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When setting up or modifying your home theater system, it can be tempting to splash out on the most expensive cables if you’ve got the money. I’ve been asked plenty of times whether expensive cables actually make a difference to audio and picture quality, so I decided to put a post together to answer it once and for all.
The honest truth about expensive cables is that they really don’t make much difference to audio and video quality. Also, once you reach a certain price range (anything above $50), you’re only really paying for a brand name.
While you might have been told differently by various marketing campaigns, it’s worth understanding why your money is better spent elsewhere. In this article I look at what you should really be looking for in a home theater cable (read my article), and whether paying out really makes a difference.
The truth about expensive cables
It’s a symptom of our economy that we’re led to believe expensive always means better. If you were buying something like a car, then to an extent this would definitely be true. Similarly, “front-line” equipment in your home theater probably benefits from a bit more of an investment.
Cables, however, don’t necessarily follow the same kind of logic. For example, an HDMI cable (related article), which transmits an image from your input device to your output device, does the same thing regardless of how much money you pay for it.
The same reasoning is true for any other cable you have in your home theater setup (read my guide). An AUX cable will always transmit audio, and an Ethernet cable will always transmit an internet signal. So why do some cables cost 10 times the price of others?
In short, because they can. The idea that expensive is better is so deeply ingrained into our way of thinking that some people can be quite easily fooled into believing this is the case. However, a bit of research into the workings of cables will tell you that this isn’t true.
Let’s stick with HDMI cables to explain this in more detail. HDMI replaced SCART as the main transmission cable when HD picture was developed in the early 21st century. Since then these cables have become a staple in every household.
The actual cable is almost always made from copper, as this is a widely available material with excellent conductivity and low resistance. This means it can send high-quality, data-rich audio and video signals with very little issue.
At each end of the cable are 19 pins, which are plugged into both the input and output devices. These are made of other metals than copper, as copper has a high oxidization rate, which would massively impact signal quality after a time.
Regardless of the price you pay for a HDMI cable, this is what it’ll be made from. So although there can be different materials used to coat the pins, the cables all still have the same internal construction. So does this make a difference?
Do expensive cables make a difference?
As we’ve established, the short answer to whether expensive cables make a difference is no. But why is this? We’ll again stick with HDMI cables to explain this, as they’re the most widely used cable in any home theater setup.
Let’s take this cable, available on Amazon, as a starting point. It still comes in relatively cheap at $60, but in my opinion this is still too much to pay for a HDMI cable. It has 99% pure, 24-karat gold-plated pins, and high purity copper cables inside.
While this might sound like a good piece of kit, it’s still the same basic makeup as a cheap cable of the same size. Many expensive cables market themselves as being better because they’re gold-plated, but it’s worth remembering this only refers to the pins, rather than the cable itself.
Gold does make a difference to the connection because it has incredibly low resistance. However, the difference it makes to the picture quality is negligible, if there’s any difference at all.
The only situation in which expensive cables can make a difference is if you’re thinking about speaker cables, and even then it’s not always worth splashing out loads of money. The reason speaker cables are different is because having cables with lower resistance will often result in better audio quality, but this will be impacted more by the quality of your input and output devices.
This explanation can be broken down into 3 main reasons, which are:
1. Cables only transmit the signal they’re given
Whether you pay $10 or $100 for a cable, it’s still only going to transmit the signal it’s sent from one device to another. Therefore, signal quality will ultimately be defined by the quality of the devices at either end, rather than the cable that connects them.
Cables such as speaker cables or optical cables can result in different levels of jitter, which is an industry term for signal disruption. However, many cables won’t transmit a less than perfect signal, and something like jitter is more greatly affected by the quality of the signal converter than the cable it’s being sent through.
2. Almost all cables have the same internal structure
I know I’ve mentioned this already but it bears repeating. HDMI and speaker cables are inevitably always made from copper wire because it’s relatively inexpensive, and is one of the best materials for the job.
While metals such as silver and gold are better conductors with lower resistance, they’re far too expensive to make entire cables from them. If you think a gold-plated cable is expensive at $60, just imagine how much the same cable would cost if made completely from gold!
3. Output quality is ultimately decided by the output device
This is very similar to point 1 but is worth explaining from the other end of the circuit. Your output device will ultimately impact the quality of the video or audio you’re trying to enjoy, simply because it’s the device you’re enjoying it on.
For example, a cheap HD TV will almost always produce a poorer picture than a more expensive model. This is essentially down to the components it’s built from, including the type of screen technology. The output signal from a mid-range OLED TV will be better than an expensive plasma TV because it provides deeper blacks and richer colors.
The same is true for speakers, as an inexpensive set will have a greater impact on audio quality than the cables used to connect them. While the cable’s resistance will have an impact on audio quality, the small difference it makes will be lost if you’re pumping the signal through rubbish speakers.
How to get better signal
The inexperienced home theater user might jump at the chance to buy an expensive cable to improve their setup, but this money is better spent elsewhere.
Similarly, there are a few things you can do to your existing setup that’ll make a bigger difference than buying expensive cables. Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your home theater without buying expensive cables.
1. Review your input and output devices
The first thing you should do is review the devices you actually use in your home theater. I’d first start with your output devices, namely your TV/projector and speakers. These will have the biggest impact on signal quality, so should be kept up to date.
If your TV or speakers are several years old now, consider upgrading to a newer system. TV picture quality has jumped so much in the last few years that even a mid-range new TV will probably be an improvement on your current system.
2. Find the right cable for the job
General consensus in the home theater world is that price has little impact on performance. Instead, the best thing you can do is experiment with cables to find the best ones for your system, as some will perform better than others with your equipment.
Price shouldn’t factor in to this decision, but you should spend some time researching (particularly on forums) to see if someone has a recommendation for the best brand to use with your setup. The joy of home theaters is that they’re really popular, and so someone has probably encountered the same issue as you.
The best thing you can do is try different cables until you find the ones that give the best performance. Although buying direct from the manufacturer is often cheaper, buying them off a website like Amazon usually means you can return them with little effort.
3. Don’t go as cheap as possible
While I’m not advocating for the most expensive cables, I wouldn’t go to the cheapest end of the spectrum either. Dirt cheap cables will generally be made with inferior materials, and so your signal quality will be impacted somewhat.
This might sound like I’m going against my own advice, but there is definitely a minimum cut-off point. I wouldn’t go any lower than $10 for a cable. I generally spend about $15 on something like a HDMI cable and have never had any issues with signal quality, and that’s across multiple different home theater setups.
4. Play around with the room first
If you’re noticing issues with audio quality in your home theater, the first thing I’d try is moving the speakers. You’re much more likely to find this impacts signal quality than investing in expensive speaker cables.
Muddy sound quality is probably caused by signal crossover or something else that’s really easy to fix. In fact, if I was troubleshooting poor signal quality in my home theater, cable quality is the last thing I’d check.
This guide gives you the basics for positioning a stereo speaker setup, but the same logic applies to surround sound too. Even if you think you’re happy with your speaker positions, it’s worth playing around with them a bit just to see if it can be improved.
5. Always be mindful of technological developments
Once HDMI cables jumped to high-speed, there was little else that needed improving in their design. High-speed HDMI cables cover 4K UHD, along with all lower quality signals. Therefore, any high-speed cable will still do its job for years to come.
However, active HDMI cables are the latest development, and they contain signal-boosting chips. These cables are only really necessary for transmitting signals over a long distance (100ft or more), so it’s unlikely you’ll need one in your home theater.
It’s worth being aware of technological developments, particularly for things like Ethernet cables, as these may have an eventual impact on signal quality in your home theater setup. However, it’s unlikely you’ll need to upgrade your cables any time soon, but keeping up to date with the industry is always sensible.
6. Invest your money elsewhere
If you’ve considered spending lots of money on a cable, then think again. It would be much better to invest the same money into a more productive area of your home theater (such as a new input device of better quality).
Home theaters are a constantly evolving system, and many of us jump at the chance to bring in a new device. If you’ve got some money burning a hole in your pocket, then consider upgrading your TV, AV receiver, or other important area of your home theater system instead. Alternatively, buy a new set of speakers to go from 5.1 to 7.1 surround sound!
Some final thoughts
All you really need to remember when it comes to digital signal cables is that if it works, it works. While this might not be true for analog-to-digital cables, it’s true for basically every other cable. The money you’d spend on expensive cables is better invested in a more productive area of your home theater system.
The most important advice, however, is to do your homework before buying. Some cables will be better suited than others to your setup, so buy the best one, not the most expensive one.