You know that feeling when you’ve got three devices to plug into your TV but only two HDMI ports? Annoying, right? That’s where HDMI switches come in handy.
These nifty little devices let you connect multiple gadgets to your TV using just one port. No more plugging and unplugging a mess of cables whenever you want to change devices!
In this quick guide, I’ll explain in plain English what an HDMI switch is, how it works its magic, and why it can be a game-changer for your home entertainment setup.
HDMI Switch 101
An HDMI switch is a device that allows you to connect multiple HDMI sources into a single display port – and switch between them.
So, you could connect your gaming console, Blu-ray player, and TV to the switch and then have the box select which device to display on the TV at any given time.
It is also called an HDMI switcher.
It is common to confuse an HDMI selector switch with similar devices like an HDMI splitter, HDMI matrix, or HDMI distributor – all terms used to describe similar devices – but which do slightly different things.
|When to Use
|HDMI Selector Switch
|Connects multiple devices to one display
|When you have more devices than HDMI ports on a display device, like a TV
|HDMI Matrix Switch
|Connects multiple devices to multiple displays
|When you need to choose which device to send to which display
|Sends one device to multiple displays
|When you want to display one device on multiple TVs
|Transmits HDMI signal over long distance
|When you need to connect devices far from the TV
Whether you need a switch depends on the number of HDMI sources you have and if you have enough inputs on your display device to connect them all.
Here are some popular models on Amazon. Find the model that does what you want. Don’t pay for features you don’t need.
- Connections: 3-in/1-out
- HDMI 1.4 - 4K/30Hz, 1080p, 1080p 3D
- Metal case
- Connections: 2-in/1-out
- 4K/30Hz, 1080p, 720p
- Can also be used as 1-in/2-out
When To Use a Switch Box
Here’s your problem. You have a TV with two HDMI inputs, but you want to connect:
- A cable box
- A Blu-ray player
- A PlayStation 5
- A Roku streaming stick
Four into two doesn’t go! So what can you do? You could leave two input devices disconnected – with the cables hanging loose somewhere around the back.
But if you do that, you must keep reconnecting things when you need the other devices. This will get annoying pretty quickly, not to mention it looks untidy too.
If only there were an easier way. Drum roll, please – step forward the humble HDMI switch.
For the above example, you would buy a switcher with four inputs and a single output. You would then connect all four external devices to the inputs and have one HDMI cable from the switcher’s output to your TV.
And the best thing is that it still leaves you with a spare HDMI input on your TV. Sorted. How cool is that?
This is the basic idea behind a switcher. If you don’t have enough HDMI connectors on your TV, monitor, soundbar or projector – you can buy a switch that will allow you to connect all your devices in one go.
Learn more: All your questions about HDMI answered
Splitters vs. Switches: What’s the Difference?
A switch and a splitter do different jobs, but it’s something that many people get confused about.
- A switch connects multiple devices to a single HDMI port on a TV, projector or soundbar, e.g., 3-in/1-out.
- A splitter sends the output of one device to multiple screens or projectors, e.g., 1-in/3-out.
When you search for one of these in an online store, you may notice that some products use both terms to describe the same item. And while some devices can perform both of these tasks in one box, not many do.
The seller will probably use both names because it is common for somebody to search for a splitter when they really need a switch – and vice versa. So, if you get this mixed up, the clue is in the name.
- A switch accepts different input devices and lets you switch between them.
- A splitter takes the same video source and splits it to display on different screens.
When you see it written down, it seems so obvious. Got it? Great, let’s move on.
Learn more: How does an HDMI splitter work?
Types of HDMI Switches: The Features to Look For
It’s important not to buy the first switch that you see. If you take a little time to consider your options, you will ensure you buy the proper one for your needs.
There are several features that you might need – and some that you don’t. So, what types of switches might you come across?
Number of Inputs
The most important feature is the number of inputs. If you just have a couple of devices to connect, a simple 2-in/1-out switch will be sufficient.
However, it might be an idea to have extra inputs as a spare for future purchases. So, in this case, you might want a 3-in/1-out switcher.
You may see this written as 3×1 (pronounced ‘three by one’) – indicating 3 HDMI inputs and 1 HDMI output.
Typical switches for home use have a maximum of 5 or 6 inputs, but if this isn’t enough, you can always buy two switches to connect even more devices.
Can you get more than one output? Yes, you can get switches with more than a single out – although technically, this is a different device called an HDMI matrix switch.
Ensure that the switch you buy supports the video resolutions you want to send. If your external devices only output 1080p video – like a standard Blu-ray player or older streaming sticks – then you only need a switch that supports 1080p.
However, newer audio-visual devices are more likely to output 4K resolutions. If so, your switch must be 4K compatible and pass 4K/60Hz or 4K/30Hz video for everything to work.
Make a list of your devices’ output resolutions and ensure that your new switch supports the highest resolution required.
Other Supported Technologies
Aside from the supported image resolution, there are several other video and audio technologies that you should check that your switch will support. These include:
- HDMI Version: 1.3, 1.4, 2.0 or 2.1. The version of HDMI will determine the things it can do
- ARC/eARC: allows you to send audio from your TV to an audio device
- 3D Video: if you still have a 3D TV
- HDR/Dolby Vision: high-dynamic range pictures give a stunning image with 4K video
- HDCP: copyright protection
- HDMI CEC: control all your connected HDMI devices with one remote
- Audio Formats: Dolby Digital, DTS, DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby Atmos etc.
Depending on your external devices, you may not need all of these – but give it a little thought before making your purchase.
If any of these features are important to how you use your system, the switch will need to pass them through from the input to the output. If not, the switch will block them, and it won’t work.
There will be a button on the top of some switchers you will need to press to change between each HDMI source device.
Other devices will automatically change between each input when it detects a signal, and for some people, this is a good feature.
For others, automatic switching can be a pain – and they would rather change sources manually when they are ready.
Further still, some switches come with an IR remote control that you can use to swap between sources from the comfort of your chair. Some switches may have all of these, so you don’t necessarily need to choose one or the other.
Learn more: What are HDMI CEC and Anynet+?
Passive vs. Powered Switches
Some switches are passive devices, meaning they don’t need an external power supply. This would generally apply to smaller switchers with a couple of inputs, but for larger switches with more inputs, the unit is more likely to need external power.
A passive switch might be easier to install because you don’t need to consider running power from somewhere.
Whereas a powered switch might work better if you need a longer cable run or a particular HDMI device doesn’t output a strong signal.
Connecting to Your System
For many, connecting a switch box should be a simple process. The main thing to think about is where you will position the switch.
Ideally, you should place the switch somewhere between your external devices and your TV so you don’t need to run your HDMI cables too far.
When wiring your home theater, it is usually best to keep the length of your cables as short as possible. This will help keep things tidy and reduce the chances of low picture quality.
Other things to consider are:
- Do you have the correct length cables to connect all your devices and the television?
- If your switch needs power, where will you connect the power supply?
- Do you need access to the switcher to change inputs manually?
- Does the switcher need to be in view for the remote control to work?
Once you have made these decisions, you should connect everything like this:
You should connect an HDMI cable from each external video source to each input on the switch. For devices like Roku and Amazon Fire streaming sticks, simply connect them directly to the switcher input. Then run a single HDMI cable to an input port on your TV or projector.
Choosing the Best Model to Buy
The best HDMI switch is the one that ticks all the boxes for your setup, so make sure you consider all the features you need before buying.
Although switches vary in price, you don’t need to spend too much to get a reliable unit that will do the job.
If you are looking for a good all-rounder that offers plenty of inputs and most of the useful features required in a switch, the SGEYR 3-in/1-out 4K switch is a good choice.
It has a metal case, which is always reassuring in an AV device.
It doesn’t mean a device with a plastic case isn’t any good, but a metal casing is often a sign of a quality device and feels a bit more solid and professional. The switcher supports most of the video formats you need, from 4K/30Hz to 1080p and 3D.
It comes with a remote control – but it will also switch automatically and has a large, easy-to-access manual switch button on the top – which covers all the bases.
It will work without connecting the power supply, but you have the option of connecting to power if you have a situation where you need some more juice. They also have a 5-port version:
And, before you ask, goodness knows how you pronounce the brand name. It looks like they just grabbed a handful of letters from the Scrabble bag – it’s great!
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the answers to some popular questions.
Are HDMI Switches Any Good?
Well-made switches will do a great job connecting several devices to a single HDMI input, but make sure they support the video resolutions and audio formats you need to send.
What’s the Difference Between HDMI and Matrix Switches?
A switch connects several devices to a single HDMI port on a TV, projector or soundbar, e.g., 5-in/1-out. A matrix switch connects several devices to multiple destinations, e.g., 5-in/3-out.
Is an HDMI Extender the Same As a Switch?
An HDMI extender and a switch are different. Extenders let you connect HDMI devices over a long distance by converting signals for long-range transmission, often using ethernet. A switch connects multiple HDMI sources to a single display, allowing you to switch between inputs.
Do HDMI Switches Need Power?
Not all switches need power. If there is a strong output HDMI signal from the source device, and the cable run isn’t too long, then a passive switcher without power will work fine. However, a switch with an optional power supply can help to improve performance in some situations.
Does an HDMI Switcher Cause Input Lag?
A well-made switch should not harm its signal, but a cheap switcher may cause issues, so be careful with budget models. Although, you don’t need to spend too much. Also, always try and keep your cable runs as short as possible to avoid creating problems.
Can You Use HDMI Switches as Splitters?
Some switches are bi-directional and can operate as a switch or a splitter, i.e., 2-in/1-out (2×1) or 1-in/2-out (1×2). Therefore a switcher splitter lets you swap between either use. However, most switches cannot do this and will only have one output, so you can only use these to select different input devices.
Here is a model that does work either way:
- Supports 4K@60 Hz
- Works as 1x2 splitter or 2x1 switch
- Comes with 3.3 foot HDMI cable
- Works with Xbox, PS4, Roku, Chromecast
- Can only switch between two monitors (not simultaneous)
So, you can use it to connect two video sources to a single output – or send a single source to two different TVs or monitors.
One thing to note. This device won’t display on two TVs simultaneously – it’s one or the other – so you’ll need a different model if that’s what you want.
About The Author
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment. You can find out more here.