If you’ve purchased a new TV recently, the salesperson might have pitched you on the idea that you need the newest whiz-bang HDMI cables or auxiliary components to get the most out of that screen. But do you actually need all that new stuff to take advantage of new features? Possibly—so let’s look at when new cables or gear are called for.
HDMI Cables Don’t Have Versions
Either by word of mouth from a salesperson or looking at advertising online, you may have seen cables labeled as “HDMI 2.0” or specifically billed as upgraded cables designed for HDR video, 4K video, Ultra-High-Def video, or whatever other buzzword the manufacturer or salesperson felt like throwing around.
That’s great, except there’s no such thing as an HDMI 2.0 cable. HDMI cables are not, and have never been, released using a numeric designation. The HDMI standard itself has different versions, and the hardware you connect the cables to—the TV, AV receivers, Blu-ray players, and so on—has numbered versions, but the cables are not.
In fact, there are only four cable designations that are legitimate and recognized by the HDMI organization:
- High Speed without Ethernet
- High Speed with Ethernet
- Standard Speed without Ethernet
- Standard Speed with Ethernet
In short, Standard Speed cables have the bandwidth to handle up to 1080i and High Speed cables have the bandwidth to handle 1080p, 4K, and the advanced innovations associated with newer HDTV sets like 3D and HDR. The with/without Ethernet designation simply indicates that the cable has the ability to carry an additional signal for data networking, so that your TV or AV receiver can act not just as an audio/video hub but a data hub too, sharing an internet connection with the various connected devices.
With that in mind, there’s a very good chance that your old HDMI cables will work fine with your new 4K TV. In fact, unless your HDMI cables are veritable dinosaurs of the digital TV age (purchased before 2009 or earlier) you should just plug them in and give them a try.
Because HDMI is a purely digital signal either the cable works or it doesn’t. There’s no situation where you get a partial or fuzzy 4K signal, there’s only a situation where it works and everything looks great. If it doesn’t work and the cable is so old it can’t support the signal you need (e.g. you’ve got an ancient Standard Speed cable), it won’t cost much to rectify the situation. You can pick up High Speed with Ethernet HDMI cables for dirt cheap—and, in fact, you should always buy the cheap cables.
Cables, however, are only half the equation. Let’s take a look at the pricier scenario where a new $8 cable isn’t enough of a fix.
HDMI Hardware Does Have Versions, and You May Need to Upgrade
While there’s no such thing as an HDMI 1.4 or HDMI 2.0 cable, there is most certainly such a thing as HDMI 1.4 or 2.0 hardware. Just because the actual TV supports 4K set doesn’t mean you’re set to enjoy 4K content. Your receiver and other gear will also need to support 4K. Here’s a crash course on which HDMI versions support what:
- Version 1.0, released in 2002: The original standard. Extremely limited. Doesn’t support 4K.
- Version 1.1, released in 2004: Minor changes, supports DVD-Audio.
- Version 1.2, released in 2005: Increased audio channels. 1.2a revision includes HDMI-CEC (which allows HDMI devices to control each other over the HDMI cable).
- Version 1.3, released in 2006: First big jump in HDMI cable bandwidth, 1.3 supports up to 10.2 Gbit/s.
- Version 1.4, released in 2009: Supports 4K video, HDMI Ethernet, Audio Return Channel (ARC), and 3D over HDMI.
- Version 2.0, released in 2013: Increase in bandwidth to 18 Gbit/s, can now transmit enough information to playback 4K video at 60 frames per second.
- Version 2.0a, released in 2015: Support for High-Dynamic Range (HDR) Video.
So depending on how your living room is set up, you may or may not need other new gear to get all the features of your TV. Every component in the chain has to support the same HDMI version (or better) as the content-delivering component. This means it doesn’t matter if your Chromecast Ultra supports 4K video and your TV supports 4K video, if the Chromecast Ultra is plugged into a 2005-era HDMI 1.2 AV receiver that is feeding the video signal to your new TV. You’ll need a receiver that supports HDMI 1.4 at the least, and 2.0a if you want to also take advantage of HDR (which is arguably a bigger improvement in picture quality than 4K).
Similarly, if you have a 4K-capable TV and a 4K-capable receiver but an older non-Ultra Chromecast, then you won’t be able to watch 4K content—you need a player that supports it too.
But if your entire home setup consists of just the brand new 4K TV and 4K-capable Chromecast Ultra plugged right into the back of the TV, then you’re good to go.
Buying a new 4K-capable player and receiver is clearly a much more expensive proposition than picking up a new $5-10 HDMI cable. You’ll want to look up the specs for your old hardware, check which HDMI version it supports, and then be sure to check the specs on any new hardware you’re considering as a replacement—if you need help decoding what the port-related terminology (like HDCP 2.2, 10bit, and such) means on the back of your TV, check out our guide here.
If you do find yourself in search of a new receiver for your new 4K TV, keep this in mind while shopping: just because it’s on the shelf at a store today doesn’t mean it’s the most bleeding edge HDMI version, so be sure to check the specs on your potential purchase carefully.
When in doubt, absolutely try out your existing cables and hardware with your new TV. It doesn’t hurt to try and in a best case scenario everything works great. If it doesn’t, look for the cheapest fixes first (like ancient HDMI cables) and then move onto the more pricey upgrades like new HDMI 2.0+ components.