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HDMI Sound vs Optical Cable Sound

written by: Daniel Barros•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/30/2009

Should you use HDMI or Optical for your surround sound? We figure it all out for you inside.

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    HDMI or Optical?

    HDMI has two components to it – video and audio. The one part that’s talked about the most in the tech forums and blogs is the resolution capabilities of the said cable. However, the audio side of the cable has merits that are equal to its high-definition video capabilities, in the form of audio that’s loss-less from the source to the receiver.

    So, what is the difference between the HDMI cable and an Optical Cable Connection?

    The optical cable connection is an odd missing-link type of technology that cleverly fills in the gap between digital and analog. While the device itself is still technically analog due to the fact that it doesn’t transmit digital 0s and 1s, the fiber optics that it uses to transmit sound are much faster and more reliable as a part of the standard definition cables. So, given an option between TOSLINK (the optical cable) and the standard Red/White Composite Sound Cables, Optical is considerably better, because of its capability to transmit formats that the standard cables cannot.

    However, this pales in comparison to what you can achieve with an HDMI cable. With formats like TrueHD and DTS-HD increasingly being used in Blu-Ray discs, you’ll be missing out on quite a bit of sound using the optical connection instead of the HDMI connection. Loss-less sound is in a category all its own, and only capable on HDMI cable (for the moment).

    The analogy I always like to give is to compare the three audio formats to the listening of a symphony orchestra performance. If you’re using the red/white cables, you’re listening to the performance over a car radio. If you’ve got the audio connection, you’re listening to the performance over an iPod on your earbuds. If you’ve got the HDMI connection – you’re actually at the orchestra performance hearing them perform live.

    The choice between the three is incredibly simple – if you’ve got the capacity to hook up your system via HDMI, just purchase a cable to connect the two if you don’t have one already. If you don’t have HDMI capabilities for your receiver or TV, connect it via optical and you should still have a good sound experience.