- May 13, 2011
- 50 Comments
Slaying the Cable Monster: Why HDMI Brands Don't Matter
- Slaying the Cable Monster: Why HDMI Brands Don't Matter
- Testing the Cables
You've probably experienced this when shopping for a new HDTV: A store clerk sidles up and offers to help. He then points you toward the necessary HDMI cables to go with your new television. And they're expensive. Maybe $60 or $70, sometimes even more than $100 (You could buy a cheap Blu-ray player or a handful of Blu-ray discs for that price!). The clerk then claims that these are special cables. Superior cables. Cables you absolutely need if you want the best possible home theater experience. And the claims are, for the vast majority of home theater users, utter rubbish.
The truth is, for most HDTV setups, there is absolutely no effective difference between a no-name $3 HDMI cable you can order from Amazon.com and a $120 Monster cable you buy at a brick-and-mortar electronics store. We ran five different HDMI cables, ranging in price from less than $5 up to more than $100, through rigorous tests to determine whether there's any difference in a dirt-cheap cable and one that costs a fortune.
The first thing to remember about HDMI is that it is a digital standard. Unlike component video, composite video, S-video, or coaxial cable, HDMI signals don't gradually degrade, or get fuzzy and lose clarity as the signal fades or interference grows. For digital signals like HDMI, as long as there is enough data for the receiver to put together a picture, it will form. If there isn't, it will just drop off. While processing artifacts can occur and gaps in the signal can cause blocky effects or screen blanking, generally an HDMI signal will display whenever the signal successfully reaches the receiver. Claims that more expensive cables put forth greater video or audio fidelity are nonsense; it's like saying you can get better-looking YouTube videos on your laptop by buying more expensive Ethernet cables. From a technical standpoint, it simply doesn't make sense.
This doesn't mean that all HDMI cables are created equal in all cases. HDMI includes multiple specifications detailing standards of bandwidth and the capabilities of the cable.
The current HDMI specification, version 1.4a, requires all compliant cables to support 3D video, 4K resolution (approximately 4000-by-2000-pixel resolution, or about four times the detail of the current HD standard of 1080p), Ethernet data transmissions, and audio return channels. Each of these features requires more bandwidth, and considerably older HDMI cables (and all older HDMI-equipped devices) rated at HDMI 1.3b or lower can't handle that much bandwidth. For most users, 3D is the only feature they'll use. Ethernet over HDMI is used mostly for networking devices instead of connecting viapure Ethernet or Wi-Fi (the methods most consumer electronics products use). Audio return channels are only useful in certain situations with dedicated sound systems (and the same task can be accomplished by running an audio cable to the system). And there aren't currently any consumer-grade displays or playback devices capable of handling 4Kresolutions (the least-expensive 4K projector you'll find is more than $75,000). In all of these cases, it's a yes or no question: does it support these features? There is no question of clarity or superior signal.
That said, there are cases where higher quality cables and going to lengths to maintain signal quality are important. They just aren't cases that apply for most HDTV owners. If you're going to run an HDMI cable for lengths longer than 10 feet, you should be concerned about insulation to protect against signal degradation. It's not an issue for 6-foot lengths of cable, but as the distance between media device and display increases, signal quality decreases and the more susceptible the signal becomes to magnetic interference. In fact, for distances of over 30 feet, the HDMI licensing board recommends either using a signal amplifier or considering an alternate solution, like an HDMI-over-Ethernet converter. When you're running up against the maximum length, the greater insulation and build quality of more expensive cables can potentially improve the stability of your signal. However, if there's a 30-foot gap between your Blu-ray player and your HDTV, you might want to rearrange some furniture. Or just use a technology designed for long distances.
The second thing to know about HDMI cables is that they are almost always expensive when you buy them at brick-and-mortar stores. If you walk into a Best Buy or Radio Shack, you can expect to pay at least $40 for a 6-foot HDMI cable. Even at discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target, the cheapest, most generic HDMI cables retail for $15 and more. Online, you'll do a lot better on prices. Amazon.com and Monoprice.com (the "ancient custom installer's secret") slash even Wal-Mart's HDMI cable prices into tiny bits. Both sites sell several models of HDMI cables for as little as $1.50. These are generally generic HDMI cables, or seldom-heard-of brands, but they work just fine for most HDTV users. We can be certain of this, because we tested them in the PCMag Labs.
Very good info! I Have worked with and used allot of different kinds of AV Cables since I was a kid, in the 1960's. And have learned that a Cable's Insulation Properties, is the most important thing in getting a Good Clean Signal (especially, in lengths over 10 feet or so). If under 10ft, most any cheep cable will do and you wont be able to see or hear a difference, in your Audio or Video. For Home Audio and Video, that is... I Mixed Sound for Live Bands for over 12 years too. And there is a Whole Other World of Cables for that Purpose. The biggest thing in Cabling for Live Audio, with High Powered Amps, is Signal Strength. Especially over distances of 100 Feet and more. Cables are typically run from the Stage to the Mixer and then back to the Amps to the Speakers etc. Then, there is the durability of the Cables to consider. You can't afford to use Cheep and Very Breakable Cables when "The Show Must Go On"! But still, even in Live Sound. There are certain Cables which don't have to be expensive or super high quality to work well. Such as RCA's from a CD Player to the Mixer. You just need to have some backups on hand, in case one decides to fail right when you get things setup. The actual size, the Diameter or how many Strands a Cable has, Play a Big Part to, with Analog Signals especially. As for Digital Signals. I don't have many Devices that Produce a Digital Signal yet. My Panasonic DVD Player - Recorder with an HD TV Tuner (which wont recognize any DVD's any more, but that's another story) does have an HDMI out, if I remember right. But my TV is a 1980's Monkey Wards TV!:O So, The only inputs it has are RF and Composite Video and Audio (RCA) Inputs and Outputs. My ATI Radeon HD 4300 Series Video Card in this Computer has HDMI and VGA and S-Video outputs. But, my Monitor is a 17 inch CRT Monitor that uses a VGA Input only. I have an NVIDIA GeForce 4 / 64MB DDR / AGP 8x / VGA / TV Out / Low-Profile / Video Card in my older P4 System. Which is running ArtistX Linux. The Ubuntu version, right now. I'm going to rebuild it with straight Debian Linux as the base soon, since I don't like the way Ubuntu works. I use the ArtistX System for Watching Web Video on my TV. I use the S-Video output on the nVidia Video Card to go to my TV. And am using an S-Video A/V Patch Cable 25 ft. That costs $5.88 today, at PartsExpress.com!;) I paid $7.50 when I bought mine at regular price. It works great and the Picture is just as good as the Over the Air HD Video Broadcasts that I get in my area. The audio from my Computer running on this 25ft cable is great too. With No interference from Local Radio Signals at all (which can be a problem with Audio Cables over 10ft or so long, with cables that have poor insulation properties). So, I'm not surprised at these findings on the HDMI Cable Tests. And I'm glad to know that I won't have to shell out the Big Bucks just to get my HDMI Video Signal over to my new HD TV!:) Well, maybe one day... I will be able to get a nice 24 inch Wide Screen Monitor for my Computers and a nice New HD TV Too!:) And when I do... I will go right to my favorite AV Site, PartsExpress.com or Amazon.com (Amazon, like he said and http://www.monoprice.com/ looks pretty good too). And sometimes you can get free shipping form Parts Express or Tiger Direct and other sites on Amazon (when they charge $6 and up on these sites)! And I'll get my Cables for a Fraction of Retale Cost!;)