If you’ve got a new soundbar or set of speakers for your entertainment room and are now wondering if you should connect them via HDMI or an Optical cable, let us help you understand which option is better 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 must understand that both options pass digital audio signals from one device to another. This is important because many people advocated for the Toslink optical cable a few years ago. After all, it was 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 for up to 5m long while optical cables can be used without problems in cables up to 10m long without starting to lose quality.
However, there’s a slight difference to note here. HDMI can pass higher-resolution audio signals, which means it has higher bandwidth. 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.
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
HDMI is your choice if you’re looking for the best audio quality. 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 can pass higher resolution and audio.
But again, this entirely depends on your components; many speakers or AV receivers don’t support this.
Besides that, the difference in audio quality will be close to nothing or impossible to hear if your audio setup isn’t up to par. For example, if you have simple $100-200 stereo speakers, you probably won’t notice any difference between both cables.
Also, if you don’t hear a difference between a smartphone playing music and a good speaker, you’re not going to notice it either. People often 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 cheaper.
If you know what Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master audio mean, then you’ll 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 standard 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, new PC monitor, 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.
Regarding comfort, HDMI is better 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 on your walls.
Why have 2 cables when you can have only 1 and have 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 sound quality will be better (if noticeable) in most cases, and you’ll have one less cable to worry about as it also transmits video signals. We’ve also compared optical vs. SPDIF cables before.
HDMI is also more future-proof, while optical cables will be more and more challenging to buy in the future. Get an HDMI cable 🙂