January 10, 2008

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The cable conundrum
How not to get ripped off
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

So you got a brand new flatscreen TV for Christmas. Lucky you.

Now, how do you have that hooked up? The cables that came in the box? Oh dearie me.

Any home theater aficionado or big box salesperson will tell you that you need the highest-quality cables to ensure that you get no picture or sound degradation, no dangerous electrical interference and no disgruntled electronics silently resenting you. Of course, “highest quality” often means “most expensive.”

Fortunately, both the aficionados and salesfolk are full of bunk.

I’m not going to tell you that dollar-store cables are perfect for every application and you’d never notice any difference. But do you need to spend a Benjamin for cables on a $399 LCD television? Nah. The retail price of a cable can be marked up hugely from a store’s cost. While an expensive cable might be sturdier than a cheap one, the majority of any price difference is in profit margin, not build quality.

The difference between cheap and expensive cables shrinks considerably when you’re hooking up devices to use digital rather than analog signals. With analog, sure, there’s a whole continuum of picture and sound quality, from awful to poor to acceptable to good to stellar. The cable quality argument becomes a question of diminishing returns: how much more do you have to pay for every tiny improvement? With digital, if a signal gets through at all, it’s through.

Take your typical DVD-to-television cabling options. The most basic is composite video, a thoroughly analog standard. That’s the yellow RCA jack on the back of the player, with red and white jacks alongside for right and left channels of audio. S-video and most component video connections are analog as well. An analog signal sent to a TV is translated directly to video and audio, without processing, so a crummy cable can result in crummy performance. High-end cables typically have gold-plated connectors, because gold is very conductive and resists corrosion. They also usually feature shielding, to prevent stray signals from nearby wires and gadgets from producing interference.

Get into the fancier players and TVs and you’ll have digital component connectivity as well, but the hotness these days is HDMI, or High Definition Multimedia Interface. Video and audio are sent from our hypothetical DVD player through a single cable as a digital signal that’s decoded by the television set. The TV is really producing its own perfect copy of the image and sound it’s being told to make. An imperfect signal can still result in a perfect picture, as long as the signal is strong enough for the TV to understand it.

Retailers count on you picking up expensive cables when you take home your fancy new gear. It’s definitely more convenient to buy the cables right there, but often a much better deal can be found by shopping around or buying online. Enjoy your movies!