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Soundbar not working? Fix your TV sound with these simple tips

CNET logo CNET 1/23/2022 Geoffrey Morrison
Mari Benitez/CNET © Provided by CNET Mari Benitez/CNET

There are few things more infuriating than bringing a new soundbar home, getting it all set up... and then have it not work.

It's possibly even more infuriating to have it work sometimes, and not others. A common complaint is something like, "I've connected my soundbar correctly, and when I play Bluetooth from my phone I get sound, but not with Netflix ."

In this article we'll go though some simple troubleshooting steps that will hopefully get it working, starting with cables


text: Brett Pearce/CNET © Provided by CNET Brett Pearce/CNET

Let's double-check you do have your cables correct, since that really is the most likely place for there to be a problem (unless you get sound already with certain apps/sources and not others, in which case skip to the next section).

There are three main ways to connect a powered soundbar. Hopefully your owner's manual goes into decent detail, but the short version is this:

1. Everything plugs into your TV, and from your TV a single HDMI cable connects to your soundbar.

2. Everything plugs into your TV, and from your TV a single optical cable connects to your soundbar.

3. Everything plugs into your soundbar, and from your soundbar a single HDMI cable connects to your TV.

Connecting your TV to your soundbar via an optical cable is the most common method. Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Connecting your TV to your soundbar via an optical cable is the most common method. Sarah Tew/CNET

There are pros and cons to each method, but that's for a different article. If you've got the correct cables (HDMI or optical) running from your sources (cable or satellite box, game console, Roku, etc.) and at least one cable running between your soundbar and TV, you're probably in good shape. Double-check that everything is connected and especially when using HDMI check sources; go to Inputs, and check that the TV's eARC/ARC port connects to the HDMI output (it should be marked ARC too, as above) of your soundbar.

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If you're not getting sound specifically from any of your TV's apps, that's actually a different problem, one worthy of its own article. Conveniently, I already wrote that one. Check out our cleverly named story How do I get sound from my TV's apps? to find out how to get sound from your TV's apps.

Let's assume all the above is correct, since if we already fixed it, you've probably stopped reading.

Next we'll tackle the sound coming from your sources -- Roku, gaming console and so on.

Audio settings

Check that your source is set to PCM (Linear PCM) if your sound isn't working. Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Check that your source is set to PCM (Linear PCM) if your sound isn't working. Sarah Tew/CNET

The short version is this: Some soundbars can't decode certain audio types, for example 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS or Dolby Digital Plus signals. What you have to do is switch the audio to something the soundbar can decode, usually either stereo (also labeled "2.0") or PCM.

Every source will give this option in the settings somewhere. Sure, in an ideal world this would happen automatically, but depending on a lot of factors, the source might not know what it's connected to. Everything can read PCM.

A few products, like the Amazon Fire TV , output Dolby Digital Plus, which older equipment often can't decode. The same process applies here. Go into the settings, and select one of the other options. If in doubt setting it to Auto should work. 

There's no one setting that will work for everyone here. Since I've gotten numerous emails from people where "change the audio output type" solved the problem, I figured it was worth pointing to just this setting, since it's not intuitive.

Surround sound

The Sonos Beam Gen 2 is a Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbar. Ty Pendlebury/CNET © Provided by CNET The Sonos Beam Gen 2 is a Dolby Atmos-compatible soundbar. Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Most affordable soundbars are either single speakers or 2.1-channels with wireless subs and so for them surround isn't really an issue. However, if you're fortunate enough to own a system with dedicated rears, or even a Dolby Atmos soundbar, there are some steps you may need to take to get it to work.

If you want to listen to surround sound, and especially Dolby Atmos, via your TV, you'll need to use HDMI connections all the way through the chain. This is because most TVs  will not pass a 5.1 signal through their optical outputs, even if the TV is connected by an HDMI to your source device. For example, if you're running a Blu-ray player via HDMI to your TV, and then an optical cable from the TV to your soundbar, you might not be able to get surround, depending on your TV.

It's part of the copy-protection rules. Going directly from the source to the soundbar is the only workaround that's likely to work. For example, try connecting the TV to your PlayStation by HDMI, and then connect a separate digital optical cable from the console to the soundbar. This will work best if you only ever use one device, like a PS5 or a Roku, and nothing else. Note this is only passing through a 5.1 signal. If your TV creates it on its own (via an app like Netflix), that can be sent out and usually is (again, check your settings).

The way around all this is to buy a TV and soundbar with an eARC connection -- this will both output Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital signals as well as pass them on from source devices such as an Xbox Series X. While HDMI ARC should be able to pass 5.1 by itself -- with emphasis on the "should" -- we've had issues with HDMI incompatibilities rear their heads before. From what we've seen so far eARC has fewer issues passing audio between devices. 

Bottom line

You'd think this would be easy. Soundbars are supposed to simplify the home theater experience. And in fairness, they do, but if a manufacturer saves a bit of money using a certain chip, that can cause headaches for its customers.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED vs. plasma, why 4K TVs are still stupid and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram.


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