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Soundbar HDMI vs Optical: Which Is Better and Why?

Like many of you, I use my family room for all kinds of entertainment. From watching Blu-ray movies and streaming the latest shows on Netflix to participating in massive Call of Duty battles with my PS4 and blasting Spotify as I clean the surrounding area – my sound system gets a lot of use. One of the first pieces of equipment I invested in while building my home theater system was a Soundbar. When researching which Soundbar to buy, I came across both HDMI and Optical versions. This led me to question which type is better.

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.

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 across the country.

(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.)

HDMI (ARC) vs Optical – What is the Difference?

When I talk about HDMI vs Optical Soundbars, I am referencing the types of cables used to relay the audio from your source device to your Soundbar. The differences between these two types of Soundbar cables are subtle but worth considering.

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. They are a staple for many different home theater systems and provide quality, reliable and consistent sound and video.

HDMI cables relay both audio and video signals between devices. This makes them easy to use. It also means you need fewer cables to connect your devices and start enjoying them.

You Must Use HDMI ARC to Connect from a TV to 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 Digital Optical cable, also referred to as an Optical cable, will produce a reliable and consistent sound. In fact, some have claimed that Digital Optical cables relay slightly better sound than an HDMI cable. These types of cables work through 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 do provide quality sound. Optical cables, however, only relay audio. This means you will need an additional cable to relay video and images between your devices.

Comparing the Specs

When considering which Soundbar is best for you, you need to consider some personal factors and preferences. For the most part, this includes your input options as well as the placement of your Soundbar.

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. 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.

This may seem like an obvious spec, but you would be surprised how many times people make a purchase expecting a certain type of connection only to find out their device does not actually allow for that cable.

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 set up.

Yamaha YAS-207BL Soundbar (HDMI Model)

The Yamaha Audio YAS-209BL Soundbar System, 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, is one of the best budget-friendly options available 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, 2.1inches 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.