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Last week brought us the long-overdue release of a new Apple TV 4K, but even with the enhancements that Apple’s latest set-top box already brings to the table, it sounds like the company already has some even bigger plans in store.
Already there’s the mystery of HDMI 2.1 without 120Hz display support — something that was rumoured to be coming to the new Apple TV that didn’t fully materialize. It’s a feature that would be mostly a boon for gamers, since the higher refresh rate would allow for much smoother gameplay, but we also wouldn’t count it out just yet. The HDMI 2.1 spec supports 120Hz displays, so it’s likely all the necessary hardware is already in place, and Apple just needs to add the necessary software capabilities in a future tvOS update.
New code found in tvOS 14.5 reveals that Apple may have another interesting new feature up its sleeve for its set-top box as well. As discovered by The Tape Drive (via iPhone in Canada), the code shows that Apple is working on adding eARC and ARC support.
In fact, the capabilities are apparently already tucked away, labelled in beta form, although they have yet to be enabled. They also appear in the first tvOS 14.6 beta. While there’s no option to enable any ARC features on the current Apple TV HD or 2017 Apple TV 4K, the 2021 Apple TV 4K has yet to land in anybody’s hands yet, so it’s uncertain if it’s going to appear on the newest model, or if it’s something Apple is saving for later.
What Is eARC?
ARC standard for Audio Return Channel. As the name implies, it’s a feature that allows audio to be sent back along the same HDMI cable that’s used to carry a video signal.
To be clear, HDMI has always supported both video and audio, but the key behind ARC is that it allows the audio to travel in the opposite direction.
For example, a TV with an HDMI ARC port can send audio out to a home theatre receiver or soundbar instead of using the internal speakers when watching a cable or antenna feed, or using built-in smart TV features like Apple’s TV app or Netflix.
In short, ARC allows you to pass audio between devices over your existing HDMI cable, eliminating the need to connect a separate digital audio cable.
ARC ports almost always support HDMI-CEC as well — the technology that allows home theatre equipment to be controlled over HDMI — to allow you to do things like control your soundbar or receiver’s volume from your TV remote control. HDMI-CEC is the same technology that allows the Apple TV to do this in the other direction.
ARC is actually part of the HDMI 1.4 spec, and as a result has been around since 2009, so most current TVs, soundbars, and home theatre receivers already support it, although not always on every one of their HDMI ports.
eARC is simply an enhanced version of ARC that was introduced with the HDMI 2.1 spec, and is designed to handle higher audio bandwidth connections for things like Dolby Atmos and other uncompressed sound formats, as well as adding a few new capabilities like Lip Sync Correction. It works the same as ARC — just better.
How Would This Benefit Apple TV Users?
If you follow the concept of ARC through, you probably already understand why the Apple TV hasn’t offered an ARC port in the past. Even though many other consumer devices support it, it’s something that hasn’t traditionally had any purpose on a set-top box. In fact, you won’t find ARC ports on game consoles or DVD players either.
The reason is that these are screen-less output devices, and ARC is designed to either send audio separately from a video stream, or receive audio from another HDMI device. So, it makes sense on TVs, speakers, and receivers, but doesn’t have any obvious place on an Apple TV.
However, while the Apple TV may not be a speaker, the HomePod is, and of course, the Apple TV is already capable of sending audio out to one or more HomePods via AirPlay.
As The Tape Drive speculates, this is where ARC and eARC might come into play for the 2021 Apple TV 4K, allowing users to turn their HomePods into full home theatre speakers for all of their entertainment devices, from cable boxes to a PS5 or Xbox Series X.
In this configuration, users would be able to direct audio from their TV or other ARC-capable HDMI device back to the Apple TV, which could then in turn beam the audio out to any paired HomePod speakers.
This is particularly interesting in light of the Home Theatre Audio feature that Apple introduced last fall in HomePod Software 14.2, which allows users to turn one or two full-sized HomePods into a Dolby Atmos or surround sound system.
This would presumably work just as well with an audio stream coming over an eARC channel, although of course there’s still one oddity to this plan: Apple discontinued the full-sized HomePod just last month to focus its efforts on the HomePod mini.
To be clear, the HomePod mini can also still be used as an external speaker with the Apple TV, and could therefore also benefit from ARC support, but users wouldn’t get the same immersive home theatre experience, making it far less appealing than simply buying a standalone soundbar.
This leads us to believe that Apple may have something much bigger in mind for the addition of eARC support to tvOS, likely in the form of the rumoured “Apple TV Pro” (for lack of a better name at this point) — a version of the set-top box that would incorporate the capabilities of a full-sized HomePod speaker, and possibly even a FaceTime camera and a touchscreen.
It’s unknown exactly what such a device might end up looking like, but it’s not unreasonable to think that Apple may have something more soundbar-like in mind. Still, those of us who own the now-discontinued HomePods can certainly hope that Apple also chooses to enable this on the new Apple TV 4K.