What Is an Optical Cable: A Detailed Guide


What is an optical cable? This question is common among aspiring hi-fi enthusiasts who need clarification about cables

In truth, cables are essential for transferring signals between devices. So you can rely on them to boost sound quality. 

But there’s always a debate between the HDMI and optical cable for price, usage, and design.

In this article, you’ll learn more about optical cables, how it works, their comparison with other cables, and more.

Table of Contents

Optical Cable: What It Is

An optical cable is a device that transmits signals with light. Typically, the optical cable is less than five meters in length. And you can use the device to transfer audio signals from one device to another.

What are the common audio formats that the optical cable transfers? It transmits DTS multichannel audio, Dolby Digital, and PCM stereo audio.

What Is the Working Principle of an Optical Cable?

A man holding an optical cable

A man holding an optical cable

Optical cables use light to transfer audio digitally instead of the usual copper wire. In short, the optical cable is a variant of fiber optics that works for different applications.

Further, digital optical cables operate with this principle. But the difference is that digital optical cables are specifically for audio-only applications at shorter distances. Additionally, digital optical cables change audio data on the source end from electrical signals (digitally encoded) to light. 

Then, an LED light drives the signals to the receiving end via a cable. At this point, the light pulses change back to electrical pulses. 

As a result, the audio moves through the connected component for amplification or devices like stereo receivers, home theater, etc. 

Afterward, the signal will finally change to analog for you to hear the sound effect through headphones or speakers.

Where Can You Use an Optical Cable?

A man inserting the cable into an optical input

A man inserting the cable into an optical input

Optical cables are useful for telephone lines, cable television, internet, and computer networking. Also, you can use these cables for the following:

  • Transferring data at high speeds in the military industry
  • The lighting of vehicles in the automotive industry
  • Endoscopy in the medical industry

Optical Cable Connector: How Does It Look?

In truth, the connectors are different for various devices. And it’s because manufacturers design a device’s connector based on the function. For instance, an external speaker features an input connector, unlike TVs that have output connectors.

Also, optical cables have different ends compared to HDMI cables, which have the same ends. So, it’s crucial to connect the right end to the device. 

HDMI Cable: What It Is

A close view of an HDMI cable

A close view of an HDMI cable

It’s no surprise that HDMI cables are so popular. After all, they provide an all-in-one solution. Also, these cables offer high-definition transmission for video and audio signals. Hence, you can easily connect your video and audio with the HDMI cable. 

Also, it’s a great option for gaming consoles like Xbox One, PS4, etc., as these devices feature HDMI port connections. And this cable is easy to use as both ends are the same.

Where Can You Use an HDMI Cable?

A Set-Top Box with different connectors and cables

A Set-Top Box with different connectors and cables

The HDMI cable is useful for connecting your PC to another monitor as an extended screen. In other words, this HDMI is an excellent choice for multitasking on different windows. Also, you can watch movies on your TV from a laptop with this cable. In addition, HDMI cables provide high-definition content when you link the Set-Top Box and gaming console to your television.

HDMI Connector: How Does it Look?

The HDMI connector has a design that looks like a USB port. The only difference is that the connector is usually longer than the USB port, with unequal slot side lengths and a trapezium shape. Further, the HDMI connector is typically next to USB ports on laptops, TVs, etc.

Optical Cable Vs. HDMI Cable: The Major Difference

Here are the main differences between these cables to help you make a more informed decision.

Features/ FunctionsOptical CableHDMI Cable
BuildThese cables come from optical fiber (light-reflecting cables) that use fast lighting mediums to transfer data with minimal interference. Also, optical cables have a dark sheath coat that helps to halt any information loss.The HDMI cable transmits signals with copper wires. And the copper wire helps to reduce data leakage because it is wrapped in appropriate insulation. Further, it has an inner material made from silver, aluminum, or gold. Also, the PCV cover contributes to the cables’ flexibility.
TV volume controlsNoYes
Audio coming on with the TVYes Yes
Stereo supportYesYes
VideoIt’s possible to watch videos with optical cables. But you’ll need two cables for video and audio.HDMI cables provide uninterrupted video and audio transmission from one cable.
AudioOptical cables are ideal for surround sound systems with around 5.1 channels.This cable supports Dolby Digital, Blu-Ray, TrueHD formats, and DTS HD.
Maximum audio bandwidth384kbps1.0Mbps
Price This cable is more expensive because it requires two different cables.The HDMI cable is cheaper; you don’t need additional cables to use this option.


Do optical cables support all audio formats?

No, they don’t. And it’s because these cables can’t support the entire range of surround sound and audio formats.

Can an optical audio cable send a video?

Since the optical connection is for digital audio only, it can’t send videos.

Do you need the optical cable for a soundbar?

It depends on the ports you have on your TV. So, if your soundbar or TV lacks an HDMI connector, you can use an optical cable. But it’s crucial to note that this cable won’t support HD audio formats.

Do you need an HDMI cable if you have an optical cable?

Yes, you do because it will be the second cable for transmitting your video signal.

Rounding Up

Optical cables support most PCs and gaming consoles. Also, this cable doesn’t support HD audio formats. So, it’s a good choice if you don’t mind getting extra cables to transmit video signals. But HDMI is the way to go if you prefer to transmit audio and video signals with a single cable.

Do you need more information on cable options you can try? Please feel free to reach us.