HDMI vs. Optical Audio Cables – Which one is better?

If you’ve got a new soundbar or set of speakers for your entertainment room and you’re now wondering if you should connect them via HDMI or an Optical cable, let us help you understand which one is a better option and why. Optical audio vs. HDMI is a question we receive frequently and it’s fast and easy to answer.

Nowadays when buying a new AV receiver or if you’re buying one of those famous soundbars that come in a bundle with your latest UHD TV acquisition, the main options we have to connect them to our entertainment system are via HDMI cable or Optical Toslink cable.

Years ago we only had coaxial cables (red and white) to connect, but which cable should we use in the digital era?

HDMI and Optical Toslink are both digital

First, you need to understand that both options pass digital audio signals from one device to another. This is important because a few years ago many people used to advocate for the Toslink optical cable due to it being digital. Digital signals are less prone to interference found in analog signals.

HDMI cables use copper cables though, which are more prone to interference while optical cables use optic fiber to pass signals through light, thus avoiding interference. That’s why HDMI cables are recommended up to 5m long while optical cables can be used without problems in cables up to 10m long without starting to lose quality.

optical vs hdmi

However, there’s a small difference to note here. HDMI can pass higher-resolution audio signals, which means it has higher bandwidth and thus the audio quality is a bit superior, especially if you’re using one of the latest generation cables and assuming both devices (transmitter and receiver) support it as well.

The difference isn’t that huge to be noticed by most people, however, the extra bandwidth allows an HDMI cable to transfer digital signals from formats found on Blue-Ray discs, such as Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, Stereo, Dolby Digital, and DTS HD Master Audio, which aren’t supported with an optical cable.

Optical cables support Dolby Digital DTS and Stereo sound.

HDMI also has the bandwidth to process more channels for 7.1 or 7.2 audio setups while optical cables are limited to 5.1 channels.

In terms of audio quality – HDMI wins

If you’re looking for the best audio quality, HDMI is your choice. While an optical cable can still pass surround sound and super high-quality audio, thanks to the added bandwidth in the latest HDMI versions (2.0) you’ll be able to pass higher resolution and audio.

But again, this completely depends on your components and the truth is many of the speakers or AV receivers don’t support this.

Besides that, the difference in audio quality is going to be close to nothing or impossible to hear if your audio setup isn’t up to par. For example, if you have a simple $100-200 stereo speakers you probably won’t notice any difference between both cables.

hdmi vs optical

Also, if you’re one of those persons who don’t hear a difference between a smartphone playing music and a good speaker, you’re not going to notice it either. In many cases, people won’t notice the difference between the integrated speakers on a TV and a good pair of speakers. If you fall in one of those categories, use whatever cable you have available or whatever is cheaper for you.

If you know what Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master audio means then you’re going to be happier with an HDMI cable.

Just keep in mind it’s not going to be a HUGE difference.

In terms of price and comfort – HDMI Wins

Let’s be honest. An optical cable wasn’t common enough 10-15 years ago, and they aren’t that common nowadays either, but you can still buy them online for cheap.

As for HDMI cables, you can find them everywhere. They’ll come with your Blue Ray, your new PC monitor, your new TV, etc. You can probably find an HDMI cable in your parent’s house without issues and you can always buy one at your favorite electronics store for 10 bucks.

In terms of comfort, HDMI is a better choice if you’re already transmitting video. Since both signals can be transferred via 1 cable you can afford a neat looking setup without having extra cables hanging in your walls.

Why have 2 cables when you can have only 1 and end up with better audio quality?

Conclusion – HDMI wins.

Unless you have an old pair of speakers that work under coaxial and optical cables only, you should be aiming for an HDMI cable most of the time. It’s just easier to get an HDMI cable, plus the quality of sound will be better (if noticeable) in most cases, and you’ll one 1 less cable to worry about as it also transmits video signals.

HDMI is more future proof as well, while optical cables will be more and more difficult to buy in the future. Get an HDMI cable 🙂

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