If you are connecting a video component purchased within in the past few years — Blu-ray, DISH Hopper, Apple TV, surround receiver, HDTV — then you are going to need an HDMI cable. But if you’ve perused HDMI cables in stores or online, you know HDMI cables come in different lengths, colors and specs, and they run an insane price gamut from under $5 to over $500. And, obviously, an HDMI cable which costs 100 times more delivers significantly better picture and sound right?
The fact is, when it comes to transporting the digital picture and sound information from one device to another via HDMI, you either get full, 100 percent pristine quality or you don’t; with a digital signal there is no middle ground. Whatever the cost, the digital signal is either perfect or it isn’t.
Now, that isn’t to say that there aren’t quality differences between HDMI cables, just no performance ones, regardless of what the package might promise. Here is what you need to know when shopping for an HDMI cable.
Only 4 Types
Despite any labels and hoopla you might see on the packaging, there are only four types of HDMI cables: Standard, Standard with Ethernet, High Speed, and High Speed with Ethernet. There is no “4K HDMI,” no “120 Hz HDMI” not “Super Duper, Maximum HDMI.” Just those four. With high speed-rated cables so inexpensive, there’s no reason to even consider a standard cable, and any high speed-rated cable can carry the full, 8-million pixel glory which is Ultra High-Definition TV.
There are definitely build quality differences between cables costing the same as a can of Bud Light and others selling for more than a bottle of Cristal. The pricey ones often feature gold plated connectors, fancy woven/braided jackets, heavier wire gauges, and even exotic materials like pure silver. While these won’t make any difference in the audio/video quality, if you care how your equipment rack looks and you think a blue-braided cable will look nicer, knock yourself out!
In fairness, a cable from a reputable manufacturer might have a higher likelihood of not failing out of the box or after some time in operation, or won’t outright “lie” about its high speed rating. I have definitely encountered “cheap” cables that either didn’t work immediately or failed after some time in service. Whether this is due to a bad solder, cheap connector, or poor “strain relief,” build quality can definitely play a factor in HDMI longevity, especially if you plug-and-unplug your gear regularly.
‘Is My Cable Working?’
Can you see a picture? Do you hear sound? Congratulations! You are getting 100 percent of the performance out of your HDMI cable. Sit back and enjoy.
A better question is, “How do I know if my cable isn’t working?”
Tell-tale signs of a bad HDMI cable are a) no picture at all; b) a screen full of white snowy static; c) a picture that blinks in and out; d) sparkles in the image; and e) no audio or audio dropouts. If you are experiencing any of these issues, the HDMI cable is likely to blame. Just replacing the cable with another one or one from a different manufacturer will likely solve the problem.
If you are going to run the cable inside a wall or another place where it would be difficult or impossible to replace, test the cable first (this advice holds true for cables of any price). Use the same signal chain if possible — i.e., Hopper to receiver to TV — and make sure the cable works before burying it away. This is especially true of longer cables (greater than 20 feet in length), where poorly made cables are far more likely to fail.
Also, I’ve never been on a job where a couple of extra Cat5 cables didn’t come in handy. But that’s a conversation for another day.