Almost everything is digital in our modern world of advanced technoilogy. From our tiny smartphones to large telecommunications systems, digital communication is all around us.
With so many different devices transmitting digital signals in different ways, we have several digital cable types for transmitting digital data.
In this article, we look at various digital cable types, their uses, advantages, disadvantages and overall importance.
What Is a Digital Cable?
As you look for digital audio cables, you should educate yourself about the difference between analog and digital cables first of all.
In simple terms, analog cables function by transmitting information over streams of electricity in a wavelike pattern.
On the other hand, digital cables transmit information through a bitwise pattern represented by 1’s & 0’s (binary code).
The good thing with digital cables, unlike analog types, is that they lose less signal integrity, especially over long distances.
One negative is the production of too many of them due to technological advancement. Although there is no learning process to know how to use them, the constant change will keep you adjusting to new types every time they are released in the market.
In any case, investing in an excellent digital audio cable will enhance the sound quality of your devices and if you are about high-quality audio, then you should pay attention.
We should also note that there are some cables that carry both analog and digital signals. These cables often have an analog to digital cable (ADC) that converts analog signals to digital signals. A good example is the XLR to USB cable.
Optical Cables (TOSLINK) and Coaxial Digital Audio Cables
The common and known types of digital audio cables are coaxial digital audio cables and optical digital audio cables (referred to as S/PDIF).
Coaxial digital cables are common than optical audio cable types. They resemble legacy, RCA, which is analog type majority of consumers are conversant with.
What differentiates coaxial cables and the RCA is the shielding part which designed to protect the cable from capturing external interference that may bring issues with the clarity of the audio.
How Do Coaxial Digital Audio Cables Work?
Coaxial cables have copper wire inside which is responsible for transmitting signals in pulses of electricity.
On top of the copper wire, the coaxial cable has aluminum coating wraps engineered to prevent (signals) external interference.
Audio application impedance is typically 75 ohms, and coaxial requires a larger bandwidth than that of RCA cables.
The cables are affordable for an average home consumer than it is with the Optical S/PDIF type. Many prefer them for personal or home digital audio needs.
How Do Optical Digital Cables (TOSLINK or S/PDIF) Work?
This is another type of digital cable, or like we saw earlier in another name they are called S/PDIF. Not many people know about optical audio cable types as they don’t use conductive metal (e.g., Copper).
Instead, for cables to transmit signals, they use pulses of light. The reason this mode of communication is useful, it avoids the cables from capturing magnetic and radio interference.
Therefore, optical digital cables do not require thicker coating like their counterpart “coaxial cables.”
Additionally, the cable advantage over coaxial is the way it maintains audio quality to the end the same as it came on the entry point. So, S/PDIF cables even if they are going for long-distance, you will not experience the degradation of the signal as a result of distance.
Due to the quality part, the majority of audiophiles prefer using the S/PDIF cables. The only shortcoming is that the cable can be damaged when bent, especially when connected to a high traffic point.
For optical digital audio cable from TV to receiver can function if your TV and the AV have the ARC enabled.
A TV can use optical digital audio cable type, coaxial cable, or an HDMI. However, not all HDMI connectors on a TV are compatible with ARC.
ARC means Audio Return Channel and HDMI cables that are compatible usually have that indication to show they can work on a TV.
Converting Digital Optical To AUX
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MIDI means (musical instrument digital interface). Midi cables are designed to sync and interconnect instructions between MIDI-compatible gears.
So, if you have an electronic drum kit or a digital piano, they undoubtedly have MIDI I/O.
You will find many MIDI modern gadgets using USB to connect. However, traditional MIDI ports seem to be more efficient to use on equipment, even if you are using USB as an option.
However, MIDI cables are not common as USB nowadays as they have simplified MIDI data transfer to the computer.
In most home studios, the cables run from the keyboard/ MIDI controller to MIDI interface which helps to link to your computer. It allows you to control virtual instruments while still within your Daw.
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The Apple Company commonly uses Thunderbolt, and newer high-end interface is increasingly connecting through Thunderbolt.
Thunderbolt provides unprecedented data transmission rates, and it pars with PCI handling cards, especially the speed part. About the streaming and data transfer, it is stable, quick, and reliable.
Before settling audio interface, first, check your computer ports to see what type of protocol it supports. You will avoid getting incompatible issues with the protocol you choose.
Apple Company used Thunderbolt technology to exceed USB’s transfer of data only (function). It’s the function that allows the apple devices to control laptops remotely, cast screens, or assist in speedy transfer between gadgets for software interaction.
For instance, the 2016 MacBook Pro is designed with Thunderbolt 3 ports which they used as the only method to connect devices.
While for 2015 MacBook features Thunderbolt 2. Generally, you may assume any computer with type C port has only USB 3.1 unless the Thunderbolt logo is there.
Thunderbolt 2 has now been replaced by Thunderbolt 3 which is the new Intel standard connectivity. The new connectivity offers a possible maximum amount of 40 GPS, a double speed of the previous one. It is balanced and reversible; therefore, you don’t have to worry about the side the connector is when plugging the cable.
Many do not differentiate between USB C and Thunderbolt 3. The confusion comes from their identical look. A more straightforward explanation is USB C speaks of how the port is shaped, while for Thunderbolt 3 means connectivity standard.
Thunderbolt 3 combines display port, Thunderbolt, power, and USB through a single USB C connector.
What are the regular uses of Thunderbolt?
- Compression: The encoding process is quicker, almost near real-time; therefore, it has speed and convenience.
- It enhances power and speed to graphics: The cable is fast, and some compare it to shifting from Dial-up internet to DSL.
- Disc burning is fast: Thunderbolt speeds up the disc burning process than it would have been in the past. Blue-ray discs as well burn incredibly fast on an external disk
With Thunderbolt, you can connect more peripherals gadgets to a computer with no worry, and the result will not suffer in terms of quality. So, for any purpose that you plan to use more machines, use Thunderbolt as it will always deliver excellent results.
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USB which stands for Universal Serial Bus, can be found in almost every home today. The cable is commonly used to connect devices in a home studio.
In fact, many of audio interface nowadays connect through USB. For music keyboards and digital pianos often do have a USB to host link for MIDI.
USB cable Have Diverse Standards
- USB 1.1 – This type can handle data at a rate of up to 12 megabits per second (Mbps).
- USB2.0 – In other words, it is known as High-Speed USB, and can handle a data rate that is 40 times than the earlier standard to 480Mbps.
- USB3.0 – This type is the outstanding of all in delivery. It is also known as Superspeed USB, as it handles data at a rate of up to 5GB Mbps. Super speed USB is ten times that of USB2.0 standard.
When you purchase a USB cable next time be on the lookout as you can see they are various standard to consider. Counter Check the ports on your interface and the computer to get the right speed cable.
Advantages of Standard USB Cables over Serial Cable Types
- The USB cables have several distinct connectors which simplify the process of identifying the right plug to be put into the computer and the one for peripheral devices.
- The USB cables are hotly pluggable which means while the computer is working, connecting and disconnecting may freeze the computer.
- USB cables carry signals and power. So, for USB powered devices, camera batteries in the camera and other peripherals get their charge through the USB cable.
- USB cables are extremely fast when transferring data, unlike serial cables which move at a speed of 20Kbps.
- As the name suggests, USB’s are a universal standard, which means you can easily find them plus their price is friendly.
The multifunctions of the cable from carrying power to digital data makes it reasonably complicated, designed to deliver and improve the quality of the sound. The receiving end gets audible results as the cable enhances the sound and the safety of the gadget you are connecting it to.
Sound is essential, especially if it can reach the other end uninterrupted. Whether you are using optical audio cable types or USB one, make sure the end result is of good quality.
Below are some of the common USB audio cables from old to the new version and the gadgets they work with.
Mini – Before micro emerged, this one was the standard connector for several mobile devices. Just as its name, mini USB is smaller than a regular type, and it still operates in those cameras that have no non-standard connectors.
Micro – This is the most used standard by today’s mobile and portable gadgets, except for Apple.
Type C – This type is a reversible cable that enhances higher transfer rates and is powerful than other USB types. It is a standard for modern tablets, phones, and Laptops.
Lightning – This works just as the name suggests the transfer happens with a lightning speed. It is Apple’s proprietary that connects iPhones and iPads.
USB audio cable is treated as a detached source from the onboard audio. Therefore, your media player application PCM data reach the DAC immediately it is sent to the audio driver.
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This is a popular cable that adds peripherals to a computer. It is also known as IEEE 1394. Firewire is pricey than other cables, and the rate of transfer it offers is quite faster than USB cable.
Some of the devices Firewire cable connects are external hard drives, digital camcorders, and others that may benefit from the cable speed rate of up to 480 Mbps.
The Firewire cable when connected to the said devices, it can link to two computers for file transfer.
The advantage of this cable is the ability to send power to devices and data. Therefore, anything about Firewall cable is good except the price part, which is expensive, and some may not be able to afford it.
The cable was created and designed by Apple Company plus the majority of Macintosh computers have the Firewire cable as its standard.
Although many camcorders use USB 2 connectors, the only thing they can download is digital images. For the video part, Firewire cable only can download speedy and quality result.
Firewire cable has no different to the USB when it comes to supporting various types of connectors. The cable end going into the computer is a 6-pin-cable while the smaller part connecting to the camcorder is a 4-pin-cable.
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Traditionally, HDMI cables have been designed to transfer digital video. HDMI means (High Digital Multimedia Interface).
Also, the cables are capable of transmitting audio like it is for coaxial and optical digital audio cables. It’s just that for HDMI is different as the transmission it does is associated with the videos.
Before using HDMI, it’s important that you determine how to tell the kind of HDMI port you have as well as the type of HDMI cables you’re working with. This includes if you are working with HDMI input or HDMI output.
The gadgets that you will find with HDMI ports are computers, HDTV’s, and DVD players. The cable can support up to 5-gigabytes per second worth of bandwidth.
So, if you are transferring from a DVD player to HDTV, you are guaranteed to receive a good quality A/V signal without the need to compress the signal.
In fact, in the future, the cable may out-perform other digital cables as it doesn’t require separate video and audio cabling.
Nowadays, HDMI usage is on the increase. However, most gadgets are coming with one HDMI port either for receiving or sending the video. Therefore, very soon, the ones dedicated to digital audio usage may hit the market at any time.
When connecting your A/V receiver, your best choice for a quality outcome is between an HDMI and optical digital audio cable. Both cables qualify to pass quality audio from one gadget to another. The cable can also outmaneuver multi-channels such as Dolby Digital.
The only difference is that HDMI can pass audio with higher-resolution using formats such as DTS HD master audio, Blu-ray, and Dolby TrueHD. The optical audio cable cannot transmit such kind of format.
Another thing to note is HDMI has simplicity in transmitting both video and audio using one cable. So, if you want to send signals through one cable from one device to another, HDMI should be your pick, and the result is of high quality.
The only area they balance is transmitting to an HDTV, for instance, an optical digital audio cable from a TV to a receiver is as effective as an HDMI cable. The only exception is for the formats described above where only HDMI can transmit and maintain good quality.
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Importance of Quality Digital Audio Cables Today
For any audio cable, whether using optical or coaxial type, the primary purpose is to transfer an electrical signal from one component to another.
The movement of the electrical signal should be of quality without degrading the signal.
So, the connection of digital audio cables from one component to another and speaker cables should be of exceptional quality to experience an enhanced sound from one end to the other.
As all other connections may be fine, but if your cabling is lacking, sound quality will be affected.
Understanding Digital Cables
Today, you will find many modern home recording studios with numerous digital cables of all kinds. For some reason, digital cables are more straightforward.
Unlike the analog type, digital cables are easy to use even for a first-timer. No experience or guidance is needed as their design, and usage process is simple and they have made it easier for an average person to understand the process.
However, getting some level of understanding about the variety available on the market and how they function can help you from getting conned by the salesperson when you buy. When you have education about cables and how they work you go to the shop and purchase digital wires according to their protocol.
Let’s dig further into the various digital cables available and how they work.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Digital Audio Cables
Check the Quality of the Speakers
Never make a mistake as most consumers do when they ignore the quality of their speakers.
Take time to test every digital cable until you have surety of a quality one. Quality cables sometimes go hand in hand with expensive cables; however, check the audio result as there may be something different.
Also, you should note that not all system speakers are compatible with digital cables.
Sound System Environment
The environment where your sound system is matters a lot. For instance, if your sound system will be used near a noisy environment may be hard to identify the quality of the audio. Whether using S/PDIF or coaxial cable with noisy background, especially older users, cannot tell the difference.
Therefore, your environment plays a vital role in the quality of the audio, and even if you have a quality cable – external interference may destroy the expected outcome. The first thing you should do when buying is to test there for the best quality.
Having high-end equipment and quality audio cables does not guarantee your sound output if the source of your audio music content is from a low-quality source.
Playing non-digitally sourced music, content on YouTube sites, or converted MP3s from online websites can damage the quality of the output.
Therefore, as you purchase the cables and the audio equipment is of quality, then you have to look for quality music sourced from a trustworthy place.
Problem with Optical Digital Audio Cable from TV to Receiver Not Producing Sound
Sometimes your home studio may complicate things as your connection fail to bring the intended results.
The most common case that many users experience at home is failing to hear the sound coming from an optical digital audio output. Here is how you can go about fixing such a scenario.
The optical jack is primarily designed to output the sound if the type of content that displays on your end contains digital audio.
Technology such as Dolby or PCM has the feature available for video streaming or digital broadcast. However, this feature is not supported on the analog station or for a standard cable.
For you to hear the sound, the content must have a digital audio signal for that connection to work. So, what can you do to get the sound? You can use secondary analog, which is not the focus of the article; however, it can help you to pass the audio signal.
On the other hand, if sending sound to the TV using HDMI, the sound may fail again to come through using an optical jack. Connect an optical jack from the source gadget (satellite box, DVD player, Blu-ray Disc Player, or cable) directly to the stereo /home theatre to get sound.
When stuck in such a situation, you can also try the process below:
- For optical connection, ensure the stereo or your home theatre has its mode and input set appropriately.
- Countercheck that your optical digital audio cable is firmly connected to your TV and your stereo system
- Keep interchanging the channels on the TV to another digital broadcast to see if the sound will come through
- Some TV requires you to turn off the internal speakers for you to get the sound externally
Best Practices When Using Digital Cables
Normally, digital cables deal with a narrower bandwidth spread of frequency signal than it is with analog audio.
When it comes to AES/EBU digital audio, it covers the frequency range from roughly 1.5 to 6MHz at a 48 kHz sampling frequency with some amount of energy that goes down to 100kHz.
The cable performance can be treated similarly to analog to a length of 5 meters or exceeding it. If the cable exceeds 15 meters start to show varied source impedance
subject to the frequency and the range presented except driven at the physically controlled cable characteristic impedance.
Is there a Difference in Digital Optical Audio Cables?
The simple answer is yes. However, if you are getting specific about what kind of digital optical cable type will work best in your home theater system depends on many factors such as:
- Connection types (i.e., RCA connections)
- Speaker Configurations (i.e., stereo vs surround sound setup)
- Audio Formats (i.e., Dolby Digital vs DTS)
For the most part, you can use any type of digital optical cable that fits into your TV and audio system. However, to get true surround sound capabilities it is best to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
What is SPDIF Cable?
S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) is an audio transfer format interface.
The main objective of this cable is to transfer digital audio signals from one device to another without the need to first convert to an analog signal, which can degrade audio quality.
Which is Better: HDMI or SPDIF?
HDMI is better because it can easily and efficiently pass higher-resolution audio that is uncompressed. This includes extra formats that won’t translate well through optical cable and S/PDIF.
Are 1/4 Speaker Cables TS or TRS?
TS stands for “Tip Sleeve” and TRS stands for “Tip Ring Sleeve”. TS cables are the ones that only have a tip (the plug). They’re very common.
However, Tip-Sleeve cables can be used as either speaker or line-level audio connections.
So it’s not that much of an issue if you want to use them at home. They will work fine in most cases. Therefore, 1/4 speaker cables are TRS.
If you don’t know what type of cable is needed, go with both types (TS/TRS) instead of one single type. Just ensure there’s enough length between your speakers and amp!
What Is A Digital Audio Connector?
It is established that digital audio uses two main types of cables: coaxial and optical (also known as Toslink). They are used in home theaters to connect DVD players, HDTV tuners, video game consoles, and more to the A/V receiver or controller.
What Are The 3 Main Connector Types Of Audio?
There is an assortment of diverse audio connectors obtainable, but the most common types are 3-pin XLR, RCA, and 6.5mm TRS plugs, also known as ¼” jacks.
Is There A Difference In Digital Optical Audio Cables?
Both of them are better than analog (the red and white cables). At the same time, both can allow multi-channel audio passage, like Dolby Digital.
The biggest distinction is that HDMI can pass higher-resolution audio, including the formats found on Blu-ray: Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio, formats which can’t get transmitted across optical cables.
Digital Audio Cable To AUX
There are three digital audio cable types you can find in the market. These are:
- Optical cable – transmits the digital audio signal in the form of pulses of light,
- Coaxial digital cable – carries up to six audio channels, making it a good fit for 5:1 digital surround sound; and
- High-def multimedia interface (HDMI) cable is the most modern and best audio cable.
Suppose you have new technology such as a new PS5, TV box, or HDTV and need to wire it to other forms of audio output; in that case, it will most likely need to go into a 3.5mm aux. You will, therefore, need to convert the audio to analog using a digital audio cable to 3.5mm and a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that permits digital audio to 3.5mm female.
You can easily convert digital to analog and vice-versa in simple steps. You only need to understand the basics and assemble suitable materials to transform the digital audio (optic) into analog (3.5 mm).
You need to be careful when purchasing digital audio cable types for a great experience with your home studio. For instance, when choosing cables that you need to cover a long distance, optical digital cable types are the best to offer you better sound quality.
In as much as digital audio cable never suffers from external interference, you have to consider the amount of electromagnetic interference that may be around where you live. As you can see, the market is full of various digital audio cables, go for a quality type to give you quality sound and value for your money.
You don’t need to keep buying new cables now and then for poor quality. The last but vital aspect to consider is to have a quality speaker, a quiet environment, and quality audio content. Even as you go for the right digital audio cables other connections will enhance you to have a beautiful quality audio output.
Norvan Martin is the founder of BoomSpeaker.com. He is a professional Electronics Engineer and is passionate about home theater systems and AV electronics. BoomSpeaker was created as an online hub to share his knowledge and experiences as it relates to home theaters and home audio electronics.