Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What is optical audio?

Author's Note

After years of feeling lost in the formats, I tackled this article with a combination of excitement and trepidation.

On the one hand, I hoped that, at long last, I might decode the alphabet soup, untangle the mass of cables and reel in the rhetoric to discover just what all those jacks were for. On the other hand, my previous forays into the field hinted that my hopes for clarity might end up squelched.

It's not that I'm a technophobe -- quite the opposite. I can upgrade my own computer (although, admittedly, that used to be a lot easier) and, in college, I helped my mom program her VCR so many times that I could talk her through it blindly over the phone, like a tower jockey walking a non-pilot through landing a 747.

It's just that, somewhere along the line, a few cables became many, the color codes ceased to mean what I thought they meant and the number of prongs stopped corresponding to the number of jacks.

More than that, though, it was that no one could give me a straight answer as to which solution was the best. There's a reason for that, and it's the chief stumbling block to writing an article about consumer electronics: The world of audio is steeped more in lore than in hard facts; there's as much snake oil in those wires as sound.

I did my best to steer clear of the hype and to stick to the facts. As far as they go, they say that the choice depends on your equipment and how you intend to use it -- oh, and whether you've already lost so much high and low range to loud music and age that fancy cables no longer matter.

Contentious, normative questions like "best" and "worst" are best left to the audiophile, if for no other reason than there is simply no clear-cut answer. Don't believe me? Try walking into a guitar shop and asking for the best amp.

Related Articles


  • Access Communications. "Audio/Visual Signal Protocols (Formats or Standards)." July 10, 2007. (May 31, 2012)
  • Derene, Glenn. "The Cable Guide: Know Your Computer and TV Wires." Popular Mechanics. Feb. 1, 2010. (May 31, 2012)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Coaxial Cable." (May 30, 2012)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Fibre Optics." (May 30, 2012)
  • International Textbook Company. International Library of Technology. Nabu Press. Aug. 27, 2011.
  • Johnson, Joel. "Tech Clinic Expert Q & A: Recording Satellite Radio, Avoiding Mac Viruses and the Ultimate Guide to Cables." Popular Mechanics. Oct. 1, 2009. (May 31, 2012)
  • Kim, Steven. "HD 101: How to use Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD with your PS3." Engadget. April 21, 2009. (May 30, 2012)
  • Maxim Integrated Products. Application Note 734: Video Basics. April 17, 2001. (May 29, 2012)
  • Modern Home Theater. "Connectors (Jacks)." December 2005. (May 29, 2012)
  • National Instruments. "Fundamentals, System Design and Setup for the 4 to 20 mA Current Loop." Jan. 2, 2012. (May 31, 2012)
  • Rudolph, Thomas E. and Vincent A. Leonard. "Recording in the Digital World: Complete Guide to Studio Gear and Software." Berklee Press Publications. July 1, 2001.
  • Spector, Lincoln. "Blu-ray Audio Quality: HDMI vs. Optical." PC World. Jan. 13, 2011. (May 30, 2012)
  • Toshiba Corp. "Product Guide: Fiber-Optic Devices TOSLINK." (May 30, 2012)
  • Toshiba Corp. "What is TOSLINK?" (May 30, 2012)
  • Wood, Lamont. "Copper for Fiber." Scientific American. July 18, 2005. (May 31, 2012)