If you’ve been using audio and video equipment long enough, you’ll probably remember the complexity and chaos that went with hooking up your sound system, TV, DVD player and other devices. Separate cables for six audio channels, three connections for video inputs, fiddly optical cables for digital audio… The cable spaghetti that was the inevitable result got out of control very, very quickly. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.
HDMI is truly a brilliant thing. It exists because we needed a new type of cable to carry the demanding digital video and audio signals from modern equipment. As a solution to that problem, it also made cable spaghetti a thing of the past (well, unless you’re hooking up 10 or more speakers for surround sound!).
Each single HDMI cable can carry high definition digital video (including 4K ultra HD), high resolution multi-channel digital audio, commands from your remote controls, audio & video in the other direction from a TV, even NBN-speed Ethernet for data downloads and uploads. All you need to connect a piece of HDMI-capable equipment is that single cable, and the magic of technology handles the rest.
The myth of the special cable
Traditionally, when it comes to audio and video cables there’s been ways of improving picture and sound by investing in higher quality (and higher-priced) cables. And there was some amount of truth to that in the analogue world, where the goal was to make sure as much of the signal as possible got from one end to the other without interference. Of course, many promises were made about what “special” (i.e. extremely expensive) cables could do for you, but it’s generally accepted that using quality cables could make a noticeable difference to the end result.
HDMI, though, is a different beast. Every signal that passes through HDMI is entirely digital from one end to the other. There’s one simple fact when it comes to digital video or audio – it either works, or it fails in a very noticeable fashion. There’s no in-between – and no improvement available in picture or sound quality from using gold-plated luxury cables marketed as being the answer to your dreams of ultimate quality.
That doesn’t stop people selling them, of course. While retailers in Australia don’t go to the hilarious extremes of cables like the $2,200 “Coffee” cable that Amazon sells in the US, well known local retailers don’t shy away from selling expensive cables that make ridiculous claims. For example, the Belkin “Ultimate” 2-metre cable promises “a pristine 3D viewing experience & crisp digital surround sound. It’s not a lie, exactly. It’s just that every HDMI cable of reasonable quality can do exactly the same – for a tenth of the price or less. Veteran pricey-cable brand Monster Cable, meanwhile, offers you “the best in High Definition picture and sound” – at $159 for 1.5 metres of cable.
So, any cheap HDMI cable is fine, then?
Here’s where the “digital is digital” argument runs into a small hurdle. Yes, digital IS digital – a series of zeroes and ones sent as data down the cable in much the same way your computer might send a file to a USB drive. But that data must arrive intact. If it doesn’t, you’ll know about it – and it won’t be a case of comparing the colour tones of grass or the sharpness of an image. If you’re using a bad HDMI cable, the resulting picture will show very obvious problems. These range from minor (you might see a lot of flashing bright specks all over the picture) to major (the picture breaking up into big chunky blocks – or no picture at all).
You most certainly don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on HDMI cables. But you do need to buy cables that meet the HDMI standard. There’s been reports of some cheapie cables being sold with some of the 19 tiny wires in the cable missing, the ones that protect the signal from interference!
So, can you buy that five-dollar cable from Officeworks and trust that you’re getting a good deal? Most probably, the answer is yes. In our experience, the branded low-cost cables sold by chain stores work flawlessly. That’s not to say you won’t have a bad experience with one – but it’s unlikely, and at such a low price the risk is minimal. Get it home, plug it in, watch something. If it works, you’ve saved yourself a ton of money. And it most likely will work.
Another useful source for low-cost HDMI cables can be your local computer store – especially if you’re looking for longer cable lengths. If you’re thinking of running an HDMI cable over 5 metres you’re more likely to find well-made, heavy-duty long cables at these stores. Bear in mind 15 metres is considered the maximum you can get away with. For longer cables, the general rule is the thicker they are, the better. We’re running a hefty 10-metre HDMI cable from a PC to a TV across the room, and it’s been working flawlessly for years now. The cost? $20.