The Great HDMI Cable Scam

For many years now, when buying Home Theatre equipment the sales people have tried to talk you into buying expensive cable and interconnects. Things now seem to be coming to a head with many retailers selling very expensive HDMI and Toslink audio cables.

In the past there has been a noticeable difference in picture and audio quality when using a very cheap analogue cable, and a more expensive analogue cable, though the difference between say a decent $50 cable and a $500 cable is usually negligible to the average joe, compared to the difference between a $5 cable, and the $50 one. One of the reasons here being that there aren’t standards in place for the analogue cables of yesteryear. Many cheaper AV cables don’t even use coaxial cable for the video signals. Higher grades of cable usually use plenty of copper, often oxygen free (retarding the formation of copper oxides which affect the signals passing through them), the correct type of cabling for the job, and good quality connectors on the ends.

With the new generation of digital cables, there are standards which the manufacturers should be adhering to. As long as those standards are met, then the signal will get through. Cheap HDMI and digital audio cables generally perform just as well as the expensive ones. Certainly there are quality differences in areas like strain relief at the connector and the overall appearance and feel of the cable, but as with the analogue cables mentioned earlier, there is very little difference even in that once you get past a certain point.

Things like fancy braided cloth coverings, super thick insulation and even gold plated connectors have no bearing on the way an HDMI cable will perform (in fact we’ve found the more expensive, thick cables are very rigid and often hard to feed through cabinets and get plugged in, and the bulky connectors used can interfere with plugging something into the next socket). There have been a number of studies conducted that give conclusive evidence to back up what has been written here. Choice’s results speak for themselves, and there are many more you can find on Google if you feel the desire.

We’ve come across many people who have been convinced when buying new TVs and other equipment that they need to spend hundreds of dollars on cables to get the best out of it. One of the more well known cable manufacturers sells a 5 ‘speeds’ of HDMI cables, despite there only being 2 standards at the time of writing, justifying the need for higher speed requirements by talking about future technologies, and comparing their best cables with ‘the worst cable that I’ve ever seen’ on their website. The standard speed cables, and any before version 1.3 are fine for Freeview (assuming they are built to spec), as it doesn’t exceed 1080i which these cables are tested to. Version 1.3 and later high speed cables are tested to, and beyond, 1080p specs used in PS3 consoles and Bluray DVD players. Don’t be confused by the version 1.3, 1.3a and 1.3b numbers as they have no impact on consumers.

We don’t suggest you go with the cheapest cable you can possibly find as the build quality does factor, but certainly don’t be sucked in by the sales pitch of ‘Ultra Speed’ or the like on $300 cables.

Other reading – A lot of information about the HDMI specs, requirements etc.
Mauricio Freitas blog post – a Kiwi blogger, the comments make for interesting reading too.
Unethical cable comparison – An example of an unfortunately common practice of comparing an expensive HMDI cable, against a completely different and outdated analogue format cable, or different length HDMI
A forum post from a broadcast engineer – The difference between digital HDMI signal and analogue signals in extremely easy to understand terms.