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HDMI vs Optical For Soundbars: Which Is Better and Why?

Exploring the intricacies of Soundbar HDMI vs Optical, this article provides essential insights for enhancing your home theater experience. Uncover which connection type best suits your entertainment needs and why, while also learning about other critical factors that influence your sound system’s performance.

So which is better: an HDMI or Optical Soundbar? HDMI and Optical Soundbars offer quality audio as part of a home theater system or as a stand-alone speaker system. However, HDMI Soundbars allow for video and audio usage making them a better option when used in conjunction with your television, Blu-ray player, game consoles, and much more.

Both HDMI and Optical Soundbars offer quality sound. However, the subtle differences between the two can affect which type is better for your personal needs. Let us take a look.

Key Takeaways

  • Similarities in Sound Quality: Both HDMI and Optical Soundbars offer high-quality audio, making them suitable for enhancing your home theater experience.
  • Differences in Functionality: HDMI Soundbars support both audio and video signals, reducing the need for multiple cables. Optical Soundbars, while delivering consistent sound, only carry audio signals, necessitating additional cables for video.
  • Advantages of HDMI: HDMI can pass higher-resolution audio and video. It is superior for modern devices as it supports advanced audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, offers simpler control, and allows for a more streamlined setup with fewer cables.

What Is a Soundbar?

LG LAS260B Soundbar
LG LAS260B Soundbar. Picture by Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0]

A Soundbar is an all-in-one, compact, and centrally located speaker system. Soundbars are often known for their high-quality sound outputs. They go above and beyond the sound played through your television’s speakers.

Soundbars may be used as part of a full surround sound system, but can also be used as stand-alone speakers. When used alone, they offer quality sound without taking up as much space as a full surround sound system. They are simple to set up and have become essential in homes nationwide.

(If you want to learn more about what a Soundbar is, my Complete Soundbar Buyer’s Guide can help you evaluate what these devices have to offer and how they fit into your home theater.)

The Difference Between HDMI (ARC) And Optical

When talking about HDMI vs Optical Soundbars, we are referencing the types of cables used to relay the audio from your source device to your Soundbar. The difference between HDMI ARC and optical cables in Soundbars, although subtle, could significantly impact your setup and should be considered.

HDMI Soundbars

HDMI Connector

High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables are one of the most common types available today. In fact, they have become a universal cable used on almost all modern devices. With their easy extendability, HDMI cables are commonly used in many home theater systems and are known for their impressive sound and video quality.

HDMI ARC cables relay both audio and video signals, simplifying connectivity between devices. It also means you need fewer cables to connect your soundbar or other devices and start enjoying them.

You Must Use HDMI ARC to Connect from a TV to a Soundbar

When connecting an HDMI cable from a TV to a soundbar (more on this configuration in our guide), you must use the TV’s HDMI ARC input. HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) sends the audio signal from the TV to the soundbar. An HDMI ARC port can be used as a regular HDMI input, but as mentioned, it doubles as an audio output.

Optical Soundbars

Optical Connector

A fiber optic cable, alternatively referred to as a TOSLINK or Optical cable, will produce a reliable and consistent optical digital audio signal. In fact, some have claimed that Digital Optical cables relay slightly better sound than an HDMI cable. These types of cables work by using a pulsing wave of light to relay audio signals from a source to a receiving device.

Optical cables are popular choices for those with a home theater system as they provide quality sound. However, optical cables can transmit audio only.. This means you will need an additional cable to relay video and images between your devices.

That said, the one you have available may be too short or damaged. If that’s the case, you can simply buy a replacement, or, for the people after a truly refined setup, you can reference this external guide on how to splice your own fiber-optic cable to the exact right length.

Comparing the Specs

Typically, this includes evaluating your input options, such as whether an optical input or HDMI is required, as well as the placement of your Soundbar.

HDMI VS Optical: Input Options

You need to consider the type of inputs and ports your devices have. This includes both your source media device and your Soundbar. Certain devices may not include an HDMI port, so you might need an adapter, while others may only allow for HDMI cables. If your device does not allow for the use of an HDMI cable, you need to make sure you have the proper video cables needed to relay images between your television and devices as well.

For example, it’s commonly assumed that all devices support HDMI, but you might need to check if your specific device requires a different type of connection.

The Bottom Line: Most Blu-ray, game consoles, and similar devices do allow for HDMI cables. However, Digital Optical cables can provide sound that is equally as good if your device does not allow for HDMI use. Additionally, if you are looking only to relay sound – a Digital Optical cable can provide exactly that without having to stream video signals between devices.

Soundbar Placement

You need to consider where you will place your Soundbar as well, for instance, putting it behind the TV is a bad choice for reasons we’ve explained before. One of the most common reasons for using a Soundbar is to minimize the footprint of your home theater system.

A Soundbar offers a sleek, minimalistic approach to sound. Using an HMDI cable can help keep with this minimalistic approach as only one cable will be needed to relay sound and video signals. A Digital Optical model, however, will mean you may need more wires if you plan on relaying images to your television. If you are just looking to stream sound from your entertainment system, however, a Digital Optical cable can do that for you.

The Bottom Line: HDMI Soundbars keep both your space and cabling requirements minimal. A single wire is easier to hide than the multiple ones you may need if you opt for an Optical model.

Recommended HDMI and Optical Soundbars

There are many different Soundbars available today. While I have dedicated buyers’ guides on which Soundbars and speaker systems, the two best HDMI and Optical Soundbars models you find below are both highly recommended products. Both will work well as stand-alone Soundbars or as part of a full home theater setup.

Yamaha YAS-207BL Soundbar (HDMI Model)

The Yamaha Audio YAS-209BL Soundbar System(on Amazon), has a lot to offer. It connects wirelessly to the included subwoofer, which helps your sound remain true and crystal clear no matter what tone is used. Reviews across many different sources help make this one of the most highly regarded HDMI Soundbars available today that will not break the bank.

The YAS-209BL allows for HDMI and optical inputs. This makes it usable with almost all of your home theater devices. In addition to that, this wall-mountable Soundbar measures 36-5/8 × 2-1/2 × 4-1/4 inches.

Sony 2.1-Channel Soundbar System (Digital Optical Model)

The Sony 2.1-Channel Soundbar System, Model HT-CT290(on Amazon), is a top choice and most popular among budget-friendly options for those looking for an optical model. Ultra slim, this Soundbar offers 300W of power. It also connects wirelessly to the included subwoofer; this helps to ensure those deep tones are rich and well-developed. Wall-mountable, this Soundbar has repeatedly received great reviews from users of all kinds.

The HT-CT290 includes both optical cable and USB ports. It supports many different audio formats, including various Dolby signals. The Soundbar itself measures 35.5 inches long, 2.1 inches high, and 3.4 inches deep.

Related Questions

What cable do I need for Dolby Digital sound? Both HDMI and Optical cables will relay Dolby Digital sound waves between your source device and receiver or speakers. However, if you are looking to play Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD caliber audio, Optical cables will not support this. HDMI, on the other hand, will.

Is it better to use a HDMI or Optical cable for the soundbar? HDMI is generally better for newer devices as it supports more advanced audio formats and simpler control, while optical is a good choice for high-quality audio and is compatible with most devices.

Can I use both the HDMI and Optical cable for the soundbar?
Yes, you can connect a soundbar using both HDMI and optical cables, but typically they are used separately for different sources or purposes. Using both simultaneously for the same audio source is unnecessary and doesn’t provide additional benefits