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.

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