Two common options for transferring audio from a source, like a TV or Blu-ray player, to an external A/V setup or speaker configuration are HDMI and optical cables. While optical can only transfer audio, HDMI can send both audio and video. Beyond that Keystone spec, though, there are some further significant distinctions between the two, as well as a few explanations for why you would prefer one over the other when assembling your entertainment system (s).
If you have purchased a soundbar or set of speakers for your entertainment area and are unsure whether to use an HDMI or an optical connection to connect them, let us explain which one is preferable and why. We commonly get asked about HDMI vs. optical audio, and it’s a quick and simple topic to answer.
The two major connections we have nowadays when buying a new AV receiver or if you’re buying one of those renowned soundbars that come in a package with your most recent UHD TV purchase are via HDMI cable or Optical Toslink cable.
What’s the difference between HDMI ARC and Optical?
Both HDMI and optical connections convey a multi-channel digital audio signal, however optical cables can only communicate digital audio; in contrast, HDMI was created to transmit both video and audio. This explains why gaming consoles, Blu-ray players, and televisions use it so frequently. It facilitates the connection of one source to one output.
Although 5.1 surround sound can be supported by both HDMI and optical lines, HDMI is a more recent standard (especially its 2.0 and 2.1 revisions). This enables it to handle more modern audio standards like Dolby Atmos, TrueHD, DTS HD, and Dolby Digital Plus, which can significantly improve the sound quality of your favorite films and television programs (if they support them). The only practical option for the most high-end audio configurations is HDMI 2.1 cables, which can even enable 7.1 surround sound.
The fact that HDMI connections can use audio return channel, or ARC, technology, is another significant distinction between them and optical cables. This enables an HDMI cable to link an external A/V system to a media source, such as a Blu-ray player or gaming console, and an additional HDMI cable to connect it to a TV. By enabling two-way communication along the HDMI wire, it minimizes the amount of cables used.
Since optical connections are unable to accomplish this, an equivalent arrangement would have an optical connection between the TV and A/V system and an HDMI connection for the media source to the TV. The construction of HDMI and optical wires also differs. Optical cables are essentially constructed of glass since they transfer signals using fiber optic technology. This results in a high-quality connection with a lower possibility of signal integrity loss along the cable’s length. Since copper is the material used to make HDMI cables most frequently, shielding is necessary to ensure a strong connection that is shielded from external interference.
This only becomes an issue at longer distances and when using inferior wires with insufficient insulation. To provide a high-quality HDMI ARC signal, all passive Cable Matters HDMI cables are constructed utilizing solid copper and sufficient shielding.
Is HDMI better for Audio?
HDMI is your option if you want the finest audio quality. Although an optical cable can still transmit surround sound and extremely high-quality music, you will be able to transmit greater resolution and audio thanks to the increased bandwidth in the most recent HDMI versions (2.0). But once more, this solely depends on your hardware, and the truth is that a lot of speakers and AV receivers are incompatible with this.
In addition, if your audio system is subpar, the difference in audio quality will be negligible or difficult to notice. For instance, you probably won’t hear any difference between the two cords if you have basic stereo speakers that cost between $100 and $200.
Additionally, you won’t notice it if you’re one of those people who can’t tell the difference between music played on a nice speaker and a smartphone. People frequently fail to distinguish between a good set of speakers and a TV’s inbuilt speakers. Use whichever cable you have access to or whatever is more affordable for you if you fall into one of those categories.
You’ll be happy with an HDMI cable if you understand what Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master audio are. Just remember that there won’t be a significant difference.
Is HDMI better for Video?
The HDMI cable is the only one of these two that can transport audio and video to or from a TV or A/V system. Only audio can be transmitted over optical connections. The ability to transport audio data back and forth over the same cable with more modern HDMI connections (namely, 1.4 or newer and 2.1) makes it simple to connect your entire system using a small number of HDMI connectors rather than numerous cables of various sorts.
If you wish to output sound to an older device without HDMI compatibility or from a TV without ARC support, optical cords may be helpful. In order to simplify settings, it can also impose an audio connection rather than complicating it further with video.