HDMI ARC vs OPTICAL – Which one should you use?

There are a lot of questions when it comes to the difference between hdmi arc vs optical cables, today we will offer some information about these aspects in an attempt to clarify any confusion.

When you’re trying to connect a device to your TV, sometimes it can be difficult if the cables aren’t the right fit for your electronics. HDMI ARC and optical cables are two of the most common options for sound connections between devices, but there are some differences that need to be known before you can choose. 

Table of Contents
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    Sonos Wireless Music Player

    Getting started

    You’ve just purchased a new A/V receiver or soundbar like the Sonos ARC. 

    Congratulations! But now it’s time to connect the dots, and you have some choices to make. Life wasn’t always this difficult. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, a simple coaxial cable sufficed for all connections. However, we are no longer technological cavemen. Instead, we have an abundance of accessories such as Blu-Ray players, game consoles, cable boxes, and A/V receivers.

    Thankfully, HDMI has taken over the role that coax once held. You’re simply adding more cables. However, there may be some issues with A/V receivers or soundbars. Standard HDMI, in particular, does not support two-way audio transmission. As a result, if your signal runs through your receiver and into your TV, it can’t run back out. You’ll need an HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) cable for this. Alternatively, you can use a fiber optic cable, also known as optical cable. Which is the best? Here’s a quick rundown.

    The Fudamentals

    Both HDMI ARC and optical cables serve the same purpose. They both send multi-channel audio from one device to the next. So far, everything is going swimmingly. The only significant functional difference is that an optical cable does not transmit video. However, since you already have video on your HD television, this should not be a problem.

    The primary distinction between HDMI and optical is in their material composition. HDMI cables are primarily made of copper, a common material for electronic cables. Copper is inexpensive, simple to produce, and has been used in manufacturing for centuries. On the negative side, it is vulnerable to electromagnetic interference. Optical cables, on the other hand, are composed of glass fiber optic strands. These are relatively costly to produce. However, instead of an electrical current, they use light to transmit the signal. As a result, they are immune to outside interference.

    We shouldn’t have to say it, but make sure your equipment is compatible. Some soundbars, for example, do not support HDMI audio. If your TV does not support optical sound, you must connect a digital optical cable directly from your source. This may appear to be a good workaround, but it is not. Because the signals are traveling on different paths, the audio and video may be out of sync. In other words, before purchasing a soundbar or A/V receiver, ensure that it will work with your television.

    There are a lot of different types of cables out there, and it can be confusing to know which one to use for what. HDMI ARC and OPTICAL cables are both used to send audio signals from your devices to your AV receiver, but they work in different ways. HDMI ARC sends the audio signal as part of the video signal, while optical sends it as a separate signal. This can cause some problems with audio sync, so you’ll need to decide which is more important to you-picture or sound. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how these two types of connections work, and help you decide which one is right for you.

    What is an HDMI ARC and how does it work

    HDMI ARC is short for “Audio Return Channel.” It’s an alternative to the more traditional (and expensive) method of hooking up your speakers, called optical.

    Quick Overview of the HDMI ARC

    The HDMI 1.4 standard introduced the audio return channel (ARC). The term “return” refers to the situation in which audio from the TV can be sent “upstream” to the AV receiver via most HDMI cables connected to the AV receiver.

    This protocol allows devices to communicate with one another in both directions using a single HDMI connection. The HDMI ARC port essentially allows you to use HDMI as both an input and an audio output.

    Capabilities of HDMI ARC

    Because of the two-way sound flow provided by HDMI ARC, you can easily do some things that used to necessitate the use of additional cables.

    To begin, connect your audio system using a single HDMI cable. When you connect your soundbar to the TV via the designated ARC-capable port, you can use it for any device that connects to the TV, including Blu-ray players, game consoles, and other devices. And it does so through the TV itself, rather than through a separate audio receiver.

    Second, you can route these connections through the soundbar itself, allowing you to move the multiple HDMI connections from the TV to the soundbar with no additional setup. This is especially useful if your TV is wall-mounted and you don’t have access to all of the HDMI ports or simply want a cleaner look with fewer cables running to and from the TV. It also means there will be fewer cables to install.

    When your TV is linked to a soundbar or speaker system, you can use the ARC connection to send TV audio to the speakers. Audio from an antenna, for example, can be output over HDMI and routed through the soundbar rather than the TV’s built-in speakers. This is especially important for smart TVs, as streaming services deliver all content via Wi-Fi, with no need for a receiver. Instead, the ARC connection allows you to output that sound to your soundbar without the need for a separate audio cable.

    This can also be used in conjunction with another HDMI standard known as Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC), which allows you to control external devices such as Blu-ray players or satellite boxes using your TV remote. You can reduce the number of cables used and the number of remote controls required for your home theater by using the ARC connection for audio and the HDMI-CEC functionality (which should be enabled by default on your TV).

    Since its introduction in 2009, ARC has become a very common standard, and it can be found on almost all TVs, soundbars, and receivers sold in recent years. Anything that supports the HDMI 1.4 standard should be able to support ARC, but double-check the documentation for your specific devices to be sure.

    HDMI ARC: Sound Configuration

    Depending on the manufacturer and model of your TV, you may need to take a few extra steps to get everything activated and set up for ARC.

    First, determine which ports support ARC. Most TV manufacturers provide ARC output via a single HDMI port rather than all three or four ports on the set. Typically, this is indicated by a label on the set itself. If the HDMI ports aren’t clearly labeled, consult the TV manual, which should specify which HDMI port to use.

    Second, you may need to turn on the TV’s ARC output. This feature is usually found in the Settings menu, under Audio. While many TVs detect ARC-capable devices automatically, others require you to activate the feature manually.

    Finally, simply plug in your equipment. This is a no-brainer; any HDMI cable will suffice. The only thing to remember is that your external audio device must be connected to the ARC-enabled port.

    HDMI ARC: Limitations

    While the simplicity of ARC and audio-over-HDMI is wonderful, it is not without flaws. The ARC standard was created to replace S/PDIF digital audio outputs (also known as TOSLINK) and thus supports all audio formats that would normally pass through S/PDIF: Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM audio. It can easily handle both the TV’s regular two-channel audio and 5.1 surround sound.

    However, it suffers from the same limitations as the S/PDIF standard it replaces. It can’t send HD or high-bit-rate audio, which is required by standards such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. This is especially aggravating because downstream audio over HDMI can easily carry the signal; it’s simply a limitation of the ARC spec.

    Even more vexing, some TVs actually downgrade audio output via ARC, converting everything to two-channel sound even if it started out as 5.1 audio. It’s not common, but depending on the make and model of your TV, you may end up with lower sound quality than with ARC. Connecting an extra audio cable or two may be worth the trouble in these cases.

    eARC and Beyond

    The next version of HDMI ARC actually arrived in 2018 when HDMI 2.1 started to arrive on TVs. HDMI 2.1 connectivity has plenty of benefits, like higher bandwidth for higher resolutions and framerates, as well as cool new features like automatic game modes.

    But HDMI 2.1 also offers a new and improved version of ARC, called Enhanced Audio Return Channel, or eARC. The biggest improvement eARC offers is support for full-resolution audio signal, meaning that it supports Dolby Atmos and other uncompressed sound formats.

    Not all TVs currently use HDMI 2.1 for all HDMI ports, but a significant number offer partial 2.1 support for specific features, with eARC being the most widely offered. You’ll find eARC on models from LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL, Vizio and Hisense.

    Unlike the original HDMI ARC, which works with all HDMI cables, eARC does require new hdmi cables that have the higher bandwidth of the 2.1 spec. But don’t worry if you’re not ready to upgrade yet – both the cables and existing ARC-equipped soundbars are still supported by the updated connection.

    What is an OPTICAL Audio and how does it work

    Have you ever wondered what that trapezoidal “optical” audio port is all about? These can be found on the back of computers, HDTVs, media receivers, and other devices, but they are rarely used. That little, often-overlooked port, on the other hand, can be a real life saver. Let’s take a look at what it is and how you can use it.

    Quick overview of OPTICAL audio

    The vast majority of the cabling you use for your media centers, computers, and audio/visual equipment is powered by electrical signals. The signal, whether analog or digital, is transmitted as an electrical impulse through a conductive wire. Every cable has wires, wires, and more wires inside it, from the speaker wire on your 1970s turntable to the HDMI cable on your new HDTV.

    The optical audio cable is a standout in the home audio/video market. Unlike other cabling standards, the optical audio system transmits digital audio signals between devices using fiber optic cables and laser light. Toshiba first introduced the standard in 1983, with the intention of using it with their fledgling Compact Disc players. (This is why they are sometimes referred to as Toshiba-Link or TOSLINK cables.)

    To see if your devices support TOSLINK audio cabling, look for the TOSLINK port on the back of the device. The port is typically labeled “optical audio”, “TOSLINK“, “Digital Audio Out (Optical)” or something similar, but it is not required. The TOSLINK port stands out from the crowd, resembling a tiny little doggie door into the bowels of your device. Even more distinctive than the shape is the fact that when the device is turned on, a faint glow of red laser light can be seen around the port door. (Please see the image at the top of this article.)

    Despite the fact that the standard is now over thirty years old, it has been greatly refined, and modern TOSLINK connections are as useful as ever. So, what’s the deal with the lone optical cable? While that could be a historical investigation in and of itself, here’s the short version: When TOSLINK first appeared, it was far too powerful for most people’s needs, and by the time the average consumer was enjoying a high-end home theater, the TOSLINK cable had been surpassed by the HDMI cable. (HDMI is not only easier to use because it carries both video and audio, but it also supports newer high-resolution audio formats such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. TOSLINK, however, does not.)

    Todays uses for Optical Audio

    Why should you care if HDMI has largely replaced TOSLINK? While it is true that the TOSLINK cable has been rendered more or less obsolete by HDMI for video systems, this does not mean that the TOSLINK cable should be relegated to the Museum of Obsolete Ports and Standards.

    The TOSLINK system can still carry up to 7.1 channels of extremely high-resolution audio. For the vast majority of consumer setups, there will be no discernible difference in audio quality whether an HDMI cable or a TOSLINK cable is used.

    Our goal isn’t to persuade you to switch from HDMI to TOSLINK cables. If all of your devices and everything is working properly, then go ahead and continue. The purpose of this article is to highlight how the TOSLINK standard is the unsung hero of the digital audio world. When you think you’re out of luck, when you think there’s no way to accomplish the audio-system wrangling required to achieve your goal, the TOSLINK cable can frequently come to your rescue.

    Let’s take a look at three common situations where TOSLINK is preferable to HDMI.

    Keeping Legacy Audio Gear Working

    This is most likely the most common and pressing reason why people today use the TOSLINK standard. You have a fantastic and high-quality older media receiver with every port imaginable except HDMI inputs.

    You don’t have to sell your high-end receiver that you bought years ago on Craigslist for pennies on the dollar. TOSLINK out ports are still found on the vast majority of HDTV sets, as well as many Blu-ray players, game consoles, and other devices. You can route the HDMI video from the source (say, your cable box) to your TV, then reverse the process to route the optical audio to your receiver and speaker system. TOSLINK has been on the market since 1983, so chances are a premium audio/video receiver manufactured in the last decade or two has a TOSLINK port.

    Audio Isolation

    It is possible to separate the audio signal from an HDMI cable, but it is a difficult process that necessitates the use of decoders, adapters, and a slew of nonsense bordering on digital black magic. If you need to isolate an audio signal from a digital source, TOSLINK cables are unquestionably the most convenient way to do so.

    Assume you want to use your Blu-ray player as a CD player but don’t want to turn on your TV to listen to those CDs. If your Blu-ray player has a TOSLINK port, you can route the audio to your speakers or receiver via the optical port.

    Another example: you have a nice set of speakers connected to a good receiver, but the receiver is so old that it has no digital connections at all–including no TOSLINK port. Put a $10 optical-to-analog converter between your optical audio out and your receiver, and you’re in business: you can break the audio out of its digital cage and pipe it into any analog device you want: wireless headphones, an old receiver, a whole-house audio system from the 1990s, or any other system that only accepts analog audio.

    Eliminating the annoying Ground Loop Hum

    Ground loops are a fairly complicated subject in electrical engineering. Rather than delving into an arcane description of what a ground loop is (feel free to do some advanced reading on the topic if you’re curious), it’s sufficient to say that a ground loop can occur in your home when there are multiple paths for electricity to take to the ground. This, in turn, may cause a “hum” from your speakers.

    Poorly grounded cable TV equipment is one of the most common causes of a ground loop in home media equipment. In this case, your power outlets and connected media equipment are grounded to one ground (hopefully, the main earth-ground spike outside if your house is up to code), but the coax cable is grounded to another ground (often a water-pipe ground if there is a water pipe or spigot near where the cable enters the home).

    What is the difference between the HDMI ARC and OPTICAL?

    What is the difference between OPTICAL cable vs HDMI ARC cable

    The primary distinction between HDMI ARC vs optical is in their material composition. HDMI cables are primarily made of copper, a common material for electronic cables. Copper is inexpensive, simple to produce, and has been used in manufacturing for centuries. On the negative side, it is vulnerable to electromagnetic interference. Optical cables, on the other hand, are composed of glass fiber optic strands. These are relatively costly to produce. However, instead of an electrical current, they use light to transmit the signal. As a result, they are immune to outside interference.

    You should make sure your equipment is compatible. Some soundbars, for example, do not support HDMI audio. If your TV does not support optical sound, you must connect an optical cable directly from your source. This may appear to be a good workaround, but it is not. Because the signals are traveling on different paths, the audio and video may be out of sync. In other words, before purchasing a soundbar or A/V receiver, ensure that it will work with your television.

    HDMI ARC vs Optical – Audio Quality

    Optical cables will suffice for the majority of home entertainment systems. They support up to 5.1 channels of surround sound. That’s adequate for any soundbar. But what if you’re a music fanatic with a 7.1-channel surround sound system? In that case, an optical cable isn’t going to suffice. Additionally, optical cables do not support TrueHD, DTS HD, or Dolby Digital Plus. That’s a significant limitation for a more advanced soundbar, let alone a full stereo system.

    The issue is that, while optical cables are virtually immune to interference, their capacity is limited. You’ll need an HDMI ARC connection to get the most out of your powerful stereo system. HDMI ARC can play almost any audio format. Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital Plus, TrueHD, and DTS HD are all supported. This will ensure that you get the best quality from your Blu-Ray discs or modern game console.

    The one significant feature that HDMI ARC does not support is 7.1-channel surround sound. You’ll need another update for that. HDMI eARC is capable of 7.1-channel surround sound (the “e” stands for “enhanced”). It also has a greater bandwidth. Most modern televisions, even the most expensive ones, produce compressed sound of lower quality than the input. Regardless of whether you’re using HDMI ARC or not, this can have an impact on your sound quality. HDMI eARC outputs at the same quality as the input using Ethernet technology. In other words, you can listen to rich, uncompressed audio without having to worry about jury-rigging or latency. eARC technology is currently supported by only a few devices. If you want to go this route, double-check your hardware specifications before purchasing.

    HDMI ARC vs OPTICAL – Video Quality

    Although video quality is only applicable to HDMI cables, it is still worth mentioning. The reason for this is that not all HDMI cables are created equal. If you require 4K video, an HDMI 2.0 cable will suffice. You will, however, be limited to 60 frames per second. An HDMI 2.1 cable, on the other hand, will provide 120 frames per second in 4K. Even 8K video at 60 frames per second is possible! This is required for the majority of VR systems. Furthermore, there is an obvious secondary point to be made regarding video. Because an optical cable is incompatible with video, you will require additional cables. Purchasing an optical cable and a low-cost HDMI cable can be more expensive than investing in a high-quality HDMI ARC cable.

    HDMI ARC vs OPTICAL – Cable Length

    Cable length may or may not be an issue depending on your requirements. It’s not a problem if your TV and A/V receiver are right next to each other. Furthermore, it is a significant issue if you have a custom media room or whole-house audio system. Before we continue, it is important to note that you should always use the shortest cable possible for your application. The longer the cable, regardless of the type, the more signal loss there will be. On HDMI, however, video signals typically degrade faster than audio signals. The reason for this is that video consumes the vast majority of available bandwidth. There is also less tolerance for signal loss in video than in audio.

    Knowing this, if you’re running separate cables to different speakers, use the same length cable. This is due to the fact that different cable lengths can skew the signal. The greater the difference, the more difficult it will be for your A/V receiver to detect the correct clock signal.

    The maximum run length of an HDMI cable is about 15 meters (about 50 feet). There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, there is the previously mentioned interference issue. However, that is not the end of the story. Another issue is that an HDMI signal uses a very low voltage, only 5 volts. As a result, even a high-quality, low-resistance cable can only carry the signal so far. There will be noticeable degradation after 15 meters.

    Optical cables have a maximum length of 10 to 30 meters, depending on their quality (about 33 to 99 feet). Because no material is completely transparent, they still have a maximum length. The light signal will eventually deteriorate.


    Which one should you use for your home entertainment system

    In the end the decision will be determined by your budget and needs. Optical cables are significantly cheaper than HDMI ARC cables, but they’re also the inferior option.

    Why you should choose HDMI ARC

    If you have an A/V controller or a soundbar, HDMI ARC cables are ideal. Simply put, you’ll get better audio quality than with an optical cable. This alone makes HDMI ARC the clear winner. Furthermore, HDMI ARC supports CEC technology. We haven’t talked much about it. CEC enables you to use the same remote control to control all of your HDMI ARC-connected devices. Keeping this in mind, if you’re not using external speakers, a standard HDMI cable may be a better choice.

    HDMI eARC will provide audio quality that is identical to the video signal. This makes it superior to both optical and HDMI ARC cables. There are consumer-grade HDMI eARC compatible products currently on the market to choose from.

    Why you should choose OPTICAL

    If you have compatibility issues, optical is the way to go. You might have an older A/V receiver or soundbar that doesn’t support HDMI ARC, for example. In that case, optometry may be your only option. Furthermore, optical is a better option for long runs. It’s definitely a better option if you’re wiring an audio system for your entire house. Finally, if you’re experiencing a lot of electromagnetic interference, an optical cable is recommended. Of course, in that case, you should inspect your equipment to determine what is causing the interference.

    Anthony Bahn Logo Transparent2

    Final thoughts

    As you can see, each of these technologies has its own set of applications. To begin with, HDMI ARC is the best option if you want the highest possible audio quality. It supports all of the most recent audio formats and allows you to use the same remote for all of your devices. Furthermore, it aids in the removal of tangled cables and clutter.

    Optical cables, on the other hand, continue to provide good sound quality. Not only that, but they are immune to interference and can run for very long distances. At the end of the day, the type of cable you require will be determined by your needs.

    Depending on the sound quality, audio formats, multi channel audio, support surround sound that you are looking for you might need HDMI ARC or optical cable. Which one are you planning on using? Leave me a comment and let me know!

    Check out more articles like this one here.

    Affiliate Disclaimer

    The site is sustained by the profits made when our readers make a purchase from our affiliate links. However, we examine all products according to the same strict evaluation standards and stand proudly behind our recommendations. We’re independently owned and the options expressed here are our own.

    Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: