When it comes to setting up your home media center, be it modest TV with a sound bar or a 60″ 4K HDTV monster with premium surround sound, splash all the cash you want on the TV and speakers—but don’t spend a dollar more than necessary on HDMI cables.
The HDMI standard has been out since 2002, and while a lot has changed—HDMI cables can now carry more data, display higher resolution video, and even control devices over HDMI-CEC—there’s one thing that hasn’t: cable manufacturers and electronics retailers are more than happy to fleece the hell out of you with high price cables. The same big box stores that were selling $50 HDMI cables ten years ago are happy to sell $50 cables today to any sucker willing to pay for them.
You absolutely should not pay those kind of inflated pseudo-premium prices, however, because in 99.99% of the cases, a $9 cable is just as good as a $19, $99, or $299 cable. Dubious? Let’s pick apart exactly why that premium cable is a rip off and then highlight the very few and far between cases where you might actually want to pay more than a few bucks for a cable.
The HDMI Standard: We’re All Bits on the Inside, Baby
When HDMI first came out, it was easy to forgive people for being duped by some of the claims surrounding early HDMI cables. Way back in the technological Middle Ages of 2002, we were all still a tribe of largely analog people, and cable manufacturers latched onto the concepts and superstitions surrounding analog cabling to sell their HDMI wares. For years, people had (mostly erroneously) bought the idea that you need super fancy speaker cables that were oxygen sealed, gold plated, dipped in unicorn blood, and air dried in the pure air of Scandinavian mountaintops to achieve the best sound.
With that in mind, when HDMI manufacturers (and the salespeople in blue and red polo shirts selling those cables) said the gold plating and other pseudo-premium features mattered, most people believed it. Clearly there was a reason all the HDMI cables at the store were $30+ (and every extra few feet was another $10+, naturally).
Here’s the thing, though: none of that matters. HDMI is a completely digital standard, with a multitude of error checking and corrective measures built right in. When it comes to HDMI, the cables either it works or it doesn’t. Either the bitstream is flowing correctly or its not. It’s not like the days of analog TV, where it was possible to get a partial, crappy signal with fuzz, static, and so on. With digital signals, you either get a picture, or you don’t get a picture. No amount of gold plating or unicorn blood will make it any better or worse.
For almost every situation, your best bet is to simply buy the cheapest cables from a reliable company like the dirt cheap AmazonBasics cables or those from Monoprice. They will perform just as well as the $40 cables they’re selling at Best Buy.
If you buy an HDMI cable and it doesn’t work, barring some serious problem with the hardware you’re linking together with the cable, then the cable is defective. Return it or replace it.
Pay a (Slight) Premium for Building-Code Compliance and Angled Cables
“But surely,” you say “there must be some instance where it’s worth paying extra?” It’s true. There are a number of few and far between instances where it is worth paying a little extra money. And that’s true: but it isn’t about picture quality.
The first, and most important, situation in which you should pay extra for your cables is to get cables that are properly fire rated for in-wall and air-return use. In-wall cables will be designated with the term “CL2” or “CL3”. These two designations indicate, per the U.S. National Electric Code, that the cables are rated to carry up to 150 volts and 300 volts, respectively (which decreases the risk of an in-wall fire if your home entertainment system has a catastrophic electrical failure) and that they are coated with plastic that releases less toxic compound when burned (so should a fire start, the smoke is less dangerous to you). You’ll also find cables that are “plenum” rated. These cables have an even safer coating on them and are designed for use in air spaces. For instance if you’re using the cold air return behind your media center to run an HDMI cable down into the basement where your AV rack is, not only is it the smart thing to do to use safer plenum cables, but it’s also required by building code in almost every jurisdiction. Safety first!
Speaking of running a cable a longer distance to a hidden AV rack, that’s another instance where it’s worth paying a little extra. While the difference between a 3 foot cable from a no-name company and a 3 foot cable from a premium company is practically indistinguishable, tiny defects in manufacturing or lower quality materials do make a difference in very long runs of HDMI cabling. Paying a few dollars extra for good quality control and better shielding on the cable is worthwhile when the run isn’t a foot down the back of your TV, but 20 feet across your basement rec room.
Finally, given how thin TVs have gotten and how tight the distance between the TV and the wall can be, you might also find it worthwhile to pay a little extra for HDMI cables with angled plugs that allow you to squeeze in the connections at the back or side of the TV without severely bending the cable (which can stress both the cable and the HDMI port on your TV). You’ll find these cables in three types: “90 degree”, “270 degree”, and “right angle”.
The first two are generally used for the back of a device (and you select one or the other based on the orientation of the port and what direction the cable is going, up or down). Right angle cables are used for side ports where you want to avoid the stiff HDMI cable sticking out past the edge of the TV bezel. (If this is a problem you currently have but you don’t want to purchase a whole new HDMI cable, you can always purchase inexpensive adapters that fit over the end of your existing cable.)
Again, we want to emphasize the word “slight” from the title of this section. If you need these premium upgrades, that’s fine. But only pay a slight bit extra for them. In fact, in my cases, you don’t even need to pay more! The price difference between the AmazonBasics regular 15 foot HDMI cable ($10.99) and the AmazonBasics CL3-rated HDMI cable ($9.99) is actually a dollar less in favor of the CL3-rated cables.
In short, the best HDMI cable for the job is the cheapest possible cable that works. If it transmits the signal, that’s all that matters. Buy cheap, return if necessary for a different cheap cable if you run into issues, and spend your hard earned money on movies to watch on your sweet HDTV setup.