High Priced Cables in the Digital Era

Does the following sound familiar to you? You’re shopping for a TV or other audio/video equipment and as soon as you make a decision, the salesperson immediately jumps into selling you high priced cables. You wonder, is he just trying to make some extra money on overpriced cables, or will I really see a benefit? The debate has raged for years, but now that digital technology is firmly entrenched in the marketplace, the rules have changed. With so many people likely to be purchasing new HDTV’s or other digital media equipment this holiday season, this is a good time to consider if high priced cables are worth the cost in this digital age.

It could have been argued back in the day of analog components that very high quality (and high priced) cables would improve the quality of what we could view or hear from our audio/video equipment. Enough evidence existed that showed high quality cables would perform better than low quality cables to keep the debate going. But now we live in an age of digital signals. If you search the Internet for advice on digital cables, you will read a lot about how digital signals can not degrade and therefore you do not need anything beyond a cheap cable. This article from mint.com is an excellent representation of this line of thinking. But you will also come across articles that state that digital signals can degrade, especially over long cables. It would seem that we’re doomed to be stuck in the ongoing debate of high priced cables forever. However, I have some advice for those of you who will be faced with this dilemma soon.

Based on what I’ve researched, I tend to side with the argument that high priced cables do not make much of a difference for digital components. The data that moves though digital signals is very concise. Basically, the signal either works or doesn’t. There isn’t really an opportunity for the audio or video to lose quality as there is with analog signals. However, physical defects or ill-fitting connectors can certainly cause headaches for audio/video setups, so low-quality cables can still be problematic. Also, over very long runs, it is possible for the digital signal to not reliably transmit across the entire run depending on the strength of the signal to begin with and the relative resistance of the cable.

My advice is to buy good quality, but not overpriced cables. In today’s age, you’ll want to make connections as much as possible using HDMI cables, as this type of digital connector carries both audio and video. From a physical standpoint, as long as the connections are nice and tight, and the cable is physically able to hold up to any twists and bends your setup requires, you should be fine. If you are purchasing an especially long run of cable, quality becomes more important, but honestly, most people will not need very long runs of HDMI cable. And the good news is with digital signals you’ll easily be able to tell if there is a problem. Either you’ll get no sound or video at all, in the case of TVs you’ll see a pixelated picture, or in the case of audio equipment you’ll hear digital distortion. It is very easy to see pixelation and digital distortion sounds quite obvious. If there is a problem, you can simply test another cable and if the problem is with the brand of cable you purchased, return it and purchase another.

Do note that speaker cable still carries an analog signal and often does need longer runs. However the same basic principle applies. For nearly everyone besides the most picky of audiophiles (and even then it is debatable), good quality but not overpriced speaker cable will be indistinguishable from the most expensive cable out there.