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Optical vs. RCA Cables: A 101 Guide

Optical vs. RCA Cables: A 101 Guide

Some TVs have too many ports and wires. It makes things complicated if all you want is to connect your external speakers to your TV.

But now you’re confused because you found an optical and RCA cable. So, what is the difference between the two?

An optical digital audio cable sends stereo or 5.1 S/PDIF sound from your TV to connected speakers or amplifiers to improve the sound.

RCA cables send audio and video signals from one device to another.

RCA and optical cables sound like they do the same thing, but we’ll help you differentiate between them.

A Side By Side Comparison: Breaking It Down

Here is an easy-to-follow chart comparing both cables side by side.

  Optical Cable RCA Cable
How it Works
  • Turns sound into light, pulsates at 650 nm
  • Only transmits audio signals
  • Sends compressed 5.1/7.1, Dolby Digital, and DTS Surround Sound
  • Sends video and audio signals
  • Transmits analog audio and video signals such as S/PDIF and component audio
  • To transfer higher quality 1080p, you need an RCA component cable
Connection Type
  • One connection at each end
  • Three connections at each end for composite (red, white, and yellow) Component connections have red, green, and blue plugs.
Usage
  • Used for soundbars, game consoles, Blu-ray/DVD players, and TVs
  • Used for camcorders, speaker systems, and amplifiers
Affordability
  • More expensive than RCA cables
  • Very inexpensive

Optical Cable: How it Works

Optical cables are often referred to as TOSLINK (Toshiba Link) cables. They are used to send audio signals from one device to another.

Optical Cable or Toslink Cable

Unlike the RCA cable, an optical cable is one singular cable with one singular connection at both ends. It compresses 5.1/7.1, Dolby Digital, or DTS Surround System between your devices. It can also transmit uncompressed stereo sound.

It cannot send video signals.

So, how does it work? It works by turning the audio signal into light and then pulsating the light into a wavelength of 650 nanometers. Pretty fancy, right?

Although it is primarily used for audio signals, it can also send higher quality sound like Dolby Digital. But, it is not equipped to transfer lossless versions of Dolby sound.

RCA Cable: How it Works

You’ve seen these cables around your house. It commonly has three connections—red, white, and yellow.

But what is an RCA cable used for, and how does it work?

The RCA cable transfers video and sound from one device to another.

RCA cables in white background

For the RCA cable to work properly, you must connect both sides of the cable to the respective ports on each device.

This will allow video and sound to transfer from one device to another.

The main difference between an RCA cable and an optical cable is that the RCA transfers both video and audio. Whereas an optical cable only transfers an audio signal from one device to another.

An RCA cable cannot transfer high-definition or high-quality video signals from one end to the other.

An RCA component cable can transfer standard definition, analog, composite signals, or 1080i content.

The technicalities of an RCA cable are interesting. It transfers signals by keeping each signal separate. In other words, two analog audio signals (left and right analog signals) and a video signal through its three connections.

The attempt to simplify the connection into one cable leads to a reduction in data quality.

How to Use Optical and RCA Cables

As we learned above, optical cables are only used for sound, and RCA cables are used to transfer video and sound. But how exactly do you use each cable type? What type of devices does each cable support?

How to Use an Optical Cable?

Now that we understand how optical cables transfer sound between devices, it’s important to understand how to use them.

Optical cables are used primarily with soundbars, game consoles, Blu-ray and DVD players, and TVs.

Amazon Basics Digital Optical Audio Toslink Cable for Sound Bar, TV - 3.3 Feet (1 Meter)

Optical Cable is plugged into a TV – Click image for more info

First, locate the optical cable port on your devices. It’s easy to find because of its distinctive shape. Also, the port is often labeled with the word “Optical.”

Next, ensure you take off the plastic cap at each end of the optical cable. These little plastic covers are placed at each end to protect them from harm when shipped or handled.

After you’ve connected the cable to your devices, make sure to connect your devices to power outlets and turn them on.

When connecting your optical cable to a soundbar, you’ll have to navigate to your TV settings to turn off the TV speakers.

Considering each TV brand has a different menu setup, please consult your manual to determine how to turn off your TV speakers.

We understand this can be confusing, so check out this video representation of the above information.

How to: Hook Up Your Soundbar With An Optical Cable

How to Use an RCA Cable?

An RCA cable is a cable with three connections at each end. They are usually used to connect camcorders, speakers, and amplifiers to TVs.

To connect your RCA cables from your TV to any other device, you’ll have to match each color of the plug to the color of the designated port. Match the plugs to the ports behind your TV and to the device you wish to connect.

RCA cables plugged in TV

Connect the white and red cables only if you’re interested in transferring sound from one end to the other. The yellow cable is the one that transmits video signals.

It’s that easy.

If you’re interested in a quick and easy video that explains how to use RCA cables, please view this video here.

Understanding RCA Connectors - Types of Audio Jacks

Affordability

RCA and optical cables come in many sizes, price points, and brands. Although generally users tend to think the more expensive an item is, the better the quality, this is not the case with these types of cables.

The only rule of thumb you should follow is the shorter the cable, the better. That’s because transmitting the signal over longer distances reduces signal quality.

Therefore when purchasing an RCA or optical cable, just make sure it’s not very long.

Regardless of how short or long the cables are, how do RCA vs optical cables compare to each other when it comes to affordability?

RCA Cable Affordability

rca cable with white yellow red colors

Affordable RCA cables are a dime a dozen. A quick search provides many affordable options.

For instance, the PASOW 3 RCA Cable is highly rated and very affordable, it’s not even the most economical one out there. But this gives you a good example of what you can find.

PASOW 3 RCA Cable Audio Video Composite Male to Male DVD Cable (6 Feet)
  • Brand new high quality cable. Length: 6 Feet. Connectors: 3 RCA Male to 3 RCA Male.
  • Get composite RCA video and audio connectors all in one cable.
  • This composite RCA audio and video cable is specifically designed to provide sharp and clear video

Last update on 2023-02-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API.

Another more affordable option is the iMBAPrice RCA Cable. Not only is this cable highly rated, but it’s less expensive.

3FT RCA M/Mx3 Audio/Video Cable Gold Plated - Audio Video RCA Stereo Cable 3ft
  • RCA Composite Video + 2-RCA Stereo Audio
  • RG59 Video plus Stereo Audio
  • Connectors: 3 x RCA Male to Male

Last update on 2023-02-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API.

As you can see, RCA cables are highly affordable. Therefore if you lost yours, finding a replacement is easy.

Optical Cable Affordability

optical audio cable

So, how does the optical cable compare to the RCA cable when it comes to affordability?

Now, an optical cable is slightly more expensive than an RCA cable, but not very much. For example, this optical cable by WARRKY is highly rated by users and a few dollars more expensive than the RCA cable mentioned above.

Sale
Optical Audio Cable, WARRKY 6ft Optical Cable [Braided, Slim Metal Case, Gold Plated Plug] Digital Audio Fiber Optic Cable Toslink, Compatible with...
  • 【Bridge Between You and Music】WARRKY Optical Cable allows you to connect sound bar and home...
  • 【Top-Notch Fiber Core】This 6 ft Digital Optical Audio Cable adopts fiber cores from TORAY, Japan...
  • 【Ultra Durability】Carefully-chosen nylon material is much more durable than plastic cable....

Last update on 2023-02-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API.

There are many to choose from when it comes to finding affordable optical cables. Although, according to my search results, I did not find any cheaper than the PASOW 3 RCA cable above.

When it comes to cost, it seems optical cables are a good bargain but slightly more expensive than RCA cables.

Are there any alternatives to RCA or optical cables?

Keep reading to find out.

Alternatives to Optical and RCA cables

When it comes to alternative cables, there are a couple that come to mind. Two alternative cables are coaxial and HDMI cables.

Although these cables are unique in their own ways, they are used for similar things.

Let’s go in depth.

Coaxial Cable

A coaxial digital audio cable (not to be confused with a coaxial internet cable) is one single RCA cable that transmits digital data from one device to another.

The coaxial digital audio cable is thick. It’s made of copper wire with a plastic insulator braided in metal mesh that shields it from electromagnetic interference. This is encased in a protective plastic coating.

coaxial cable

It makes for a robust cable that is durable for transmitting data with little loss over longer distances.

If you’re looking for a coaxial cable for your electronics, try the FosPower Coaxial Digital Cable. Although it’s an affordable product, it’s more expensive than RCA and optical cables.

FosPower (6 Feet Digital Audio Coaxial Cable [24K Gold Plated Connectors] Premium S/PDIF RCA Male to RCA Male for Home Theater, HDTV, Subwoofer, Hi-Fi...
  • [MALE TO MALE] Connectors: 1 Digital Coaxial Audio male to Digital Coaxial Audio male 6ft cable.
  • [COMPATIBILITY] Works on all types of digital coaxial audio ports, including hard to access recessed...
  • [COLOR CODED CONNECTORS] Orange color-coded connectors on both ends of the connectors makes...

Last update on 2023-02-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API.

HDMI Cable

An HDMI cable is a robust wire that can transmit many types of video and audio signals. It can transmit SD, HD, and 4K video.

However, they can transmit lossless sound and even provide internet without using additional cables.

HDMI cable with a cap

Compared to the other cables we mentioned above, these come at various price points.

You can opt for something inexpensive, like the Amazon Basic HDMI  cable, or spend more on a product like the Monster 8K HDMI  cable.

Although the price of these cables usually depends on what you need, shop around until you find something that suits you.

Comparison Table

  Optical Cables RCA Cables
Pros
  • Very inexpensive to buy.
  • Can be used on a variety of electronics like gaming consoles, TVs, soundbars, DVD players, and Blu-ray players.
  • One connection for easy installation.
  • Durable.
  • Very inexpensive to buy, even more so than optical cables.
  • Mostly used for connecting camcorders, speakers, and amplifiers.
  • Transmits sound and video.
Cons
  • Only transmit sound, no video.
  • Slightly more expensive than RCA cables.
  • Three connections at each end make for a confusing connection type.
  • Cannot be used on a variety of electronics.
  • Does not transfer HD content.

Conclusion

When it comes to cables, the optical and RCA cables do similar things. However, upon closer inspection, the optical cable only transmits audio signals while the RCA cable transmits both audio and video signals.

The price points of both are very affordable, although the optical cable is slightly more expensive.

When it comes to usage, even though they are similar cables, they are used for different things. Optical cables are used for speakers, video game consoles, DVD players, and Blu-Ray players.

An RCA cable is primarily used for speakers, stereo systems, soundbars, and camcorders.

So if you’re trying to figure out if you need one or the other, first look at the devices you’re trying to connect, then make your choice.

We hope this article helped you differentiate between the two cables. Got more questions for us? Leave us a comment below.

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