Why doesn’t HDMI ARC work? Explaining why 14-year-old tech fails so often

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I’ve reviewed enough bleeding-edge gadgets to know that not everything works right the first time. When stuff doesn’t work, I’ll wait patiently for a firmware update. I’ll sit tight until there’s a patch. I’ll even wait for the next version to see if it works better. Generally, I like to give brands and the very smart people who work for them the benefit of the doubt.

But after 14 years, HDMI ARC remains one of the most frustrating features I’ve ever dealt with. The once-promising technology that lets AV components from any manufacturer magically talk to each other rarely seems to work as intended.

Just this past week alone, I fielded questions and calls for help from three different friends because they could not get the sound from their TV to their soundbar or AV receiver using HDMI ARC. That’s just the latest addition to about 12 years’ worth of emails, DMs, and text messages about the exact same issue.

Yes, this is a very first-world problem. Nobody’s life is ended prematurely because their audio return channel doesn’t work. But we spend our hard-earned money with certain expectations, and there is no denying that this is a problem.

So why can’t we fix it?

Who’s to blame?

The truth is there is no one entity or person to blame, which makes it all the more frustrating. It’s not like we can email the CEO of HDMI and tell him to fix HDMI ARC. First, that’s not a tactic bound for success. Second, HDMI ARC — and HDMI in general — is bigger than its CEO.

HDMI ARC is just a symptom, not the actual illness. If HDMI ARC is a pool of blood on the floor, then HDMI CEC is the gushing artery. Sorry for the gory analogy.

The HDMI ARC port on the back of a component.

HDMI CEC has been around since 2005, yet its baseline bugginess — its propensity to propel you into fits of madness because the seemingly simple solution is not at all simple and often just does not work — has remained a constant for 18 years. And honestly, it’s probably going to be as bad as it’s always been come its 20th birthday.

A handshake agreement

The CEC in HDMI CEC stands for Consumer Electronics Control. It’s the protocol that allows your TV remote to adjust the volume on your soundbar, for instance. In an ideal world, HDMI CEC makes it possible for you to chuck most of your remotes in a drawer and forget about them, theoretically turning any remote into a universal remote. All the most common controls, volume up and down, channel up and down, power, that sort of thing — can be done through HDMI CEC.

HDMI CEC is what enables HDMI ARC to work at a very fundamental level. A little handshake between devices needs to happen before they can communicate, and HDMI CEC is the gateway for that communication. If HDMI CEC isn’t working, then a bunch of stuff isn’t working.

We know this to be true because if you turn HDMI CEC off on one of your devices, a cascade failure begins to take place. And that’s where our journey to madness begins, my friends.

Failing by default

In order for anything that HDMI CEC enables to work properly, CEC has to be enabled on both ends of a signal chain. So, if we have an Xbox One X, and we want the TV to turn on when the Xbox is turned on, we need to make sure that CEC is enabled on both the Xbox and the TV. That right there is a problem!

Most folks don’t know that CEC exists, therefore they are unaware that you need to turn CEC on for certain cool features to work.

An HDMI CEC settings page on a TV screen.

I know that we live in a world where we prefer to opt-in than to have to opt out. But frankly, CEC should just be on by default. If it is really designed for convenience — you know, to make things easier — then you shouldn’t need to know about it to use it. AV novices will have far fewer issues if something that makes other things easier is just turned on out of the box. But that’s not entirely a solution.

Can’t we all just get along?

Even if you have HDMI CEC turned on, that’s not a guarantee that things are going to work smoothly, because the goofy way HDMI CEC has been implemented makes it highly susceptible to issues.

Here is a scenario I hear all the time: Johnny has a Ford TV. (I’m not using actual TV brands here so nobody feels targeted.) His Ford TV is connected to a Chevy soundbar. These two devices have been working together just fine for years. But Johnny decides to upgrade his TV and goes with an Acura. Without any explanation, the same Chevy soundbar that works fine with Ford TVs, Toyota TVs, and even Yugo TVs, somehow doesn’t work with his new Acura TV.

Unless you need Dolby Atmos, optical inputs will work just fine.

Now, if Johnny were to also buy an Acura soundbar, there’s a good chance that it would work fine. Having the same brand of soundbar as his TV might even unlock some other cool features. But HDMI CEC is supposed to be brand-agnostic. For whatever reason, it doesn’t always work that way. Not because HDMI CEC itself favors one brand over another, but because there are multiple ways of implementing it. Different brands do it differently, and nobody is testing for interoperability. Sometimes two devices simply won’t talk — or talk well enough — and no amount of tinkering, adjustment, or slamming things against the wall is going to help.

Is that you? If you’ve been banging your head against a wall trying to make your TV work with your soundbar and they just won’t work, no matter what you do, let me say something I almost never say: Just give up. Try a different soundbar. Try a different TV. Or skip HDMI altogether and just use optical cables. Unless you need Dolby Atmos, optical will work just fine — it’s just another cable you’ll have to use, and you’ll lose inter-device control. But you’ll get sound, and maybe that’s enough to save your sanity.

Pouring some salt onto this wound of frustration is that a new version of HDMI ARC — that would be eARC — could and should be more reliable. By the numbers, perhaps it is when both of the devices you are using support eARC. But, purely anecdotally, I’m still hearing of troubles from time to time.

Where do we go from here?

Some of my colleagues have suggested that I put the HDMI forum and HDMI licensing administration on blast for this. I haven’t done that so far because, frankly, I don’t understand where their responsibility ends and where manufacturers’ responsibility begins.

But my friends may have a point: If HDMI has a standard that companies should follow when using their technology, then perhaps they should enforce those standards. Would Apple ever license the “Works with iPhone” badge to a Lightning cable that doesn’t work when you plug it into an iPhone? You know they’d never even get the label to begin with, much less keep it.

Keep in mind that the HDMI Forum is made up of a bunch of companies. In other words, they are all the problem. So if they haven’t policed themselves so far, I don’t think they are going to.

I hate throwing my hands up and saying “It is what it is. Oh well. Guess we’ll just deal with it.” But, honestly, I’ve been shaking my head on this one for over a decade myself. Maybe I’m jaded and lack the fire in the pit of my belly motivation to go after some fools. Or maybe it’s been a problem for so long now, I’m convinced it can’t be fixed.

But if there’s a flicker of hope, it’s wireless signal delivery. We’re moving toward it, slowly. Just look at the LG M-Series we saw at CES 2023. That TV comes to market soon, and it may be the first of what I think will soon be the new normal.

Let’s not let wireless video become the same cauldron of frustration as HDMI ARC and HDMI CEC. We have an opportunity to loudly reject something that doesn’t work. We just need to organize around it. And perhaps that starts right here, right now.

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