HDMI ARC vs Optical – which connection is better?

Should I Connect my Soundbar with HDMI ARC or Optical?

After examining your TV and new soundbar, you notice both devices have support for HDMI ARC and optical. The problem is you don’t have either cable, so you need to buy the appropriate one. 
You also might be looking for a soundbar with specific features, and you’re wondering if you really need an HDMI ARC enabled soundbar. Or is optical enough?

Are there any advantages or disadvantages to either cable you should know about? Which one offers the best audio quality? We’ll compare the features of both cables to the winner. Before we name the winner, it’s important for you to understand how both audio streams work.

I’ll make one thing clear when it comes down to it, either cable will deliver good quality audio. As a matter of fact, it will be almost impossible for the average person to detect the difference. However, one of these cables does support more features than the other, and we’ll get into that in a moment.

The Differences Between HDMI and Optical (TOSLINK)

HDMI is the standard all-in-one technology that can not only transfer video but also high-quality audio. The vast majority of consoles and displays support HDMI.

Optical, on the other hand, can only transfer the audio from one device to another, with no video support. Most TVs do support optical cables but it’s not nearly as popular as HDMI. To clarify, the official term for optical cables that are used solely for audio is TOSLINK.

Now, although both cables deliver about the same result, the way they achieve that result is very different. Optical cables use optical fiber to transfer data.

In most cases, you wouldn’t need to know about the hardware specifications, but the point is optical fiber is less likely to be corrupted by electromagnetic fields. In other words, the audio stream will be much more stable and less prone to lag or interference when using an optical cable.

HDMI, on the other hand, uses copper wiring inside the cables. Copper is more prone to interference, especially radio frequency interference. Since most modern households have several devices emitting radio frequencies, it’s not unusual for the HDMI sound quality to suffer. It’s also important to note that there will be visual packet loss too.

Generally, with short HDMI cables, the data loss will be minuscule. There’s also the option to purchase fiber optic HDMI cables, but those are quite expensive, and not really appropriate for soundbars.

On the subject of HDMI cables, it’s important to note there are two versions of HDMI that can carry audio; ARC and e-ARC, the former is good, but the latter is the absolute best. Of course, eARC is a brand new technology, so it will be some time before devices will support it.

Comparing Bandwidth Rates

Their latest versions of HDMI, 2.0 and up, can support audio bandwidth of up to 192 kHz and 32 channels. Optical, on the other hand, is usually restricted to 96 kHz.

In practical terms, if you have a surround sound system, such as a 7.1 soundbar, the HDMI eARC will be your best choice. eARC has much higher bandwidth and it can support Dolby TrueHD audio. Nevertheless, there are only a few eARC supported devices on the market.

Optical cables do not support 7.1 audio channels because they can’t transfer the required amount of data. They can’t even support Dolby Atmos.

The Bottom Line:

So when it comes down to it, HDMI ARC is the best option here. If you already bought a soundbar that has HDMI ARC support, then go ahead and buy an HDMI ARC cable. Otherwise, look for a soundbar that has an ARC port.

You might be thinking why I’m not recommending eARC soundbars. The reason for that is there are only a handful of soundbars that support eARC at the moment, and they’re quite pricey. If you have the funds, then, by all means, grab one.

But for the average consumer, an ARC cable provides good enough audio quality, with support for Dolby Atmos.

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About S. Santos

Tech columnist and tech blogger, audiovisual aficionado trying to keep up with the ever-evolving world of gadgets, home entertainment, and personal technology. If not fiddling with AV cables at home or in front of the computer, he can be found playing tennis or padel.

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