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Digital Audio Cables – Optical & Coaxial Cables

Want to have some fun? Go find two audiophiles—y’know, those people who have dedicated considerable amounts of time and effort into creating the absolute best audio solutions for their entertainment—and bring them together. Then ask them, “What’s the best type of cable to use for my audio system?”, get some popcorn, and enjoy the fireworks as they argue about HDMI vs. coaxial vs. optical. 

If you don’t have any audiophile friends (or just don’t enjoy feisty debates about audio connector technology), then read on and we’ll tell you everything you need to know about digital audio cables. 

What Are the Main Types of Digital Audio Cables? 

Here are the most common types, as well as a brief description of their features. 

HDMI Cables 

These cables provide a simple, all-in-one solution for both audio and video, which is why they’ve become a standard in most audio/video products (like TVs, Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, etc. ). However, if you’re focusing solely on audio products (like a turntable or stereo receiver), it might not come with an HDMI port so you’ll have to consider the other options listed below. 

Coaxial Cables 

Sometimes referred to as “coax cables” by people who hate pronouncing extra syllables, these cables contain shielded copper wire and end in RCA jacks (coloured red, white and yellow). Coaxial cables are pretty rugged, although they can be susceptible to radio frequency or electro-magnetic interference. 

Optical Cables 

Otherwise known as TOSLINK cables (because having just one name would be far too easy), digital optical cables contain glass or plastic fiber optic material. This allows the cable to carry the signal in the form of a red light. 

When an audio source is connected to a receiver using an optical cable, the audio signal has to converted from electrical to optical (that red light we mentioned), carried through the cable, then transformed back into electrical so the receiver can read it. These cables feature component or composite connectors on the ends. Also, in general, optical cables aren’t quite as durable as coaxial cables. 

Which Type of Cable Is Best for My Needs? 

The basic answer is: look at your audio devices and use whatever cable is compatible with the ports. Sure, there are some performance differences in the cable types listed, but overall they all sound pretty good. If you’re an audiophile you’ll probably notice differences in audio quality, but for the casual listener any cable type should work. 

Any differences in sound quality come down to a variety of factors, including the type of audio devices being connected, the quality of your audio media, and even the listening environment. If these factors matter to you, it’s probably best to do further research before you go shopping. 

What Should I Look for When Buying Digital Audio Cables? 

Aside from the considerations listed above, length is pretty important. One of the quickest ways to fly into a blind rage is to try and connect your devices, only to find that your cable is a few inches too short. Measure your space carefully and purchase cables that are long enough, and if you’re not sure choose cables that are longer than you need. Best Buy carries a wide selection of cables, available in a variety of lengths, colours, and prices.

The best optical audio Cables

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By

Michael Bizzaco
and
Tyler Lacoma

In the days before HDMI 2.1 led the digital-decoding landscape, there was the digital optical cable. Known as a TOSLINK cable in some A/V circles, the optical audio cable was pioneered by Toshiba in 1983. Capable of transferring uncompressed audio signals from stand-alone components to an A/V receiver, soundbar, and other types of home theater hardware, an optical cable is a one-and-done purchase you shouldn’t skimp on. We’ve vetted through a plethora of different wire brands to bring you this list of the best optical audio cables.

KabelDirekt Optical Digital Audio Cable

Best optical audio cables for most people

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iVANKY Optical Audio Cable

Most rugged optical cables

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Cmple Toslink Digital Fiber Optical Cable

Well suited for longer distances

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FosPower Toslink Digital Optical Cable

Cheapest but still great

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KabelDirekt Optical Digital Audio Cable

Best optical audio cables for most people

Pros

  • Fiber optic design
  • Durable design
  • Many length choices

Cons

  • Longer models can get expensive

The KabelDirekt optical cable represents some of the best bang you can get for your buck. According to the company, the gold-plated connectors are corrosion-resistant (not that that matters much in terms of sound quality, but it may improve the life of the cable) and, because of the fiber-optic design, the cable itself won’t have to deal with any interference from radio (RFI) or electromagnetic (EMI) frequencies. The KabelDirekt PVC jacket is flexible and strong to protect the cable over time.

KabelDirekt Optical Digital Audio Cable

Best optical audio cables for most people

iVANKY Optical Audio Cable

Most rugged optical cables

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Nylon braided to durability
  • Removal rubber caps

Cons

  • Limited length options

For the price, iVANKY packs a number of solid features into its optical cable. It’s made of CL3-rated material, meaning it’s completely safe for in-wall installations. It also has a nylon braided jacket, intended to provide heat resistance as well as anti-friction and anti-corrosion protection. The iVANKY Optical Audio Cable also has removable rubber caps for each end in order to protect the tips from dust particles when they aren’t in use.

iVANKY Optical Audio Cable

Most rugged optical cables

Cmple Toslink Digital Fiber Optical Cable

Well suited for longer distances

Pros

  • Great pick for longer lengths
  • Ultra-thin design

Cons

  • Thinner casing might not be as resilient

For those home theater setups that require a longer run of optical cable, Cmple provides 100 feet of cable for one of the lowest prices currently on the market. The cable itself has gold-plated connectors, and it’s enveloped in tear-resistant PVC materials. Plus, Cmple markets the cable as ultra-thin and lightweight, positioning it as an unobtrusive addition to your room.

Cmple Toslink Digital Fiber Optical Cable

Well suited for longer distances

FosPower Toslink Digital Optical Cable

Cheapest but still great

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Braided nylon jacket

Cons

  • Nylon braiding can make them less flexible for tight spaces.

While the FosPower Toslink Digital Optical Cable doesn’t have a set of features that make it vary widely from the rest of the cables on this list, it is priced quite competitively. The cable has gold-plated connectors, and although that matters little in terms of the sound quality, they do offer some anti-corrosion properties and, well, they look cool. The braided nylon mesh jacket makes these cables rugged better protected. It also comes in at a great price.

FosPower Toslink Digital Optical Cable

Cheapest but still great

Frequently Asked Questions

Are optical audio cables the same as fiber optic?

Fiber optics refers to transmitting data via carefully contained pulses of light. That’s how the optical audio cables work, so they are generally considered under the fiber optic umbrella. That doesn’t mean they’re the same thing as cables responsible for fiber optic internet, of course.

The alternative for these kinds of connections is called a “coaxial” digital audio cable. Coaxial cables have a better bandwidth for carrying lots of data at once, but fiber cables are better at resisting interference and lightning faster. You can check your ports to see what type it, specifically, is designed to support.

Should optical audio cables be nylon braided?

A nylon braided jacket is a layer of protection that helps the cable resist cracking and tearing over time, especially when the cable is frequently moved or stepped on. It’s not as necessary for audio cables, which tend to spend their time out of the way behind cabinets or shelves. But it’s still a protective feature for those who want them, and for those working with A/V equipment that’s frequently moved.

What does Toslink mean?

It refers to Toshiba Link, an early name for optical audio cables. The standard has evolved since then, but it’s still a label used for high-quality home theater audio connections. You can safely assume that optical audio cables you find are naturally Toslink.

Are optical audio cables better than HDMI?

Audio cables allow for a dedicated audio connection instead of offering both audio and video. That can make them useful in more versatile setups, or connecting surround sound systems when HDMI ports are all otherwise engaged. However, HDMI is capable of carrying high-resolution audio for cinematic audio formats, so it tends to edge ahead as the best option if you’re using a new HDMI format, like 2.0 or beyond.

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Compare optical cable and HDMI

Updated: 11/08/2022 16:01:36
Perhaps, every person wants his house to be a place not only for sleeping and occasional meals, but also for a good rest. And manufacturers of household appliances offer a variety of devices for entertainment. Huge TVs, powerful gaming computers, 7.1 multi-channel audio equipment – all this will help you relax, unwind and get new impressions.

But, if special technical skills are not required to use such devices, then they are needed more than ever to connect and configure. Questions arise already at the installation stage. For example, which wire to connect your 7.1 speaker system to the sound source – optical or HDMI?

In this material, we will figure out which is better – an optical cable or HDMI?

Optical cable

Optical cable in home audio systems is used exclusively for transmitting high-resolution multi-channel audio. Thanks to this, it can be used to connect powerful stereo systems.

In addition, the optical cable supports audio signal transmission with Digital Theater Systems (DTS) or Dolby Audio surround playback technologies. They are perfectly compatible with multi-channel audio systems (2. 1, 5.1 and 7.1 types), and also provide realistic reproduction with the correct construction of the scene. DTS and Dolby Audio are at their best when watching movies and listening to music.

The optical cable has another important advantage – the “light signal” is completely “indifferent” to the action of external electromagnetic fields. Therefore, interference in such wires is not induced. Optical cables are recommended to be used for connection in rooms where there is already a huge amount of equipment, and not limited to just routers and TVs.

There is only one disadvantage of an optical cable (well, except for the fact that it is used only for sound transmission) – the wire itself is quite rigid and not flexible. But only in this case it is able to conduct light. When installing, it is worth considering these features of the wire – most likely, it will not work to quickly hide it in a cable channel or behind some kind of decorative plug.

Advantages
  • Suitable for multi-channel audio transmission up to 7. 1 with support for Digital Theater Systems (DTS) and Dolby Audio surround sound technologies;

  • Resistant to external electromagnetic interference, including those from devices with electric motors.

Drawbacks
  • This is only an audio interface, that is, it cannot transmit other signals;

  • The wire itself is rigid and not flexible, as a result of which the laying is difficult.

It is worth noting that the optical cable exists in three versions. The most popular is coaxial. It is he who is used in the vast majority of devices with an S / PDIF connector.

S/PDIF TTL is similar in principle to coaxial, but uses a slightly different interface of the transmitted signal. The wire type is the same. S / PDIF TTL is used in high-end sound cards – for example, in professional ones – but in home audio equipment “a rare visitor”.

TOSLINK is an extremely unusual standard. It is used in laptops and is often combined with a 3.5mm headphone jack.

HDMI cable

HDMI is a universal interface for multimedia transmission. In fact, it’s even reflected in its name. The abbreviation stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface. This interface is used to transmit both video, audio and audio-visual signal at the same time.

It is through the HDMI interface that in most cases high-definition playback devices are connected to the TV – digital television receivers, game consoles, home theaters and much more. One wire is used for both video and audio.

The main advantage of HDMI is that it supports true multi-channel audio. For example, the Generation 2.0 interface introduced in 2013 supports up to 32 channels of audio! Of course, surround sound technologies like DTS or Dolby are also implemented.

Also among the advantages of the interface, you can add support for ARC – Audio Return Channel. This is important for some home multimedia systems. ARC has been supported since generation 1.4 introduced in 2009year. However, it is used in very exotic situations.

Among the shortcomings of HDMI, one can only single out the limited length of the cable. So, with a wire of 2 meters or more, the high-resolution signal may already be partially lost. However, if you use the interface to connect audio equipment, then a stable connection will be achieved even on 5-meter lines.

So, let’s sum up.

Advantages
  • Universal interface suitable for both audio and video transmission;

  • True multi-channel audio is supported (up to 32 channels with HDMI 2.0 and later).

Disadvantages
  • Limited length.

It’s worth noting that HDMI also exists in multiple iterations called “generations”. Despite the fact that the wire itself, regardless of the version, is universal, the interface may differ in functionality.

So, the same 32-channel audio signal is only available in generation 2. 0 and newer. But owners with equipment equipped with generation 1.4 will have to be content with 8-channel (audio systems 7.1).

Comparison and which is better

So, an optical cable is an interface for transmitting only an audio signal, and HDMI is both audio and video at the same time. But the difference between the wires is not limited to this.

Characteristic


Optical cable


HDMI

What is it transmitting?

Only sound

Both sound and video

Maximum number of audio channels

Unlimited, but in practice usually 7.1

Generation 1.4 and less – 8; generation 2.0 and older – 32

Maximum length for lossless transmission

Not limited

5 meters

ARC support

No

Yes

Protection against interference from external fields

Yes

No. However, there are shielded and active HDMI cables, they are protected from interference.

In the vast majority of cases, it is better to use an optical cable to connect an audio system to a sound source (home theater, digital receiver, game console, computer).

HDMI cables are best used in more exotic situations. For example, if the sound source simply does not have an S / PDIF connector. Connecting an audio system via HDMI is implemented only if the transmitter has an output connector, and the receiver has an input connector. In this case, ARC technology is just involved. However, there are very few TVs with it – and the corresponding output connector.

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