Soundbar HDMI vs Optical: Which to Use?

Author: Gina Cunsolo

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Soundbar HDMI vs. Optical. Which One to Use? 

Incorporating a soundbar into a conference room audio system is a great way to enhance the sound of any proceeding. Soundbars such as the ESB-1090 Enterprise Sound Bar from Yamaha Unified Communications, with its built-in subwoofers, dome tweeters, and full-range speakers offer a full range of premium sound ranging from rumbling lows to clear, crisp highs.

But when it comes to connecting that sound bar to the audio system, users are faced with a choice: HDMI or Optical? Of course, users want it to deliver the best performance possible, so which one is better?

Let’s consider the factors and the differences involved.

HDMI

HDMI, or High-Definition Multimedia Interface, is an audio/video interface for transmitting both uncompressed video data and compressed or uncompressed digital audio data from an HDMI-compliant source device such as a DVD player or audio system to a digital television or sound bar. 

HDMI cables serve as a digital replacement for RCA cables and other analog connection methods. Consumer versions of HDMI were first introduced in 2003. Several versions of HDMI have been introduced since then, but they all use the same cable and connector.

Optical

An optical connection uses fiber optics to transfer audio data from the source device to a playback device, in this case a sound bar. The audio data is converted from digitally encoded electrical pulses at the source device to light via an LED light source. Once the light pulses reach the playback device, they are converted back to electrical pulses containing the audio data and are eventually converted to analog signals for playback via the sound bar speakers. 

Optical connections are sometimes referred to as TOSLINK connections, short for “Toshiba Link,” since Toshiba was the first to standardize the technology. Optical cables were first introduced in 1983 as a way to connect CD players to audio equipment

HDMI vs Optical for Soundbars

When considering connecting a soundbar via HDMI vs. optical, both will provide excellent audio quality but there are a few minor differences to consider when choosing between the two.

One of the first issues to consider is the fact that HDMI cables are made of copper, which makes them susceptible to interference when used for longer runs. Since optical cables transmit information via light, interference is largely avoided. For cable runs less than 15 feet or so an HDMI cable will suffice. Optical cables can be used for runs of up to 30 feet or so before audio quality begins to degrade.

On the other hand, bending an optical cable too much can affect sound quality. That’s typically not an issue with an HDMI cable.ESB_Huddly_sub_image_ID6_190625-jpg-(6).jpg

HDMI cables offer higher bandwidth than optical cables, meaning they can provide slightly higher audio quality. The higher resolution of HDMI cables means they can transmit formats typically used on streaming services such as Dolby Atmos and DTS HD Master Audio. These formats can't be transmitted across optical cables.

Although in the past HDMI cables were less expensive than optical cables, that’s no longer the case. Recent prices for both a 15-foot HDMI cable and a 15-foot optical cable on one of the popular online shopping services were around $15.

One area where HDMI cables have a clear advantage is the fact that they can transmit video as well as audio. Of course, that’s not an issue when it comes to connecting a sound bar, but it never hurts to have a spare HDMI cable on hand for other uses.

The bottom line

So when faced with the choice of connecting a sound bar via an optical cable vs. HDMI, which one is better?

One determining factor is the equipment to which the soundbar will be connected. Some older audio systems don’t have an HDMI port, so in terms of a digital connection optical is the only option.

In most other cases, though, an HDMI cable will be the better choice.

Additionally, where and how the soundbar is mounted may tilt the scales slightly. If the soundbar is mounted more than 15 feet away from the audio source, an optical cable may be worth a try.

Still, although HDMI offers a slight edge in sound quality, when it comes to a conference room audio system most people will likely be unable to detect the difference, considering that the system will be used primarily for voice conversations. Consider price, length of the cable run, and the type of equipment you have, and choose the connection that works best for your situation.

Contact Yamaha UC about your conference room audio visual needs

If you’re seeking advice about the products that can help create an outstanding videoconferencing solution, reach out to the experts at Yamaha UC.