I get asked this question a lot… “Which is better, HDMI ARC vs Optical for connecting my sound bar to my TV?”
When it comes down to it there are pros and cons but before I break them down lets first look at what these terms mean.
Audio Return Channel (ARC) is an HDMI feature designed to allow audio (only) to be sent back to the source device from the television. Essentially you connect your TV’s HDMI 1 output into your A/V Receiver’s input and then connect the AVR’s HDMI 2 output into your TV. The AVR gets turned off when you watch TV because all of its functions are handled by the Tv. However, if you want to hear audio from say a Blu-Ray player, you simply turn on the AVR and adjust the volume with it.
This is a single cable solution that sends audio from one device to the next using pulses of light. It was originally designed for transports like Satellite TV, Cable and Optical discs (CDs, DVDs). These connections are usually labelled as SPDIF or Digital Audio Output. They either come in RCA or TOSLink format. Usually you can find multiple optical outputs on modern units such as 3+1 for surround sound formats other than Dolby Digital which still comes in just one stream per channel.
HDMI ARC Pros
One cable connection between TV and Receiver/Amp No need to up your receiver when watching TV One remote control used for all functions (watch tv, listen to music) TV’s tend to send an amplified digital signal to the Amp This connection supports both Audio and Video return
You cannot adjust the volume of your Amp from your Remote (if you use a universal remote), it has to be done manually at the Receiver You cannot turn on or off your Amp with the TV remote Your receiver must be turned on every time you want to watch TV if you do not have a third party system like CEC If you decide to upgrade your sound bar and get one with an HDMI ARC input it may not work unless your receiver also offers ARC Some Receivers/Amps mask Dolby Digital signal as PCM which forces your TV to convert it back to Dolby Digital so you get sound
One cable connection between TV and Receiver/Amp No need to up your receiver when watching TV One remote control used for all functions (watch tv, listen to music) Your receiver can be turned off and on automatically by the TV This connection supports both Audio and Video return
You cannot use your receivers remote to adjust volume while listening to an Optical source Each digital format like DTS, Dolby Digital and others come in a separate stream per channel If you want true surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X you must have 5.1 or 7.1 speaker setup You turn on or off your Amp with the TV remote Your Amp’s volume cannot be controlled from your universal remote
In my opinion, the main difference between a HDMI ARC and optical is that we find HDMI ARC more convenient and easier to use. But Optical has a few key advantages as well. The final decision comes down to how you will use it and what inputs you have available on both your TV and Receiver/Amp. I hope this helps!