Speakers, amps, and many other audio devices have many ports. This allows them to transmit or receive audio signals from many types of devices. Each type of speaker port is developed for specific purposes or to solve particular problems.
If you’ve used old-fashioned devices, you’re probably familiar with the classic yellow, red, and white RCA cables. You’re likely also familiar with coaxial, HDMI, and optical cables, especially if you use audio and video equipment consistently.
Each connection option has benefits as well as trade-offs. Therefore, your choice will depend on what is important to you. In this guide, we’ll explain the different ports, cable types, and what they offer so you can make informed decisions when needed.
Speaker Ports Explained
Computers, amps, and speakers all have an abundance of output and input audio ports. This array can be pretty confusing for newbies. There are four main types of ports you need to know, and we’ll discuss each in this section.
These ports and corresponding cables are primarily found in VCRs, tape recorders, and other old tech.
RCA uses an analog technology that splits the audio signal channels into two separate cords (left and right).
The audio channels are the red and white cords. There’s a third red cord for video signals.
RCA cables have a single connection pin similar to the 3.5mm audio connector used in headphones.
However, RCA has been largely phased out due to several reasons. However, some professional audio gears still have RCA ports because of their superb audio quality.
Unlike RCA connections, coxial can transmit audio and video signals using a single cable. This is one of the major benefits, but it operates at a lower bit rate—the amount of data flowing through per second.
Coaxial cables and ports have a unique pin-style arrangement. This makes coaxial cables fit more snugly than optical cables.
The sound quality is superb, almost on par with optical connections. Optical and coaxial cables are interchangeable in most cases. As a bonus, they’re cheaper than their optical counterparts.
Optical (or Toslink) connections are pretty similar to coaxial cables in audio and video output. Unlike the other cables which transmit at radio frequency range, optical cables transmit audio and video signals as light pulses—hence the name.
Because of their light-transmitting components, optical cables are much more fragile than their coaxial equivalents. They cannot withstand bending or pinching, which can lead to breakage. A key advantage of optical cables is that they aren’t prone to signal loss over long distances.
This is the current standard for most devices and their users. HDMI connection is still young compared to the other connection protocols—they were introduced in 2002.
They also allow the transmission of audio and video signals in a single cable, and they have found widespread acceptance in most audio and video devices.
HDMI has a unique port and cable design compared to the preceding connection types. It uses a flat USB-style connection system with copper contacts. It’s a versatile digital audio connection system that combines the benefits of optical and coaxial.
HDMI ports allow high bitrates while delivering better sound quality. It also supports new audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X and video formats such as Ultra HD 4K resolution.
Comparing Audio Ports and Cables
It’s evident that the various connection protocols have their merits and demerits. In this section, we’ll compare the various connection ports, their benefits, and disadvantages. Let’s get started.
Aux Vs. Coaxial Cable
Coaxial and aux cables are pretty similar. The main difference between a coaxial and an aux cable is that a coaxial cable transmits digital signals while an aux cable transmits analog signals. This makes it prone to interference from nearby electronic devices.
Coaxial offers a cleaner audio connection than aux in an environment with much interference.
A significant benefit of aux cables is their universality. They can connect your smartphone and music player to your home stereo. Aux cables also have plug-and-play functionality since they require no extra installation. They are also less costly than coaxial cables.
The main disadvantage is that they require several cables for surround sound. Also, the phone or music player does most of the processing; it only acts as a path for the processed signal.
HDMI vs. HDMI ARC vs. HDMI eARC
We’ve already established HDMI as the all-rounder amongst these connection types. However, not all HDMI cables and ports are created equal. The ARC and eARC are more than just titles added to the cable name.
Each version was developed to improve on existing technology. So, let’s talk about those improvements.
HDMI, like USB, has several generations of improvement. The problem with normal HDMI is that an additional optical digital cable is needed to send audio signals from your TV to your soundbar or speaker.
HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) was introduced in HDMI version 1.4. This protocol allows HDMI cables to send input and output signals through a single cable, removing the need for an additional audio-out cable.
Although HDMI ARC is usually found in newer devices, your old cable can still be used if your TV and soundbar support HDMI ARC. The only exception is if you are streaming HD media with 5.1 Surround Sound, you’ll need a high-bandwidth cable.
HDMI eARC or HDMI 2.1 basically improves on the foundations of HDMI ARC by increasing the bandwidth and speed of transmission. The bitrates are improved in audio, while the resolution and refresh rate is improved in video content.
This allows it to handle DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, as well as 4K and 8K videos.
The Final Verdict
The differences between coaxial and optical are negligible, and your decision will likely trickle down to choices like cost and build quality. RCA is a vintage connection system with its charm.
You can use it if you don’t mind the extra cables. HDMI is the best choice if you want a port that satisfies all your primary needs. With the above guide on speaker ports, we hope you can now make better decisions when choosing between different speaker ports.
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.