HDMI vs Optical Cables: Which one to Consider?

When you want to connect your shiny new soundbar or AV receiver, you have two great options to choose from: HDMI cables and Fiber Optic Cables. Back in the good old days, all you needed was a coaxial cable to get the audio and video signals to your television set. Unlike today, to align your system with sound, Blu-ray players, and high-definition programming, you will have to go through a tedious set-up procedure. A major decision you must make even before the tedious work of the setup is choosing the right cable.

 

Let me first introduce you to our running contenders for the best home theater system experience:

 

HDMI Cable

 

HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface. It is your standard cable for transmitting audio and video signals digitally. HDMI cables are compatible with most if not all, modern-day entertainment devices. Tech made in the last few years has HDMI ports - soundbars, projectors, gaming consoles, and more. HDMI has the capacity to support all sorts of new-age video formats, including Ultra 4K. And it’s not picky about the audio signals either–it can transmit something as simple as a 2-channel PCM stereo audio all the way to an 8-channel uncompressed audio in formats like Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Atmos.

 

Optic Cable

 

Fiber optic cables are made of tiny shards of glass that transmit data via light (lasers). This glass is hair-thin and can transmit data at the speed of light without losing any intensity over long distances. Fiber optic cables are the underground, flexible backbones of modern-day society. Everything runs on it - the most vital being the internet. These cables can transmit data at anywhere from 10 Gbps to 100 Gbps speed. Moreover, they don’t have interference issues.

 

Now that you have the basic facts of both types of cables let’s get into the difference between them so you can make an informed decision.


Laying The Groundwork

 

Both HDMI and optical cables pass the digital audio from one device to another. There is no difference when it comes to passing multi-channel audio like Dolby Digital. The major difference is that HDMI cables can pass higher resolution audio which includes formats found on Blu-ray like Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master audio. Fiber optic cables won’t be able to transmit these high-res sound formats. HDMI can also pass video signals. So, if you don’t want the hassle of managing multiple cables between two devices, HDMI should be your pick.

 

But it would all come down to the devices that you want to connect. Maybe you have an older receiver. Or you have everything in place connected to your TV and just want to get the audio to a soundbar. You might not have an option of HDMI altogether. Here, optical cables will be the perfect fit. You will get quality sound only as you get with an HDMI cable.

 

Let’s say you have a soundbar that benefits from a surround sound signal, and you connect it to one of the many TVs which cannot pass such signals via its optical outputs. Such soundbars may not have HDMI inputs anyway. Hence, the best way to use them is to connect their source to the bar via optical, skipping the TV.

 

Allow me to take you through the differences between the cables in relation to multiple aspects - construction, length, audio, and video.

 

Construction

 

  • Copper is the main component of HDMI cables. It’s a cheap material, and there are chances of interference.
  • Whereas, in Optical cables, fiber optics is the main component, which is a bundle of tiny glass strands. They are expensive and transmit light signals and not electricity. And they are less susceptible to interference. The dark sheath around it prevents other light sources from entering the cable.

Length

 

The length limit may not be important for everyone. A different segment of owners with custom-designed media rooms requiring extended lengths of cable might need it. But you always end up losing signal quality over longer cables. So, when you select between fiber optic cable & HDMI, choose the shortest one.

 

  • The recommended length for the optical cables is 10 meters. Although some people still use it with a length of 30 meters. For longer distances, the optical cables are a good choice.
  • For HDMI, there are no such recommendations. But we would recommend HDMI when the distance is 5 meters or less for best quality sound.

Audio

 

  • Fiber optical cables support surround sound with up to 5.1 channels.
  • While HDMI supports Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD formats, and DTS HD. Almost all the television programming gets broadcast in surround sound but there are many Blu-ray discs offering enhanced sound quality. So, if you love watching your content on Blu-ray, HDMI is the one for you.

Video

 

  • HDMI cables can carry both audio and video. It eliminates the need for another cable.
  • On the contrary, when you opt for an optical cable, you will need a second type of cable to transmit your video signal. The total cost of the two cables may end up being more than one HDMI cable. Hence, make sure to research pricing before deciding.

A Final Word

 

HDMI can serve your purpose. They are cost-effective and simplify the setup. But if your gear does not have HDMI, you won’t be able to take advantage of the high-resolution audio formats from Blu-ray. On the other side, Dolby Digital is good, for which you need to have decent gear. Otherwise, it won’t deliver quality sound even with Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MA.

 

In the end, it depends on one’s individual needs. Even audio optical cables give decent audio results. But we live in a space of convenience. And HDMI has become a go-to cable for all things. And it might become hard to argue against if your system itself supports it.

 

With HDMI’s feature set, upgradability, and the fact that it can handle both formats, you don’t need to worry about the wire jungle. Plus, you will have great results too.

 

Now that all the facts are before you, we hope it helps you to make an informed decision about your cable buying needs. We stock all kinds of cables, and can help you figure out which one will best suit your needs.