU directly from the TV, without the need for an additional set-top box, is very appealing to people who desire the cleanest, easiest setup. But there's one glaring problem with this approach: those pesky TV speakers, which offer mediocre quality at best and downright awful quality in many instances.

The average consumer--the one who doesn't own an external audio system at all--listens to everything through their speakers anyhow. But I'm curious to know how many of our readers who own home theater systems listen to smart TV apps through the TV itself, instead of running sound to that perfectly good AV receiver and 5.1 (or higher) speaker system sitting just a few feet away. I confess, I do it far more than I should. Is anyone else willing to admit the same?

Granted, in my case, it's often due to the fact that, as a TV reviewer, I'm constantly swapping out review samples, and I need to test the audio quality of those internal TV speakers. But even when my reference TV is back in its position of honor, I find myself reaching for the TV remote's volume buttons rather than taking the time to properly set up the Audio Return Channel feature.

What Is Audio Return Channel?
Audio Return Channel (or ARC for short) is a feature of the HDMI specification (first appearing in v1.4, released in 2009) that allows you to send audio "upstream" from your TV's HDMI inputs back to your audio system's HDMI output in order to listen to the TV's internal audio sources, like smart TV apps and tuned over-the-air channels. Most TVs include analog and digital audio outputs for this purpose, but that requires running another cable between the TV and sound system, while ARC allows for a clean, single-cable solution.

ARC can also be beneficial to those who own a soundbar or other audio system with limited HDMI inputs. You can feed your various sources (Blu-ray, cable/satellite, gaming console) into the ARC-supported TV's HDMI inputs and route all of the audio signals out via one HDMI cable to an ARC-capable soundbar. However, we must point out that this particular approach may limit the audio from external sources like Blu-ray to stereo only. Some TVs will pass multichannel audio over ARC only from internal sources like the apps and tuned channels.

The arrival of Ultra HD streaming makes the value of ARC even greater. At this moment, the UHD streams from Netflix, Amazon, M-Go, and UltraFlix are only accessible through smart TVs, not standalone set-top boxes like Roku or Apple TV. So, if you want to enjoy surround sound along with your UHD resolution, you have to get the audio out of the TV either through ARC or the digital audio output.

Arguably the biggest downside to ARC is that, since it was originally designed to replace the TV's digital audio output, it supports only the transmission of the same PCM, Dolby Digital, and DTS soundtracks that will pass over the SPDIF output. It doesn't currently support the passage of Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, although a representative from the HDMI Forum told me that this support is possible and could find its way into a future HDMI version. Right now, most streamed video-on-demand content is limited to DD 5.1, but that's changing. VUDU and Netflix offer some titles in Dolby Digital Plus, for instance, and M-Go recently announced plans to offer DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks for some of its 1080p and UHD movies. While it would be preferable to get these higher-quality streams, Dolby Digital 5.1 through your HT system is still better than stereo through your TV speakers.

The other drawback to ARC is that setup isn't quite as simple as just connecting that one HDMI cable between your TV and AV receiver. (Is anything ever that simple?) I decided to take the bold step of finally setting up ARC on my system in order to document the basic steps for you. My TV/receiver combo is a Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV and Harman/Kardon AVR 3700 receiver. Of course, the procedure and nomenclature may vary slightly for your specific gear, but the general concepts should hold true.

Samsung-back-panel.jpgStep one: Choose the correct HDMI input on your smart TV
Your smart TV may have four or five HDMI inputs, but chances are, only one of them supports the ARC function. A thoughtful manufacturer will clearly label which HDMI port supports ARC. In my case, the Samsung supports ARC on HDMI input #4 (see photo). If you don't see "ARC" printed next to one of your HDM inputs, check your owner's manual. If the TV was manufactured around or before 2009 when the HDMI 1.4 spec arrived, it likely does not support the ARC feature at all.

A few things to consider: If you've had your TV calibrated and you switch to a different HDMI input to get ARC support, those picture adjustments may not be applied to the new input. Some TVs allow you to copy your picture adjustments across all inputs, but others make you set up you each input individually. Depending on how you or your calibrator handled this, you may need to port over your settings to the new HDMI input.

On a similar note, if your system is being professionally installed, make sure to tell them that you want to use the ARC feature so that they can set up the system and program the remote accordingly.

If you've purchased a brand new UHD TV, hopefully ARC and HDCP 2.2 exist on the same input, or else your clean, one-cable solution will go right out the window when you try to attach a future HDCP 2.2 copy-protected source.

Step two: Choose the correct HDMI output on your AV receiver
Many modern AV receivers have two or occasionally three HDMI outputs to send AV signals to multiple zones. As with the TV, you need to make sure to use an ARC-capable output. My AVR 3700 supports ARC on both of its HDMI outputs, and both are clearly labeled on the chassis. If you're not sure about your receiver, check the owner's manual.

Samsung-Anynet.jpgStep three: Enable HDMI-CEC in both the TV and receiver
If you're familiar at all with HDMI-CEC, you probably think of it as that feature that automatically turns off your devices when you don't want it to--but HDMI-CEC isn't just about sending power commands to connected components. CEC stands for "Consumer Electronics Control," and it needs to be enabled in both the TV and AV receiver for ARC to function.

The HDMI-CEC setting is likely located in the general settings menu, and it can go by a variety of names. Samsung calls it "Anynet+," and the menu includes separate options for control and power (see photo). The control option needs to be on, but you can leave the auto power function off, if desired.

ARC-HK-AVR3700.jpgLikewise, in the general system setup menu of the AVR 3700, I had to enable "HDMI Control" for the HDMI output I use, then set the Audio Return Channel from off to auto.

At this point, I had to restart both components to ensure the HDMI-CEC control was enabled properly in both devices.

In some TVs, you may need to make a few extra adjustments within the Audio setup menu: You may need to turn off the internal TV speakers and change the "Digital output" setting from PCM to Dolby Digital.

Step four: Switch to the correct source on your receiver
Now that your TV is officially an audio source in your home theater system, your receiver needs to treat it like one. The AVR 3700 has a source mode called TV through which the ARC audio is played. It's an audio-only source, since the video is coming directly from the TV.

Make sure to program your universal remote with "smart TV" as its own activity and set it to switch to the appropriate source on your receiver.

That should do it. In my case, it wasn't too painful, and it has worked well thus far.

If you've taken the time to assemble a good surround sound system, don't shortchange your smart TV source. Take just little more time to set up Audio Return Channel and disable those TV speakers for good. It's just the right thing to do.

Have you set up ARC in your system? Was it easy or difficult? How is it working? Share your experience in the Comments section below.

Additional Resources
What You Need to Know About HDMI 2.0
at HomeTheaterReview.com.
The Good, Better, and Best HDTVs on the Market Today
at HomeTheaterReview.com.

  • Phillip Davis
    2019-05-04 22:41:09

    <b>I bought the Hisense 4K 50"...the owners manual is worthless at best.....the OS is Roku and when you have a problem,...neither company has any answers...but promises to call U back.....its been two weeks..... The ARC is NON-Functional... and that means that it will not connect to your HT receiver or a sound bar.....Clearly they just give a good damn about their reputation or their future....maybe when the returns come streaming in..the suits will decide to do something.</b>

  • Truth4Sale
    2018-11-14 07:46:52

    I bought a Samsung TV Mfg. in 2015 and it did *not* have ARC for any of it's HDMI ports...just SPDIF through an optical port, but for OTA TV channels only.

  • Ben Abbott
    2018-07-10 21:24:56

    Hi please help I'm going insane trying to get this to work.... I need to be able to control the output volume from a TV with the tv or sky remote to an old analogue amp with only phono connectors. ie: the amp is manually set at a fixed volume and the phono input provides the volume from one of the tv outputs and volume is controlled by the tv remote? The tv has SCART, HDMI MHL, HDMI ARC and Optical Toslink outputs. I have baught a toslink dac but found I cannot control the output volume. Is this possible in any way? Thanks.

  • Lee
    2018-01-09 22:48:36

    All you discussed above works great as long as you are NOT trying to stream a movie from Amazon Prime. On my system the only way to get sound from an Amazon Prime movies is to disable CEC and you only get sound out of the TV speakers. Any solution for this? I would love to be able to drive the sound into my Receiver an out to my surround sound speakers. HELP ?

  • Gabe
    2017-12-11 16:48:51

    Does using ARC cap volume output? We have a Vizio SB3251n-E0 Soundbar with a Vizo E65-E1 TV. Everything seems to work but the volume doesnt go over 35. Is this an ARC thing or a Vizio setting? I mean at 35 it sounds good but 35 seems like an odd number to stop at..

  • Brian Royal
    2017-10-25 15:36:54

    I currently have a Vizio M60-C3 and an older Sony receiver. I'm upgrading to a newer receiver that supports ARC. But my question is this: I've always run everything through the receiver. AppleTV, DirecTV, PS4. We're adding an HDTV antenna, but it uses coax and so needs to be hooked up directly to the TV. TV speakers are set to off, because all audio is routed through the receiver. Does it make sense that the 3 components named above would connect in the same way as before, but that I could route the audio from the HDTV antenna back to the receiver via ARC? I have a logitech harmony elite remote, so adding a few button clicks isn't a big deal. Just wondering if maybe there's a better way. Any help is appreciated!

  • Himanshu Sharma Hny
    2017-09-20 12:08:30

    hi, just a question: if i have multiple hdmi sources (say a bd player, ps4, xbox ecc..) should i connect all of them via hdmi to the receiver, and the only cable going to the tv is supposed to be the ARC one? am i correct? and if so, how can i switch video input? they should go on one single hdmi source on the tv?

  • Vice Squeezer
    2017-08-01 16:55:50

    I got a base setup and a AV receiver hooked to four speakers and sub.. I can stream on the base.. this base doesn't have sub.. so not worth the effort to stream.. I stream on the computer system.. yep three systems in same room.. powered speakers with ten inch sub.. sounds pretty good.. I gotta upgrade my receiver bummmer.. receiver speakers best of the lot..

  • Rupam Roy
    2017-07-19 11:07:37

    Nice article. Thanks for writing up such an useful piece. I also have a Harman HKTS 9 HT system and a Sony 55 inch XE90 smart tv. The problem is that the sub woofer doesn't work for such a system connection. It is switched on (can see the white light glowing) but it doesn't pick up the low cross overs for amplifying. What could I be missing here? The sound that comes from the HT is also not of optimal quality.

  • Scott
    2017-04-03 12:36:43

    Hi. I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for sharing the knowledge with us! I love ARC but am not able to use it. The reason?!? Because my ARC input will not allow 4K (UHD) material Meaning, my video will only be in 1080p, etc If there's. Work-around for this, please let me know! Currently I use a Bose SoundTouch 300 (due to small area) and am not able to truly take advantage of the abilities. Any advice on getting my ARC to receive UHD signals would be greatly appreciated Thank you!

  • Doug Bellerive
    2017-03-19 02:51:48


  • Alexander Yanev
    2017-03-09 08:35:32

    Can I use the HDMI ARC with an HDMI to RCA cable only or I need a HDMI to RCA converter, as my receiver does not have a HDMI/Optical input?

  • chet
    2017-02-06 01:18:59

    I have a Panasonic TV I bought in 2011 that has input HDMI 1 Labeled ARC. My question is I want to get sound from my TV to my old stereo receiver. The problem is my old stereo receiver only has RCA analog L/R audio inputs no HDMI connections. Does anyone know if someone makes a HDMI (ARC) to a RCA analog L/R audio converter?

  • Danny Scheelings
    2015-12-21 19:17:38

    I have connected my Philips TV to a Pioneer home cinema system. ARC works fine, but I am not able to increase the volume higher than 39. When the TV is not connected to the home cinema system I am able to increase the volume higher than 39 without any problem. Does anybody know if there is a solution for this volume limit? Thanks, Danny

  • Wayne
    2015-11-27 08:00:30

    I have the same Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV. The ARC (hdmi 4) and Hdcp 2.2 (hdmi 3) are two different hdmi inputs on the tv. If you hookup the roku 4 to a hdcp 2.2 AV (marantz NR1506), you'll lose the ARC function. Do you have a solution?

  • Rick Cecconi
    2015-11-03 19:13:05

    I have never been more disappointed in a setup like this one. I own a Vizio 70" smart Tv and a Yamaha Receiver RX-A2040, second from the top of the live with 7 Hdmi connections on back. When I first got the TV I hooked up as normal as it replaced a Samsung HDTV. The new Tv being a smart TV it had the Netflix build right in.... what a great feature... right? Not in my case. The video played fine but I had no audio. I tested and tried all sorts of things, contacted support at Vizio (they were great) but I could never get it to work properly, so I gave up. That was about 8 months ago. Last week I was reading some info on ARC CECC and decided to try again. The only way it would work is the following: I had to unplug the Cable box hdmi from the receiver/plug it into the ARC on the TV/. Then netflix audio and video worked fine. Then I thought I'd try my apple TV which was HDMI connected to the receiver. It didnt work, so I unplugged the HDMI from the receiver and plugged it into a HDMI in the TV. Then it worked fine. (by the way I had set up the arc and cec for both tv and receiver and the TV discovered the receiver no problem. Then I did the same for my mac mini. So that was just to start 2 less HDMI's in the receiver, hmmmm the reason I got that receiver was because of the 7 HDMI outputs (I have 6 HDMI components) Problem is I have 6 components and only 3 extra HDMi's on back of TV. So I got much of it pretty set up and was watching TV in ARC setup, things were going good, then the audio cut out. I had to go the the input setting, switch to another one and then switch back to the original one. This is going to take a lot more testing and time as I'm not happy with it at all. I may just go back to the original setting and forget ARC until some firmware updates are available. If anyone can make suggestions for me your help would be welcome. Thanks

  • Adrienne Maxwell
    2015-10-06 01:54:04

    Are you sure you're using the ARC-enabled input on the Samsung TV? It's probably input #4, but it should be labeled. The fact that it's controlling the Yamaha's power doesn't mean it's the ARC input; power-over-HDMI can work on any of the HDMI inputs if the CEC function is turned on.

  • Margie Schachner Wasylik
    2015-10-05 21:17:44

    were you able to solve issue? i had same problem

  • Brandon Walsh
    2015-09-23 07:01:21

    I have a UHD Samsung TV and Yamaha AVR and it triggers AV4 on the Yamaha to turn on but there is no sound form Netflix. Pic but no sound. And the ARC is working because it turns the AVR off when the tv goes off. Anyone have this issue and solve it? I may try Turning them off and seeing if that resets them but im not sure what else could be the issue. I'm a TV tech too so this is first time I've had issue with ARC. This was the very last thing the customer needed for Netflix and isn't happy only using the Chromecast on the AVR HDMI input for Netflix so I need to solve. Thanks

  • Vittorio D'Antuono
    2015-09-19 02:41:47

    That's great news. I wondered if a function like this one existed, even before acknowledging the existence of ARC which btw it's brilliant. This came to my mind when I set up my Home Theater system 1 year ago and was wondering how I could take advantage of the AVR audio from built-in TV apps such as YouTube, without the need for any extra cables (coax, Toslink), by just using an HDMI which is known to deliver the very best audio quality. I was really happy that something like that existed, but then I discovered that it only supported Dolby Digital 5.1, as stated in this article. And I started wondering whether they'd ever upgrade this brilliant ARC function, maybe in a future HDMI standard, introducing Hi-Res quality audio such as DolbyTrueHD and DTS-HD MA and maybe even Dolby Atmos and DTS:X with both 5.1 and 7.1 configurations, so to enjoy even a better audio quality, now that Smart TVs with built-in streaming apps are getting more popular every month. Well, knowing that they're considering doing this it's great, so now that they're starting to stream 4K UHD contents, we'll be able to have awesome audio as well, right from the TV's app, just by using the HDMI cable without any extra one.

  • Martin Wells
    2015-09-08 11:30:50

    Will ARC enable me to connect headphones and run speakers at the same time? Maybe this is the function of the 'soon to be purchased' ARC receiver?

  • main
    2015-08-14 22:32:51

    On my receiver you can set audio gain levels independently on each input, i had the same problem only my sound through ARC was much louder, i just dialed back the gain and all is well!

  • Butch
    2015-06-04 20:52:01

    8 to 10 year old TVs? I wish I could get a TV to last 8 to 10 years. I replaced a 20 year old 27" CRT With a Sony KP-57WS510 in 2004. In 2008 I had to replace the convergence chips. In 2010 the new chips failed again. I replaced it with a 42" Panasonic plasma. Last year I moved the 42" set into the bedroom because its light output had dropped significantly and put a 65" ZT in its place. I hope it lasts for more than 4 years. I'm pretty sure the days of TVs that live 10 to 15 years are long gone.

  • Michael Richardson
    2015-05-12 00:29:02

    I'm an avid Canadian Football League fan (in California, no less). I've been dealing with the fact ESPN3 is the usual output for the CFL in the U.S. because ESPN owns about 20% of TSN, the Canadian sports network, which broadcasts all the CFL games in Canada. In order to watch ESPN3, I use my smartphone which runs the "WatchESPN" app, and connects through Chromecast to my TV. All well and good, unless you want the sound to come from my Audio system. I learned, when I first set up my Outlaw 975 receiver, the capability of ARC, and made sure I had one of the outputs from the receiver connected to the HDMI port on the TV that provided ARC. Now, not only can I see ESPN3 on my TV, but I can hear the audio through my audio system. ...and once you see how to do it, you can do it again in other setups.

  • jerrydel
    2015-05-10 02:59:51

    Really? You are advising someone buy a used plasma that going on 8 to 10 years old? Even a Panasonic ZT (better performer than the Kuro just not as big of a power supply because of Energy Star requirements) would be a better used suggestion. I have fixed an old plasma once and it was a total mistake. The idea that a plasma (and I own two of them still) is better than a top UHD set is simply wrong. 400% more resolution, billions more colors, dynamic content etc... Plus you are set for future formats like UHD Blu-ray and or today's UHD Streaming. Take it from me... buy a new TV unless you are stealing the plasma for $400 or something.

  • Mark Greenblatt
    2015-05-08 19:00:24

    Adrienne, What a great article. I have always seen ARC but never thought about it long enough to figure it out. I am sure there are others in the same boat. Keep up the good work. Mark

  • gapatriot36
    2015-05-08 01:42:54

    UltraFlix does stream through a STB. The Nuvola NP-1 is sold by Nanotech Entertainment, the company that owns UltraFlix. It's now been ported to essentially all 4K Smart TVs. UltraFlix is also accessible on the new NVIDIA Shield and soon the 4K Roku. Thanks!

  • Michael Berger
    2015-05-05 17:11:00

    ARC is essential is you use frame interpolation and a receiver as the audio will become out of sync on your receiver without it.

  • Bruce McLeod
    2015-05-05 15:59:50

    Good information Adrienne, I find many people unaware there's a way to get their TV sound back to their system. You're more patient than I though, while I have setup ARC, whenever possible I use a TOSLink connection from the TV back to the processor. HDMI is still too plug and pray, but it's what we have so gotta quit being lazy.

  • Frans Keylard
    2015-05-05 15:52:23

    Thanks Adrienne for this thoughtful piece on something that is a mystery to most TV owners! ARC/HDMI-CEC works exactly as described, but lacks a discrete override to leave a connected device on. E.g.: when switching between 2 screens - turning off the first TV dutifully turns off the AV Processor and its connected 12V triggered amplifier while I'd rather only the TV turns off. A macro to turn the processor back on after a few seconds solves it, but it's needless power cycling and busy clicking noises... Older HMDI sources prior to 2012 can have inter-brand compatibility issues with HDMI-CEC, and could easily get confused about their required power on/off state. This has improved in the past 4 years and works flawlessly for me now.

  • Frans Keylard
    2015-05-05 15:34:06

    I didn't even realize that those old KUROs had ARC, or HDMI-CEC, or HDMI v1.4a, or.... Sorry, what was the question?

  • Adrienne Maxwell
    2015-05-05 14:59:53

    Am I serious about what? I don't understand the point you're trying to make here and how it relates to a story on ARC.

  • David J. Miller
    2015-05-05 13:43:38

    I have been using it successfully on my Samsung 85 UHD TV with a Pioneer Elite SC-87 reciever. I have been very happy with the output I hope it will just be a firmware upgrade to get the additional sound formats. It was a tad bit of a pain getting it setup.

  • Eric
    2015-05-05 13:06:36

    Are you serious Adrienne? My Pioneer Kuro 60" Plasma is still going strong after many years, as I have easily fought the temptation to try OLED (and when it finally dies and I can't get it fixed, I guess I will). I never purchased the optional side wing speakers, so it is always in ACR mode through my Pioneer Elite receiver. Even with the WAF, it was understood that the whole purpose of having a decent home theater rig was to use it, not save it for special occasions. A good unitized remote makes it a no brainer for the family. Eric PS: for people living in the colder climates, experiencing long cold winters, find yourself a used Pioneer Kuro Plasma, they make awesome space heaters and will last much longer if you dial down the settings to film-like quality where black is black per the Blu-Ray setup disk. :-)

  • Douglas Hauge
    2015-05-05 11:46:44

    The sound through ARC is much lower than any other device why is this ?

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