HDMI cables – Price does not equal quality


The devil is in the details. As with the introduction of most new technology the electronics retailers are making a killing on the sale of HDMI cables for your newly aquired PS3, HD-DVD / Blue Ray player and / or HDTV flatscreen. The people over at ArsTechnica.com recently published an excellent article on the topic of overpriced cables. But there is an even more important factor that needs to be addressed here:

When it comes to HDMI all cables are equal (or at least almost equal).  The old claim of superior (and more expensive) cables just doesn’t hold up in the new digital reality. Read on and learn why price does not equal quality.

Most newer HDTVs and HD-DVD and Blue-Ray players come with HDMI in/outputs and while the PS3 is currently the only gaming console to support the standard rumours say a new version of the XBOX 360 will soon join the club. With the transition to HDTV as the new  television standard the industry is moving away from component and other cables and toward a new type of cable called HDMI or High-Definition Multimedia Interface . Unlike older cable standards this one carries both high-definition video and audio in one neat package. Therefore it is an excellent way to reduce the cable clutter in your home entertainment centre. But you have to be careful when buying the cables or you will get ripped off.
In the past the claim that better cables meant better quality held through. This was because the signals transferred through the cables were analog – meaning that the signal itself is is the image or audio being transferred. This meant that if the signal deteriorated due to inferior cables the end result – the sound or picture – would deteriorate as well. But in the digital world everything is different. The signal sent between digital devices is a series of 0s and 1s that are interpreted by the devices. Therefore signal degradation has very little impact on the end result. A weak 0 or 1 is still a 0 or 1.

The best way to see the difference between an analog and a digital signal is to think of the difference between an old record and a CD. When you play the record a needle picks up minute vibrations in the record and amplifies these vibrations before reproducing them in the speaker. That is why when a speck of dust or a small scratch appears on the record you can hear it loudly through the speaker. A CD on the other hand does not contain the sounds themselves but a digital interpretation of the sounds. The information on a CD is actually just a series of holes that the player interprets as a 0 or a 1. The sound is produced when a computer interprets this information into sound. That is why even a scratched CD can play without fail and also why deep scratches make the CD unplayable because too many 0s and 1s are obscured.

Now back to the cables. As I said before, in the analog world the quality of your cables is very important. But in the digital world it is of little importance as long as the signal reaches it’s destination. Therefore the claims of “premium digital cables” and “better sound and picture” is little more than an advertising gimmic. For regular length cables the end result is the same whether they cost $20 or $200. The only difference is how hard the salespeople laugh at you when you leave the store.

Cable quality does start to matter if you are sending the signal over a longer distance (more than 3 meters) but even then the more expensive cables are not necessarily better.

A good rule of thumb is to buy the cheapest cable available from a store that allows you to return in within a set time and test it to see if the signal does infact deteriorate. Digital signal deterioration will appear as either popping audio or weird squares or “twinkles” in the image. If you don’t experience these things your cable is fine. If you do experience interference upgrade to a slightly more expensive cable. But no matter what the sales people say there is no reason to buy the most expensive cable unless you want to throw your money away.

One final note: Monster cables have long been hailed as the best on the market. This company is now touting their HDMI cables as supperior to any others on the market. The reality is that there is no difference between their cables and ones that are half the price or less. Unfortunately people still believe the advertising gimmics. But don’t be fooled. There really is nothing to gain from a more expensive cable.

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