Published On: August 18, 2014

Do Premium HDMI Cables Really Matter?

Published On: August 18, 2014
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Do Premium HDMI Cables Really Matter?

Jerry Del Colliano poses a question that has inspired much debate in AV circles: do premium HDMI cables matter? See what some big names in the industry have to say on the subject.

Do Premium HDMI Cables Really Matter?

By Author: Jerry Del Colliano

$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 . . .

Wireworld_logo_Grey_N.jpgDavid Salz
Wireworld Cable Technology
"There is a simple reason why upgrade HDMI cables can improve audio and video quality. Standard cables can cause noticeable losses. The best way to test for those losses is to compare an extremely short HDMI cable (a one-inch jumper is preferred, but a one-foot cable will still work) to standard cables of normal length. Under those conditions, many people hear cleaner and more lifelike sound from the short reference. Likewise, the finer points of image quality, including more vivid colors and improved depth perception, are often better with the reference than with standard cables. This is especially true with the best components and professional calibration. In these cases, an upgraded cable with higher speed and lower noise can provide audible and visual improvements approaching the scientific reference standard for cables, which is a direct connection between components."

Transparent_Audio_brand_page_logo.gifJosh Clark
Lead Designer
Transparent Audio
"HDMI cables make a difference beyond simply passing a signal. Many people assume that with a digital format like HDMI, if they see a picture and hear a sound, they have 'perfect' quality. Unfortunately this is not the case. Digital signals are still based in an analog world, and the high-frequency analog pulses that make up a digital signal are still subject to noise interference and timing distortions. Most short HDMI cables will pass a signal; but, if they allow excessive amounts of noise into that signal, the sound and picture will have noticeably less dynamic range, richness, and clarity. Quality HDMI cables use low-loss materials, high-quality shielding, and precision construction techniques - all of which reduce noise and maintain the quality of the signal. The result is a more dynamic and immersive theater experience, which you can see and hear. Colors are richer, and there is more definition in the shadows. The sound is fuller, more life-like, and more dynamic."

312_logo_logo2_200_px.jpgEthan Siegel
"At Orb Audio we don't make anything with HDMI, but we do sell products like receivers, Blu-ray players, and other components that connect via HDMI. We also support our clients, at no charge, when they run into technical issues. One of the most common video problems consumers call us with is sparkles or video blackouts. Our first question is, what type of HDMI cable are you using? Nine out of 10 times, it is a cheapie $2 cable. We ask them to swap that cable out for a different cable, and nearly every time it solves the problem. To be clear, we aren't suggesting that you need a $1,000-per-meter HDMI cable to have an effective connection between two AV components, but the quality of the connection, the quality control of the manufacturer, and the shielding of, say, a $75 HDMI cable is superior to those at $2 or even $10 that you might find in a bin at a big-box retailer."

krell_brand_page_logo.gifBill McKiegan
"At Krell, we have designed and manufactured components featuring HDMI connections for many years. The experience at our production facility, at trade shows, and in our customers' systems is that a well-made, high-quality HDMI cable is essential to reliable, high-quality performance. Not all HDMI issues are cable-related; but, in a great number of situations, the root cause of audio and/or video problems we experience are rectified when a generic HDMI cable is replaced with something of a higher quality. This is especially true when longer lengths cables are used."

As you can see, there are a lot of opinions on HDMI cables - some for and some against spending the extra money on premium cables. For long runs, it is clearly worth looking into better cables, as your display device might not respond well to a less-than-perfect signal even if the packet is "making it" to the display. It could be riddled with noise and other problems that can cause reliability issues. For shorter runs, your budget has a lot to do with what you should do. If you are really running on a tight budget, spending $100 more on speakers might impact performance more than upgrading a key HDMI cable. On the other hand, if you have a higher-end system, a better-shielded cable with better connectors can be worth the roughly $75 to $100 that start the premium HDMI cable discussion.

Most dealers offer liberal in-home trial programs. The best solution for your system is to do the Pepsi Challenge at home. If you can hear/see the difference, then the upgrade is worth it. If not, then save yourself the money. For many, Two-buck Chuck from Trader Joe's is a suitable wine. For those looking for something more, it takes a bit more investment. It's important not to get so snobby that you make fun of those who think the Charles Shaw Chardonnay is good enough when you prefer to drink an Aubert or a Peter Michael. There's a solution that works for everyone out there. The key (and the fun) is finding where the performance boost is for your system.

What type/brand/price of HDMI cables do you use for the main connections of your audiophile or home theater system? What do you think is the right price for an HDMI cable? Have you ever done a shootout with HDMI cables to determine sound/image differences? Let us know your thoughts below.

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