The source of the problem
Judging from online reviews, the comments section of our guide to the best soundbar, and a poll we conducted on Twitter and among Wirecutter staff, we’ve concluded that most of the problems soundbar buyers experience are related to the connection and communication between the TV and the soundbar, rather than to the soundbar itself. We’ve seen complaints about audio cutting out unexpectedly, soundbars not receiving audio from the TV, lip-sync errors (the audio from the soundbar lagging behind the picture on the TV), and the soundbar’s surround speakers not working.
The root of many of these problems lies in the HDMI technology used for most soundbar connections. HDMI is more than just the port you plug the connection cable into. It was created to make things simple by combining audio, video, and control signals into one cable that would allow devices of different brands to detect and identify one another and work together seamlessly. That’s wonderful in theory, but in the real world, owners of HDMI-equipped devices often have problems getting them to work together. Figuring out why two HDMI devices aren’t communicating is often a matter of guesswork, even for the TV and soundbar makers themselves.
The more complicated the soundbar, the greater the chances of a malfunction. We saw fewer complaints in the days when the majority of soundbars were simple, 2.1-channel (left and right speakers plus a subwoofer) designs such as our current budget pick, the JBL Bar 2.1 Deep Bass. The addition of advanced features such as surround speakers, the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X immersive sound technologies, 4K and HDR video pass-through, multiroom audio capability, and voice-control features (like built-in Alexa or Google Assistant) seems to have increased the chances of HDMI malfunctions, bugs in firmware (the software that runs on the internal microprocessor of a TV or soundbar), incorrect system configuration, and plain old user error.
So let’s cover some general HDMI issues, after which we’ll offer tips for solving specific problems.
How to fix HDMI setup issues
1. Use only an HDMI connection between the TV and the soundbar. Many soundbars include several types of audio connections and cables, but if your soundbar has an HDMI port, we recommend starting with that connection and leaving the other cables in the box. If you connect the other cables, the soundbar may automatically switch to those connections instead of using HDMI, which will either reduce sound quality or cut the audio connection entirely.
2. Use the correct HDMI port and the correct input on the soundbar. Soundbars can have two types of HDMI connections (see the photo below): An HDMI ARC (or Audio Return Channel) port is designed to be connected directly to your TV (read item 3 below for more explanation), while standard HDMI inputs are meant to be used with your sources, such as a streaming media player or cable box. Make sure to have the correct input selected on the soundbar for the source you want to hear. The HDMI ARC port may be labeled “TV” on the remote or in the soundbar menu.
3. Use the HDMI ARC jack on both the TV and the soundbar. ARC allows a TV to send audio signals from its internal services (such as streaming apps) and connected AV devices (such as a cable box) to a soundbar. But it works only with HDMI jacks that are specifically labeled HDMI ARC. If you use a different HDMI jack on the TV or soundbar, you may not get sound.
4. Enable CEC on your TV. Consumer Electronics Control, or CEC, allows the TV (and its remote) to control the soundbar’s volume. For the HDMI ARC function to work, CEC must be activated, an option that’s usually available in the TV’s System menu.
5. Check your TV’s speaker settings. Most TVs have a setting within the audio menu that lets you turn the internal speakers on and off. The function and labeling of this control varies from TV to TV, so consult your TV’s owner manual if you have questions. Generally speaking, plugging in an HDMI-equipped soundbar using the HDMI ARC connection automatically sends sound to the soundbar, but you should switch the TV’s internal speaker setting to “off” or “auto.”
6. Try turning eARC off on the TV if you don’t have an eARC-equipped Atmos soundbar. Enhanced Audio Return Channel (or eARC) is a feature of the new HDMI 2.1 specification that allows new TVs to send a higher-quality, uncompressed multichannel audio signal to a soundbar or AV receiver, as long as both devices support eARC. One manufacturer told us that leaving a TV’s eARC function turned on can cause unpredictable connection problems if it’s connected to a soundbar that doesn’t support eARC. You should be able to turn off eARC in the TV’s audio settings menu.
7. Unplug the TV and soundbar for 10 seconds, and then plug them back in. Sometimes, reestablishing the HDMI “handshake” between the TV and the soundbar can fix minor malfunctions.
8. Update the firmware in the TV and soundbar, and then cycle the power. Manufacturers often try to fix known HDMI glitches by updating the firmware. Check in the device’s own menus or on the support section of the manufacturer’s website to see if your TV or soundbar has the latest firmware. If it doesn’t, you need to install the firmware, usually by downloading it directly from the internet or by transferring it with a USB stick. After doing so, be sure to unplug the TV or soundbar for at least 10 seconds and then plug it back in. Doing a factory reset, as discussed below, may also help.
9. Use factory reset on the TV and/or soundbar. Doing a full reset on your devices may get the HDMI connection working correctly. On TVs, this option is usually in the System submenu. With soundbars, doing a factory reset typically involves pushing buttons in a certain sequence; consult your manual or the support section of the manufacturer’s website for instructions. Note that many or all of your previous settings on the devices may be erased in a reset, so afterward you may need to rescan for TV channels if you’re using an antenna, reestablish Wi-Fi connections, and so on.
10. Try a new HDMI cable. An HDMI cable that’s many years old may not have the bandwidth to handle the latest HDMI technologies, and certain devices can be picky about HDMI cables for reasons that are hard to divine. We recently experienced this problem with the Roku Soundbar, which worked only sporadically until, at Roku’s suggestion, we switched to a new HDMI cable. Fortunately, as we note in our HDMI cables guide, a high-quality, up-to-date cable such as the Monoprice 4K Certified Premium High-Speed HDMI Cable can be had for about the price of two Frappuccinos.
11. Switch to an optical digital connection. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to get the HDMI connection working, yet it’s still malfunctioning, you can bypass HDMI-related glitches by using an optical digital audio connection (a fiber-optic cable connection, usually just called “optical” on the back of your gear) from the TV to the soundbar. However, this solution comes with drawbacks that may be dealbreakers for some people—most notably, you can’t pass Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio over an optical digital connection. See How to connect a soundbar that doesn’t have HDMI below for more details.
How to fix lip-sync errors
1. Switch to the TV’s internal speakers and see if the error persists. If the lip-sync error still occurs with the TV speakers, the problem isn’t in your soundbar—it’s in your source device (such as a media streamer or Blu-ray player), or it’s a technical glitch in your streaming service or an error in the video production process.
2. Use the lip-sync adjustment on your TV or source device. Many TVs and source devices offer a lip-sync adjustment that lets you compensate for these errors. Check the Settings menus in your devices for this adjustment (see the example in the photo below), and if it’s available, increase the compensation until the lip-sync error disappears. You may have to adjust this setting from program to program, or even within a single program—for example, a news broadcast’s lip sync might go out when it switches from a studio shot to a remote shot.
How to fix audio dropouts
1. Check your cable connections. Make sure all your HDMI cables are firmly seated in their jacks and not subject to being bumped or jostled.
2. Try the bitstream audio output setting on your TV and source devices. This setting determines whether the digital audio signal is decoded in the device (the TV or Blu-ray player) or in the soundbar. The bitstream option, available in the audio setup menu of your TV and source devices (see photo below), sets the device to send the exact digital signal encoded in the program, be it Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Atmos, stereo audio, or the like. Many devices (especially TVs) default to converting all these signals to a two-channel PCM digital signal (the same as used for CD), which may cause the first few seconds of audio in a movie or TV program to cut out. Some TVs and source devices have an “auto” option for digital audio output, which should be a safe bet. Note that the soundbar must be able to decode the bitstream signal in order to get proper sound; pretty much all soundbars can decode basic Dolby Digital surround sound, but many can’t decode DTS surround sound or more immersive formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. Also, some TVs can’t process DTS signals through HDMI ARC—in these cases, set your source device to output Dolby Digital.
3. Check your network connection. If you’re using Wi-Fi to stream video, make sure your source devices, your smart TV, and/or your streaming-capable soundbar have a strong wireless connection. Most devices give you a way to check this. If your devices aren’t getting a strong wireless connection, consider moving your network router or upgrading your network; see “The Gear to Get Reliable Wi-Fi in Any Home” for suggestions. If you’re using a wired Ethernet connection, check all the cables between your modem, your router, and your audio/video devices.
4. Get new HDMI cables. As noted above, using up-to-date HDMI cables can sometimes solve problems in audio/video systems, and our HDMI cables guide offers extremely affordable options.
How to fix surround speakers
1. Make sure the soundbar is set to surround-sound mode, with the surround speakers on. Most soundbars equipped with surround speakers offer several different surround-sound modes. The fix may be as simple as setting the surround function or the surround speakers to “on,” or it might involve selecting a sound mode, such as Movies or Cinema, that presumably includes surround sound.
2. Make sure you’re listening to surround-encoded content that your soundbar supports. Although all soundbars with surround speakers can be set to deliver surround sound from stereo soundtracks and music, you’ll likely get a much more exciting surround effect if you feed the soundbar soundtracks encoded with 5.1 or more channels, such as Dolby Digital (or DTS, if your soundbar supports that format). Check to make sure the program you’re watching is encoded for surround sound.
3. Make sure your source devices and TV are set to output a bitstream audio signal. As we mentioned above, this option—available in the audio settings menus of TVs, streaming devices, and Blu-ray players—sends the native, surround-sound-encoded audio signal from the source to the soundbar. If the PCM setting is selected instead, you get only stereo sound. Some devices offer a Dolby Digital or Dolby Digital/DTS setting instead of, or in addition to, the bitstream option, and this setting will work, too.
How to fix Atmos height speakers
1. Make sure Dolby Atmos is activated on the soundbar. Many Atmos-equipped soundbars offer the option for “Atmos on/off” or “height on/off.” If you want the full effect of Atmos (and DTS:X, if your soundbar supports it), you need to turn this function on.
2. If your soundbar or TV doesn’t support eARC, connect the source device directly to the soundbar to get the best sound from Atmos soundtracks. A standard HDMI ARC connection supports Atmos signals that use the compressed Dolby Digital Plus audio format, but getting full-resolution Dolby Atmos sound requires using an eARC connection. Most Atmos-equipped soundbars include an extra HDMI input in addition to the HDMI ARC port. If either your soundbar or TV doesn’t support eARC, to get full-resolution Atmos and/or DTS:X you need to connect the source device straight to the soundbar using that extra HDMI input.
How to connect a soundbar that doesn’t have HDMI
1. Select the correct input on the soundbar. Non-HDMI-equipped soundbars almost always offer an optical digital input (sometimes called Toslink) and an analog input. Most TVs can send sound both ways. A few soundbars add a coaxial, or RCA, digital input, but this connection is incompatible with most TVs. The optical digital connection (see photo below) can support Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel signals, so it’s the best choice if you have a surround-sound-capable soundbar. But its output level is fixed on most TVs, and in that case you need to adjust the volume using the soundbar’s remote. If your soundbar is a 2.1- or 2.0-channel model, an analog audio connection is perfectly fine, and most TVs let you set their analog audio output to “fixed” or “variable”; setting it to “variable” lets you control the volume with the TV’s remote.
2. If you’re using an analog connection, make sure the TV volume is turned up. If the TV’s analog audio output is set to “variable” and you’re getting no sound from the soundbar, try turning the TV’s volume up. If the TV is turned down all the way, you’ll hear no sound even if the soundbar is set to full volume.
If your soundbar still isn’t working
A few Wirecutter staffers and Twitter commenters have found that problems persist despite their trying every trick in their soundbar’s troubleshooting guide. If you’ve gone through every method we described above, to no avail, it’s time to contact the manufacturer. Whatever problem you’re having with your soundbar, chances are good that someone else has had it, too, and that the manufacturer knows how to fix it. And if the company still can’t get the problem solved, it may want to replace the unit—or you may want to return it to the vendor and try something different.