Also known as SPDIF or Toslink, an optical cable consists of a fibre optic that transfers light rather than an electrical signal as a digital coaxial cable would for example. This means they are less prone to electrical interference.
Optical cables are easy to connect and use, They have a plug on each end of the cable to prevent dirt and dust getting into it, which needs to be removed before use, and replaced when not in use. The socket on your player or amplifier will normally have a spring operated gate that automatically opens when the plug is inserted and closes when the cable is removed.
There are many different types of cable available, and which one you choose really depends on what you will be using the cable for.
Buying an optical cable for use in your home cinema system will require a better quality cable than you may otherwise normally buy. This is mainly due to the high bit rate audio signals such and Dolby Digital and DTS that pass through them from your DVD or Blu-ray player to your home cinema amplifier or surround sound system.
Although cheaper cables will do, considering the relatively small price difference we’d advise you spend a bit more for these more demanding applications.
If you have a high-definition capable amplifier and Blu-ray player then an optical cable will not suit, you will need an HDMI cable instead. This is because optical cables only support 16 bit sound whereas Dolby True-HD and DTS-HD Master are both 24 bit sound.
Fisual make a well respected selection of Optical Cables for general use, but the Pearl is their top of the range cable with a graded optical core for perfect sound, and an attractive pearlised braided sleeve with super pearl gold-plated plugs. The Fisual Pearl is a great option for someone who wants a high quality cable for their home cinema.
Available in sizes ranging from 0.5m up to a staggering 50m, the Lindy Gold is a well-built high performance cable with gold connectors for the ultimate connection quality. It is thicker than normal optical cables which underlines its ambitions to be one of the best on the market, and remain in good working order in your home cinema for many years to come.
With its gold plated ends, and nylon and mesh metal cable jacket, the Ibra Master Gold is fully flexible, but still strong enough to withstand nicks and kinks. The heavy ends are well constructed and solid so should provide many years of use. It’s rather swanky looking too and will suit any system from low end to high end systems.
The Duronic Goldspec is a well made and high quality braided cable complete with 24k gold plated casing for those applications where you want to ensure you have given your equipment the best possible cables.
If you have Sky+ and your own home cinema system, you can enjoy the full surround sound experience when watching Sky Movies, Sky Sports, or even the Simpsons by simply connecting your Sky box to your surround sound system with an optical cable.
All Sky+ boxes will have an optical output on the rear so it is one of the cheapest upgrades you can make to your home entertainment system. You don’t need to break the bank and go for a very expensive cable, and a fairly standard one should do. Just make sure it is well made, and long enough to not only reach your components, but to also allow room to move your devices out so you can access them.
The Fisual Pro Install Series offers a high quality cable at a price that won’t break the bank. At only £4.99 for a 1m cable the Fisual performs well in many situations and is ideally suited to Sky where the audio requirements aren’t quite as demanding as DVD or Blu-ray.
Available in sizes ranging from 0.5m for only £6.82 right up to 5m for only £21.94, the Lindy Optical Cable represents very good value for money for everyday use.
The Amazon Basics range provides fantastic value for money, and their range of cables is no different. This 1.8m cable provides a good length, and to top it all, also comes in a plain cardboard box to make it easy to open too!
An optical cable performs the same basic function no matter what the brand. Some cables have been designed specifically for certain equipment such as a PS4 or XBox One to offer audio advantages, and also to match the colours and style of the console. Any decent optical cable will be able to do the job though.
Because the digital audio signal is transferred by light rather than an electrical signal, this has the advantage that they are less susceptible to interference from nearby electrical sources. It also means that the cable is thinner and so can be easier to hide under carpets. They are also more flexible and simple to run between your devices such as your DVD Player, Playstation 4, XBox One, or Sky decoder. They are available in numerous different lengths from 0.5m right up to an incredible 50m and are especially suited to longer cable runs as they perform slightly better than a digital coaxial cable for example.
One of the best things about optical cables is their relative cheapness, with prices for a decent cable starting at around £4. There are plenty of places to buy them in the High Street, but online shops provide not only the best prices, but also a much wider selection from a some of the most respected cable manufacturers such as Ixos, QED, Lindy and Fisual to name but a few. General retailers like Amazon stock a good range of optical cables, but also specialist cable retailers like Lindy.
There are some people who think that a more expensive branded cable offers a higher sound quality, but in our opinion they most important thing a branded cable can offer is the higher build quality. This is especially important with optical as the cable itself is quite thin and you ideally want the toughest you can get. Whilst you don’t want to compromise the thinness benefits of optical cables, it is always advisable to go for a cable with a decent sleeve thickness to prevent any potential damage.
Some people refer to Optical cables as ‘Toslink’ and it can get quite confusing when you hear the different terms used in similar circumstances.
Basically, the term ‘Toslink’ was created from the words “TOShiba-LINK” when Toshiba first developed the standard back in 1983. Because ‘TosLink’ is a a registered trademark of Toshiba, they are normally refered to by other manufacturers as an Optical Cable, but they essentially mean the same thing.
SPDIF is a digital audio format used for transporting digital audio signals between home cinema devices and games consoles and even computer sound cards. You will often see an optical cable referred to as an ‘SPDIF’ but in reality all optical cables these days will be SPDIF compliant so you don’t need to worry too much that your cable will be capable.
This is a common problem where many devices, normally home cinema systems, will only have one optical input. In this case you could purchase an optical switch which will allow you to connect 2 or even more devices to your single input, and the switch will automatically, or manually switch to the correct input
If you want to learn more about the way fibre optic cables work and how they are constructed, there is a very good article on Wikipedia that should provide all the information you need to know. There is also a specific article on Toslink cables which may be of interest.