HDMI vs Optical for a Soundbar compared

A soundbar is a great investment for a basic sound system but you may find yourself wondering whether to use an HDMI or optical cable to connect it.

So, which is better between the two?

HDMI and optical cables can transmit surround sound signals from a media source to a soundbar for playback. However, only HDMI supports hi-res codecs such as DTS-X and Dolby Atmos while optical can only handle audio signals of up to 6 channels (5.1 surround) making HDMI a better option.

But there are other reasons why using an HDMI connection is a great idea as you will see below as I make a case for both options.

Difference between Optical and HDMI

There are several ways to connect a Tv to your soundbar that include;

  • HDMI
  • Optical
  • Wirelessly (Bluetooth or Wi-Fi)
  • Aux cables
  • RCA cables

HDMI and Optical are arguably two of the best connections for an immersive experience but there are differences between these cables you should consider.

Optical cables

Optical digital cables also known as TOSLINK cables, are a great way to send audio between devices in your home theater.

They can transmit sound signals consistently and reliably. In some cases, they are said to have better “sound quality” than HDMI cables since they don’t suffer from interference.

The way TOSLINK connections work is by pulsing waves of light in which the sound signals are modulated. However, they can only transmit audio signals for up to 5.1 channel audio. This will be great if the soundbar comes with 2 extra satellite speakers for the surround and a sub for the sub-bass effects.

The biggest problem with optical cables is that they only transmit audio signals which means that you will need additional cables for the video signals.

How to connect your TV to your soundbar using an optical cable

The optical port on the soundbar is labeled as D.IN, Digital IN, or Digital Audio IN and Optical Out on the TV’s ports.

Plug one end of the optical cable to the Optical Out port on the TV then connect the other end to the D.IN port on the soundbar.

Once connected, set your soundbar to D.IN by pressing the source/input button.

Digital coaxial vs digital optical

Coaxial cables have circular plugs while optical cables use a square plug.

Optical cables work by converting the electrical audio signals to light signals and convert them back to electrical signals on reaching the other end.

Both of these cables are capable of sending high-quality digital audio signals.

Most TVs will have an optical jack but not all will have coaxial connector jacks. Check your device’s I/O before purchasing or check for the devices’ specs online to see the port selections offered.

HDMI cables

HDMI cables or High-Definition Multimedia Interface cables are very common nowadays.

These cables can transmit both audio and digital signals between devices. They also transmit high-resolution codecs as DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and so on. Optical cables cannot pass these high-res formats.

HDMI cables are also easy to use.

How to connect a TV to a soundbar using HDMI cables

Before setting up your soundbar and TV you need to know that this connection will work best with HDMI ARC inputs. ARC stands for Audio Return Channel and not only transmits video signals but also transmits audio signals to and from your TV and soundbar.

With HDMI ARC, you can hook up other components such as consoles, Blu-ray players, TV boxes, etc. to your soundbar and send signals to the TV using an HDMI cable. When doing this you will need a soundbar with 2 or more HDMI ports for your players and TV.

For this connection, hook up the cable to the HDMI Out/HDMI ARC on your soundbar (not all soundbars come with an HDMI arc port).

The second option is connecting your components to your TV and using a regular HDMI connection to send audio signals to the soundbar. Select the HDMI input by pressing the source button on the soundbar’s remote and you are good to go.

Your TV should recognize this connection and turn off its speakers.

You can also control both your TV and soundbar with one remote with HDMI CEC. However, both the TV and the soundbar need to be HDMI CEC compliant, in which case you can use a universal remote.

What is HDMI eARC?

Other than just HDMI ARC, newer devices including TVs and soundbars will have an HDMI eARC connector.

HDMI eARC stands for “enhanced Audio Return Channel” and is designed to transmit uncompressed and high-quality audio. It also addresses sync issues between your soundbar’s audio and TV’s video. For this “enhanced” feature to work, both your soundbar and TV should have eARC.

What cable do I need for Dolby Digital sound?

Both optical cables and HDMI cables can relay Dolby digital signals but if you are looking for DTS-HD and True HD audio you will need “a high-quality HDMI cable“. Optical cables cannot pass high-res audio formats.

5 Specs to consider when choosing HDMI or Optical

1.       Soundbar placement

One of the reasons that most people use soundbars is to minimize cable footprint for clean aesthetics.

With optical cables, you will also need cables for video signals. On the other hand, HDMI cables transmit both audio and video signals, great for minimalism. You only need one cable to connect the TV and soundbar.

2.       Inputs/outputs (I/O)

You should consider the port selection your devices offer. Others may only have HDMI ports while other may not have not a have even a single HDMI port.

In case any of your devices does not support HDMI, purchase video cables and digital optical cables for audio.

3.       Cable length

This may seem like an obvious spec but is not be that important to everyone.

You may or may not require long cables but for custom home theater systems, long cables may be needed.

With longer HDMI or Optical cables, you may end up with signal attenuation. It is, therefore, recommended that you only use shorter cables if possible (10 meters for optical and 5 meters for HDMI).

4.       Sound quality

Optical cables will get the job done for most systems for up to 5.1 channels. However, for 7.1 channel surround sound, optical cables will not cut it.

Optical cables are quite limited when it comes to bandwidth. In which case, you will need an HDMI connection.

HDMI 2.1 (high standard from HDMI) can support almost all if not all of the audio formats such as DTX-X, Aura 3D, and high-resolution video including 8K.

5.       Video quality

Different types of HDMI cables will not offer the same video quality. HDMI 2.0 can relay 4K video but you will be limited to 60 fps. However, HDMI 2.1 will offer your 4K video and 120 fps (frames per second).

And if it is not clear by now, optical cables cannot relay video signals and will not be an option when it comes to image. You will need video cables for this.

Final take

There no doubt that HDMI is better than optical. Before making a purchase, you should ensure that the Soundbar you are about to buy has HDMI ports and at least one HDMI ARC port.

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