HDMI and You: So Confused Together

Snake oil?
Confusion about HD components and interconnects has spawned so much misinformation from all sides — including retailers, journalists, manufacturers, and forum-posting electrical engineers — that it’s time to set the Blu-ray discrecord straight. Monster Cable is the current target of somewhat misguided accusations because of this lack of understanding. The issue is: Does a better HDMI cable give you a better picture on your HDTV?

The answer is that a high-end cable has absolutely nothing to do with improving the quality of your HDTV picture in the way that audiophile-grade cables can improve the sound of your high-end home stereo. For the most part, high-end cables are about future-proofing rich people’s custom installations and supporting technologies that aren’t even available yet.

Does that mean Monster is justified in selling hyper-expensive cables to the rest of us? Of course not. That falls under consumer responsibility; you wouldn’t buy expensive racing tires for the family minivan. But does that justify people being up in arms about claims Monster is not making? No.

Amid accusations of price gouging on HDMI cables — which make up the circulatory system of hi-def — Monster Cable met with a bunch of journalists to preach the idea of spending upwards of $100 on a cable instead of getting a cheap-o generic cable for a tenth of the price.

Steve Venuti, director of marketing at HDMI Licensing LLC, was one of the main presenters at this meeting, and he’s acknowledged before that “Unlike analog, there is no such thing as an HDMI cable that makes the digital audio or video data come out better than another. If the 1s and 0s make it to the other end, the cable has done its job, period.” (From an interview in Electronic House Magazine.) So there it is from the horse’s mouth.

They had a bunch of Sony PS3’s and Samsung 1080p HDTVs set up, and they used different cables to show that there are actually differences. The idea wasn’t to show that Monster cables gave a sharper picture or better color, it was to show that some cables just don’t work for the highest-end components, whether due to crappy construction or non-compliance with standards. All you’ll get is an unwatchable picture with lots of artifacts, as your HDTV tries hard to correct for errors, until the signal craps out entirely.

Sure, Monster cables almost certainly cost more than they need to, but the fact is they’re well-constructed and durable, which makes them more expensive to make (but not quite that expensive).

They’re also made with the idea in mind that although 1080p-capable HDTVs are just making it into the mainstream, the HDTV market is moving at a very fast pace and data demands will increase very, very soon. Higher resolution (1440p vs. today’s 1080p), deeper color (12-bit and up), and faster refresh rates (120Hz vs. today’s 60Hz) are just around the corner. These will require more bandwidth, which require a better cable.

If you’re running long lengths in a custom installation — and believe me, there’s a whole business built around that — you’ll need something sturdier and better constructed than cheap cables, and replacing them is a huge pain in the butt. You may even need some headroom to compensate for data loss over long distances (though you could always just get an HDMI booster instead of a new cable).

Monster also made a case for the existence of non-compliant cables out there; just because something has an HDMI logo doesn’t mean it’s actually been certified, and HDMI Licensing LLC has limited resources to crack down on fakes. Of course, if you get a cheap cable that doesn’t work, you’re not out a whole lot of money — just be aware that the problem may be with the cable and not your player or TV.

The bottom line is that you’re not paying for a better-quality picture — you’re paying for features, anti-obsolescence, and peace of mind. This is far more important for cutting-edge components and custom installations than the rest of us. Don’t have cutting-edge gear? Not planning on a custom installation? Go cheap!