Don’t buy expensive HDMI cables!

I came across another ad today that advertised high end HDMI cables as offering “superior image quality”. You’d think with all the controversy surrounding Monster cables in the US consumers would know better by now, but apparently, that’s not the case. Most of that controversy was around cables that transport analog signals, but with HDMI it gets even more ridiculous. That’s because HDMI is digital.

The thing to realize about digital signals is that there’s no chance at all of the signal becoming degraded. Cheap cables will not add noise, wash out the colors or reduce sharpness. Ever. If the signal reaches its destination, with its ones and zeros intact, the image quality will be 100% as good as it was sent. That’s one of the main advantages of digital.

There will probably be cables out there that are so bad that they do not manage to screw up the signal. I’ve not come across a single one, but they are bound to exist. The result would either be no signal at all (most likely), freezes, or those little blocks you sometimes see if you have a digital set-top box and there’s a thunderstorm outside.

So instead of getting the absolute best in high grade gold-plated cables, get the bargain bin ones. Make sure they support HDMI 1.3 or 1.4 if you need them to. You can always return them if they don’t work. Spend what you safe on a couple of nice DVDs and laugh at the ludicrous claims on the packaging of the other cables. You’ll end up having a DVD or two extra to watch in perfect, digital quality.

14 Comments

  1. I totally agree with you. People are paying to much money on high-end HDMI cables, although you must keep in mind that digital transmission isn’t all about ones and zeros, signal or no signal. You still can have stuff like jitter problems. The easiest way to transmit a signal is to have a clock-signal along the data transmitted. The clock tells the receiver to read the status on the data-channel. Like this: Read NOW! read NOW read NOW, okay i read 001. How else would you know 000 from 0000. There are a lot of ways to induce jitter, but one common way is that the cables within one cable affect each other, lookup capacitance and inductance. Also electromagnetic noise can affect the transmission, that is why TP-cables are twisted pairs.
    I won’t argue if this is visible to the consumer, it probably depends on if you have a power-plant in your basement or not , but keep in mind that when lots of data goes through a cable, errors will occur.

    If they wanted to, they could implement some checksuming, that would flash a red light when errors occured, but I don’t thing electrical engineers think like that. Also it would kill the cable market.

    – Håvard

    Comment by Håvard Sørbø — March 20, 2010 @ 1:11 am

  2. Hey, Roy: nice post, but there are a couple of points I’d like to mention.

    First, information loss on HDMI cable runs isn’t uncommon on long runs–but usually one doesn’t see it kick in until 30 feet or more (this is somewhat application-dependent; once we start seeing more high-bandwidth stuff like 3D it may be that we’ll see shorter-distance failures).

    When information does start to get lost along the way, it doesn’t look like you describe. Freezes and macroblocking are characteristic of information loss in compressed video streams, like ATSC broadcast or MPEG-compressed satellite. HDMI actually send the picture pixel by pixel, uncompressed, so dropouts generally are one-pixel affairs–many people call them “sparkles”–akin to analog “snow”. When the dropouts get really bad, you’ll sometimes see a whole line drop out, or you’ll see the picture jump or flash. A bit worse than that, and there’s no picture at all. But if you’re seeing “freezes, or those little blocks you sometimes see if you have a digital set-top box and there’s a thunderstorm outside,” as you describe, that’s not HDMI cable failure at all but is a problem upstream in the signal chain.

    Your overall point, though–that one needn’t spend a bundle of money on HDMI cables–is very true. If you have a challenging application involving high data rates and long runs, though, cable quality can become a factor in getting things to work right.

    Kurt
    Blue Jeans Cable

    Comment by Kurt Denke — March 24, 2010 @ 6:46 am

    • Thanks Kurt. I was indeed talking about shorter cables as they’re commonly used in households. I had no idea they could be made to be 30 ft long. The one bad HDMI cable I’ve come across gave me severe audio issues that didn’t sound anything like analog noise. The image was spotless though, so I’ve never seen the ‘snow’ effect you describe. I wonder why they didn’t implement a checksum mechanism where devices would simply be able to report on link quality. Wouldn’t it be ideal if both your TV and your DVR would tell you the cable between them had data loss?

      Comment by Roy — March 25, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  3. I bought a 5m Crest cable (middle priced) and with my ps3 I could never get a game to work when setting to 1080P (only games that support 1080p) and audio over hdmi. I would just get a blank screen or no audio at all.

    After testing everything else first, I then tried another hdmi cable and all the problems went away!

    Really frustrated me!

    Comment by John — March 30, 2010 @ 3:29 am

  4. Thanks for this article ( a little too late for me). I too fell for these claims and spent nearly £30 on cable i could have got for £8.00 :(

    Comment by Andy — May 2, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

  5. huh?

    I thought it’s a matter of bit rate? are you saying the bitrate on the label is jsut marketing gunk as well?

    I buy cheap HDMI cables for my 1320×720 monitor, but when I want to connect a blu ray DVDto a 1920×1080 monitor, i thought I needed a higher bitrate or the video will get interpolated?

    confused now…

    Comment by tim — May 22, 2010 @ 12:51 am

  6. you bought a nice tv but you are about to sell yourself short if you listen to the ill-informed “posers” above this. what you want to look for in a cable are three different things.

    first is very simple: length. do not go too short bc pulling a cable too tight might disconnect the soldering in the ports of your tv and now yourtv is junk.

    second is the quality on the fibers. copper is the best as far as cheap materials. but not just any copper cable, long grain copper. short grain copper has short pieces twisted together. the signal has to jump piece to piece which may cause distortion. long grain is a consistent flow.

    finally is the most important is the silver content. silver is a precious metal and is the best conductor by far. it has the ability to transfer data with the least distrotion.

    I personally have an hdmi cable with long grain copper and silver and my picture looks better than any tv i have seen in the store. so my advise is dont sell yourself short and dont listen to the ppl above

    Comment by you are wrong — January 12, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

  7. Wow – still more misinformation. “you are wrong” is… wrong.

    Digital cable specifications (ie. HDMI 1.0, 1.3, 1.4) define the shielding and maximum reliable clock rates for a cable. Even the cheapest bargain-bin 1.4 cables will work fine. I have, however, seen some 1.0 cables at various clearance places, which you should justifiably ignore.

    There is nothing in the specifications that says anything about “long grain” or “short grain” copper fibers. Simply, that’s ridiculous and indicates that you really have no idea what you’re talking about.

    Buy less expensive HDMI cables, but as Roy DID state, make sure you’re checking the spec at 1.3 or 1.4. Just check that the connectors aren’t loose and likely to peel off of the cable or anything obvious like that.

    Comment by CodeTech — January 13, 2011 @ 12:40 am

  8. a good arguement does not hint to oppenent being right so one does not contradict themselves but in this circumstance yes 1.3 and 1.4 do maek a difference but depends on the ethernet. you running 3D sure get 1.4 but thats really all. codeTech if you dont know what long long grain or short grain is you must be living under a rock. long grain is used in nearly all machines in the business world for the most accurate results so do some research first. infact cut open your cheap hdmi cable and that shiny orange material twisted together inside, thats short grain copper. so for all those stil listening to this poser roy and his useless followers i pray for you.
    keep it real new york :)

    Comment by you are wrong — January 13, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  9. Hello from Australia…

    I completely agree with the main blog by Roy and most of the posts thereafter. Kurt was spot on… It is more common on longer runs that inferior HDMI Cables start to show their inadequacies. However, as technology inevitably evolves, the requirement for higher quality HDMI Cables over shorter runs MAY become neccessary.

    Just to clarify version numbers, to display 3D images does not require a v1.4 HDMI Cable. In fact in reaility there is no such thing as a v1.4 HDMI Cable. This is also the exact reason HDMI Licensing do not allow version numbers to be used in reference to HDMI Cables anymore. The correct terms are “High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet” or “High Speed HDMI Cable” etc. To display 3D or utilise features like Audio Return Channel (ARC), all that is required is a High Speed HDMI Cable.

    David
    – Space Hi-Fi (Home Theatre Cables & Accessories)

    Comment by Space Hi-Fi — January 20, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  10. hemm.. I was only able to buy that too cheap to current time :(

    Comment by New Motorcycle — January 22, 2011 @ 5:03 am

  11. Cheap HDMI cables are great for short runs – i’ve had problems with cheap cables over only around 2m length. I started importing and selling some pretty decent cables at a realistic price – i was sick of seeing the retailers in my country selling the cables at such stupid prices.

    check out my shop – you really shouldn’t be paying any more than i’m charging for quality cables…

    Comment by MyHDMI — March 26, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  12. I bought a cheap 6′ HDMI cable from pccables and it works fine. Tested it against a Monster and it looks the same to me.

    BUT

    I do not believe that just because something is digital it doesnt matter what quality it is. Digital cables can still lose data, error correction can prevent that but HDMI to my knowledge does not have any error correction so any data lost is just skipped. If your looking for a 50′ cable or something you might need to be more particular about what cable you get.

    In fact between what I have read on this board and other reviews over long lengths componet can be better than HDMI but thats another topic.

    Comment by Derek — August 16, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

  13. For very long cable runs (even 100′) you just have to make sure the cable has an active repeater. This ensures that the signal is not degraded to the point where you lose (audio/video). Since this is a digital cable it’s all or nothing – when it cuts out you won’t hear/see “noise,” you will completely lose the signal.

    Comment by Preston — January 5, 2012 @ 9:44 pm