How to Choose an HDMI Cable
In the age of HD-quality content, the HDMI cable reigns supreme as the most popular connection type. Older connectors like VGA and RCA cables don't handle HD movies and video games as well as HDMI does – they just weren't made for high-definition content. HDMI's prime contender is the DisplayPort connection standard. Some people, often Mac and PC users, prefer DisplayPort, but the standard just didn't catch on like HDMI. You can find HDMI ports on pretty much everything – though they're rare on smartphones and tablets – and you need an HDMI cable to connect those ports.
You would be hard-pressed to find a home theater setup that doesn't use HDMI cables. TVs, Blu-ray players, cable boxes and video game consoles have all adopted HDMI as their standard video and audio ports. Compared to previous connection methods, HDMI is simple and easy – you just plug your cable in and you get both audio and video, and you don't need to worry about multiple cables. You can find many PC monitors that use HDMI ports, but the standard isn't as dominant in the PC industry as it is in the TV industry.
HDMI Cables: What to Look For
Ever since the introduction of the HDMI standard, there have been many HDMI cable manufacturers. In order to be marketed as an HDMI cable, each manufacturer has to send its products in for testing. If a cable doesn't pass the tests, it cannot legally be sold as an HDMI cable. So, if every cable has to meet the same minimum specifications, what sets them apart from each other? Let's take a look at how these cables work, and then we can sort out the things that matter.
The best HDMI cables serve one purpose: to transmit video and audio data from one device to another, like your Blu-ray player to your TV. The inclusion of audio along with video in an HDMI cable is one of the reasons HDMI is the connection standard. With old VGA and RCA connections, you had different connectors for audio and video, which can get annoying.
So, your HDMI cable acts kind of like a pipe, into which the data from your Blu-ray player flows. As that data exits the pipe, your LED TV decides what to do with it. What this means is that the HDMI controllers on your Blu-ray player and TV will have much more of an impact on your viewing experience than your HDMI cable. The cable is a dumb pipe, and the HDMI controllers are the brains. For this reason, there is no such thing as an HDMI 1.4 cable, only HDMI 1.4-compliant devices.
Because HDMI is a digital signal, you get either a perfect transmission or nothing at all. What this means is that there is no difference in picture quality between the cheapest HDMI cable you can find and the most expensive. They'll both get 100 percent perfect images. There are some claims that better construction means less data loss in transmission, which can produce a better, more responsive picture. But that's not likely to make much of a difference, if any. Should your TV detect any data loss from your Blu-ray player's transmission, it simply requests the data again – at very high speeds. Most people simply can't notice a difference here.
Speaking of HDMI cable construction, it's important to note that they don't all use the same wires. Some cables use thick 22 AWG wire, and some use thinner 30 AWG wire. So what's this AWG and why is 22 thicker than 30? It is a bit counterintuitive. AWG stands for American wire gauge, and it tells you the thickness of any given wire. That thickness is determined by how many times a wire needs to be trimmed down to reach its size. Hence, 22 steps of trimming leaves a thicker wire than 28 steps. It's important to note that the larger the wire, the more bandwidth it can handle.
Cable Bandwidth & 4K Content
In regards to bandwidth, there are two types of HDMI cable: Standard HDMI Cable and High Speed HDMI Cable. Standard cables only have enough bandwidth to push through 720p and 1080i video signals. Note that's 1080i, not 1080p. In order to get access to 1080p and 4K content, you'll need a High Speed HDMI cable. Manufacturers are required to specify whether their cables are Standard or High Speed, the difference being the amount of bandwidth each cable can handle. Any High Speed HDMI cable can transmit 4K content from your source to your TV.
HDMI Switchers & Bandwidth
Several factors can reduce the total bandwidth of your HDMI cable, even though it's rated as high speed. The primary factor is the length of the cable. We'll go into that in more detail later.
A second factor is how many steps are between the source and your TV. For example, many TVs don't have enough HDMI cables for all of the devices you'd like to connect to it. The simple solution is to buy an HDMI switcher. This allows you to select which source you want to view without plugging in and unplugging cables. The only problem you might have is that this introduces an extra step along the signal path. The switcher will increase the amount of resistance your data stream experiences and may adversely affect your cable's total bandwidth. This is only likely to be a problem with very long cables.
Differences Between Cables
The most obvious difference between HDMI cables from different manufacturers is what they look like. Cable design can vary among manufacturers, with some touting a longer lifespan than their competition. A very well-built cable can indeed last longer than a poorly built cable, but is that really important? Most HDMI cables don't experience much wear and tear, and build quality has very little effect on cable performance. As we mentioned above, the cable either transmits a perfect signal or it doesn't.
The one case where build quality matters is with very long cables. If you plan to install HDMI in your walls, or just have a long run of 15 feet or more, then you may see an advantage over cables with low build quality. As the video signal travels along your HDMI cable, it encounters resistance. The longer the cable, the more resistance there is. This resistance reduces the cable's total bandwidth. High-quality cables use larger wires and better shielding to reduce the amount of resistance and keep the bandwidth high. That said, if the cable says "High Speed" on its packaging, regardless of length, then it can transmit up to 4K signals.
Where you'll see a real difference in cables is value. Some HDMI cables are ridiculously priced, while you can have others for only a few dollars. Because you either get a perfect signal or the cable doesn't work, it's almost always better to buy cheap cables. As mentioned above, the only real exception to this would be if you need to have very long runs.
On the topic of long HDMI cables, you'll definitely want to check into RedMere technology. Essentially, traditional HDMI cables need thicker wires in order for the data signal to travel long distances reliably. Thick wires can be cumbersome and difficult to work with. RedMere places very small integrated circuits in long HDMI cables that boost and equalize the data. This allows manufacturers to make their wires thinner and longer than before.
One quirk about RedMere-enabled cables is that they're directional. That means you need to plug the right end into your source and receiver or you won't get a signal. Traditional HDMI cables can work in either direction, but RedMere only allows the cable to work one way.
To learn even more, check out our articles on HDMI cables.
HDMI Cables: What We Found
As we discussed above, either you get a perfect signal with an HDMI cable or you don't. The question, then, is which HDMI cables are more reliable than the rest. We looked at a few different factors that helped us decide which HDMI cables are the very best. The biggest differentiators between cables are their build quality – what they are made out of and how durable they are – and their value. It bears noting that every HDMI cable we mention is rated as category 2, or High Speed.
All high-speed HDMI cables offer similar performance, with the possible exception of very long cables. In that instance, better build quality can keep the cables' bandwidth where it needs to be. With cables less than 15 feet long, you don't need to worry much about overall resistance lowering total bandwidth.
Exceptionally high build quality prevents frustration. If you don't want to deal with warranties and possibly returning a faulty cable, then it may be worth your time to look at more expensive cables with very high build quality. These cables are more likely to resist wear and tear and should have long lifespans.
HDMI Cables: Verdict and Recommendations
Monoprice is well known for offering products at a competitive price point, and HDMI cables are no exception. The Monoprice Select line of HDMI cables gives you access to nearly everything you could ask for – and does so at a very approachable cost. This is the best HDMI cable you can get for most situations. It can handle 1080p, 4K and 3D video signals. It isn't braided, and it doesn't look particularly fancy, but the Monoprice Select can handle your home theater needs like a champ.
The AudioQuest Pearl is more expensive than many of the cables on our lineup. This is due, in large part, to the extra engineering that went into creating it. It's a fantastic HDMI cable, but you really don't need what it's selling you unless you plan on doing long runs of 15 feet or more. In that case, the AudioQuest Pearl is the best HDMI cable you can get. That extra engineering helps the cable keep its total bandwidth open, even over long distances.
Most people just want their devices to work. The AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI cable just works. It isn't flashy or expensive-looking. It doesn't have a braided cable. But it is available at low cost and can handle pretty much any video signal you throw at it. If you have a new 4K TV, the AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable will work perfectly. You can also use it with 3D content. This cable comes in many different lengths, so you can find one that suits your setup best.