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Slaying the Cable Monster: Why HDMI Brands Don't Matter

  • Category: Buying Guides

By Will Greenwald

You've probably experienced this when shopping for a new HDTV: A store clerk sidles up and offers to help. He then points you toward the necessary HDMI cables to go with your new television. And they're expensive. Maybe $60 or $70, sometimes even more than $100 (You could buy a cheap Blu-ray player or a handful of Blu-ray discs for that price!). The clerk then claims that these are special cables. Superior cables. Cables you absolutely need if you want the best possible home theater experience. And the claims are, for the vast majority of home theater users, utter rubbish.

The truth is, for most HDTV setups, there is absolutely no effective difference between a no-name $3 HDMI cable you can order from Amazon.com and a $120 Monster cable you buy at a brick-and-mortar electronics store. We ran five different HDMI cables, ranging in price from less than $5 up to more than $100, through rigorous tests to determine whether there's any difference in a dirt-cheap cable and one that costs a fortune.

HDMI Basics

The first thing to remember about HDMI is that it is a digital standard. Unlike component video, composite video, S-video, or coaxial cable, HDMI signals don't gradually degrade, or get fuzzy and lose clarity as the signal fades or interference grows. For digital signals like HDMI, as long as there is enough data for the receiver to put together a picture, it will form. If there isn't, it will just drop off. While processing artifacts can occur and gaps in the signal can cause blocky effects or screen blanking, generally an HDMI signal will display whenever the signal successfully reaches the receiver. Claims that more expensive cables put forth greater video or audio fidelity are nonsense; it's like saying you can get better-looking YouTube videos on your laptop by buying more expensive Ethernet cables. From a technical standpoint, it simply doesn't make sense.

This doesn't mean that all HDMI cables are created equal in all cases. HDMI includes multiple specifications detailing standards of bandwidth and the capabilities of the cable.

The current HDMI specification, version 1.4a, requires all compliant cables to support 3D video, 4K resolution (approximately 4000-by-2000-pixel resolution, or about four times the detail of the current HD standard of 1080p), Ethernet data transmissions, and audio return channels. Each of these features requires more bandwidth, and considerably older HDMI cables (and all older HDMI-equipped devices) rated at HDMI 1.3b or lower can't handle that much bandwidth. For most users, 3D is the only feature they'll use. Ethernet over HDMI is used mostly for networking devices instead ofconnecting viapure Ethernet or Wi-Fi (the methods most consumer electronics products use). Audio return channels are only useful in certain situations with dedicated sound systems (and the same task can be accomplished by running an audio cable to the system). And there aren't currently any consumer-grade displays or playback devices capable of handling 4Kresolutions (the least-expensive 4K projector you'll find is more than $75,000). In all of these cases, it's a yes or no question: does it support these features? There is no question of clarity or superior signal.

That said, there are cases where higher quality cables and going to lengths to maintain signal quality are important. They just aren't cases that apply for most HDTV owners. If you're going to run an HDMI cable for lengths longer than 10 feet, you should be concerned about insulation to protect against signal degradation. It's not an issue for 6-foot lengths of cable, but as the distance between media device and display increases, signal quality decreases and the more susceptible the signal becomes to magnetic interference. In fact, for distances of over 30 feet, the HDMI licensing board recommends either using a signal amplifier or considering an alternate solution, like an HDMI-over-Ethernet converter. When you're running up against the maximum length, the greater insulation and build quality of more expensive cables can potentially improve the stability of your signal. However, if there's a 30-foot gap between your Blu-ray player and your HDTV, you might want to rearrange some furniture. Or just use a technology designed for long distances.

The second thing to know about HDMI cables is that they are almost always expensive when you buy them at brick-and-mortar stores. If you walk into a Best Buy or Radio Shack, you can expect to pay at least $40 for a 6-foot HDMI cable. Even at discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target, the cheapest, most generic HDMI cables retail for $15 and more. Online, you'll do a lot better on prices. Amazon.com and Monoprice.com (the "ancient custom installer's secret") slash even Wal-Mart's HDMI cable prices into tiny bits. Both sites sell several models of HDMI cables for as little as $1.50. These are generally generic HDMI cables, or seldom-heard-of brands, but they work just fine for most HDTV users. We can be certain of this, because we tested them in the PCMag Labs.

Testing the Cables

We tested five cables including Monster Cable's 1200 Higher Definition Experience Pack, a combination HDMI/Ethernet bundle that lists for $119.95 but we found for $79.95 at Amazon.com, the Monster Cable HDMI 500HD High Speed Cable ($59.95 list, we got it at Amazon for $52.62), the Spider International E-HDMI-0006 E-Series Super High Speed HDMI with Ethernet cable ($64.99 list price and a $45.29 Amazon price), the Cables Unlimited 6-Foot HDMI Male to Male Cable (PCM-2295-06) that Amazon carries for $3.19, and an unbranded, OEM cable from Monoprice that was shipped in a Belkin bag but doesn't match any of the company's own HDMI cables (and retails for $3.28, or $2.78 if you buy 50 cables or more).

We've left out some of the more lavishly expensive HDMI cables, like the AudioQuest series of HDMI cables, because they retail for nearly $700. Unless those cables can let me eat the food I see on the Food Network, they're not worth the price of an actual HDTV.

Based purely on the cables' specs, Monster Cable's HDMI cables are superior. Of course, that's because Monster Cable is the only company of the four to offer any notable specifications. Spider International and Cables Unlimited offered very little information in the way of the cables, and the generic cable had no specifications besides it being 28 AWG (American Wire Gauge), a number that simply references the width of the wire used in the cable (28 AWG is a standard measurement, though some cables can be slightly thicker at 26 or 24 AWG). HDMI standards require that all HDMI 1.4 cables be able to handle a bandwidth of 10.2 gigabits per second (Gbps). The Monster Blu-Ray 1200 Higher Definition Experience Pack has a rated speed of 17.8 Gbps. Again, what really matters is whether the cable is HDMI-1.4-compliant, and it can support the necessary features mentioned above. The higher bandwidth doesn't matter for HDTV signals. It might make a difference with 4K-video, but since HDTVs currently top out at 1080p, that point is moot.

As long as the cable is HDMI-1.4 compliant and it can hit 10.2 Gbps, which is will if it's 1.4-compliant, it will do the trick. Also, we couldn't find a cable that wasn't 1.4-compliant, so that shouldn't be a problem.

For consistency, we used only 6-foot or 2-meter (6.6-foot) cables to ensure that cable length didn't affect the results of the tests. We paired a Sony Bravia KDL-46EX720 3D HDTV with an LG BD670 Blu-ray player for all tests. The television was set to standard, default image settings, and the Blu-ray player was set to output only a 1080p video signal. We put the cables through three different tests: a technical quality evaluation, a blind video test, and a 3D-support test.

For the technical quality evaluation, we used the HQV video benchmark Blu-ray Disc. For each cable, we ran through the gamut of HQV video tests, which checks video for numerous image processing, frame-rate synchronization, and color-correction capabilities. The tests include numerous patterns and animations to expose possible display problems. All five cables passed HQV's tests with flying colors, with a single exception, which was consistent across all of them (and thus more likely a flaw of either the HDTV or the Blu-ray player): 2:2 film pull-down looked a bit jerky, a minor issue that doesn't affect the cables individual performance.

The blind video test involved the assistance of five volunteers in the PCMag Lab. They were shown the same scene from Predators on Blu-ray with different cables. They were not told which cable was which until the end of the test. No one saw any appreciable difference between the $3 cables and the $120 cable, or any of the cables in between. However, we did notice a curious phenomenon: the screen appeared slightly darker and a bit more saturated when connected to the Blu-ray player with the Monster Cable 1200 High Definition Experience Pack cable. The HDTV showed that it was receiving the same 12-bit color depth information through each cable, so the more-expensive Monster cable wasn't pushing through more color detail. Again, the difference was minimal, and could be corrected by calibrating your HDTV.

Finally, we loaded the 3D Avatar Blu-ray to check that the cables could handle an HDMI 1.4 standard feature: 3D content. Again, every cable, including the cheap $3 cable, carried a 3D video feed to the HDTV easily.

If you're like the vast majority of HDTV users and have a fairly simple setup that isn't spread across a large area, there is absolutely no reason to spend more than $10 on an HDMI cable, never mind more than $100 on one. Any possible benefit that could come from an over-engineered, overpriced HDMI cable simply won't show up in your home theater. If you're running a 4K projector, or have a 25-foot hallway between your Blu-ray player and HDTV, or want to show off how big your home theater budget is, that's one thing. If you just want to hook up your Blu-ray player, cable box, or video game system to your HDTV, bypass the big stores and big brands and reach into the Web bargain bin. Then use the money you saveto buy more electronics that need to be connected to one another.