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Media Music Hardware Technology

Is the Optical Cable Dying? (cnet.com) 299

Geoffrey Morrison from CNET explains how the optical cable is "dying a very slow death": The official term for optical audio cable is "Toslink," short for Toshiba Link. Developed in the early '80s to connect their CD players to their receivers, it was a red laser optical version of the Sony/Phillips "Digital Interconnect Format" aka S/PDIF standard. You've seen standard S/PDIF connections a bunch too; they're often called "coax digital." Optical had certain benefits over copper cables, but they were also more fragile, and for a long time, more expensive. Though glass cables were available, for even more money, most optical cables were made from cheap plastic. This limited their range to in-room use, primarily. Through the '90s and 2000's, the optical cable was near-ubiquitous: The easiest way to get Dolby Digital and DTS from your cable/satellite box, TiVo, or DVD player to your receiver. Even in the early days of HDMI, right next to it would be the lowly optical cable, ready in case someone's receiver didn't accept HDMI. But now more and more gear are dropping optical. It's gone completely on the latest Roku and Apple TV 4K, for example. It's also disappeared from many smaller TVs, though it lingers on in larger ones, a potentially redundant backup to HDMI with ARC. The reason for this? Soundbars...
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Is the Optical Cable Dying?

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  • I might have been the only household that skipped directly from composite to HDMI.
    • by AC-x ( 735297 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @02:28AM (#55461877)

      Being in the UK I was SCART RGB master race :)

      • I'm running my SD-era consoles to a Bang & Olufsen BeoVision MX8000, in my mind the ultimate SD 4:3 format CRT TV, 28" of goodness. Two fully RGB-capable SCART ports master race etc.

    • It's good to know I'm not the only one.

    • I too went straight from composite to hdmi. I have since gone back and now use a 10m optical cable to my wall mounted TV. No TV cabinet or anything, ultra clean and the speaker amp is at the opposite side of the room.

      It is quite a nice simple solution for less common set ups. It works fantastically.

    • Also as part of the main question there are a lot of disadvantages of optical cable. Expensive, Fragile, variance in quality... This in general is a turn off for the average person. For an HDMI cable, coax, composite or even cat 5 I can more or less get them for cheap, store them for a decade if I didn’t use them and if I got some equipment that uses it, I’ll just take it out of the box and I am good to go. While optical cable may be superior in terms of digital technology you get to a good en

  • by redmid17 ( 1217076 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @02:34AM (#55461897)
    No not at all. Then again, if you limit it specifically to fiber audio, it might well. However that is a flawed, dumb definition.
    • Which I see is the long term problem with optical cable: The uses for it are dwindling due to better technology. It used to be that it had best sound along with digital coax. For A/V equipment, now that's being handled by HDMI which also combines digital video as well so that's one less cable to connect.

      The other use is to interconnect devices like Rokus and Apple TVs which is slowly being replaced by wifi/ethernet as the bandwidth and protocols for connecting are better. For example, I want to play this a

      • Better tech?? HDMI introduces jitter; if you're after serious sound, you still use TOSLINK - which Alpine is finally offering in their latest mobile audio equipment.
  • Old tech made obsolete, slowly disappears from new products. News at 11.
    Seriously though, I had nothing but trouble with SPDIF. The finicky connection would often desync with my Xbox360 and IIRC then I'd have to turn the receiver off and back on to resync it, and it'd make a weird noise until I did. Bending the cable just wrong would exacerbate the issue.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "Film at 11."

  • HDMI (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sanf780 ( 4055211 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @02:45AM (#55461921)
    In ye olde days, audio was transmitted separately. Nowadays, it goes through HDMI from sources to AV equipment, including soundboard, that mux the signals. TVs feed the remaining sources, that is broadcast and TV applications, through ARC, the Audio Return Channel. I understand ARC is bandwidth limited, thus new equipment will include eARC whenever the new HDMI spec is delivered. So, everything is routed through HDMI these days, so why bother with other cables?

    It might also be a race to the bottom: appliances are cheaper, so not popular features get dropped. Many TVs might not receive analogue video anymore.

    • Also why bother with cables at all? Using wifi or Bluetooth to connect devices is currently the trend. Yes Bluetooth is really only for stereo streaming at the moment from your device to a speaker but if you are only streaming music it doesn't have to be 5.1. Otherwise wifi is filling in the gap.
  • by Togden ( 4914473 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @02:56AM (#55461931)
    I grew up in the 90s and I use optical audio, mainly because my dad uses optical audio. I don't know of any other person who uses it or has used it. I find it hard to believe it was "nearly ubiquitous" for 10-20 years, I think it was little known then, and remains so now. I also think it unlikely that because cheaper devices don't have it now because it is "going away" like consumer trends are some mystical power. Its a more expensive alternative to conventional audio connections, and most people, particularly low end users will not ever want this. It makes sense for it to only be on the "bigger" but more relevantly expensive tv sets, it provides a high quality audio connection with very low interference at a higher price. I don't remember ever seeing it on cheaper tvs.
  • Just look at the data rates we have over copper network cables. Even the oldest coax network was 10mbit/s. The highest quality audio signal is still just a few hundred kbit/s. Why wood you need an optical for this? It has always been a useless waste of money.
  • by Camembert ( 2891457 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @04:09AM (#55462063)
    I found it pleasant to use optical in a stereo setting to solve ground loop issues (hum!), since there is no electrical connection
    Specifically to use optical audio out instead of analog out from my tv to my hifi.
    I later found it was the antenna connection that caused the ground loop.
    Nowadays I use hdmi for everything which is balanced (if I remember well), hence no hum issues either
    • This. And it's one of several reasons why I'm so psyched that Alpine [alpine-usa.com] is finally equipping their higher-end headunits with TOSLINK output.

      TOSLINK is only dead to those who aren't the ones to ask.

  • Reason (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @04:09AM (#55462065) Homepage

    "The reason for this? Soundbars..."

    Nope.

    The reason for this is - I don't want a separate connector for audio unless it's in conjunction with another connector (i.e. I either want one cable only, or one cable + additional audio to go to external devices). The external device itself could happily use the HDMI audio, and offer passthrough / splitting of the signal.

    The problem is that the "other" connector almost certainly has to be able to supply video, audio, data and - sorry - power. Fibre cannot supply power. Ever.

    And then most people would rather give it a whole HDMI with everything, rather than run a separate cable just for audio. To be honest, splitters are in the throwaway price range now, even with HDCP support etc.

    The problem is that manufacturer's think "fibre just for audio" is a useful thing to have alongside "copper that does absolutely everything" when both are commodity pricing. Hell, just give me 10 HDMI slots and if I really want to run a soundbar, I'll run one with HDMI and/or put a convertor on it.

    The other thing that matters - nobody really cares about the fibre "perfect sound" rubbish except audiophiles. But that's like saying "nobody cares about the flight simulator being pixel perfect except for qualified 747 pilots". You can't cater to that niche, as the business case isn't there to do so in a commercial product. But 99.9% of people are quite happy with MP3s, copper cables (especially digital copper cables), and the various MPEG/H264 etc. compressions.

    I've been in IT for 20 years. I've honestly NEVER used an optical connection for sound. I deploy AV stuff all the time. I've even done bits of theatre stuff. The only optical connections I've ever used a networking fibres. And they are so cheap they don't even figure, what costs is the cutting and polishing, which wouldn't be present on a pre-made patch cable. So I also call rubbish on the "fibre is expensive, or can't reach across the room" line too.

    But if I've never used SPDIF, I'm pretty sure most other people haven't either. And given that even RCA connectors are going the way of the dodo (and SCART in Europe), I can't say that SPDIF is going to last any longer.

    Now, if you had a hybird, cable/fibre. Maybe that would serve. If it could do everything HDMI did. But HDMI even does Ethernet if you buy the right kit. So I can't fathom how you'd cut into their business.

    All we really need is a merger of USB3 and HDMI and we have one connector for ABSOLUTELY everything. Including a decent amount of power. But fibre isn't necessary for that and would lose enormously if it was attempted.

    • All we really need is a merger of USB3 and HDMI and we have one connector for ABSOLUTELY everything. Including a decent amount of power.

      That would be USB-C, which can do even more. For example Displayport, which is technically more versatile than consumer-oriented HDMI.

    • by jabuzz ( 182671 )

      So I recently replaced my main TV. The new one is an LG Smart one with WebOS. It's great everything is in the one box. That is it does all the free over the air TV (which living in the UK means lots of quality programming) and it does all the catch up services such as iPlayer. ITV Hub, All4, My5, etc. It also does all the streaming services so Amazon Prime, Netflix and NowTV (last one pretty important in the UK) and finally it will also do Plex all in the one remote.

      Right so how does one use HDMI for my aud

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        You didn't post the model number, but most TVs support something called ARC (Audio Return Channel). My 2012 Panasonic does, for example. It's how you connect a soundbar or discreet decoder. It's quite nifty, as well as supplying audio it sends data on the amount of delay required to perfectly sync up with the image on screen and passes through some remote control commands like volume changes. It also allows for things like having the soundbar/receiver go into standby mode automatically when you turn the TV

    • I've honestly NEVER used an optical connection for sound.

      The only use case that I see these days is OTA broadcasts from older TVs to an A/V receiver. People can get a digital TV Tuner box with HDMI for under $50 but it's another box that they don't really need. But eventually this problem will go away when they get newer TVs with ARC.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      The analog hole.

      Once analog line outs, S/PDIF and headphone jacks are done away with, you little criminals won't be able to steal our precious content.

  • It died long ago (Score:2, Informative)

    by blindseer ( 891256 )

    I've had probably a dozen devices with an optical output, laptops, CD players, DVD players, music streaming boxes, and I'm probably forgetting something. What was rare was anything with an optical audio input, or it seems that way to me. The only thing I can recall having an optical input was this fancy (for the time) SoundBlaster card I bought as part of a computer system from my brother.

    I've also had a lot of things with S/PDIF copper inputs and outputs but I don't recall ever having a situation where I

    • Re:It died long ago (Score:4, Interesting)

      by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @05:42AM (#55462211)

      Is optical audio dying? I have to ask, was it ever alive?

      I have an extension to that: Should it have ever been alive?

      The standard which had limited distance, limited performance (20bit max vs 24bit standard for AES3 using S/PDIF), implemented with cheap plastic cables, using cheap LED based transmitters, and even cheaper receivers all to carry a signal that also is used to clock the digital parts of downstream equipment meaning the quality of the signal was important, rather than just the ability to send a 1 and 0.

      It should have never existed. The AES3 standard was far superior. The cost to implement was equal (buffered driver + BNC vs dedicated powered transmitter / receiver electronics), and if it was isolation you wanted a cheap pulse transformer should have been the choice.

      It was conceived at a time of an ideal future where our entire lives would be dominated by light for everything. I often wonder how we got to 1000baseTX networking at a time where people were saying we'll never get beyond 10mbps without fibre.

    • I think I've had a few devices over the years that had S/PDIF outputs but I never realized what that was and never bothered trying to use it. The only device that I think I own now that has optical ports at all is my soundbar. I have a cheapo TV and use a Roku stick, neither of which have optical outputs. So when I hooked up my soundbar system I actually had to use an RCA to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter in order to get things working.

  • I still use S/PDIF in one form or another, and some of my computers only have the optical version. For starters, I don't have a TV that can input audio via HDMI, and if I did, I'd still need a S/PDIF from that to my amplifier. The display is a regular monitor which I might some day recycle into desktop use.

    I first came across S/PDIF last decade, as I found out my laptop could output the optical version through the 3.5 mm plug with an adapter. I still think it's a great solution to the limited space issue

  • by sxpert ( 139117 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @05:33AM (#55462197)

    the more I think of it, the more I suspect this is designed to "get rid of the analog hole"
    removing the headphone jack (unencrypted analog audio), and the toslink/SPDIF connector (unencrypted digital audio) goes towards the goals of the mafiaa...

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      S/PDIF has a "copyright bit" that consumer audio devices (including cheap audio cards) heed. Once the bit is set, the devices will not create digital media from the stream or let them be read into a computer. A copy created from material with the bit reset will have the bit set: no further copies are possible.

      So we are already in MAFIAA crapola land here.

    • Err there is not nor ever will be a "getting rid of the analogue hole". The signals required to drive headphones or speakers are perfect for capturing and re-recording.

      Plus this is digital.

      Plus this is pointless. They are only phasing out the optical garbage. The signals are still available and converted to analogue elsewhere in the chain, and you're not going to see line level outputs disappear ... ever. Not without ending the high end audio industry.

  • I actually just started using them in the past year.

    I bought a few Chromecast Audio's, and since I could I used optical cable to connect them to the amplifiers for minimum noise.

    I also got a NUC not long ago, and wanted to connect the audio from the NUC to my desktop computer so I could listen to stuff on the NUC using the same headset I use for my desktop.

    To do this I got a HDMI audio splitter, and fed that to my desktop. I tried using the regular 3.5mm line-out to line-in cable, but the background noise f

  • The merits of TOSLink notwithstanding, why is it, in 2003, I had SoundStorm built into my motherboard, and it allowed me a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound path to my A/V Receiver from my computer for ALL of my audio, including game audio - yet in 2017, I need to buy a Xonar sound card (forget SoundBlaster, because their digital drivers suck ass and their high end card sits on a shelf here) to get the same functionality?

    Likewise, we have 7.1 and greater speaker systems, but the stores all push 2.1 soundbars. Ugh. I'

    • Most people are content with a 2.1 (or even plain stereo) sound setup, and while they might think surround sound is nifty, they find running the wires and positioning the speakers to be more of a pain in the butt than it's worth.

  • My stereo is old enough not to have HDMI switching, but it's DTS so why replace it? My TV has HDMI switching, and it has a digital audio passthrough to my stereo in the form of an optical output. My amplifier has one coaxial and three or four optical spdif connections. The last thing on which I actually used the coaxial connection was an Apex DVD player of yore. There was no good reason to use optical cables (it's digital audio, so you can solve the ground loop problem easily enough without degrading the si

  • Netcraft does not confirm it.

    Status: hoax.

  • Anyplace people use variable speed drives for motors and don't install reactors on the drives.
  • by pecosdave ( 536896 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @09:15AM (#55463031) Homepage Journal

    and it works great.

    At work we have a very nice looking executive conference room [glassdoor.com] that was mostly configured before I worked here. If you look at that picture the audio equipment is behind the wall with the pictures on it. The main screen is behind the photographer, and so is the PC that runs the main screen. The tech who did part of the original setup ran an 1/8" to RCA cable from the TV's output all the way to the audio amplifier behind that other wall, past florescent lights and everything else in the ceiling. To say the least there was a buzz in the system that I could sometimes get rid of by wiggling cables, putting a little shielding here or there and praying for the best. I didn't like that solution.

    Now, I can work fiber optics, I learned that from my years at NASA. I had never really worked with TOS before beyond using some cheap plastic light-guide short distances on stereo equipment on occasion and with my Turtle Beach headset on my work Mac, main system sound went to the dongle via TOS and the USB portion did voice - an awesome setup on what would have been an awesome headset had they not used the most brittle plastic they could find to mold it. I started calling fiber suppliers looking for the connectors so I could make my own cable - they didn't call back. It took a little research to find out that TOS doesn't work on standard OC3 cable, or any other fiber I have run in the past, part of the reason my suppliers didn't carry it. I also found mixed information about the range of TOS saying it topped out around 15 feet or so, and some giving it a lot more.

    I figured out it's a lot like Ethernet - some who learned Ethernet 25 years ago is going to keep in mind there's a limit to accumulative cable length throughout the whole network, the longer you make one cable the shorter the rest have to be, that it's a collision based system where only two systems can talk at a time, etc... Things that used to be true and are still true on really, really old equipment, some of which may still be in use, but using more up to day components there's a new reality. You can now buy TOS in high quality glass fiber, and it will go further. You still have limitations because the width of the fiber has to be "wide" to accommodate signal - at least I assume it does, I don't know if it's single-mode or multi, but I'm assuming it carries a wave form instead of a simple on/off since the requirements seem to stand. I eyeballed the room - I didn't really measure it, and I shopped. I found a 65 ft cable from a company I had never heard of [a.co] and I have to tell you it works great. No more static, the sound quality is great. The only complaint is they can no longer use the TV remote to change volume, but the volume keys on the keyboard work. Since they only use the Direct TV in that room during really big soccer matches I don't see an issue.

    I don't think I could have stretched HDMI that far. I could have converted it to SDI and changed it back to do it, but that would require an active box on both sides since nothing in play supports SDI natively. SDI is great for professional equipment, but the budgets I get to do thing usually don't allow for true professional grade equipment - not to mention pro grade equipment is usually a little behind consumer grade equipment when it comes to screen sizes and other little features that advertising people lock onto and "must have". I think I'm finally past having to explain to desktop users why they're better off with a wired keyboard and an Ethernet cable instead of wireless and WiFi, the power of news and buzz words is incredibly strong to marketing people and even though pure logic can win a lot of arguments, when the person who controls the money wants the biggest things with the right buzz words you sometimes have to get it, and SDI isn't a modern buzzword, even if modern SDI can support 4K.

    • by pecosdave ( 536896 ) on Tuesday October 31, 2017 @09:21AM (#55463061) Homepage Journal

      scratch the florescent lights bit - those are in the rest of the building (including in that little room behind the wall - and the other little room behind the screen) but that stretch is without. What it does have a is a Creston System to control the lights and the speakers in the ceiling that belong to the Muzac system, not to mention WiFi equipment that you don't see that generates just as much noise as florescent lights. Not to mention that area of sheetrock over the table makes running cables a bigger pain in the ass that it has to be in that room and the fact each of the ceiling tiles is in tighter than most areas with false ceilings and you better not mess up anything in THAT conference room.... Okay I'm off topic, but I have a feeling a lot of you reading this can relate.

  • I agree with other posters here that I don't think it was ever truly alive. I used it on my systems but then I'm the tech of the family (and the extended family) and knew how the stuff all worked and that included friends and family that were big into music too. I think I'm the only one that actually used the XBox 360 toslink adapter!
    But, still, even with the convenience of one cable connections via HDMI (if they ever get all the kinks worked out) - there was something nostalgic geeky cool about connecti

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