Overview of Digital Audio Cables Home theater surround sound systems have come quite a way in over the years. Audio formerly traveled over two thin, shielded RCA-type connector cables in order to transmit audio from the old VHS decks to a receiver that was primarily a phono/FM radio/stereo system with an auxiliary input. Early home theater hobbyists such as myself used that input to get a stereo, two channel sound field for watching movies and we thought that was pretty darn cool back in those days.
Modern digital surround sound systems are much more sophisticated – yet simpler in connections. Now you only need one small digital audio cable to connect your DVD, Satellite TV receiver or HDTV unit to your audio system provided that you have a digitally equipped source and receiver.
There are two types of digital audio transmission systems (well actually there are three if you include HDMI cables which carry both digital video and audio – see the section on HDMI below) – coaxial and fiber optic (or optical) are the most common and they use two types of corresponding cables – coaxial and fiber optic (also known as tos-link) cables. A coaxial cable is a shielded coaxial cable with RCA type connector on each end. An optical cable contains a fiber optic strand encased in a protective clading and rubberized case with molded connectors on each end. It’s a toss-up as to which is better. Neither actually offers an advantage as far as sound quality – however convenience and reliability factors give coaxial an advantage in my opinion. Fiber optical cables can be damaged if not handled carefully. Likewise the emitter or receiver is more likely to fail on a fiber equipped unit. Coaxial cables on the other hand are sturdier than fiber and less likely to be damaged by the prying hands of your children (if you have a three-year-old son like mine you know what I mean) and there is no optical emitter/receiver to fail on coaxial systems.
In addition to being more reliable in the long run – coaxial cables are much more economical than fiber. Fiber can run from $20 at retailers to more than $50 for the “Monster Cable” brand. And speaking of Monster Cables – they are not worth the extra money in my humble opinion. As long as you have good quality cables you don’t need the boutique type cables unless you just wanna brag that you have them.
HDMI cables are relatively new to the home theater scene and are incredibly convenient. The HDMI cable carries both video and audio in digital loss-less format to HDMI equipped display devices or AV receivers. Be aware that some, older HDMI “pass-through” A/V receivers do not actually sample the audio from the HDMI cable. These “pass-through” receivers require an additional fiber or coaxial cable from the source to the A/V receiver for audio. However most high quality video and audio devices are now being manufactured with regular HDMI in/out capability.
In conclusion – I would suggest that you get quality but not overly expensive digital audio cables for your receiver. After all – a digital signal is just that – a string of ones and zeros. And with digital signals you either get the signal or you don’t… there’s no real middle ground. Also it’s best to get an A/V receiver that has coaxial and optical inputs for the flexibility factor of having both – just in case you acquire a DVD player or another component with one or the other type of input in the future. Either way you go – be sure you indeed go with digital audio cables – the clarity cannot be matched by the ol’ analog.