Soundbar: Optical vs HDMI

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Updated September 12, 2022

Most consumers prioritize size, impedance, and frequency when purchasing the best speakers. And they’re all important things, no question. However, the type of cable connection and how it affects the overall sound are often disregarded. And because many of the best soundbars and speakers feature a handful of connections, below, we’re comparing two of the most common cable types: optical vs HDMI.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Optical and HDMI are audio connections that transfer electrical currents to support a range of quality sound systems.
  • HDMI cables are more versatile, supporting more surround sound audio formats than optical connections.
  • HDMI cables allow users to combine audio and video connections into one wire.

If you’re someone who’s been seriously considering a soundbar, you can check out our guide on the top-rated Sonos soundbars to get a feel for what’s out there.

Insider Tip

If you want to try both signals, some soundbars come with both HDMI and optical ports.

HDMI vs Digital Optical for Soundbar

Most think that debating connection type is as simple as wireless vs wired. And yes, there are exciting debates on that front, such as HDMI vs Bluetooth. However, any speaker buff knows there are meaningful differences between the type of inputs connecting to your soundbar and source device.

HDMI and optical cables transfer signals from the speaker to the audio source, but to varying degrees. Additionally, if you finish this and want to explore the various audio equipment, check our article on soundbars vs receivers.

Audio Quality

An HDMI cable ultimately provides better sound quality, but only once you reach a certain point. Both HDMI and optical connections support specific surround sound setups, like 2.0, 2.1, 3.1, and 5.1. However, when you get into some of the higher resolution audio formations like Dolby Atmos or DTS HD Master Audio, only an HDMI chord will support them.

However, optical audio has one thing over HDMI: it’s made with fiber optic cables. As a result, the glass material in optical audio is immune to outside interference. In contrast, the copper used to make HDMI cables can pick up other frequencies, and this can sometimes make a subtle difference.

Versatility

One of the most significant advantages of an HDMI over the optical is that, at this point, HDMI ports are found on nearly all modern devices. While many TVs have optical outputs, HDMI is a universal connection.

Anti-Clutter

The HDMI cable wins in terms of simplicity for those who prefer the minimalistic approach. Models with an HDMI connection provide both audio and video signals, whereas optical only serves for audio. So, you’ll need additional cables for video if you’re connecting your soundbar to a television. In that case, the HDMI will provide quality audio and visuals with only one cord, thus minimizing cord clutter.

Warning

When using optical audio cables, always check your soundbar’s surround sound format to make sure it can match your type of connection.

Price

Theoretically, HDMI cables should be less expensive than optical chords simply because they’re made with cheap material. HDMI uses copper, whereas optical uses fiberoptic glass, which is more costly to produce. But in terms of store price, neither form of audio technology is that expensive. You can find options for both types under $10.

STAT: Soundbars typically weigh between 6 and 17 pounds, with the average weight being 11 pounds. (source)

Soundbar -- Optical vs HDMI FAQs

How much does a good soundbar cost?

Most higher-end soundbars start at around $200 and can run up to $1,000.

Do all soundbars have optical inputs?

Most soundbars come with HDMI ARC connections, but many use optical connections.

Do soundbars support subwoofers?

Any soundbar format you see with a "1" as the second number, for example, "2.1," means that it has a channel that supports a subwoofer.
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