How to set up a sound bar with your TV
If you were in a hurry, you could just plug your sound bar in and enjoy. But, like any other speaker system, sound bars benefit from a bit of extra time and care when you first set them up.
HDMI, ARC, Ethernet and Optical are terms that might not mean a lot right now, but to ensure you get the best sound quality in your home, and that all of your equipment works as it should, it’s a good idea to take some time to optimise your setup.
How to set up your sound bar
If possible, place your sound bar directly in front of your TV and watch head-on for the best results.
Place both on a flat surface, such as your TV stand if there’s space. To save space you can fix the sound bar to the wall, but you will need a separate bracket for this.
If your sound bar has an external subwoofer it may need a cable connection. Others are wireless and can be placed elsewhere but generally within 10 metres of the sound bar.
Make sure it’s not too close up against a wall - this will result in boomy bass. You can put it inside your TV cabinet as long as it doesn’t cause distracting vibrations
2. Keep it centered
Ideally, your sound bar should have equal space to its left and right edges so sound disperses around your room evenly.
This helps the sound reflect more evenly towards your TV viewing position for a more balanced and immersive experience.
3.Sound bar height
Aim to place it within a foot of the height of your ears when you’re sitting in your normal TV viewing position. Sound bars also tend to sound better when they’re wall-mounted because of this.
4. Distance to sound bar
The ideal distance between you and your sound bar will vary depending on its power and whether it has any surround sound features. Check the manual for optimum placement.
5. The sweet spot
A good sound bar will sound great wherever you’re sitting. However, some have a fairly narrow ‘sweet spot’. Outside of this, audio quality deteriorates. Try to set your room up so all TV viewers get the best audio quality possible.
If your sound bar supports Dolby Atmos, follow the instruction menu so you can get it set up for your specific room shape; Atmos uses upwards-firing speakers to bounce sound of the ceiling to put you in the middle of the action.
Ideally, you’ll have walls to both the left and the right of your sound bar to reflect the sounds to your ears.
Soft furnishings elsewhere, such as carpets and curtains, will help improve sound quality.
Don’t be tempted to hide your sound bar in your TV cabinet. Otherwise, your new speaker will sound boxed in and you won’t get the most from it.
The best way to connect a sound bar
You can set up your room to perfection and still fall down at the most important hurdle: picking the right connection.
Any sound bar worth its salt will come with one form of digital input, be it digital coaxial or digital optical. Most TVs have one or both of these outputs, so you’ll be able to hook it up to your sound bar without any issue. These cables can carry high-quality stereo signals but aren’t best suited for surround sound.
More expensive sound bars come with HDMI inputs and outputs, and they’re typically the most advanced. HDMI cables can carry more data than optical, opening up the possibility for higher-quality sound formats including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X surround sound formats.
At the top of the tree is HDMI ARC (audio return channel). This technology allows you to to connect, for example, a Blu-ray player directly to your sound bar using an HDMI cable and then send it all back to your TV using just one cable.
You’ll use fewer cables to connect your home cinema system, and it also allows you to control your devices using your TV’s remote.
HDMI ARC also allows your TV's built-in tuner to output directly to the sound bar without any extra cables and without the need to change the input on your sound bar.
You’ll need to check the back of your TV to see if it supports HDMI ARC (see the image above), one of the ports will be marked as such. If in doubt, check the manual. You should also note that ARC doesn't support high-end audio technology such as Dolby Atmos, although eARC (enhanced ARC) is coming soon, so future TVs and sound bars will be able to handle this through ARC.
If your TV or sound bar doesn’t have HDMI ARC (you’ll need it on both to use it), the next best option is one of the other digital connection options, most commonly digital optical or digital coaxial.
Check which one your TV has (it might have both) and choose a sound bar that matches it. Some sound bars also come with analogue, RCA connectors that will be suitable for older TVs.
If all else fails, you could use the 3.5mm headphone jack on your TV, but this should be a last-ditch option because it provides the lowest-quality audio and is prone to interference.
Setting up a TV with your sound bar
1. Set your sound output
Navigate to your TV menu and choose to output sound to an external speaker system otherwise your sound will continue to come out of the TVs speakers or you’ll have no sound at all.
2. Check your HDMI connection
If using an HDMI connection, the sound bar may be listed using the manufacturer’s HDMI name, such as LG (Simplink), Samsung (Anynet+), Panasonic (Viera Link), Sony (Bravia Sync), or Philips (EasyLink).
3. Ensure ARC mode is enabled
This will allow you to use your TV remote to adjust the volume coming from your sound bar.
4. Adjust the sound
You might need to change the delay and volume levels as every room has its own shape, layout and furniture which affect the sound.
5. Adjust the subwoofer level
This is so it integrates well with the sound bar and doesn’t dominate. In our tests, we often find that the subwoofer level is set quite high by default, and we then reduce it accordingly.
6. Experiment with sound bar settings
Some include a mode to improve speech clarity and many have a mode to process the surround sound (Dolby Digital and DTS audio) found on DVD/Blu-ray soundtracks and films broadcast on TV.
7. Experiment with sound effects
Designed to enhance films or music, such as ‘cinema’ or ‘3D’ for a film, this is when the audio is electronically processed to create a virtual surround-sound effect. Look for a setting called ‘Stereo’, ‘Bypass’, ‘Off’, ‘Standard’ or ‘Natural’.
Playing music through your sound bar
If you want to play audio from portable devices such as a laptop, USB drive, MP3 player, smartphone or tablet, check whether your sound bar has 3.5mm, USB or Bluetooth connectivity.
These provide an easy way to hook up these devices, particularly Bluetooth which lets you listen to music wirelessly from Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and tablets.
Some sound bars can also connect to your home wi-fi network and be used as part of a multi-room audio system. Each manufacturer has a slightly different setup process, but all will require you to input your wireless network password.
For more, read our guide to the top five sound bars for music.