Battle of the Audio-Visual Cables: Optical vs. RCA Cables

  If you’re an ordinary person who isn’t tech-savvy, then cables might be extremely confusing to you. You might even think there’s only one type of cable, and the same cable used for your cable television is also used to connect your media players to your HDTV or stereo together. You can be forgiven for thinking that way since these cables do look similar. However, there are different types of cable available, like RCA cables and optical cables.

  With that in mind, which is better? RCA or optical? Is there necessarily an optical vs rca debate going on in the same vein as Nintendo vs. Sega or Coke vs. Pepsi? Not exactly. To learn more about which cable to use in which circumstance, you should keep on reading to find out the difference between RCA cables and optical cables.

  RCA Cables

  If you were around in the 1980s and 1990s then you’re probably familiar with RCA cables. Your parents or grandparents might have some of these cables lying around the garage or attic if you look hard enough. Millennials and Generation Z children might never have seen RCA cables in their whole life, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten. In the past, they were used for things like VCRs and VHS Tape Recorders as well as certain game consoles.

  Are RCA Cables Still Used? HDMI is the new standard for HD audio and video, replacing the old RCA standard. HDMI is better than the analog RCA by default because HDMI is digital. It’s also the only format capable of transmitting HD audio like Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. With that said, RCA cables aren’t completely obsolete yet. Different environments make people still pull out their RCAs out of storage, like using them for old camcorders and the like.

  Disambiguation: Although this article has made RCA and RCA cables synonymous, RCA typically refers to the ports or connectors instead of the cable itself that are characterized by having a three-way output or three outputs. With RCA, the info is separated by cable. The white and red cables are focused on audio transmission. The video data is carried by the yellow cable. There’s also a component RCA connector that uses three cables as well. The green cable carries Y, the blue cable carries Pb, and the red cable carries Pr.

  Separating Audio and Video: Televisions nowadays tend to favor using one cable for the audio and video a la SCART from the 1970s-1980s. However, certain connections like camcorders or legacy devices require separate cables for video and audio for faster processing with SD compressed video. What’s more, even if you can use an HDMI converter to use RCA source devices on an HDMI display or an HDMI source device on an RCA display, you still need RCA cables to make that connection still.

  Higher Quality Camcorder Recording: Even in the 21st Century, if you want a high-quality camcorder recording at an affordable price that’s not taken straight from your iPhone or digital camcorder, using the RCA connection and cables remains your best bet. Cheaper camcorders typically have low-quality transfers due to a lack of a 3-channel jack. High-quality ones have three separate channels—2 for the audio and 1 for the video connection—for a decent digital Handycam recording.


  Optical Cables

  Like HDMI cables, optical or Toslink cables are also capable of transferring video and audio data in one wire. HDMI is simply superior to it in every way since HDMI allows for digital audio at a higher bitrate than even coaxial or optical cables. Speaking of which, optical cables are roughly the same quality as coaxial digital cables. They’re however different because coaxial RF or radio-frequency cables work at multi-megahertz-range radio frequencies while optical cables transmit digital multi-channel audio and video as pulses of light.

  Optical Cables Are More Expensive: A standard coaxial cable is cheaper than optical cables, which make many consumers prefer getting coaxial instead. However, optical cables work with much wider frequencies than its coaxial counterpart, hence the higher price. However, in audio connection terms, they basically equal and in most other applications, the wider frequencies don’t make optical cables necessarily a better choice than anything but RCA.

  Sounds Just The Same: Whether you’re using the pulses of light from an optical cable or radio frequency audio signals from a coaxial cable there’s not much difference in sound quality between them. HDMI is better than both and the analog RCA is worse than both. Like with RCA, optical cables are being used less and less in favor of HDMI and are the superior audio-visual delivery system. As far as your sound system or stereos are concerned, optical and coaxial cables are interchangeable.

  Better Against EMI or RFI Though: Optical cables aren’t susceptible to signal loss over long distances or noise due to Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) or Electromagnetic Interference (EMI). Light signal don’t suffer from attenuation or resistance that occurs in copper coaxial cables. It offers about the same clarify of signal that you’d expect from an HDMI cable, such that as long as the signal is within effective distance it will remain clear all throughout until a sudden signal drop or loss because the devices are too far away.

  Shortcomings of Optical: Aside from HDMI being superior to these cables in sound and visual transmissions, optical cables are also more fragile than their coaxial counterparts. To be more specific, you can’t bend tightly or pinch optical cables. A coaxial will still work even if slightly bent. The more expensive optical cable will stop working if bent. A coaxial cable’s RCA jack is more secure and tight than the odd-shaped connector of an optical cable.


  The Most Talked About Cables Around

  Three of the most commonly talked about cables through the decades are RCA cables, optical cables, and coaxial cables. They’ve been around home entertainment centers and speaker systems in households for quite a long, long time indeed, making them the staples of many a homeowner’s rigs for television plus game console and media player setups.

  Coaxial cables are just like optical cables, except the latter transmits digital multi-channel audio as pulses of light versus the former, which delivers an audio signal instead. Meanwhile, RCA cables are associated with analog signals. This is why optical cables offer superior sound quality and HDMI offers superior video and sound quality to RCA.