HDMI Cables: Does 'more expensive' mean 'better performance'?


Cable image courtesy of HDMI.org Today's the big day. Lured by increasingly attractive prices on new TVs thanks to an ailing economy, you've decided to buy an HDTV. You've listened to the sales pitch, agreed on a model and now you're headed to the cash register. But wait. What's this? You need special cables for that fancy new TV. And they're going to cost how much?

This scenario is played out multiple times a day in electronics retailers around the world. Even if you've prepared yourself for some extra expenses related to your new toy e.g. Blu-ray player, hi-def movies, HD cable or satellite receiver etc, there's still an unholy amount of sticker-shock when you're confronted with the array of connection options being presented by your friendly sales associate.

Typically, HDTVs require one of two possible kinds of cables to ensure the highest quality picture: Component cables, which carry an analog signal, or an HDMI cable, which carries a digital signal.

Most experts and industry people agree that HDMI cables are the preferred route simply because there is no need to alter the information from its original digital format. Whether you're connecting an up-converting DVD player, HD receiver or Sony PS3 – if it has an HDMI output, your HDTV will receive the exact information those devices produced.

Component cables on the other hand, require two conversion steps. The first inside the source device which translates the 1's and 0's into analog electrical signals and the second inside the HDTV where those analog signals are interpreted back into digital form. It's the video equivalent of translation between two languages and the accuracy depends a lot on the quality of the translators being used.

Did I mention that HDMI can carry digital audio as well as video? It does.

Alright, well that's one decision you can check off. Let's see those HDMI cables!

If you're buying at Future Shop, or Best Buy you might see some products such as:

Dynex DX-AV002 6' HDMI Cable – $29.99

Website product description:
Carries digital audio and video signals for the best signal integrity and performance. Gold-plated, precision-crafted HDMI connectors.

Rocketfish 4' HDMI Cable – $54.99

Website product description:
95% copper braid and dual layer 100% aluminum Mylar foil shields protect against external signal interference; 24K Gold plated offers better corrosion resistance and enhanced signal transfer. Multi stranded, high purity copper conductors improve signal integrity, minimize resistance. Silver soldering maximizes conductivity for better signal transferral. You can use RocketClip to organize your cable. Ergonomic, non-slip grip and smooth-fit insertion force minimizes risk of damage to your connectors and devices.

Or… Monster 2M HDMI Cable – $151.99

Website product description:
Advanced high speed rated high definition Digital Video and Multi-Channel Audio in one cable, For the latest generation of HDTV's, DVD Players, and Cable/satellite receivers for 1080p picture with vibrant color, deep blacks and striking clarity. Constructed with large gauge high purity copper conductors, nitrogen injected gas dielectric for maximum signal strength, gold plated heavy duty metal strain relief and connector sheild, corrosion resistant 24k gold contacts and high density triple layer shielding for maximum rejection of RFI and EMI. Carry's Monster Lifetime Warranty.

Or my favourite:

Monster 13.1' (4M) Advanced Hi Speed HDMI Cable (HDMI850HD) – $207.99

Website product description:
Advanced high speed rated high definition Digital Video and Multi-Channel Audio in one cable, For the latest generation of HDTV's, DVD Players, and Cable/satellite receivers for 1080p picture with vibrant colour, deep blacks and striking clarity. Constructed with large gauge high purity copper conductors, nitrogen injected gas dielectric for maximum signal strength, gold plated heavy duty metal strain relief and connector shield, corrosion resistant 24k gold contacts and high density triple layer shielding for maximum rejection of RFI and EMI. Carry's Monster Lifetime Warranty.

Yes, you read correctly – that's no typo – the price really is a penny shy of $208 for a cable. Nitrogen gas-injected dielectric? Even though it's a 4 metre (roughly 13 feet) cable, it costs almost as much as a 16GB iPod Nano.

You've no doubt heard the saying 'you get what you pay for', and for the most part I tend to agree with this sentiment. I've rarely been disappointed when I paid more for a higher end product.

Audiophiles have long been believers in the value of expensive interconnect cables, claiming that they can actually hear the difference a $500 speaker cable makes. Perhaps they can. After all, speakers are analog devices, so the cleaner the signal they get, the more accurately they can reproduce the original recording. It makes sense that any interference with this signal will potentially impact the listening experience, assuming your components are top-of-the-line.

So let's see if this theory holds true in the world of digital cables.

What would happen if the $29 cable couldn't prevent some interference from affecting the 1s and 0s that travel its length?

It would still work.

1s and 0s aren't interpretations of information – they *are* the information. In this sense, an HDMI cable has more in common with the cables you use with your computer (USB, Ethernet, FireWire) than it does with audio/video cables of the past.

What can happen – and this really only applies to longer cable runs of 6 feet or more – is something called signal attenuation, which is a weakening of the electrical signals. Very expensive cables may experience less attenuation than cheaper cables, but regardless, HDMI components have built-in circuitry that deals very effectively with this attenuation provided it doesn't drop below a certain level.

According to David Katzmaier over at CNET, in certain situations a slight "sparkle" can appear on-screen when a digital signal isn't making it's way cleanly from source to display.

Even when this attenuation does occur, it can be overcome by adding a signal booster to your very long cable runs i.e. 10 metres or more. Signal boosters can be purchased for about $25-$45.

So why is there such a huge price difference between HDMI cables?

To answer this, we asked HDMI.org, the official licensing body for the HDMI standard. If a product bears the HDMI logo, it has been approved by these folks.

We spoke to Jeff Park, who goes by the impressive title "HDMI Technology Evangelist and Business Development Manager", via email.

According to Park, "Manufacturers have the right to set their own prices and it's up to them to justify the price differences to the end users". Park points out that there are other factors beyond just performance that can influence a cable's price. Brand name, design, aesthetics, warranties can all contribute to the variance in pricing.

Perhaps the most telling comment however was Park's assertion that, "If you take two HDMI cables, regardless of brand/price/look, [they] will perform the same if both cables have been tested and [are] compliant as a category 2 or High Speed HDMI cable."

He's referring to the only two official standards that exist in the HDMI universe:

Category 1 or Standard Speed HDMI Cable:  Tested to support up to 720p/1080i
Category 2 or High Speed HDMI Cable:  Tested to support 1080p or higher

In other words, all HDMI cables that have been rated as Category 1, will perform equally well, regardless what you pay for them. Likewise with Category 2.

These categorizations might lead a consumer to think that if they have a Blu-ray player or PS3 and a 1080p-capable TV, they should opt for the more expensive Category 2 cable, since these are the ones that are tested to support 1080p. Think again.

According to HDMI.org's knowledge base on cables and connectors:

Although a Standard HDMI cable may not have been tested to support the higher bandwidth requirements of cables rated to support high speeds, existing cables, especially ones of shorter lengths (i.e., less than 2 meters), will generally perform adequately in higher speed situations. The quality of the HDMI receiver chip (in the TV, for example) has a large effect on the ability to cleanly recover and display the HDMI signal. A significant majority, perhaps all, of the HDMI TVs and projectors that support 1080p on the HDMI inputs are designed with quality receiver chips that may cleanly recover the 1080p HDMI signal using a Standard-rated HDMI cable.

This may be sounding familiar to those of you who wrestled with the USB cable question when the USB 2.0 or "High Speed" standard emerged. I still have yet to find a supposedly USB 1.1 cable that couldn't deliver USB 2.0 transfer speeds.

Now before you run off to your local store and demand to be shown the cheapest HDMI cable they have, there are a few reasons why you *might* want to opt for a more expensive product.

Although there shouldn't be any performance differences, more expensive cables are often made of better quality materials, and have an overall higher standard of workmanship in their construction. This could be a serious consideration if you're planning on plugging and unplugging your cable repeatedly or otherwise subjecting it to regular stress. Likewise, if you're going to be running your cable through a wall, floor or cabinetry, a cable with special armour will withstand this kind of abuse far better than one that wasn't designed for these applications.

Now that you know a bit more about the confusing and label-intensive world of HDMI, let me share with you one of the Internet's best kept secrets for those of you on the hunt for cables that won't require a second mortgage: www.monoprice.com

It may surprise you that their price for a 12-foot cable with the same performance in a typical 1080p setup as that $208 Monster cable, is a mere $6.83 USD, plus shipping.

Oh by the way, that includes a lifetime warranty.

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9 comments

  1. Age T

    Good article. Monoprice is great. I have bought from there many times and the cables have been great.

    Simon,
    There was also a comparison between Monoprice and Monster HDMI cables done about 2 years ago. I didn't reread the comparison, but from what I remember cheap (in this case Monoprice) cables were very comparible to expensive (Monster) cables for 720p/1080p signals. Where cheaper cables failed was when you are considering long cables (in excess of 25ft) or for future signals (1440p) which we don't currently use. This would really only be an issue if you were hiding cables in the wall and didn't want to dig them back out in the future once a new single is adopted.
    Anyways, the comparison can be found here:
    Pt. 1: http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/field-notes/the-truth-about-monster-cable-266616.php
    Pt. 2: http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/feature/the-truth-about-monster-cable-part-2-verdict-cheap-cables-keep-upusually-268788.php
    Pt. 3: http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/top/the-truth-about-monster-cable-+-grand-finale-part-iii-282725.php

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  2. Simon Cohen

    @ Age T: Thanks for the links! I take your point on 1440p, however I'd add three comments: 1) Most people can't tell the difference between 720p and 1080p on a 50" screen, when sitting farther than 3' from the TV, so I really doubt 1440p will lure many folks. 2) My bet is that 1440p content and devices won't be widely available for another 10 years. 3) Just because a cable hasn't been certified to carry 1440p (or even 1080p) doesn't mean that it can't. It just means there's no guarantee that it will.

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  3. Jay

    totally agree,paying 200 bucks buying monster HDMI cable are nuts, I`m using ION HDMI cable,works great, they are the same product with different barnd names.

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