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Soundbar HDMI vs Optical – Which is better?

When did we suddenly discover this urge to watch movies at home? It may have been longer ago than you might think. It was in the 1950s that some people started to show Super 8mm movies at home because the cost of projectors and equipment had come down.

It was still out of the reach of most, though, and was a rich man’s toy. It was also dreadful with an awful picture and sound if you were lucky. The idea of a Soundbar couldn’t possibly have been imagined in those days. Choosing between Soundbar HDMI vs Optical connections was not something that kept you up at night.

But then came Video, and the Laserdisc and companies were recognizing the possibilities. Creating a “real” movie theater experience at home. Was that possible?

Home Cinema

Home Cinema

Suddenly it was, and technology moved fast. We wanted a good picture. By the 2000s, we had flat-screen TVs, so the picture was fine. But what about the sound? We wanted a way to have cinema sound at home.

What we have isn’t quite the same as the cinema, but it does quite well. Part of that system is a Soundbar. Some people may only have a soundbar and use them as a stand-alone sound system. But whatever your setup at home, you have two main options. HDMI or optical.

Is There a Difference?

They both offer quality sound. But there are one or two differences between HDMI and Optical soundbars that might affect your choice, based on your individual needs. They might be subtle and, to some, irrelevant, but the differences are worth considering. We shall look at what they are soon.

What Does a Soundbar Do?

It is a slimline, horizontal all-in-one speaker system. It is usually placed centrally in the room near the TV facing those listening. They are known for their good quality sound reproduction. Certainly, they are a major step up from the speakers provided in your TV.

They can be used as part of a complete surround sound system or as a stand-alone speaker. They are easy to set up, and some prefer them for the shape and design, which can take up less room.

As a Stand-Alone

If it is the only speaker you are using, then there will be some limitations, especially in the bottom end. While they have a good length which gives them a decent spread of sound, they are comparatively compact in height.

This means that the speaker size needs to be quite small. The bottom end is not, therefore, going to be anywhere near what you would get from even the cheapest subwoofer. However, the mids and top end will be anything from good to excellent, depending on the quality of the soundbar.

There are some Soundbars with built-in subwoofers, albeit with a fairly modest bottom end. Not like a stand-alone sub, but they certainly give the low frequencies a bit of help.

Soundbar Connections

There are two basic ways of connecting a Soundbar. This is via either an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) cable or through an Optical cable. Some soundbars have also got Bluetooth connections, but I will not be looking at those in this article.

HDMI Cable or Optical Cable Differences

HDMI

So what we are talking about is the kinds of cables used to connect a soundbar. Let’s look at each individually.

HDMI

This system first appeared in 2002. It was designed to replace the three old-school components cables and is capable of carrying digital audio and video in just one cable. Since that time, it has become universally used and is included on almost all modern devices to provide consistent and reliable video and sound.

As I already mentioned, the cable carries the signals for both video and audio. This makes the connection very easy and means there are fewer cables all over the place.

Audio Return Channel Input

Some devices these days carry a special ARC connection to connect the Soundbar to the TV. This port, although designed to carry the signal to the Soundbar, can also be used as an audio output.

Digital Optical

Sometimes referred to as an Optical Cable is also going to give you a consistent and reliable sound. This is newer technology, and some think they offer better sound than HDMI.

This sound quality has made them popular; however, there is what some will see as a drawback. They only send audio signals and not video or images. To accommodate those, you will need an extra cable. For home cinema then you will need two cables as against the one HDMI.

Are they Vulnerable?

Probably no more than most cables. This idea has developed in some circles because they work by pumping a wave of light. This is in the form of a pulse to transfer the signals that go to the receiving device.

Let’s Make Some Comparisons

HDMI and Optical will both send Dolby Sound waves from the source to your speakers. However, Optical does not support either DTS-HD caliber audio or Dolby TrueHD. HDMI supports both.

Some are going to see the lack of video signal transfer with Optical as a problem, and it will mean an extra cable if you use an Optical connection.

Both HDMI and Optical soundbars will give you high-quality audio. Either as part of a home cinema system or as a stand-alone.

A Word of Caution

A Word of Caution

Before buying anything, check the Input options. Most devices carry HDMI but not all, likewise for an Optical port. My advice is to try and buy a soundbar with both HDMI and Optical connections. That is the easiest way to settle the soundbar HDMI vs Optical debate.

If you are looking for a Soundbar, this Nebula Soundbar – Fire TV Edition is a nice option. For a soundbar that only carries an HDMI option, there’s this YAMAHA SR-B20A Sound Bar with Built-in Subwoofers and Bluetooth.

And for good all-around value, check out this KMOUK Soundbar 2.1 Channel, Sound Bar for TV with Built-in Dual Subwoofers, HDMI ARC/Optical/AUX Connection.

Looking for a Great Soundbar or Speakers?

No problem, simply check out our in-depth Sony HT-S350 Soundbar Review, our Yamaha Audio YAS-109 Review, our Yamaha YAS-207BL Review, our Samsung HW-R650 Review, our Klipsch R-10B Review, and our VIZIO SB3821-C6 Review for awesome audio you can buy in 2021.

Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Wireless TV Speakers, the Best High End Home Theater Speakers, the Best 7.1 Home Theater System, the Best Sonos Speakers, and the Best Smart Speakers currently on the market.

And don’t miss our handy guides on Soundbar vs. SoundbaseHow to Control a Soundbar With a TV RemoteHow to Mount a Soundbar to a TVHow to Make a Soundbar Sound Better, and Connect a Soundbar to TV Without HDMI or Optical for more useful information.

Soundbar HDMI vs Optical – Final Thoughts

I think it is a safe bet to buy a device carrying both connections, as I suggested. But if I have to pick between them, then I would choose HDMI. The extra cable required for the TV for Optical, as well as the support for DTS-HD caliber audio and Dolby TrueHD, are the things that sway it.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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