HDMI vs Optical for connecting a TV to a soundbar

When building a basic home theater system, most beginner enthusiasts invest in a soundbar for their TV audio. But when researching how to connect your TV to your soundbar you often come across the option of either using Optical or HDMI.

So, which is better between HDMI or optical?

Both Optical and HDMI can offer a great listening experience. However, only HDMI can offer hi-res audio codecs such as DTS-X, Dolby True HD, and Dolby Atmos. If your soundbar supports these 3D formats, an HDMI cable is what you need but if you are only interested in up to 5.1-channel audio, an optical cable is great.

But before we get into each of these options in more detail, let us look at why a soundbar is great in the first place.

Why use a soundbar?

A soundbar is a great all-in-one speaker that plays back audio from your TV and other sources without going through the hassle of setting up other components such as receivers and so on.

Soundbars can also offer both stereo and surround sound even without needing extra speakers.

For starters, a soundbar is the best way to get that high-quality audio from Blu-ray movies, movie streaming services such as Netflix, console gaming, music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and so on.

Soundbars save on space, and setting up will be as easy as it gets. It is also way better than depending on the sound of your TV.

You should be able to get a high-quality with a budget of at least $300 upwards.

Granted, there are several ways to connect your Tv to your soundbar that include;

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

However, to get the most out of your soundbar, you need the correct cables to connect to your TV. HDMI and Optical are arguably two of the best connections for immersive sound.

These are the options we will be exploring today.

Difference between Optical and HDMI

There are several differences between these cable connections worth consideration.

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.

The way TOSLINK connections works is by pulsing waves of light in which the sound signals are modulated from one home theater component to the other. But 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 digital 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 button.

What is the difference between digital coaxial and 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 but it is almost impossible to tell which offers less electrical interference.

Most TVs will have an optical connector but not all will have coaxial connectors. 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 degradation. 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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