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HDMI Switcher Review
How to Choose an HDMI Switcher
The top performers in our review of HDMI switchers are the Kinivo 501B, the Gold Award winner; the Monoprice HDX-401E, the Silver Award winner; and the Etekcity 4K x 2K, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing an HDMI switcher to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the top 10 products.
TVs are the centerpiece of most living rooms these days and the central hub of entertainment. This means that you likely have many different devices to plug into your TV, which can be frustrating with the small number of HDMI ports on most TVs. To get around this limitation, you can either invest in an AV receiver – which would be expensive – or get a relatively inexpensive HDMI switcher.
How does an HDMI switcher alleviate port problems? When you have a Blu-ray player, video game console, DVR, Chromecast and other HDMI devices, things can get crowded. By plugging them into an HDMI switcher, you can consolidate all of those devices to use only one HDMI port on your TV. The switcher allows you to change between devices on demand. This means you don't have to constantly unplug devices and then plug them back in later on.
HDMI Switchers: What to Look For
All right, so an HDMI switcher gives you more HDMI ports. But is it that simple? Not quite. There are some other things that you need to know before you get an HDMI switcher. Some of this information is also related to HDMI cables. As these two things work together, you need to know a bit about both of them.
Understanding HDCP & HDMI Switchers
High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is copy protection technology that's built into the HDMI standard. As the name suggests, it serves to protect video and audio content from piracy or other duplication.
A simple way of describing how this works is that your Blu-ray player talks to your TV, saying something like, "Hi, I have this HDCP-licensed content. Are you licensed to display the content?" If your TV supports the right version of HDCP, it responds, "Yeah, I'm licensed. Send the content on over." At that point, the Blu-ray's signal displays on your TV. With a switcher in between the two, the process simply repeats.
So, what happens when the TV doesn't respond? You get a blank screen or an error message. This is a primary cause of incompatibility with HDMI switchers. With several different versions of the HDCP on the market, it can be difficult to manage every device in the signal chain. To make matters worse, the latest version, HDCP 2.2, is not backward compatible with previous iterations. This means devices need to include HDCP 1.x support in addition to HDCP 2.2 support or they can't receive signals from content encrypted by HDCP 1.x.
In short, your source (Blu-ray player), content (Blu-ray), HDMI switcher and TV all need to use HDCP – preferably the same version of HDCP. If your TV uses HDCP 1.4 and your switcher uses 2.2 without 1.x support, then you won't be able to get a signal from your Blu-ray player.
Your switcher will need HDCP 2.2 in order to pass 4K content to your TV, as 4K content will be protected by HDCP 2.2 in the future. That means if you're trying to future-proof your home theater setup for 4K, make sure your switcher has the latest version of HDCP. Otherwise, you can't watch any 4K content that's passing through the switcher. None of the switchers on our lineup use HDCP 2.2 – you'll need to pay more or wait a bit longer to get one that does.
Unfortunately, figuring out which version of HDCP your switch supports isn't easy. If it isn't stated on the product's packaging or in the product's description, then you'll need to contact the manufacturer. It's important to note that just because a device supports HDMI 2.0, it doesn't necessarily support the latest version of HDCP. There are switchers on the market that have the HDMI 2.0 specification, but only an HDCP 1.4 chip. This negates the advantage of HDMI 2.0, which is capable of passing 4K content at 60Hz.
Inputs & Outputs
The best HDMI switch has enough ports for your needs. After all, the whole point of an HDMI switch is to give you access to more ports without spending a large chunk of cash on an AV receiver. Everybody's home theater is different, so make sure you get a switcher that makes sense for you. You can easily get tiny switches with two outputs or significantly larger ones with five outputs.
When you want to send your video signal to more than one screen – i.e., two TVs or monitors – then you might want to pay a little more for a switcher that has two or more outputs. These aren't common, but you can find them. We limited the products on our lineup to a single output.
There are so many HDMI devices on the market – with different versions of HDCP – that it is nearly impossible to know with certainty if any given switcher will work with your home theater setup. With the complexity of home theater setups, it's important that you get a good return policy with any switcher you purchase. If your switcher doesn't work or has issues, you'll want to be able to easily return it.
Difference Between an HDMI Switcher and an HDMI Splitter
There are many different HDMI accessories, and keeping them straight can be difficult. The two most common are HDMI switchers, the subject of our reviews, and HDMI splitters. So, what's the difference between them? Switchers take multiple inputs and narrow them down to (usually) one display. Splitters take one input and split the data signal to more than one display. When you have several devices you want to connect to your TV, you need a switcher. When you want to display your content on more than one screen, you need a splitter.
HDMI Switcher Power
Not all HDMI switchers require a power adapter to work. Instead, some switchers draw power from the HDMI ports of connected devices. This is great if you don't want yet another thing to plug into your power strip.
However, this design approach can be problematic, because HDMI ports were not designed to transfer power. Often, these HDMI switches need to draw power from several connected devices in order to work properly. That means you need to have more than one device always powered on.
A side effect of having several devices powered on at once is that the switch's auto-switching function won't work. Auto switching changes the display to an active port. In other words, when you power a device on, the switch changes inputs. When you have several active ports, the auto switching doesn't know which input to change to. This also means that devices like Apple TV that never fully turn off will stop auto switching from working.
HDMI Switchers: What We Tested, What We Found
Because HDMI is a digital transmission, HDMI switchers won't introduce any signal degradation in your Blu-ray movie. However, not all HDMI switchers are exactly alike. Some draw more power than others. Not all switchers can pass the latest HDCP signals, and not all can handle resolutions higher than 1080p.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Not all HDMI switchers are up to date with HDCP. In fact, very few switches support the latest HDCP protocol, which is required for viewing 4K content. Those that do support the latest version of HDCP are expensive enough that you may want to look at getting a full-blown AV receiver instead.
Most HDMI switchers only support up to 1080p resolution. Most switchers on the market just don't have the bandwidth to push higher resolutions. In order to get access to higher resolutions, you'll need to look at expensive switchers.
HDMI Switchers: Verdict and Recommendations
The Kinivo 501B is the best HDMI switcher if you're not interested in 4K content. It has access to 36-bit deep color, which means greater color fidelity in what you see on your screen compared to most switchers in this range. For 1080p content, it's hard to beat the Kinivo 501B. It comes with HDCP 1.2, which is not the latest version. Make sure that all devices in your signal chain work with HDCP 1.2, or else you may just get a blank TV.
Monoprice's HDX-401E earns a strong recommendation from us for many of the same reasons as the Kinivo 501B. It's an excellent HDMI switcher for 1080p content. The HDX-401E can pass a video signal with 36-bit deep color, providing more colors for your visual experience than other switchers on our lineup. The HDX-401E doesn't have any auto-switching capability, which is great if you don't want to deal with auto switching.
Etekcity manages something impressive with its 4K x 2K HDMI switcher: It packs 4K@30Hz capability, HDMI 1.4 and 48-bit deep color into a small box at a relatively low cost. Most 4K HDMI switchers are very pricey, so it's refreshing to see something that's more affordable. Keep in mind that the Etekcity switcher only has HDCP 1.4. In the future, that won't cut it for 4K content. You'll need a switcher that can pass HDCP 2.2 in order to enjoy 4K@60Hz content.