What Is HDMI ARC, and How Does It Work

If you own an HDTV, a home theater, a soundbar or an A/V receiver, you may have noticed a little symbol on one of your device’s HDMI inputs that reads “ARC.” What does it stand for? Hint: it doesn’t refer to your system’s architecture as in Anti-Reflective Coating (ARC), nor is it related to that mystical reactor that powers Iron Man’s suits.

ARC, or “Audio Return Channel,” is an HDMI specification built into many modern TVs, home theaters, sound bars, and receivers. This is not an ordinary HDMI port. It has the potential to simplify your audio cabling needs and setup but comes at a potential cost. Unfortunately, only a few know it exists or what’s it’s for and how to use it. Worse, manufacturers rarely explain how to use it or how their products implement it.

Here’s everything you need to know about HDMI ARC so you can exploit its power to work for you.

In theory, HDMI ARC is supposed to help you have one and only one connection between your TV and your audio system. So if your HDMI-supported TV and audio system are equipped with this feature, you can easily transfer audio from the TV to a home theater receiver and listen to your TV’s audio through the home theater speakers, instead of listening to audio via the mediocre TV speakers. This awesome HDMI specification offers a two-way communication between your TV and a compliant audio device.

For example, if you usually receive your TV signals over the air via antennae, the audio from those sources goes straight to your TV. Now, to get that audio from your TV to a home theater system, ordinarily you would need to connect an extra cable (either digital coaxial, digital optical, or analog stereo) from the TV to the home theater system. But with ARC, you can take advantage of that same HDMI cable you’ve already connected to the TV to transfer those audio signals to the home theater without the need for extra cables.

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The beauty of ARC is apparent in its versatility. On one level it can transfer audio from internal TV sources – including built-in streaming apps like Netflix, Pandora, YouTube and more to a home theater system. On another level it can transfer audio from other connected devices like a gaming console or a Blu-ray to a home theater. In such cases your TV becomes the central hub with all the other sources connected to it. However, note that routing audio from external sources via ARC might not work for all TVs. Check your manual for more details about your device’s ARC specifications.

The first thing to do is to ensure that both your TV and audio receiver have the HDMI ARC feature and that the same is included as an option in your device’s settings. One way to determine whether your TV and home theater support ARC is to manually check the labeling of the HDMI inputs on your TV and the HDMI outputs on your home theater system. If you see the label “ARC” or HDMI ARC on both devices, know that your entertainment system supports this technology.

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The next step is to figure out how to activate the Audio Return Channel feature on your TV. Navigate through your TV’s HDMI settings, and you should be able to see an option to activate it. On home theater systems you are likely to find this feature on the remote control, so you can activate it with just a click of a button.

In theory, using this feature should be as simple as just connecting an HDMI cable to a TV. However, it’s not all sunshine and roses. At times, complications do arise due to lack of manufacturers’ specifications, labeling methods and other variables that can get in the way. Also, the HDMI ARC feature does have its downsides.

For instance, since ARC was originally designed to replace the TV’s digital audio output, it only supports the transmission of the same DTS, PCM, and Dolby Digital soundtracks that will pass through the SPDIF output. Therefore, it currently doesn’t support the transmission of DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD. Also, ARC might not let you enjoy a full 5.1ch surround sound since most TVs are two-channel (2.0ch) via ARC.

When put to use, HDMI ARC might to a large extent reduce your cabling needs and simplify your home entertainment setup. Now that you know what HDMI ARC is and how to use it, why don’t you try it with your home entertainment system? Do let us know your experiences via the comment section below.

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