You've probably noticed that TV's have become thinner over the past few years. But the sound that comes from their speakers has actually gotten worse. This has lead to more and more people going out to buy a sound bar or a home theatre receiver and speakers for better sound.
And while most people are generally happy with their new speakers, the complexity and sheer number of connections make it very easy to connect them up the wrong way. This could mean that they might be missing out on the best sound available to them. So, let's take a look at some of the most common options and the best way to connect them.
Surround sound formats and configuration
The surround sound format is what tells your sound bar or your home theatre receiver exactly which sounds to send to certain speakers. There are two major companies that specialise in surround sound formats: the first is Dolby, the other is DTS. On most Blu Ray equipment you will usually see one of 4 different formats, Dolby Atmos, Dolby True HD, or DTS HD or DTSX.
When you go to the store to purchase a receiver you'll see numbers like 5.2, 7.2, 9.2 etc. and these numbers refer to the number of speakers the receiver supports. The first number tells you how many full range speakers it supports and the second number tells you how many subwoofers. A basic home theatre surround sound setup is usually a 5.1, which includes a centre channel speaker, two main speakers, two surround speakers and a subwoofer. This means you have 5 full range speakers and one subwoofer. 7.1, 7.2, 9.1, 9.2 etc. simply means you have more full range speakers and more subwoofers.
These additional speakers can be used for a ton of different things. You can have height channels, wide channels, or even ceiling speakers, like in the Dolby Atmos and the DTSX formats. Two or more overhead speakers will give you a much more immersive sound such as raindrops, overhead helicopters and such.
Atmos-enabled speakers and sound bars
These reflect sound off the ceiling to bounce back down to the listening position, which makes it sound like you have ceiling speakers. They might not sound as good as actual speakers in the ceiling, but they do work well in some rooms. If you want Dolby Atmos but you don't want a full setup, you can get a sound bar that also works by reflecting sound off the ceiling.
The different types of connections
Now that we've explained the basic formats it's time to look at connections. Analogue stereo cables are the most common types of connection you'll find for connecting audio devices. This will include RCA cables, 3.5 mm cables, and a whole load of other kinds of connector. These cables work well for connecting things like a phone, a CD player or a Blu Tooth Adapter, however, they don't provide the best audio quality, especially for home theatre setups because they only support two-channel audio. One way you can get true surround sound from stereo cables is by using what is called a multi-channel connection, and some devices like computers and Blu Ray players actually do have multichannel outputs on them, and some audio receivers have multichannel inputs with each channel separated, so you can still get true surround sound even if you are using stereo cables.
The next step up from using stereo cables is a digital connection using a coax cable, which is basically just a simple RCA cable or can be a fibre optic cable known as Toslink. Toslink is a better alternative to coax because it is immune to most interference since it's using fibre optics to send the signal. Unlike a stereo connection, an optical connection can send true DTS or Dolby surround format directly to your receiver or your soundbar. However, they don't support the newer formats like Dolby True HD, Dolby Atmos or DTSX, because these require an HDMI cable.
What is an HDMI cable?
HDMI is one of the most complex topics when it comes to home audio. Unlike an optical connection, an HDMI connection actually supports all of the latest surround sound formats. This has forced home audio manufacturers to put HDMI ports on receivers and even some sound bars, but it has caused some issues because of HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection), the copy protection which prevents the copying of audio and video content as it travels towards connections.
What this means is that if you have a 4K content player connected to your sound bar or your home theatre receiver, you may not be able to send 4K video if it doesn't support the right version and you'd be forced to upgrade in order to get 4K video to your TV. This is because some 4K content is actually protected using HDCP. 2, and if any of your devices don't support that version, you'll either get no video, or you'll be limited to 1080p.
How to get around the HDCP problem
There are a couple of things you can do to get around the problem with HDCP. You can just use an optical connection, so if you don't care about transferring the new surround sound formats like Atmos etc. you can simply use an optical connection between your TV and your sound bar or theatre receiver and this will not affect the sound or the 4K picture quality at all.
Another alternative is to use what is called ARC (Audio Return Channel). ARC allows you to not only send audio/video to your TV, it also allows your TV to send it back. This means you wouldn't have to use an optical cable in order to get audio back to your receiver or soundbar.
As you've probably guessed, audio connections for your home theatre and soundbar is quite a complex topic. But with the help of this information, we hope you can at least understand the basic differences between the various connections and how they work. But remember, when in doubt, do the research before you spend your money. Or even better, ask an expert.