SEARCH

How-To Geek

HTG Explains: Do You Really Need Expensive Cables?

image

You might laugh at the high retail prices for “premium” cables at big box retail stores. But is it possible that a higher quality cable can give you a better digital signal? The nuance of the answer may surprise you.

Cables might seem like a boring part of your computer or home entertainment equipment. You plug them in, they work. End of story, right? Again, the nuance may surprise you. To better understand how your cables work, we’ll have to look at the physics and science of how the signals are sent, and the engineering feats that had to be accomplished to create images and sounds. Even if you think common sense or a little geek knowledge is all you need to get the right cable for your home entertainment system—think again. Here’s some of the most helpful (and coolest) information we’ve found about cables and digital signals.

Cables, Markups, and Marketing

1174966463_c715ceaebe_b

When you look at the long chain products go through to get to your hands, sometimes it’s astounding we can get anything manufactured at all. The cost of a cable, including connectors, shielding, all parts and labor is surprisingly low (sometimes pennies per foot), even for a quality product. But the path that product takes to get into your hands adds not just some, but usually the bulk of the cost. This can include packaging, shipping, advertising and marketing, and enough markup to pay the salaries, bills, and various costs for the retailers that provide that last few feet in getting that product in your hands.

5239636325_71ab2ae61d_b

For all the reasons we’ve just outlined, the pricing on cables is a complicated beast. A more discerning customer might have a higher price differential, and be willing to pay more for the products they feel are worth it, which can drive up the price both for high quality cables and those cables marketed as high quality cables. “Feel” is an important word here. Packaging and marketing largely create the feelings consumers have towards a brand name or product sold under that brand.

2239854571_a978c81be8_b

So what does that mean for a geek looking to buy cables? Buyer beware—high price doesn’t always mean high quality. Slick packaging and the promise of gold plated connectors might make you feel like you’re getting a great quality product, but in reality, you may only be paying for higher markup for the retailer and clever advertising, gimmicks, and buzzwords. So what can we learn about cables to protect ourselves from bad purchases? Let’s take a look at some of the fun stuff and the science of how cables work to try and get a better idea of when buying expensive cables matters.

How Information is Sent Through Cables

The cables that go to your Blu-Ray player, or Xbox, or PC Monitor are, in effect, not very different from the power cables that all those electronic devices are plugged into. There’s no special kind of electricity that’s sent through cables—electrons are electrons. They simply serve different purposes: piping data versus piping power for a device, for instance.

You might remember from high school physics diagrams of atoms with the ball-like illustrations of electrons rotating around the nucleus of the atom. Because of this, many people think of electrons as particles, and while in some situations that does appear to be true, science has found that many particles like photons (light) and electrons (electricity) show properties of both particles (appearing in similar “sized” and “shaped” packets of energy) and also as waves (interference patterns—think overlapping ripples in a pond). This property is known as the wave-particle duality, and the important point to take away is that electricity is carried through cables as waves.

1000px-Waveforms.svg

One of the properties of waves is that they have a frequency—how quickly they oscillate in a given amount of time. Data is sent by controlling the frequency that travels through the cable. Crudely put, image or audio data is broken into various wavelengths and channeled through the cables, where they either create an analog signal or carry a digital signal to be interpreted.

What’s The Difference Between Analog and Digital?

realhmv

Since you’re on a site dedicated mostly to computer help, you might be rolling your eyes a bit at that sub-headline. But bear with us—this is fun, geeky stuff. In an entirely analog system, the wave sent through a cable is what causes the sound or image. Depending on how high or low the frequency interacting with the speakers might be, a higher or lower frequency sound could be produced. It’s similar with analog televisions, except that the signal is broken down into red, green, and blue wavelengths of light to be recombined, creating an image as opposed to a sound. While the frequency of these waves changes depending on what information is transmitted, the general kind of wave doesn’t really change—it’s called a sine wave.

MatrixCode

Digital signals operate like you would expect being piped out of computers. They send a series of on and off signals called “binary.” You might know it as humble ones and zeroes, but the idea is the same. Digital information is coded in these binary signals to be decoded by a second device on the receiving end of the stream.

1000px-Waveforms.svg

Like analog images and sound, digital information still has to be carried from point A to point B through a cable and by electrons. However, the on-and-off one-or-zero style of data of digital signals transmit don’t end up looking much like the smooth sine waves we send our analog signals in. The kind of waveform that a digital signal creates is called a “square wave.” In a platonic world, these are mathematically perfect representations of on and off transmitted by the wave. In the real world… well, let’s just say things end up getting real.

Decoding the Digital Signal

436483569_9b0d36f72f_o

As we said, an analog signal is directly creating sound or images without a layer that is decoding it. Because a digital signal would be nonsense to our eyes and ears, the inputs on devices like HD television screens have to retranslate into an image or sound from the digital data that is transmitted over the cables. To do this, digital devices have their own software and hardware to reconstitute this data on the input end of the stream. And because they often don’t get a perfect signal sent through the cable, these devices have to be good at “guessing” at what the data is supposed to be.

316px-Fourier_Series.svg316px-Fourier_Series.svg

When a signal is sent over a cable, one of the major problems is “impedance,” which deals with the cable (or wire’s) tendency to diffuse or degrade waveforms or resist the current as it flows through the wiring. As the wire gets longer, it has a greater tendency to impede the current as it runs through it. Analog cables had to be well designed to deal with this impedance problem, as their signal was sent directly to the device without the layer of reconstitution. Digital signals don’t have precisely the same impedance problem as analog cables for a few reasons relating to what we’ve discussed. When signals are impeded as they travel through cables, the waves experience attenuation, or degradation of the waveform. When the kind of digital signal square wave is sent through a cable, it becomes attenuated, and is no longer a perfect wave with clearly defined positions of on and off. Actually, it probably never was, but that’s sort of beside the point.

The decoding hardware and software on the target device knows it is looking for ones and zeroes and has a tolerance for that square wave form. If it is attenuated to a certain degree, the device looks at the wave and correctly identifies it as the one or zero it was sent as (or possibly interpolates what the data should have been based on the other data is has on hand). It is because of this reconstitution of data that ensures that digital quality appears so absolute even through an the wave was impeded through a potentially poor quality cable and likely attenuated. But does this mean that there’s never a reason to shell out big bucks for a super high quality cable?

TL; DR, I’m Tired of All This Science Crap

3149429502_af4463f672_o

Quality analog cables clearly have an advantage over the cheaper, crappier cables, since the quality of sound or video is a direct function of reducing impedance in the wires and the attenuation of waves sent through them. But is the same true of digital cables? Because the likeliness of impedance increases as the length of cable increases, longer digital cables can impede a signal  the longer it is carried from the source. Cheap, poorly made digital cables that are also very long can adversely affect the signal, resulting in poor quality images that suffer from packet loss, incorrectly rendered pixels, whole sections of the image, or various other errors like completely blank screens. So keep your digital cables (particularly HDMI) as short as possible if you’re a cheapskate. And if you need that long digital cable, be prepared to shell out money for a cable that will accurately carry your image to your monitor or television set from your source.

We could find no evidence that the so-called “premium” cables could provide a higher quality (better sound or richer images with more color) digital signal apart from the problem of impedance degrading the quality. Both analog and digital signals can benefit from quality cables, but you’re more likely to be able to get a good image out of a crappy digital cable versus an equally crappy analog cable. This doesn’t mean that the analog sound/visual experience is worse or better than the digital one—but rather the two degrade in very different ways. In short, use the shortest possible digital cable you can, and you’ll probably never have issues with the quality of your image or digital sound.


Enjoyed reading about all the craziness that goes on in the cables that hook up your electronics? Think we’ve made some mistakes? Have questions about some of the concepts that we’ve outlined here? Tell us about it in the comments, or send your questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com and they may be featured in a future article on How-To Geek.

Image Credits: Fixedish by Leo Fung, Creative Commons. Monster Cable by erikkellison, Creative Commons. Sony STR-DA1000ES, Monster Cable THX, Dayton Bananas by SoulRider.222, Creative Commons. Sky HD Box by DeclanTM, Creative Commons. Time for the HDMI Cable by Steven Combs, Creative Commons. That’s One Bored Cat by Lisa Clarke, Creative Commons. Image from The Matrix used without permission, assumed fair use. Image from RCA Advertising used without permission, assumed fair use. Waveforms by Omegatron, GNU License. Fourier Series by Jim Belk, Public Domain.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 04/30/12

Comments (48)

  1. Marc McCalmon

    There’s a considerable amount of discussion about this on several home theater and audio forums. References to snake oil can be found. One can also find info on DIY low impedance speaker wire that measures better than the commercial equivalent.

  2. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Marc: If you have some links to any in particular you’ve found heated/interesting, feel free to share them.

  3. Dennis

    Re ‘cables’ – I enjoy these kind of articles even if not always relevant to my usage – increase of understanding is always good.

  4. Doc

    @Marc: Doesn’t apply to HDMI or S/PDIF cables, which are digital; speaker wires, on the other hand, are analog.

    Me, I’ve bought HDMI cables off the Web for under $4.50 that are every bit as good as the ones selling for Wal*Mart for $35…total ripoff!

  5. Cat

    I’m with the cat pictured above!
    Useful to know nevertheless.

  6. Tim

    What you might pay extra for is better quality cables and terminals that are less likely to be damaged if you unplug or move the cables a lot, also potentially better electromagnetic insulation

  7. Steven

    as a side note, i bought an HDMI cable from the AmazonBasics range for £5 (about 10USD?).

    It lasted baout 6 months and then the connection went dodgy…. i have had one for longer that still works fine, although that was also a cheap one from a supermarket i think.

  8. Brad

    You are confusing impedance with resistance. Impedance increases / decreases with frequency. It is resistance that increases with distance. In fact resistance is proportional to distance / temperature / material and cross sectional area.

  9. SlimJim

    Just wanted to ask why ‘material’ of the wire wasn’t mentioned…. Like in speaker wire, or a power wire which uses 100% oxidation free copper or aluminum clad….would that make a difference in a digital signal like it does in analog?

  10. DaveK

    This is quite a good summery of what the retailers want you to believe is a tricky topic. And it just isn’t the short answer is – keep your digital cables short and your analogue cables high quality (and the cheapest way to preserve quality is by cutting your distance!)

    I’ve worked in may HD outdoor broadcast environments where we have used, for internal monitoring, the cheapest possible HDMI cables because we can keep them short and not have to plug and unplug them often and have never noticed a difference in quality. Be it either by eye or with testing equipment.

    On the other hand in the live show environment where cables are long and get plugged and unplugged a lot you need the best cable you can get and connectors that can withstand the day to day use. The same goes in your home as well – for the cable that you plug in once and never touch, cheep is good – for the one you, or your kids, plugs in and out of the iPad/Camera etc a lot you’ll probably want to pay for a stronger connector. Finding one through all the marketing hype is the only problem.

  11. David

    Nice article with a lot of words! But it did not directly answer the title question, namely; “Do you really need expensive cables?”

    The answer is no! For the most part, expensive cables benefit only the seller.

    The business of selling these connecting cables is filled with hype and a lack of information. Pretty packaging and fancy words (like “gold-plated”) mislead consumers. It’s a fact that ratty-looking but well-constructed cables are generally a lot cheaper and work better.

    The selection and characteristics of signal cables an be a technically-complex subject often confusing to a layman. Sadly, the sales and marketing end of the business has used this complexity to fatten retailers’ wallets. In short, don’t believe most of what’s printed on those cable packages.

    An important point was made regarding the shielding properties of these cables. Yes, you should keep signal cables away from power lines. But longer cable runs need cables with better shielding chartacteristics. But again, how does the consumer tell?

    On balance, $5 cables purchased via the internet will work very well, indeed. Shucks, you can replace them almost ten times for the price of a single $50, store-bought cable! (So order two. You’ll have a spare and still be ahead by $40!)

    Also, the commentary about impedance is correct. Impedance is a function of the cable itself and the frequency of the signals carried . . . not how long it is. Regardless of cable length, the characteristic impedance of that cable (Zo) remains the same. (This a practical consideration—without getting into such exotic discussions as an infinitely-long cable. But few people have infinitely-long living rooms. )

  12. Phil

    What David said.

    I have done blind studies where I’ve invited friends into my place and had them see and hear the same movie twice – once with cheap cables out of my junk box, once with over-priced “Monster” cables hyped by the sales person at the big box electronics store. (If I wanted to be a purist I could have made it a double-blind study, but I was just trying to prove a point to one friend who thought Monster cables were better.)

    The only friend who could “tell” the difference was the one who cheated and looked behind the TV to see what was plugged in!

    My home theater box only has one SPDIF input. My digital cable box, Blu-Ray, computer, and old CD player all have SPDIF outputs. I use an old $20 A-B-C-D video switcher to select among the different digital outputs to send them to the box. (I never use the CD player anymore, but as long as it’s sitting there and as long as there’s a fourth input on the A-B-C-D box I figured I might as well hook up the additional cable.) All of the RCA-RCA cables are from my junk box. They’re all unshielded. At least one was purchased at Radio Shack over 30 years ago and is as cheap as cheap can get. I didn’t pay more than a dollar (if that) for each cable. It works fine and as far as I can tell I’ve never lost any signal or had any interference.

  13. Linda

    Want to see what a difference good cables can make, try plugging in the same electric guitar with cheap and then expensive cables. It makes a world of difference in the sound.

  14. DJGray

    I have a 30′ run from my AV center to the projector that displays all my video. I bought a beautifully packaged, well hyped $90 HDMI cable from Radio Shack because that was all they had that was long enough to make the trip. The salesman instructed me to be extra careful unpacking and installing it because in two weeks, they would have store brand HDMI cables for less than half the price. In two weeks, I returned the Heavenly cable and purchased the Radio Shack cable. No difference. I repeat, NO difference whatsoever in picture quality. But a whopper of a difference to my wallet!

    I now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

  15. Ms Hanson

    What Brad said.
    My Dad built ham radios from scratch and scraps, including the schematics. I recall ohms and impedance, resistance and capacity. Who knew I would retain the basics this long?
    Good article, will put it in my virtual toolbox.

  16. Rick

    I have worked in the high end electronis business with equipment in the 10s of thousands of dollars and was once jokingly refered to as beinging able to hear grass grow, The term garbage in garbage out is a term high end audio buffs use and use a cheap cable on mediocre equipment that does not have the resolution to expose the differance can be the key. I agree some high end cables are not worth the money and are nothing more than clever marketing. Analogue cables are much more susceptible to the geometry of the cables design because the impedance of the cable can have an adverse affect on the linearity of the signal coming out. Even at my age 62 and deminished hearing I can still hear the differance between good and mediocre equipment and cables are an intricate part of the end result. Most midfi audio products will do Ok with inexpensive cables but carry this to the state of the art equipment and they will not suffice. I’ll be the 1st to admitt my video needs are less discerning but the eyes are more demanding than the ears. I have purchased one fairly expensive HDMI cable, 10 feet in lenth and have not made a cable comparison. I would surmise some cables will make some differance depending on the resolution of the display but the thought maybe not accurate is binary code made up as ones and zeros, if half a 1 is missing it still reads as a 1. I would have to be convinced.

  17. Brian

    You should not use cheaply made cables even for today’s digital signals as has been pointed out a lot. When calculating length do not forget radius and the ability to remove the cable from both devices which may require a greater length to pull the box forward. However inexpensive cables do not have to be cheaply made and paying these crazy prices at the box stores is just that .. crazy and designed for the masses who are uninitiated. $69 for a 6′ HDMI from Monster is just marketing hype and that has been proven.
    Really excellent cables of any kind at very reasonable prices can be found at MonopriceDOTcom. All made to the latest specs and the difference explained on a great web site with many of photos. They have every cable imaginable and HDMI, Ethernet and USB particularly in different qualities and choice of length. Shipping is reasonable especially if you buy more than one and their customers service via chat is second to none. The highest quality 6′ HDMI cable is around $10.
    They also have many ‘strange’ connectors and converters. You will be happy. I have no connection .. just a satisfied customer.

  18. Brian

    and to add that the connection maybe more important than cable quality. Poor connections increase resistance and are responsible for issues when jiggled. I think ‘gold connectors’ is overhyped. Just good quality and tight fitting.

  19. minnetonka

    Great article for me and the graphics really helped. Good to know that it’s best to keep cable length to what you need instead of some super-long “just in case” cable. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  20. Chef_

    Reminds me of this cartoon: The Real Reasons Monster Cables Cost So Much

    http://www.joyoftech.com/joyoftech/joyarchives/1082.html

  21. Doc Rings

    I’ve used ‘em all, and there is NO difference for home theater purposes. 25 foot HDMI cables for $11 from Fry’s were FANTASTIC, with no dropout or snow…. even though the “salesman” said “do NOT buy those! Get the $150 Monster cables!!!” Screw him (and his ilk) for his either 1) extreme ignorance or 2) unethical lying salesmanship.

    Speaker wire: I buy 12AWG speaker wire by the 250′ roll from partsexpress… and it is FANTASTIC, as well. If someone thinks they can hear a difference between my wire and their $2000 “snake-oil” wire… they, too, are delusional. Keep the wires as short as possible, away from parallel power cables, and make right/left equal lengths.

    Now, having said that, I’m a guitarist, too, and with stage and studio cables, I’ll buy higher-dollar items due to the abuse of unplugging, tugging and twisting they get… cheap cables break in a few days. You pay for the connector integrity and physical wire armor, NOT the copper inside.

    Cheers,
    Doc R

  22. DSM

    Articles like this invite the armchair engineer with small pockets to say “see, told you so.” However, it is dead on the money. In actuality those of us that sold digital and analog cables came to this realization years ago, and most professionals tried to sell accordingly.

    Analog cables must be of high quality to perform well. These are mainly the province of two channel analog, where price/perception/reason/performance equations are all goofy anyway.

    Digital HDMI must simply be high enough quality. Anything else is jewelry and may positively affect the user’s perception of his system; although whether or not the difference in picture or sound is the reason is his business.

  23. Damino

    @Linda – Instrument music cables fit into a bit of a different category here. They’re usually “coax” style cables where the more expensive usually (presuming you’ve got an honest store-man at your music store) have better shielding, better quality dielectric and most importantly (for instrument cables being plugged and unplugged regularly) good quality connectors and terminations and mechanical protection (as mentioned by Doc Rings).

  24. BSEE

    The sum of the sine waves your figures show represents Sum[n=1 to infinity]sin(nf)/n, ie, the sum of EVERY integral multiple of the square wave frequency (f) divided by that multiple. The correct formula is Sum[n=1 to infinity]sin((2n-1)f)/(2n-1), ie, the sum of the ODD multiples of the frequency.
    (And you thought that *you* were a geek!)

  25. SimpleAnswer

    Monoprice.com . You’re welcome. My friend from college does million-dollar home theater installations, this is where he told me to go.

  26. Anonymous

    Question: Do you really need expensive cables?

    Answer: No.

    IMO, this quality concern over cables and the need to pay more for it is pretty much a lot of hype. There is some science and true technical wizardry involved but it’s all pretty much a waste of time to the average consumer. About the only concern most people have with cables is whether their cables are susceptible to interference or not – something I saw no mention of in the article.

    More often than not, I see people having problems getting a signal from point A to point B due to interference way more often than their inability to transmit at adequate power levels or receive with sensitive enough (properly tuned) equipment. A good example of interference might be “cross talk” that you may have experienced with old analog phone lines or that strange hum you just can’t seem to get rid of in your car stereo. Even quality cables might have trouble dealing with interference since poor cable placement (bad cable runs) and/or bad connectors would be the primary reason for poor performance.

    Then again, using the wrong type of cable can be another problem. For example, you wouldn’t use phone wire to power your dishwasher, would you?! (Do I really need to explain this one?)

    About the only thing you may want in a good cable is good shielding and that it be properly rated for the electricity/signal that it will carry. But that’s about it. That’s also why we have organizations like IEEE or UL doing the science here too — not Monster Cable!

  27. Rufus

    Nice discussion about the difference of quality needed for digital versus analog, but it would have been helpful to have included a table of the various cables in common use and whether they are digital or analog.

  28. Jon

    I have never seen any difference. The cheaper cables have always delivered the same quality as the outrageously priced premium cables. Unless you are in a commercial setting where the distances are significant between connections, it makes no sense to pay high prices.

  29. Michael

    Linda,
    You are comparing apples and oranges. A guitar signal is analog (as it should be). So a good quality O2 free cable makes a big difference. Has nothing to do with what this article is really about.

  30. Terry J. Deveau

    Connectors can be a hidden source of problems. On multiconductor connectors you typically have one (or more) rows of metal pins on one connector, and corresponding row(s) of holes on the mating connector. The thickness of the metal used in these pins and holes can be an issue. If it is too thin is can overheat and cause oxidation, physical deformation, and scorching, which causes more of the same until the connection is “burned out” and stops functioning.

    One thing that I have personally had to deal with is a connector with rows of metal pins that aren’t solid metal pins, but very thin sheet metal folded into the shape of a pin. There wasn’t enough metal present to handle the heat generated by the electricity flowing through it, with the results described above. You may have to look at connector pins with a magnifying glass to see if they are solid metal or folded sheet metal.

  31. Terry

    I think the cable issue has already been covered quite admirably. But, I would like to put in my “2 cents worth” on something.

    Unless you’ve actually been there and read them for yourself, you WOULD NOT BELIEVE the monumental difference in the caliber of comments found here and on HUFFINGTON POST!

    All the comments here were made by people who can think, spell, and express an opinion without name-calling.

    I find this extremely refreshing, and I am grateful for the glimmer of hope that all of mankind has not de-volved into a race of dullards, cretins, ibeciles, morons, nitwits, I could go on (Thanks to Mr. Roget.)

    And for all this, I say,

    THANK YOU ALL VERY MUCH!!!

    Terry

  32. LoRider100

    I didnt read half of the science behind it or the replies from ppl, but, this is what im going to put in on this subject because i am an electrician….. if all your cables run together and you have power cables running beside video and audio every time the AC power cable switches from + to – and back (60hz) then you get a rise and collapse of a magnetic field around your power cable and if you have a video or audio cable running beside it you will tend to get an interference signal and make a shittier picture or have a buzzing sound… more expensive cables tend to have better shielding for this.

  33. Brett

    Pretty good; thanks again HTG! I remember years ago, walking out of a class which was introducing transmission line theory and thinking wow, I’m surprised something as simple as a torch can even work!

    It is funny how people rave about gold connectors – and while it is great, silver has an electrically lower resistance still – and you do sometimes come across it, although rarely admittedly. While a lower resistance, it is prone to tarnishing which is a hassle gold doesn’t suffer from.

    My question is whether OFC (oxygen free copper) is a scam or real? I cannot see how the absence of some oxygen atoms amongst the copper can possibly be enough to worry about. Or is it? I can see how in theory it is – yes an oxygen atom will provide a resistance, but surely there is enough copper that 2 cables, one copper and one OFC, say 25m long, side by side, of the same diameter, would not measure differently, even to the 6th decimal place (ohms). And a singal of a pure sine wave, 1kHz or 1MHz would show the same spectrum, distortion, and other important electrical measurements. Am I right, or missing something?

  34. WHW

    The reason there is no difference in the a/v quality is that there are ISO standards for making, for example, a HDMI cable. You cannot make one and label it HDMI if it does not meet that specifications.
    So a $20 10′ cable will perform the same as a $200 15′ cable.

  35. bigaldepr

    For digital signals, spending money on expensive cables is wasted money. As long as the device on the receiving end can correctly differentiate between a one and a zero, then a buying a better will not improve the image or sound. A less distorted one or zero will not produce a better image or sound than a slightly more distorted one or zero. There are numerous error checking and error correcting algorithms available for digital signals but the developers of the HDMI standard thought it was too much trouble to utilize one. Had they done so the cable quality would have been even less of an issue for HDMI signals.

    Unlike digital signals analog signals are kind of what you get is what you see or hear. Distortion by the cable changes what you see or hear. You are incorrect in saying that signal cables are like the power cables in that they just carry electricity. At the very low 60 Hz frequency for power transmission electricity behaves very simply but as the frequency increases the inductance and capacitance of the cable begin do alter the signal. Poor quality connectors can cause the signal to reflect back to the source causing loss of high frequencies compared to low frequencies. For high frequency signals cables made of many fine copper strands perform better than fewer thicker strands. As the frequency increases the “skin effect” becomes prominent and the electricity tends to flow at the surface of the conductor. The finer strand cable has much more conductor surface area than the thick strand cable. It may have the same amount of copper as thick strand cable but the finer strand cable will have less signal attenuation.

  36. r3Dslap

    Cheap cable can break quiet easy, but at the rate I lose these things….

  37. David Rawson

    Check out HDMI.org to learn about HDMI cables and the only real differences in ratings. HDMI 1.0 cable same as HDMI 1.4a. 19 wires. Only change is dedicating one for Ethernet so you can skip running cat5 to everything. Actually it has the same signals a PC DVI-D connector. Most of what you hear at the stores is total BS. I use $4 cables from ebay for all of mine. 3D and HD all work perfectly. Hard to screw up signal over 6′ cables. I have heard alot about picture quality with better cables. Digital is exactly that, no fade or color shift. Signal is there or no signal with drop outs and artifacts, but if signal is there it generates correct picture.

  38. Phil

    WHW – The reason there is no difference in the a/v quality is that there are ISO standards for making, for example, a HDMI cable. You cannot make one and label it HDMI if it does not meet that specifications.

    That’s true – *BUT* many of the extremely cheap HDMI cables are not legally licensed from the HDMI group and cannot legally have the HDMI logo. The cable walks like an HDMI cable, quacks like an HDMI cable, and for all practices is an HDMI cable but does not have to meet the specifications.

    That having been said, since HDMI is a digital signal either it’s there or it isn’t.

    Certainly it’s more difficult for an animal to chew through a heavy-duty armor-shielded cable than a cheapie – but how many $3 cables would the animal have to destroy before damaging the equivalent of a $69 super expensive cable?

  39. BacHolz

    As someone who has assembled a mid-fi home theater sound system in the past two years, I have learned much along the way. This is no defense of snake oil, unobtainium alloys and $10,000 cables. However this article first poses a straw man argument then fails to answer the query posed – kind of inevitable given the bogus premise.
    As mentioned by others there are many well researched and thoughtful discussions on the merits of quality cabling and the point of diminishing returns to be found on the boards dedicated to serious AV enthusiasts.
    What I found amusing here are those posts which argue that no differences exist because the “high-end, premium” cables that they bought from Walmart and Radio Shack were no different than the stock cables that came with their gear. Monster cables and their like are not premium cables despite their inflated prices.
    I have no product or brands to shill but remain convinced based on experience that the modest investment and choices made in my setup were indeed money and money well spent (about $600 on a $8,00 system). Many of the analog cabling I’ve done myself with well chosen design and components like Parts Express, Neutrik and Switchcraft using affordable bulk cabling from Canare, Belden and Mogami. There are real, substantive improvements to be heard for a modest cost.

  40. Chinoto

    @Linda: Electric guitars that internally convert to digital are rare and you didn’t mention it was digital, so I’m assuming you either didn’t read the article or are an extreme audiophile.
    But if you did have an electric guitar with built in analog to digital converter, then you could have a higher quality sound over longer distances than you could with a completely analog guitar.
    I’ve never played a guitar, but this applies to any signal source.

    @LoRider: I never thought about power cables causing interference (even though it should be obvious), good tip.

    @BacHolz: Same thing as Linda, *digital* signals are very likely to have the same quality with an inexpensive brand as they would from a supposedly premium brand. As for analog signals, cheaply made cables will definitely have crap quality.

  41. Redraider

    I went to Fry’s and there were very expensive cables and expensive looking cables and there were really cheap and cheap looking cables. I do believe that the gauge (thickness) of the wire does matter, just like thin jumper cables are more likely to get hot than thick ones. So I found some that were of a thicker gauge but were a little cheaper due to the brand (it wasn’t a Monster Cable in other words), but still looked high quality and a similar gauge to the more expensive cables. This was to transfer sound and picture between my Onkyo and my HD TV.

  42. wschloss

    As is often the case, HTG leaves more questions unanswered than answered; and raises still more. There are some topics that just cannot be discussed intelligently in 4-10 paragraphs, and I wish they would acknowledge that more often.

    The science was interesting but many of us don’t live in a physics lab, don’t have the option of < 6 foot cables, perfectly snaked thorough our home "infra," occasionally have to tug to feed them where needed; and sometimes are affected by nearby magnets, interference and other externals (dogs chew, beer spills? haha) which might make better cables worth the $$.

    BTW what about ethernet cables; and how about a similar article discussing optics?

    Thanks to all for the clarifying comments.

  43. Fernando

    When it comes to HDMI cables, I use AmazonBasics products (about $6 for a 6.5′ – $8 for 10′) – work like a champ. I cringe every time I go to an electronics store and hear a sales person talking some poor innocent into spending $50 even $100 on a 6′ HDMI cable. I have even intervened on a handful of occasions to the chagrin of the sales person. Absolutely no reason to spend mega bucks except perhaps in rare applications.

  44. Chris

    The diagrams show that the square-wave signal consists of lots of sinusoidal harmonic frequencies added together, the lowest sine wave frequency is the fundamental frequency the other frequencies are multiples of the fundamental frequency each have different amplitudes. So the higher frequency harmonics are degraded more by the impedance of the cable than are the lower frequency harmonics. This causes spreading of the square wave as can be seen in the diagrams. At very high bit rates (frequencies) this spreading can cause the square waves to overlap causing some of the digital 0’s to be interpreted as digital 1’s thereby distorting the signal. As a long cable will have more reactance (both inductive and capacitive the impedance will increase. By the way impedance is the square root of the sum of the resistance squared and the reactance squared and also the inductive and capacitive reactance are 90 degrees out of phase with each other so tend to cancel each other out. However the capacitive reactance of a cable tends to be much greater than the inductive reactance. So the bottom line is that a better quality of cable is needed for long cable runs but well made cheaper cables are fine for short runs.

  45. Peter

    I think the truest sentence in the article is “Buyer beware—high price doesn’t always mean high quality.”
    “Oxygen-free” belongs in the same bin as “PMPO,” but some cheap cables are nasty. We always bought expensive cables when doing sound production, but not for marketing claptrap – when dealing with stages and musicians you need quality connectors and crush-proof cable (flat speaker cables had electrical as well as practical advantages, but appear to have gone the way of the dodo.) The other things with PA were to go with a larger [than might seem necessary] diameter multi-stranded cable for the speakers (lower impedance and flexible,) but even on 2kW sound systems our cables were a lot cheaper than some “HiFi” stuff I’ve seen marketed.

    I am getting excellent performance out of a $5.00 hdmi cable though, ‘cos at less than a metre reflections won’t be an issue, impedance itself doesn’t mean much at practical lengths of digital cables, and it doesn’t even matter if the gold is thin as it won’t get pulled out much – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it works as well as the one someone I know paid $200 for!

  46. Peter

    @wschloss I should have read a little further down, but here:

    Ethernet 10/100 means the cables can be up to 100m long. As the cable approaches this limit, is kinked, put next to a magnet, has it’s connectors tugged (or their gold wears off) or partially chewed by a dog the signals tend to be reflected back and forth along the cable. These reflections will interfere with the original signal but may not completely negate it, causing loss of data.

    Data is transmitted along the cable in “packets” and each of these are checked for error before the data is re-assembled, in which case a request will be sent for these to be re-sent. This is why overly long or mistreated ethernet cables tend to produce slow, rather than erroneous, communication.

    I have seen such problems so bad that all the lights look good on the NICs and even the cable tester shows it to be good, but the losses are so great the computer thinks the cable is not even there!

    The cable itself needs to comply with Cat5 to be sold as such, so the conductors and the format and number of twists will be the same for most cables. The main thing to watch out for is the connectors – either of poor quality, or even a piercing-type crimp being used with a solid-core cable (because solid core cable is cheaper, as is the stranded-type piercing connector. If you are pulling cable in buildings, there have also been some cables with inferior sheathing and reinforcement – but you usually find that out when you try to pull the cable!

    Cheap cables can also annoy you with the locking tab breaking off even sooner than it does on quality cables – my experience with networks is if you find or suspect anything wrong with a cable or connector, throw it out and fit a new one.

  47. BacHolz

    Again, there are several good points offered here. However, for all the technical details presented and anecdotes shared, one source of confusion still remains. You cannot demonstrate that ‘cables don’t matter’ because you can’t appreciate any difference between Best Buy or Monster products and stock cabling. These are simply overpriced , heavily promoted money makers and should not be confused with with worthy alternatives such as no nonsense cables from places such as Monoprice as mentioned above. My favorite for stock replacements are those made to order at very affordable prices by Blue Jeans Cables out of Seattle. As said by a few here, cost reflects on quality very little in AV aftermarkets.
    Analog sources are more sensitive to cable characteristics but my recent experience demonstrates that digital cables are not equal either. I have been configuring a new Blu-ray SACD player for optimal audio playback and could not setup as desired. Finally I replaced a Mediabridge HDMI cable from Amazon that I meant to replace eventually and was not pleased with because of loose fit. Replaced with custom cable for $16 and all issues resolved. I’ll choose a $25-50 cable over factory stock all the time. If you can’t appreciate the difference, your win – more money to spend elsewhere. Personally, I enjoy either choosing or crafting well made cables in my system and spend very little time or money for the rewards afforded.

  48. Gadgetteeeee!

    How about for noise concerns?
    The AC current carries a lot of noise. If the same AC is used for both the network camera and a microwave or a fridge, it messes the network camera up.
    There’s CAT5e, Cat6, Cat6a, and Cat7 (some cables aren’t sold in some places).
    Also, ferrite cores and LAN noise splitters? Can they be of any value?

Enter Your Email Here to Get Access for Free:

Go check your email!