An optical port? What the heck is that?
December 21, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

So, we have this nice new HDTV with internet. Sound isn't bad but I'd like to add speakers to enliven TV watching, DVD use and Xbox/Kinect use. I can't hook up my old computer speakers, which are good quality, because this TV only has an optical port.

This TV is mostly for watching while exercising, so I'm not really interested in doing the whole home theater thing. I just want to hook up something compact with better sound than the TV speakers.

Any suggestions, electronics wizards of MeFi? Please keep the answers simple as I'm a newbie on using optical ports to hook up sound.
posted by bearwife to Technology (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Buy this, then a cheapo RCA->headphone converter.
posted by Oktober at 12:01 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You'll need something that can decode the digital audio and turn it into analog that your old computer speakers can use, like this. If you can make your TV emit only uncompressed digital audio, you could get away with a less expensive converter such as this one. NB: I haven't tried either of those devices personally.
posted by hades at 12:08 PM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: The converter Oktober links is of good quality, but be advised that it can't cope with any sort of audio other than 2-channel PCM. That is, if your DVD player is sending a surround sound signal and the TV is passing it along unchanged (likely,) you'll hear nothing on the output of the converter.

If you're comfortable setting up your TV to downsample to 2 channels (a feature it may or may not possess) or all of your various source devices to output only stereo (almost certainly possible for everything you own, but you'll have to figure it out for each one individually) the transcoder linked in Oktober's comment will do what you need it to do. If you can afford to spend an extra $35 and want to avoid those setup headaches, Gefen does make a more expensive unit that'll Just Work.
posted by contraption at 12:16 PM on December 21, 2010

(I work on high-end distributed A/V installations and have experience with both units. They're solid little problem solvers, I've used 20 or so in the last few years and have yet to see one lock up or fail.)
posted by contraption at 12:17 PM on December 21, 2010

We bought a Samsung and then my husband hunted around on the internets and found a refurbished (but new otherwise) samsung speaker and sub woofer package deal thing. Super cheap. Works great. Was made for the original TV so it was all compatible.

Do you have a friend who loves electronics and hunting up deals? Ask them to help you. You could also try posting the make/model of TV you have in this thread - maybe someone here just got the same thing and knows exactly what you need!

We looked at game consoles, blu-ray, and home theater set-ups before getting the simple combo we bought. I would not have been happy with all those extra components and doodads. Getting something that did the digital-thing through the existing TV ports was much easier and better sounding than trying to jimmy-rig something through whatever speakers we already own - and we looked thoroughly into that option before getting what we got, too.

For the quality vs. expense (they kinda purposely make the speakers in the TV a bit crap so you have to do something) we enjoy our choice immensely.
posted by jbenben at 12:27 PM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: Normally HDTVs don't output AC3 or DTS via the optical output, or at least the ones I've always dealt with, admittedly at the consumer level rather than high-end stuff. So you're probably only going to get uncompressed 2 channel PCM from the TV anyway, in which case the basic geffen optical to RCA adapter should do the trick. You should be able to check in your TV manual what audio output you can get from the toslink port.

(AC3 and DTS work by 'cheating' - they use the two channel (i.e. stereo) PCM optical signal standard, and use compression to fit a 6 or 8 channel (5.1 or 7.1) signal down the same connection. This means you need something on the other end that understands that compressed signal, which is why you need the more expensive adapter if your TV won't output the simpler uncompressed stereo PCM signal)
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:35 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: Here's more info, as jbenben suggests; new TV is a Vizio E32VL. The sound is decent, but I'd like more. Old computer speakers are very nice small Harmon Kardons with a good subwoofer . I think the Gefen recommended by contraption and hades will probably work with them.

One other option I have looked at though the price is a bit daunting is this ZVOX, because of the wonderful reviews and the appealing simplicity of the design.
posted by bearwife at 12:39 PM on December 21, 2010

i would suggest a set of Behringer MS20s for about $150
posted by paradroid at 12:46 PM on December 21, 2010

According to this AVforums thread (they're normally pretty clued up) that particular TV does downsample 5.1 input via hdmi to uncompressed PCM stereo output out via the optical toslink adapter. So if you're happy with stereo, either the basic geffen adapter plus a dual-RCA to female 3.5mm headphone jack will work with your current PC speakers, or those Behringer speakers which take a toslink optical PCM stereo directly will do the job just fine.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:58 PM on December 21, 2010

Whoops, linked the wrong gefen adapter there. The cheap one is the one suggested by hades and contraption, i.e. this one. Sorry!
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:00 PM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: Note, if you do ever want to go to 5.1 surround sound - for example, with that ZVOX - you're better off feeding the sound input directly into the speakers from from 360 and DVD player, rather than via the TV optical out. Otherwise you're downsampling 5.1 to stereo, then using the zvox to upmix to 5.1 again, so you'll lose much of the benefit of the surround sound.

The zvox only has one optical input, and one digital RCA input, plus two analog RCA inputs.

Assuming your DVD player has digital RCA out, you could use that for one input, the xbox via optical to the zvox, and err, the tv via the gefen to rca stereo on the analog input.

It might be better to go for an AV receiver with more digital inputs, or even better, one with HDMI passthrough. Failing that, an hdmi switchbox with optical out - I use this thor unit for my 360, ps3 and media centre pc to my speakers which only have one optical input, and pass dolby digital/DTS that way, with the HDMI out going to the TV. You're still going to need a way to get the TV output to the zvox through; perhaps an optical to digital RCA adapter for the tv-to-zvox, instead of the gefen?
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:20 PM on December 21, 2010

Try this, it's usually on sale for $249. Works great on my Panasonic.
posted by JohnE at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: ArkhanJG, many helpful comments from you here. A couple of questions: do you know of a thor unit equivalent here in the US? It seems to be a UK product. Also, I get the strong feeling you think I'm going to be much happier with 5.1 surround sound. What's the most elegant solution -- i.e. lowest in wires and other stuff -- to achieve that for all 3 of my gizmos (TV, 360 and DVD player)?

And JohnE, does your samsung allow direct connections from gaming system, DVD player and TV?
posted by bearwife at 1:44 PM on December 21, 2010

Best answer: It has optical and analog inputs. The way I have it hooked up the sound comes from the TV. I only use the optical, I'm not a gamer on the tv. My blu-ray and computer go to the TV.
posted by JohnE at 1:58 PM on December 21, 2010

One other thing, you can go to that website to dl the owners manual. Should give you everything you need to know about it. Another is to go to a local Best Buy and pick the brain of one of the Geek Squad guys there in the Home Theatre section. It's what I did.
posted by JohnE at 2:27 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the quick response, JohnE! Hmm, yes, I think my adventures in finding a home theater solution may just be beginning. But I appreciate the steer.
posted by bearwife at 3:39 PM on December 21, 2010

So I looked at this a couple of months ago. Nice Samsung HDTV, Comcast DVR, Wii and HTPC. I ended up with a Sony HT-CT350. Doesn't soak up the composite HD video from the Wii, but has 3 HDMI inputs and handles everything else including the optical audio. Less than $250, and sounds pretty good. It's not a HD-snob 7.1 system (or even, really, a 5.1 system), but it's a giant step up from the built-in Samsung audio. Subjectively, a great investment for my space.
posted by kjs3 at 10:53 PM on December 21, 2010

Response by poster: kjs3, thank you! A question: is there a reason you preferred the HT-CT350 to the (cheaper) HT-CT150?
posted by bearwife at 10:11 AM on December 22, 2010

Best answer: @bearwife: I recall I got the HT-CT350 over the HT-CT150 as it's modestly more powerful and has a wider soundbar, so theoretically better seperation, and better matches the asthetics of our flat screen. The 150 & 350 apparently use the same subwoofer, so no real difference there. I don't recall any other differences, but forgive me if I've forgotten something of note. Naggingly, there was definately a reason I spent a bit more on the 350.

Additional notes:

1) The Sony's don't have composite for the Wii, but there are composite->HDMI converters for small $$s. I've just been a bit lazy about picking one up.

2) The 3 HDMI ins/1 out are integrated, so if you turn on the TV without turning on the Sony, you get the TV speakers. As soon as you turn on the Sony, it disables the TVs speakers and takes over. Nifty, took me by suprise when I first realized what it was doing.

3) Both models have pre-set equalizers for different media, easily set from the remote, like "sports", "movie", "music", "news" (?), etc. Some actually make a noticable difference, especially between "standard" (good for 90% of things), "movie" and "sports". The others...meh...haven't found them useful. But changing from "standard" to "sports" when the GaTech game is on is satisfying.
posted by kjs3 at 7:42 PM on December 22, 2010

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