Comparing HDMI ARC vs Optical Specs and Differences – Which is better_
Sound Technology

Comparing HDMI ARC vs Optical Specs and Differences – Which is better?

In this article, we are comparing HDMI ARC vs Optical and understand their benefits and differences.

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Two of the most prominent methods to connect pricey soundbars and A/V systems to your TV and media players or games consoles are using HDMI ARC (High-Definition Multimedia Interface Audio Return Channel) Optical (or Toslink) cables. Both these cable types can convey superior quality audio to your sound system.

The question now arises if you need to choose anyone, which one to choose? Let’s first get the overview of each of them and then look at the comparison:


Image Source: Samsung

The HDMI 1.4 standard launched the audio return channel (ARC). Here, the term “return” denotes the circumstance in which audio delivered from the TV can be sent “upstream” to the AV receiver through most HDMI cables connected to the AV receiver.

This protocol enables devices to communicate with each other in both directions via a single HDMI connection. Moreover, the HDMI ARC port lets you use HDMI as both an input and an audio output. It can send both video and audio signals.

Capabilities of HDMI ARC:

HDMI ARC provides a two-way sound flow. So, you can conveniently do those things that need the use of extra cables. Since its inception in 2009, ARC has become a pretty common standard.

It can be seen on nearly all soundbars, TVs, and receivers sold in the last few years. Those devices which support the HDMI 1.4 standard must support ARC. But you need to check the documentation for your specific devices carefully.

One of the superior capabilities of HDMI ARC is that it allows you to connect your audio system through a single HDMI cable. Whenever you join a soundbar to the TV through the selected ARC-capable port, it is possible to use it for any device which connects to the TV.

For example, you can connect game consoles, Blu-ray players, etc. It does the same via the TV itself instead of a different audio receiver.

Another key capability of HDMI ARC is that it allows you to route such connections via the soundbar itself. So, it will enable you to shift the multiple HDMI connections from the TV to the soundbar without additional setup.

It proves greatly useful if your TV is wall-mounted and has no access to any of the HDMI ports. It is also helpful if you want to get a cleaner look with fewer cables going to and from the TV. This also implies that you need fewer cables for installation.

The ARC connection can be used when your TV is connected to a speaker system or soundbar. It transmits TV audio to speakers. For example, audio emerging from an antenna can be output across HDMI and then routed via the soundbar instead of the TV’s built-in speakers.

For smart TVs, this is very useful because streaming services convey all content through Wi-Fi without requiring a receiver. As an alternative, the ARC connection permits you to feed sound output to the soundbar without requiring an extra audio cable.

This could also be combined with another HDMI standard like HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) which enables you to control external devices like satellite boxes or Blu-ray players through your TV remote.

It is possible to decrease the number of cables used and the number of remote controls required for a home theater. For that, you need to utilize the ARC connection for audio and the HDMI-CEC functionality (which must be activated by default on your TV).

Limitations of HDMI ARC:

The ARC standard was devised to substitute S/PDIF digital audio outputs (also recognized as TOSLINK). Therefore, it supports every audio format that will pass through DTS, S/PDIF: Dolby Digital, and PCM audio.

It could effortlessly support the 5.1 surround sound and the TV’s standard two-channel audio. But it faces the same limitations as the S/PDIF standard of its substitutes.

HDMI ARC couldn’t send HD or audio with a high bit rate, where standards like DTS:X and Dolby Atmos are needed. This is annoying because downstream audio across HDMI could effortlessly carry the signal; this is just a limitation of the ARC specification.

Optical audio:

Contrasting other cabling standards, the optical audio system can transmit digital audio signals among devices that use laser light and fiber optic cables. First, Toshiba introduced this standard in 1983, intending to use it with their baby bird Compact Disc players.

Though the TOSLINK cable has become obsolete with the introduction of HDMI for video systems, the TOSLINK system could still transmit up to 7.1 channels of very high-resolution audio.

Can I use HDMI ARC and optical at the same time?

Yes, because both cables follow a different path and possess their own functions.

Let’s look at the differences between these two, so it becomes easy to decide which one is right for you.

Fundamental Differences between HDMI ARC and Optical:

Image Source: Sony

Both Optical and HDMI ARC cables can transmit a multi-channel digital audio signal. But optical cables can only transmit digital audio, whereas HDMI ARC can transmit both video and audio. This is why HDMI ARC is commonly used in Blu-Ray players, game consoles, and TVs. It simplifies connecting a single source to a single output.

The only noteworthy functional difference is that optical cables can’t transmit video. But, because you already have a video on your HD TV, this must not be an issue.

Though both HDMI ARC and optical cables can support 5.1 surround sound, HDMI is known as a newer standard (chiefly its 2.0 and 2.1 revisions). This supports newer audio technologies, namely Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS:X soundtracks, DTS HD, and DTS HD Master Audio.

The support for these modern audio technologies can be seen when you listen to the sound of your favorite TV shows and movies.

HDMI ARC supports audio return channel (ARC) technology, allowing the cable to connect to a media source like a game console or a Blu-ray player to an external A/V system. The two-way communication keeps the number of wires to a minimum.

On the other hand, optical cables couldn’t achieve this. A similar setup will see the media source connected to the TV through HDMI, whereas a secondary optical connection between the A/V system and TV.

HDMI ARC transmits the audio signal as a video signal component, whereas optical transmit it as a separate signal. It could create some issues with audio sync. So, you have to determine which one is more powerful, sound or picture.

When shall I use HDMI ARC over optical?

Using HDMI ARC over optical is worthwhile if your A/V system supports HDMI ARC. Though optical cable is suitable for older systems, HDMI ARC provides a much more comprehensive array of audio technology support. Thus, it enhances quality audio for watching contemporary and remastered content.

You can use eARC and HDMI ARC technologies to maximize the number of surround sound speakers. Those HDMI 2.1 cables with eARC come with full support for the 7.1 surround sound and most cutting-edge audio technologies.

The same is vital if you want to use the latest generation games consoles for Blu-ray playback and gaming. This is because both devices can use the HDMI 2.1 interface for superior audio and video quality.

Specifications based comparison: Comparing HDMI ARC vs Optical

Cable UsedOptical S/PDIFHDMIHDMI with Ethernet
Stereo SupportYesYesYes
Compressed 5.1YesYesYes
Uncompressed 5.1NoNoYes
Uncompressed 7.1NoNoYes
High Bitrate & object-based up to 192kHz,24 bit (eg;Dolby Atmos•.DTS:X'”)NoNoYes
Maximum Audio Bandwidth-334 Kbits/second-1Mbits/second37 Mbits/second
DiscoveryNoCECeARC data channel
eARC Capability (Audio EDID,etc.)NonececeARC data channel
LipSync CorrectionNo(Optional)(Mandatory)
TV Mutes & Controls VolumeNoYes (CEC)Yes (CEC)
PoweringTV Powers Audio DeviceNoYes (CEC)Yes (CEC)
ARC FallbackNoN/AYes

i. HDMI ARC vs Optical: Cable-

HDMI cables are the most widespread type of cables used in contemporary homes. They are used in a lot of modern devices. Moreover, they are the go-to cables for most home theater systems to convey reliable, quality video and sound.

These cables are used to relay both audio and video signals among devices which simplifies the setup. You would deal with fewer cables when connecting to your devices. It is easy to establish a connection of an HDMI cable to a soundbar from a TV; just use the TV HDMI ARC input.

HDMI ARC cables can support higher sound resolutions like Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS:X soundtracks, DTS HD, and DTS HD Master Audio. So, the sound clarity is excellent.

Also referred to as Digital Optical cables, Optical cables generate reliable, superior quality sound. Some users also claim that the audio quality from these cables is a bit pretentious to the one relayed from the HDMI ARC cable.

Digital Optical cables relay audio signals coming from a source device to a receiving device through a pulsing wave of light when it comes to functioning. Since optical signals can only relay audio signals, you would need an extra cable if you want to relay video and image signals.

ii. HDMI ARC vs Optical Cable: Cable length-

Based on the available space and your needs, the length of either of these cable types doesn’t create an issue. If your A/V unit and TV are close to one another, perhaps, this will not be an issue.

However, it can create issues if you use a whole-house audio system or customized media room. Irrespective of your application, using the shortest possible cable is recommended. There will be an inevitable signal loss if the cable is longer (regardless of its type).

It is essential to understand how the length of the cables affects audio and video quality. So, you need to use the same size of wires if you run separate cables to separate speakers.

The maximum cable length for HDMI ARC cables is 15 meters. The reason is the corresponding signal utilizes a low voltage, i.e., 5V. This implies that signal transfer would create degradation.

By using low voltage, extensive signals are not carried through. To achieve long-range connectivity, you can use active fiber optic HDMI 2.0 cables whose maximum length is 30 meters.

On the other hand, the range of length of optical cables is 10 meters to 30 meters. The maximum limit is more than that of HDMI ARC cables because the material used is not fully transparent, and ultimately light signal will begin degrading.

The extensive range of optical cables is helpful if you demand a comprehensive connection in your home. Throughout this length, optic cables can maintain robust signal quality.

iii. HDMI ARC vs Optical Cable: Audio Quality:

An HDMI ARC connection is a more suitable choice if you own a powerful stereo system. It is compatible with various sound formats like DTS HD, TrueHD, Dolby Atmos, DTS HD Master Audio, DTS:X soundtracks, and Dolby Digital Plus.

You can obtain superior quality images and sound from Blu-ray discs and modern game consoles with an optical cable. HDMI ARC supports playback for the latest devices that use these audio formats.

If you have a 7.1 surround sound system, you would require a further update since HDMI ARC doesn’t support it. The ‘e’ in HDMI eARC stands for device compatibility and features advances.

If you use an HDMI ARC cable, there may be a risk of degradation in audio quality. But using HDMI eARC solves this issue because it offers higher bandwidth through Ethernet technology. So, you benefit from rich, uncompressed audio without latency.

For most home theater systems, digital optical fibers generate superb quality sound. They can support surround sound up to 5.1 channels that perfectly work for any soundbar.

Note that optical cables don’t support Dolby Digital Plus, True HD, and DTS HD. The reason is they are immune to interference.

You can’t use optical cables for surround sound systems or advanced stereo systems. If you are an audiophile and use a 7.1-channel surround sound system, it is better not to use an optical cable. Optical cables are best for up to 5.1-channel surround sound. They only support DTS, Dolby Digital, and Stereo.

In terms of audio quality, the winner is HDMI ARC.

iv. HDMI ARC vs Optical Cable: Video Quality:

Optical cables don’t come with video support. The video quality differs on each HDMI cable.

Every HDMI cable can’t generate the same quality output. For example, if you want a 4K video output, you can use an HDMI 2.0 cable to obtain an excellent result. However, the frame rate will be 60 fps.

An HDMI 2.1 cable provides a 120 fps frame rate for a 4K video output. There is also an option to watch videos in 8K @ 60 fps which is more suitable for most VR systems.

If you consider an optical cable, you may have to purchase more cables to permit the relay of video signals. Buying an HDMI cable and an optical cable to accomplish both these functions may be costlier than purchasing an HDMI ARC cable.

Transmitting video signals makes sure HDMI ARC cables support higher bandwidth rates. But they degrade faster than optical cables because of the enormous bandwidth consumption by video signals.

In terms of video quality, the winner is HDMI ARC.

v. HDMI ARC vs Optical Cable: Input Options-

Always check the inputs and available ports of your soundbar and source device before purchasing any cable. Specific devices lack an HDMI port, whereas others include it.

If your device lacks an HDMI port, you need to buy the supported cables to replay audio and video signals between devices. A lot of customers do purchase anticipating a type of connection without asserting if the line is compatible with input options or not.

Although HDMI ARC cables are pretty standard, all electronic devices don’t have an input option. For older machines, you need to use an optical cable. HDMI ARC cables support modern devices. So, if you plan to upgrade to newer systems, an optical cable is a better choice.

If you want to replay only audio signals, then choose an optical cable because it can produce superior quality sound without streaming video signals among devices.

In terms of input options, the winner is Optical cable.

vii. HDMI ARC vs Optical Cable: Build quality-

Another principal difference between HDMI ARC and optical is their material composition. HDMI ARC cables are principally made of copper, a common material used in electronic wires.

Although copper is affordable, easy to produce and has been utilized in manufacturing processes for centuries, it is prone to electromagnetic interference. They need shielding to resist interference.

On the other hand, Optical cables are made up of glass fiber optic strands and use fiber optic technology. They are comparatively expensive to produce. Instead of electric current, they use light for signal transmission.

Consequently, they are prone to external interference. The use of glass leads to a superior quality connection with minimum signal interference across the length of the cable and uninterrupted transmission.

In terms of build quality, the winner is Optical cable.

When shall I use HDMI ARC cables?

The choice of when to use HDMI ARC cables depends on what device(s) you wish to connect. You should use an HDMI ARC cable if your device can support high-resolution audio such as Dolby Atmos, DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS:X soundtracks.

When you want to watch Blu-rays or wish to upgrade to a high-end audio system or set up a home theater system, it is better to use HDMI ARC cables. The reason is they support both audio and video through one cable.

HDMI ARC cables are ideal for a soundbar or an A/V controller. It is assumed that you will attain improved audio quality. HDMI ARC is implemented with CEC technology.

This technology allows you to use the same remote controller to control your HDMI ARC-connected devices. Taking this into account, if you don’t use external speakers, then a standard HDMI cable might be a better alternative.

HDMI eARC provides audio quality resembling the video signal. This aspect makes it better than both HDMI ARC and optical cables. You can choose from different consumer-grade HDMI eARC compatible products.

When shall I use Optical cables?

If you use older devices or a 5.1-channel surround sound system, then an optical cable is better. It comes with less electromagnetic interference, and therefore it is a better alternative than HDMI.

Especially if you face compatibility issues, the optical cable is a better option. You may be using an older soundbar or A/V receiver which doesn’t support HDMI ARC. In such a case, the only option left with you is the optical cable.

It is observed that optical is usually a better option for long runs. It is undoubtedly a better option if you are wiring an audio system for a whole home.

Where to buy HDMI ARC cables?

Where to buy Optical cables?

Recommended HDMI and Optical soundbars:

Each soundbar mentioned below is extremely powerful, reliable, and affordable based on your needs.

It is an affordable option to consider if you want a soundbar that supports the optical cable.

This soundbar supports HDMI cables. It comes with 100W power and is sleek in design. The audio output is crisp.

It is one of the latest surround sound solutions from Sonos. It comes with an HDMI interface. Moreover, it generates a curved sound and conveys high-quality, impressive sound to a contemporary minimalist home.

Which one to choose, HDMI ARC or Optical?

Both HDMI ARC and optical can transmit multi-channel audio from one system to another. Both these cables support a broad range of audio formats.

HDMI ARC is the most acceptable option if you desire excellent audio quality. It is a recommended choice for immersive video and audio experiences. It can support all the latest audio formats. It allows you to use the same remote controller for all your devices.

Moreover, it helps in clearing the cable clutter. Using an A/V controller or soundbar, then using an HDMI ARC cable guarantees better audio quality than that with an optical able. HDMI ARC cables are cheaper than optical audio cables.

On the other hand, optical cables continue to provide decent sound quality. They are immune to electromagnetic interference and can work well for extremely long distances. They prove helpful when you face issues while connecting old devices that don’t support HDMI ARC.

These cables can’t transmit video signals. Optical cables support limited sound formats (don’t support TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, Blue Ray, and DTS HD), whereas HDMI ARC supports all sound formats.

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