Do Premium HDMI Cables Really Matter?

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Do Premium HDMI Cables Really Matter?

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$T2eC16ZHJF0FFZ5Ddu6oBRZ(r17PQQ~~60_35.JPGThere is a popular opinion in the forum-sphere (I just made that word up to be cool, like the Twitter-sphere) that premium HDMI cables are total snake oil. The working premise is that, since the data is a digital packet, as long as it gets from point A to point B, it's fine. It's the same. But talk to anyone who has ever dealt with HDMI handshake or latency issues, and they will tell you that not all HDMI cables are created equally. Wonky HDMI connections, especially over long runs of copper HDMI cable, can create all sorts of intermittent problems that will make you want to pull your hair out. Solutions like HDMI version upgrades (insert collective groan from the readers) and/or very expensive fiber-optic HDMI cables help, but the question still remains: should you spend $100 or $500 or even $1,000 on an HDMI cable when you can get a generic one from Radio Shack or a bin at Best Buy? Are HDMI cables worth the investment? We sought a number of varied expert opinions. Here's what they think...

Geoffrey Morrison
Contributor for CNET, Forbes, and The Wirecutter
Former editor and/or contributor at Sound + Vision, Home Theater, and Home Entertainment Magazine, as well as a sci-fi author
"Audio and video over HDMI is packetized data. You either get the entire signal, and it's perfect, or you get dropouts, no picture, or sparkles (which look like snow). It's not possible for a cable to sound or look better (or worse) than another. It's just not physically possible with how the cables work.

Think of it this way: the data over HDMI is like a train. Each car on the train holds a pixel (or part of the audio signal). When the train arrives at the station (your TV), each packet/pixel/train car gets loaded into the TV. Eventually enough of these cars arrive that you get an entire picture. It's not possible for an expensive or cheap cable to change what is on the train car. If the cable is working properly, you get exactly what was sent from the Blu-ray player. That is the whole point. If it's not working properly (rare, except over long runs), then you could lose a pixel. This is an error called "sparkles" where the pixel will turn a completely and obviously different color, most often white. This means the cable is not working, but a different, equally cheap cable should work fine. More likely what will happen is the entire image will flicker or not show up at all.

Audio is even more secure, as the data there is error-corrected. Plus, Dolby and DTS are further encoded in such a way that, if a bit changes (now the wrong bit), the codecs are designed to drop out completely than give wrong data.

The one exception is for long runs (10-plus meters). There, a better-made cable might be more likely to transmit the data, although cheap active cables work just as well. I explain this in more detail and show what sparkles look like in my hyperbolically titled "All HDMI Cables are the Same."

Geoff sets up the "All HDMI cables are the same" position, but his position isn't the only side to the story...

Thumbnail image for ISFlogo-300x225.gif.pngJoel Silver
Imaging Science Foundation
"I have found that HDMI cables absolutely matter over many years of experience with these products. One of the key issues is bandwidth. Years ago, I was working with a reviewer, and we were upgrading him from 1080i DSS to 1080p Blu-ray video performance. We had intermittent problems with his older, lower-quality HDMI cables and solved the problem with higher-quality cables immediately. That same year, in Hong Kong we had to set our test pattern generators to 1080i to get a system for an ISF seminar to drive our projectors; a 1080p setting would not work at all.

Today with UHD 4K on the scene and HDMI 2.2 silicon shipping, HDMI has introduced an 18GB/sec bandwidth spec, up from the earlier bandwidth specs of 10.2GB/sec. I am not an EEE; so, when I read that our old 10.2GB/sec cables will be OK when signals go to 18GB/sec, I am a bit skeptical. But then again, I am one of many of us in the field that has had to upgrade HDMI cables in real time on site for either a no-signal condition or a noisy, dark-scene, microblocked signal or a blinking HDCP condition. But don't worry, I hear all HDMI is the same. Now go and tell that to my clients who had these issues and had to pay us to fix their systems!

The best HDMI products have been cleverly built for UHD 4K performance for some time. I advise my calibrators, retailers, manufacturer clients, and end users alike to all use higher-bandwidth cables. Note: DisplayPort has had an over 20GB/sec spec for quite some time, since they knew higher bandwidth was on the way.

I've also seen cheapie HDMI cables literally fall out, as they don't even physically connect precisely. On a simple level, HDMI is sending a digital packet, but it is sending a digital packet across a copper analog cable with 19 wires inside. Over long lengths, poorly made cables degrade and cause multiple problems.

It doesn't cost much to upgrade to very good HDMI cables. I also use active HDMI cables (those are directional) as they provide additional assurance of performance. I recommend home theater enthusiasts follow suit when they assemble their systems. HDMI cables are system infrastructure and should be bought to outlast your present components. You should not have to rebuild your rack of HDMI cables every time there is an advance.

The future of necessary HDMI bandwidth can easily be described in one word - more!"

Click over to Page Two to find out what other industry pros have to say about HDMI . . .

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