The Xbox Series X will not have an optical audio out port, despite one appearing on a sample console during a recent livestream.
After eagle-eyed viewer Tiberikus noticed that the Xbox console displayed during a Microsoft livestream had an S/PDIF out port, Ryan McCaffrey of IGN reached out to Xbox to check if this was going to be present on the final version. The answer is that it won't be.
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Confirmed with Microsoft: the final, retail Xbox Series X does NOT have an optical out. I know @JezCorden / @windowscentral had official confirmation on this the other day, but lots of folks have been tweeting me after seeing this in the Xbox dev stream today, so I followed up. https://t.co/xGHh93fcuJMarch 18, 2020
This information had previously been given to Windows Central, but after the livestream seemed to contradict that, it now seems that the matter is settled. The Xbox One did have an S/PDIF out port, as did the Xbox 360 S. On Sony's end, the original version of the PS4, and all three PS3 models feature the port, with no news yet about if the PS5 will continue to exclude it or bring it back.
Given that previous leaked photos of the Xbox Series X have shown an S/PDIF port present (the top leftmost port in the image below), we can assume that this is just an inclusion for development purposes, or is some kind of vestigial connector that will disappear on the commercial version of the console.
S/PDIF, also known as TOSLINK (the name of the connecting cable) is a high quality fiber-optic connection between an output device like a games console or DVD player and an input device like headphones or speakers. The optical audio standard, with its unique shaped red-glowing ports, has been around since Toshiba, Sony and Phillips created the standard in the 1980s, but it doesn't see much use these days thanks to modern comprehensive ports like HDMI.
However, the connection remains popular with audio fanatics. Since the light-based connection doesn't interfere with other cables using electrical signals, and the standard has been in use for over 30 years, using S/PDIF can allow for better sound quality and the continued use of the best soundbars and the best computer speakers that don't have modern ports.
Hopefully this won't be a problem for Microsoft, but the new Xbox may still be at a disadvantage compared to the PS5 in the sound department. We know from a recent "Road to PS5" talk that Sony has been focusing on making high quality 3D audio tuned to individual users' ears. Whether the Xbox Series X has its own version of this technology remains to be seen.