Two of the most popular ways to connect more expansive A/V systems and soundbars to your TV and games consoles or media players, are HDMI ARCand Optical, or Toslink cables. Both can deliver high quality audio to your sound system, but if you have the option of either, which should you pick?
If you can, HDMI cables with ARC (or even eARC) support offer a better all-round experience. The HDMI ARC vs Optical debate was won long ago.
What’s the difference between HDMI ARC and Optical?
Both HDMI and optical cables transmit a multi-channel digital audio signal, but where optical cables are limited to just that digital audio, HDMI was designed as both a video and audio transmission cable. That’s why it’s found such common use on games consoles, Blu-ray players, and TVs. It makes it easy to connect a single source to a single output.
Although both HDMI and optical cables can support 5.1 surround sound, HDMI is a newer standard (especially its 2.0 and 2.1 revisions). That gives it support for newer audio technologies like Dolby Atmos, TrueHD, DTS HD, and Dolby Digital Plus, which can make a real difference to how good your favorite movies and TV shows sound (if they support them). HDMI 2.1 cables can even offer support for 7.1 surround sound, making it the only viable choice for the most high-end of audio setups.
Another important difference between HDMI and optical cables, is the former’s support for audio return channel, or ARC, technology. That allows for a cable to connect a media source, like a Blu-ray player or games console, to an external A/V system, and for another HDMI cable to connect that to a TV. It keeps the number of cables used to a minimum, by allowing two way communication along the HDMI cable.
Optical cables can’t achieve this, meaning that a comparable setup would see the media source connected to the TV via HDMI, and a secondary optical connection between the TV and A/V system.
HDMI and optical cables are built differently too. Optical cables use fiber optic technology to transmit the signal, so are effectively made of glass. That leads to a high quality connection with less chance of signal integrity loss over the length of the cable. HDMI cables are most commonly made with copper and therefore require shielding to achieve a high-quality connection that’s protected from outside interference.
This is only really a problem at greater lengths and when using lower-quality cables that don’t have adequate shielding. All passive Cable Matters HDMI cables are built to a high quality standard, using solid copper with adequate shielding to ensure a quality HDMI ARC signal.
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Cable Matters Optical Toslink Cable
Should you use HDMI ARC over optical?
If your A/V system, supports HDMI ARC, it’s definitely worth using over an optical connection. Although optical is a fine connection for older systems where it’s the only connection option, HDMI offers a much greater array of audio technology support, leading to better quality audio for watching modern and remastered content.
More than that, you can use HDMI ARC and eARC technologies to maximize the number of your surround sound speakers. HDMI 2.1 cables with eARC have full support for 7.1 surround sound, along with all of the most advanced audio technologies. This is particularly important if you are looking to make use of new-generation games consoles for gaming and Blu-ray playback, as both consoles make use of HDMI 2.1 for maximum video and audio quality. That lets you make use of eARC technology for a streamlined, and high-quality setup for both video and audio.
HDMI ARC vs Optical cable length
One area that optical cables can hold a slight advantage over their HDMI counterparts, is in cable length. Optical cables can maintain a strong signal quality along much greater lengths than standard, passive HDMI cables. Where a standard, high-quality optical cable can stretch to 50ft, most HDMI cables, especially new-generation HDMI 2.1 cables, are restricted to just 15ft. If you need a longer HDMI 2.1 cable, you’ll need to opt for an active HDMI 2.1 cable. Those can measure as long as 50ft, easily rivalling the length of the longest Toslink cables. They are however notably more expensive.
Alternatively, if you don’t need the greater bandwidth of HDMI 2.1, or can make do with an HDMI ARC, rather than HDMI eARC connection, HDMI 2.0 passive cables can reach up to 25ft in length before signal integrity comes into question. Active fiber optic HDMI 2.0 cables can stretch all the way to 100ft, but that can get pretty expensive.
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