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How to Choose the Right HDMI Cable

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HDMI logo By Alfred Poor, dealnews contributor

Nobody wants to spend more than they have to, but many people believe in the old saying "Buy cheap, buy twice."

There are few technology items that can cause more inner conflict than HDMI cables. If you go shopping online for a 6' cable, you'll find that you can spend anywhere from $1 to more than $100 for an HDMI cable. That spread is enough to leave any consumer wondering whether the cheap cable will work, or if the expensive cable is worth it.

In this follow-up to a previous post, How Much Do You Really Know About Your HDMI Cables?, I will explain some of the variations of HDMI cables that you will encounter. And I'll tell you what you need to know in order to get the right cable at the right price.

They're Not the Same

The first place to start is the fact that not all HDMI cables are the same. Some are actually more capable than others. You can find more details at the HDMI Licensing website, but here are the main points you should know.

When shopping for HDMI cables, you can find five different types. There are two basic sets of features: speed and Ethernet. Take those in their combinations, and you get the four main choices:

  • HDMI Standard: This is the most common type. The specifications call for this cable to handle 720p or 1080i data streams. (These are the two data formats used by terrestrial television broadcasts.)
  • HDMI Standard Ethernet: This cable also is designed to handle 720p or 1080i signals, but it also provides a wired Ethernet local network connection in the same cable.
  • HDMI HighSpeed: Newer cables are designed to handle more data at a time. These are intended for 1080p and other signals that can require even more throughput, such as 3DTV and 4K resolution images.
  • HDMI HighSpeed Ethernet:This cable has the same high speed capabilities, but adds the Ethernet support.

(There is one more cable type, but most consumers are unlikely to have a need for it:

  • HDMI Standard Automotive: This cable has the same 720p/1080i capability as the normal Standard cable, but it is designed for internal wiring applications in cars. The inside of a car can have a lot of electrical interference and cables are often routed in tight bundles, so this cable is designed to carry a stronger signal.

How to Choose

Let's start by narrowing the field. We've already determined that most users won't need a Standard Automotive cable.

As far as I know, there are no products on the market yet that support Ethernet over HDMI. There may be some by the end of this year, but it will be quite a while before most consumers will have two components that support this feature. So you probably won't need any of the Ethernet versions at this time.

That leaves us with just two choices: Standard or High Speed. There are a couple parts to making this decision.

The first part is to understand how the HDMI signal works. With an analog signal — such as the typical stereo speaker cables — if the signal is degraded when traveling through the cable, you can hear a noticeable difference in the volume and fidelity of the sound.

With a digital signal, it's more of a pass/fail situation. Either the bits get through reliably, or they don't. If they do, you get a perfect picture (or more precisely, you have a perfect signal for the display to use). If bits get lost, you'll get a blotchy image that breaks up, or you may get no image at all.

The fact is that most Standard cables will work just fine at 1080p and even with 3D signals. So if every dollar matters, then buy the cheapest HDMI cable you can find and try it. If it works, it will work just as well as a cable that cost 10 times as much. If it doesn't, then you can just buy a more expensive one.

The other part of the decision is to consider the fact that HDMI cable prices have plummeted in recent years. You can find cables that list for over $100 available online for less than $30. You can find 6' High Speed HDMI cables for as little $4 online. With prices this low, the savings between a Standard and High Speed HDMI cable is not much.

The Bottom Line

In the end, my choice would be to spend a few extra dollars and buy inexpensive High Speed HDMI cables. You'll know that they will support all the latest HDMI features, which means that you'll get the best performance from your home entertainment equipment even if you should upgrade one or more components in the next few years.


Alfred Poor, known on the Web as the HDTV Professor, is an independent technology industry analyst and freelance writer based in Pennsylvania, specializing in PC-compatible microcomputer hardware and software products. He was a contributing editor to PC Magazine and Computer Shopper, and currently is a columnist at HDTV Magazine.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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7 comments
cs85b03
An HDMI cable is an HDMI cable.  19 wires shielded in some plastic, that's all it is.  The only thing you need to worry about is signal attenuation.  Cables have better attenuation if they use thicker wires, more shielding, etc.

Any 6-10' HDMI cable is going to be a "high speed" cable.  They won't use wire less than 28 gauge, and at that length, there is little attenuation so it will support any data rate you can throw at it with today's technology.  Believe me, I've pushed 2560x1600p with 7 channels of HD sound through the cheapest 6' HDMI cable that you can find (It was less than $1 and looks like junk).  You only need to look more into the "rating" or more accurately the wire size and shielding type when looking for any cable that is over 30' or if you have a 4K tv.  I take that back, if you are running 3D (true 3D at 120 actual frames per second) then you will need a higher rating at anything over 15'.

I'm sorry, but this article has overcomplicated things to the extreme.
AlfredPoor
That would not have been as much fun. Actually, it is a little more complicated than just "buy the cheapest." If I were to boil it down, I'd say "Buy the cheapest High Speed HDMI and don't bother with Ethernet." And I think it is helpful for people to understand what the different labels mean, so that they can make up their own minds rather than have me spend their money for them.

I would go for the High Speed because it gives me a margin of safety, and the extra cost is negligeable. Any HDMI cables that are licensed have to indicate whether they are Standard or High Speed, so I'd probably shy away from any cable that didn't specify that information.
AlfredPoor
As far as I know, HDMI Licensing does not require labeling of the cable; just the packaging. There probably are some expensive devices that can determine whether your cable meets the HighSpeed spec or not, or if Ethernet support is present, but I'd simply stick to the strategy of "if it works, use it. If not, get one that does."

Alfred
Johnsonium
I buy the cheapest cables I can get and have yet to have a problem. I've built out my home theater as well as friends and family using cheap cables and everyone is happy and a little bit richer for not paying the ridiculous prices for the higher-end cable.  It's low risk. If the cable doesn't work you'll know fairly quickly and then you can go out and splurge for one of the rip-off cables. Meanwhile, you are out little money because the cable was so cheap.

The truth is cable quality is less important not more important with digital signals. Digital signals are either there or their aren't. In the analog world, there was no such thing as perfection and signal strength mapped linearly with picture quality. If the signal was attenuated, you'd get ghosts and noise. With a better signal, you'd get a picture approaching but never achieving perfection. This doesn't apply to digital as there is a minimum amount of signal required to receive an intact picture and that's it. Improving the signal strength above this threshold will not result in one iota of picture improvement. This is the dirty little secret the Monster Cable people and other hucksters won't tell you.
dealguy
This is very confusing. Don't buy standard HDMI cables, spend more for high-speed HDMI cables. Not that they currently offer any actual advantage. They cost $4 ... or is it $30? The ones that dealnews regularly lists for $1 apiece, shipped ... are those standard or high-speed? Not that it matters.

Why not just say: buy the cheapest HDMI cable you can find? It reads to me like you took 800 words to say just that, and then got the conclusion wrong.
philly003
If your looking for HDMI cables, goto:

...[

Good cables at cheap prices.  I've bought all of my cables and wire from them and never had a problem.
ccolbert
Great job really simplifying and making clear what the differences are and, more importantly, what they mean to the end consumer. I have a quick question though, once you've already purchased the cable and thrown away the original packaging, is there a way to know which type of cable you have in-hand?
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