What is the difference between 3.5mm jacks and optical audio jacks?

I am considering replacing my USB sound card with something better and internal to cut down peripherals. I noticed my sound system has optical audio support but I don't know much about that. Is it better than using 3.5 mm jacks? Are there any disadvantages?

Can anyone recommend a good sound card for a 5.1 system?
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  1. Best answer
    i take it you are using something like the z5500 or z906? (if not please list what speakers you use)

    3.5mm is an analog signal
    optical is a digital signal.

    benefits of optical:
    -single cable (not three)
    -digital (less interference)
    -no need for a good soundcard as if your speakers accept optical they have sound processing onboard. however this could be a con (see 3.5mm benefit)

    benefits of 3.5mm
    -cheaper (your speakers come with the cables)
    -speakers support any format your soundcard does.
    -doesnt rely on onboard processing in the speakers. if you have a high end soundcard it could very well be better than whatever is inside the speakers.

    the main difference is that with optical you are offloading processing of sound from your computer to the device on the other side of the cable instead of your computer soundcard just handling it all. this could be good or bad depending on your hardware.

    the biggest issue with optical is that it has support for limited surround sound modes (and only supports 5.1 in compressed not uncompressed formats).

    honestly i would say stick with 3.5mm unless you have a real need to go for optical.

    as for potential upgrades to your soundcard... i would suggest having a look at models from asus.
  2. Thanks, that's very helpful. And yes I have a z906.

    I actually bought a cable and tried it out (I found a good one on sale) and I definitely noticed an improvement. If I turned the volume up all the way there was a hissing sound with the 3.5 mm jacks but that's gone now. Although since I never put the volume up past like 60% that's not really noticeable. The main thing I like about it is that before when I turned off my computer before my sound system the subwoofer would make a sort of pop when the power shut off on the computer. That is gone now.

    I wasn't able to get it working without my USB sound card though. I have optical on my motherboard but it didn't seem to do more than 2 channels. It works fine with the USB one though. I guess I don't necessarily need an expensive internal sound card since most of the expensive ones are focused on eliminating analogue noise right?
  3. generally yes.. although some have the capability for additional channels, have additional software, etcetera.

    often the optical onboard the motherboard is fine. are you sure that in your windows sound settings for that device (port) you have it set up properly?

    what i mean is that when plugged into the optical on the motherboard... in sound devices make it the default, then click on properties and make sure you have it set to 5.1 not 2.1 or 2.0.

    you could always get a cheap internal soundcard if you wish though.
  4. Yes I looked at the properties and 2 channel options are the only ones. I tested it with some 5.1 test audio files and it still came out of all 5 speakers but the channels were sort of mashed together. Rear left would come through real left, rear right and front left. I might play around with it tomorrow and see if I'm missing drivers or something.
  5. perhaps.

    most motherboards should support 5.1 out of optical though.

    if you cant get it to work right then you can always just get a cheap soundcard with optical out (or just keep your current soundcard... your choice)
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