Modern technology has gone a long way. Whether you enjoy live TV or prefer watching movies and TV shows on-demand, streaming platforms are your best friend. Services like Hulu Live TV offer a combo of live TV channels and on-demand content. And most platforms offer at least a portion of their library in 4K or 1080p resolutions, which is impressive. That gives the potential to enjoy top-quality video and audio.
But if you want to maximize playback capabilities, it’s necessary to get the connections right. One of the biggest dilemmas is whether you should use a HDMI cable or optical connections. Each has certain advantages, which is why we prepared a detailed guide below. Here’s what you should know when choosing between HDMI and optical connections!
Optical connections – an overview
An optical connection also has another name known as TOSLINK. It’s a standard for optical audio and features a fiber connector system. You’ll find it in audio equipment and its compatible with anything from DVD players to video game consoles and TVs.
The idea of an optical cables is to transfer audio from the device to an AV receiver. It’s usually found in your TV. The cable actually uses light as the signal. TOSLINK uses a red light with no more than 650nm of wavelength.
Depending on the setup, an optical connection could feature thin plastic optical fibers, or multiple strands. The downside is that the cable’s length is limited to around 30 feet to ensure optimal performance. At that range, the transmission is reliable.
HDMI cables – an overview
The abbreviation means high-definition multimedia interface. HDMI has been widely used since its release in 2002. It has proven to be a reliable solution in delivering excellent video and sound quality via a single cable. HDMI has become almost a standard to connect streaming media players, gaming consoles, and other devices to smart TVs.
You’ll find that there are three HDMI cable types available:
- HDMI 1.4. It’s the specification from over a decade ago. While it’s an advancement and supports 4K content and videos up to 24FPS, not many people use this cable anymore.
- HDMI 2.0. It first appeared in 2013, and there were different variations in years to come. The maximum bandwidth goes up to 18GBps, which allows playing videos at rates up to 60FPS. It supports all HDR variants for an impressive picture quality in terms of color.
- HDMI 2.1. It’s the latest variation appeared in 2018 and accommodates 8K videos. Some new adjustments, such as HDMI 2.1a, even support 10K, laying the foundation for future progress in picture quality. It has impressive bandwidth up to up to 48Gbps and can work with up to 120FPS. You can read about the differences between 120FPS and 240FPS, but the latter has still not become popular.
You can also choose between standard, high-speed, and even ultra-high-speed HDMI cables. That specification is important if you need the best video and audio quality, and the higher is the better.
What is HDMI better for?
For starters, HDMI has a crucial advantage over optical audio cables. It’s that they support transmitting both video and audio. Furthermore, they transfer both in a single cable, being a huge space-saver. It also contributes to aesthetics since you get both visual and sound transfer with one cable.
But HDMI cables have other pros that are worth considering. They are newer than optical cables, ensuring they support some new standards. If we focus only on audio, which is also supported by optical cables, you can only get DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby Atmos if you use HDMI. Unlike that, you’ll find that optical connections only work with surround sound systems that have no more than 5.1 channels.
HDMI cables are ideal for higher resolutions and better TVs. For example, if you are watching a standard HD movie on a TV that doesn’t have 4K support, the difference wouldn’t be noticeable. But if you have a 4K TV, you’ll appreciate the better audio quality delivered by HDMIs compared to optical cables.
What is optical cable better for?
As for length limitations, optical cables might deliver better sound quality over larger distances. HDMI cables work best at a distance up to 15 feet, while optical cables will have impressive quality up to 30 feet. Although the quality is questionable, some people use optical connections at 80 feet or more and still get decent audio quality.
Optical cable construction and working process has an advantage worth mentioning. Instead of emitting electricity like HDMI, these connections use light signals. The result is not being vulnerable to RF interference, ground loops, and other electrical problems. The cable uses a dark sheath to ensure no other light can enter the connection, which ensures maximum performance.
HDMI vs. optical connection – comparison
Now that you have more information, let’s dwell into certain areas to see which connection type performs better. Here are some considerations regarding the choice between HDMI and optical cables!
The construction quality is decent in both options, so you shouldn’t have a problem with cable durability. Both cable variants are relatively cheap, so they present a decent value for money.
HDMI cables feature copper construction since that material is the main component. While it’s durable, there’s some risk of electrical interference. On the other hand, optical connections use fiber optics. These are small glass strands, which allows transferring light as a signal.
If we are talking about experience, there’s no doubt that HDMI is the winner. It can transfer both video and audio simultaneously and has a bigger data bandwidth. Thanks to that, it has capabilities to offer a viewing experience of videos up to 4K or 8K, depending on the HDMI type.
On the other hand, optical connections only transfer audio signals. And while they do a good job since there’s no electrical interference, there’s a problem that you can’t use all formats. It’s why we come back to HDMIs offering a better experience. Those connections support DTS HD, TrueHD, and Dolby Digital Plus for the best possible audio you can get.
Here’s the truth – both cables should last for years, especially if you install them properly. That means you avoid placing anything on them or tightening them more than they could handle. You can find HDMI cables and optical connections for as little as $5, although they could also cost $50 or more. It depends on many factors, such as the brand, length and other specifics.
For most users, the length won’t matter since a few feet should cover a distance to the TV. However, consider that longer cables tend to be more expensive. The reason is obvious – manufacturers use more materials for the extra length.
Which cable is better for audio and visual?
It depends on the requirements you have. But if we are discussing the option to get both audio and video transmission, you can only do that with an HDMI cable. These cables can transfer both visual and sound data, making them convenient for widespread use. For example, you can use them to connect your TV to Roku Ultra or other streaming media players.
While we are discussing this, let’s mention you also have a cable-free option. Many streaming services, such as DirecTV Stream or fuboTV, have smart TV apps. You can install these on your TV and rely on the device’s audio. Thanks to that, you won’t get a single cable. If you have a reliable wi-fi internet, it’s possible to enjoy VOD content or live TV channels setup offered by the platform. And there’s a detailed Flixed TV guide that will ensure you don’t miss a single show you’d like to watch.
Which cable is more common?
HDMI cables have become far more common than classic optical variants. The reason is simple and lies in the fact that many manufacturers offer HDMI cables with their devices. For example, you could purchase a Blu-ray player and receive this cable with it.
That means you don’t have to invest in other cables. Apart from saving money, there’s also less hassle since you get everything with the setup. And it’s worth noting that HDMIs have the important advantage of transmitting both audio and video. You save space taken by cables and the setup is less demanding.
Our takeaway – HDMI is better, but optical connections can be a good audio solution
It comes down to this – HDMI connections are better. They can transfer video and audio, making them the only option to enjoy live TV streaming services. Whether you pick Hulu Live TV, Amazon Prime Video, or Apple TV+, you’ll find HDMI does an excellent job in delivering the best V/A quality.
That being said, optical components can be a decent audio solution. If you already have an existing setup, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use it. But if you are thinking which you should get, go with HDMI. It’s a newer version easier to install and it performs better!
Aneeca Younas • Author
Aneeca Younas is a graduated journalist with years of experience writing in different niches based in Oakland, CA. She is a huge movie fan that also enjoys watching sports. That's why she spends hours daily using various streaming services. Over the years, Aneeca profiled herself as an expert in cable-free and VOD platforms.
Desiree Wu • Editor
Desiree is a full-time Honours Business Administration student at Ivey Business School at Western University. She also works as the Editorial Intern at Flixed. Desiree is based in London, Ontario.