What are Digital Coaxial Cables?

John Lister

Digital coaxial cables are cables that have been specially designed to carry a digital electronic signal. Theoretically they can be used to carry almost any type of digital information from one receiver to another, and they do have a number of different applications in industry and information science. Ordinary consumers are usually most familiar with them when it comes to audio and video connections for television, gaming, and high-speed internet modems, though. They are also important to many “surround sound” systems. In most cases they’re basically the same as standard coaxial cables in terms of appearance and basic infrastructure, though they are usually better and handling digital, as opposed to analog, signals thanks to slightly different insulating techniques. Experts frequently compare them to optical cables, and there is some debate in the marketplace when it comes to which of these two options is best for various multimedia settings.

Digital coaxial cables carry a digital electronic signal.
Digital coaxial cables carry a digital electronic signal.

Coaxial Cable Basics

Coaxial cables, whether digital or standard, are in most cases simply a central wire wrapped by an insulating material, covered by a metal shield, and finally sealed with a plastic casing. The signal is transmitted along the cable as an electromagnetic wave, which travels through the insulation. Coaxial cables are available with a variety of different plugs at either end for connecting to different equipment such as a television sets and cable boxes.

Digital coaxial cables connect to equipment such as a television set or cable box.
Digital coaxial cables connect to equipment such as a television set or cable box.

Their job is primarily to carry signals related to sound and imaging from a host, like a cable provider or network television station, to a receiver in a device. They are usually carried as small information packets that mechanisms within the device can reassemble and translate into something that is meaningful to the consumer. Standard coaxial cables usually work best for analog signals, which is to say, signals carried continuously from a source with no breaks. Digital cables, on the other hand, are usually specially designed to manage signals sent over digital wavelengths. People can sometimes use standard and digital cables interchangeably, and digital cables often do fairly well at interpreting standard signals. Standard cables don’t usually manage digital signals as well, though, which can lead to a grainy or interrupted frequency.

Cable and satellite providers generally provide a digital decoder box to their subscribers for a small monthly fee.
Cable and satellite providers generally provide a digital decoder box to their subscribers for a small monthly fee.

Main Digital Differences

Manufacturers typically make digital cables such that they are better shielded from interference; have a higher impedance, which allows them to handle more energy; and can handle a wider range of electrical frequencies. Some people argue that the word "digital" is simply a marketing trick because they work in the same way as a standard coaxial cable, though interpretation is key in this regard. Digital coaxial cables aren’t digital in and of themselves, but they are designed to do a better job of carrying a digital signal.

They tend to be slightly more expensive, but people can often justify this based on how important effectiveness is where digital signals are concerned. In an analog setting, information that gets lost or transfers slowly usually just means a poor sound or picture quality. If any information is lost from a digital signal, however, viewers often get a blip with no sound or picture at all.

Primary Uses

Digital coaxial cables vary in size and use. Very large cables handle mass telecommunications and data for governments and internet service providers, and supply information to computer mainframes in many major organizations. Smaller versions of the same basic product are widely available for consumers, too, often in the home electronics realm. People use these sorts of cables to connect sound systems to televisions, for instance, or to connect gaming consoles to internet-ready modems. They can be useful basically any time a digital signal is carrying information from one point to the next.

Optical Cable Comparison

In some settings the term "digital coaxial cable" can be used to distinguish between two main methods of carrying digital audio signals, particularly those used for surround sound. The alternative method uses optical cables, which work by sending light signals through a tube rather than electrical pulses down a wire. There is a long-running debate in the tech world about whether digital or optical cables are better for various applications. For most people, it simply comes down to the kind of socket they have on their equipment. Where there is a choice, optical may work better over long distances or in areas where there is a lot of electrical interference, while digital coaxial is often a better bet when the cables need to bend at tight angles in small spaces.

RF cables are equipped with casings to protect signals from interference.
RF cables are equipped with casings to protect signals from interference.

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Discussion Comments


Is there a light coming out of my digital coax socket? I pushed the little blocker thing ahead and looked in there. I saw the red light but can't figure out what it's for. Why would the inside of the cable be lit up? I am currently looking for my magnifying glass to get a better look and see what's causing this light. Any suggestions for tracking down the source of this light?


I want to connect the sound from an Epson MovieMate 62 DVD projector to an existing PA system. The Epson has a coaxial audio (digital) output. The PA system has an Aux-In port. What do I need?


@anon134789 – You would not need a digital coaxial cable to get TV reception on your computer. In most cases, all you need is a TV tuner card – the software and cables needed to use the card should be included with it, but if they aren’t the instructions should tell you what kind of cable is needed – in most cases it will more than likely be a USB cable.


I want to connect my computer for TV reception and want to know if a digital coax is used in this situation to connect to the main house TV aerial?

Or is digital coax for used to bridge digital equipment only. Thanks. --Jules

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