Question: What's the main difference between a $99.99 HDMI cable for your TV and a $2.22 cable? Answer: $97.77.
I'm not so geeky as to normally devote an entire column to the subject of picking the right cable for your television set. But the ongoing scam to sell you overpriced, literally gold-plated cables, thereby making up for the money lost on those deeply discounted flat-panel TVs, is enough to motivate me.
Here in San Diego you can buy an 8-foot HDMI cable to connect your TV to your satellite or cable or Blu-ray player for a penny shy of a hundred bucks, or you can buy a 10-foot cable that does mostly the same thing, offering no noticeable difference in sound or picture quality, for $2.22. Your choice.
The monster in high-priced cable is—wait for it—Monster Cable. Although this year the company began offering a wider range of price points, the company mostly has dominated high-end audio and video cable products, including a 100-foot HDMI cable that has a suggested price of $599.95.
Monster MC 1000 8-foot HDMI cables were selling at Best Buy in Mission Valley last weekend for $99.99. At the same time, virtually unknown Shaxon brand 10-foot cables were selling at Fry's Electronics in Mission Gorge for $2.22.
If you don't like Fry's you can shop the Internet, there are lots of sources for inexpensive cables.
You would think big-box stores known for their good deals on high-definition televisions would be the best place to find inexpensive HDMI cables. But Best Buy, for instance, heavily promotes Monster; and even its least expensive 6-foot offerings from lesser brands were “on sale” last weekend for $24.99. (Best Buy does offer lower-priced cables, but only online.)
Now there are limitations to the Fry's cables; you are limited to buying 10 at a time, for instance. Of course you could buy 10 and still save some money off one of Best Buy's cheapest HDMI cables.
Costco, meanwhile, also known for its excellent pricing on TVs, gave consumers two choices: A two-pack of 6-foot Vizio cables with Ethernet for $38.99 or a two-pack of 8-foot cables without Ethernet for $34.99. Not as outrageous as Monster, but still not the great deal you might expect.
Target's cheapest offering was a 6-foot cable for $19.99, or you could buy a 10-foot Sony cable for $66.99.
In the case of analog video and audio signals, the quality of the cable matters more. A degraded video signal, for instance, would result in a fuzzy or snowy picture.
But cables designed for the High-Definition Multimedia Interface handle a digital signal, pulses of electricity to signal ones and zeros for translation by the TV.
Both types of cable transmit data by controlling the voltage levels in an electrical signal. But with analog, slight shifts in voltage translate to precise values in the final picture.
In digital, if the signal voltage is high, that translates as a one, if it's low, it's a zero. The voltage changes don't have to be so precise and yet the television can convert the ones and zeros into a perfect picture, without the variations in quality that occur with analog.
That means pretty much any cable will do for digital as long as it meets your bandwidth requirements, and it would be difficult to find a modern HDMI cable that can't handle the needs of current televisions.
Several electronics publications have tested various HDMI cables for themselves over the years, including Popular Mechanics, CNET and PC World. Their conclusion was that there was no visible difference in picture quality.
Monster certainly makes high-quality cables, offering lifetime warranties and going to great lengths to ensure signal quality. It's just that signal quality isn't as important with digital data.
There are certain circumstances where I could see spending the extra money: a cable longer than 12 or 15 feet, for instance, where signal degradation may become an issue even for digital; or if I was going to run the cable inside a wall, where I'd really rather not see a cable fail.
Monster and its ilk argue that its higher-quality cables are “future proof” because they can handle higher bandwidth. To me that's dumb.
It was only a decade ago that S-Video was the dominant standard for high-quality video; component video was typically used for HDTV, and HDMI didn't exist. Interface standards come and go to handle advances in technology, and putting a lot of money toward any audio, video or computer product to future-proof it is hopeless.
So—buy cheap. If you're unhappy with the results you're only out a few bucks and you can go spring for something you think will be better.