Headphones, DACs, amps and the source matter greatly, but does it matter what carries the sound, whether it be USB or Optical cables? This is a great question for headphone users. Both work fine, but is one better than the other?
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Just remember that both interfaces carry digital audio signals from the source to a digital/analog convertor (DAC). Every interconnect is important in an audio system, so it’s crucial to choose the one that provides the best protection for the signal, giving you the best possible sound quality.
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- Not subject to electrical or radio interference
- Longer possible cable length than USB
- Supports up to 5.1 channels
- Here is a little-known fact about most PC-based optical audio setups. When using the optical output of your soundcard, the audio stream is sent through the onboard audio chip for processing, and this sometimes involves resampling of the audio stream sent by the sound driver. Even though your DAC receives a digital stream, it’s not always the same as the original stream that is generated from the decode of your source file.
- Not found on every DAC, amp or PC
- Signal disruption possible from over-bending the cable
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- One little-known fact about USB Audio, is that it is treated as a separate source from the onboard audio, so the PCM data from your media player application will reach the DAC exactly as it is sent to the audio driver, which most likely is an exact bitstream of your source.
- Very common, most DACs and PCs have the option to use USB.
- Can be affected by electrical and radio interference
- Shorter max length
Both will work fine, but optical has some major benefits over USB that just pushes it into first place. Not being affected by electrical and radio interference is a major advantage to me in the audio world. Personally I always use optical audio when possible. And always remember to use a good quality cable for any interconnect as this will prevent issues from arising that could degrade audio quality. So give both a try. Compare them side-by-side and see if one sounds better to you.