by RobertKeith

High-Speed or Standard? Ethernet or non-Ethernet? 1.4 or 1.4b? A simple guide to HDMI cables, the price you should pay and the essential terminology you'll need to know.

With each passing year, home theater setups are growing more complicated. Thankfully, cable technology is adapting accordingly, getting proportionately simpler.

Gone are the days of multiple plugs for audio and video. For most Blu-ray players, set-top boxes or current-generation video game consoles - in fact, the vast majority of devices plugged into a modern high-definition TV - HDMI cables will do it all.

HDMI Cables
Image Source: Pixomar, FreeDigitalPho...

What is HDMI?

At the time of writing, HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is the current standard for connecting home theater technology.  HDMI Cables carry both audio and video, generally eliminating the need for a second cable.

In short, it ensures the current generation of entertainment devices (such as a Blu-ray player, Apple TV, Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii-U) can send digital video and sound to your HD TV 100% intact.

In short, if your TV has an HDMI port and your devices support it, HDMI Cables are the best way (and in many cases, the only way) to use them to their full potential.

While this simplifies home theater connectivity, there is still some confusion around the different types of cable currently on the market:

  • Standard HDMI Cables
  • Standard HDMI with Ethernet
  • High-Speed HDMI
  • High-Speed HDMI with Ethernet
  • Standard Automotive HDMI

For a breakdown of what this means, read on.

Displayport to HDMI cable
Image Source: HDMI.org

Which HDMI cable is best?

(The Short Version)

High-Speed with Ethernet.  It can do anything required by a current 2012-13 home entertainment system.

HDMI cables are backwards compatible, meaning the highest-performing type can perform everything "lower" tiers can.  If you're planning any upgrades in the near future, you can rest assured it will adapt to the task.

For an explanation of the terms involved, read on.

What is the difference between Standard and High-Speed HDMI?

High speed HDMI cables can support a higher maximum resolution.

The best  display resolutions currently offered by home theater technology are "1080i" and "1080p".  The simplified version is that while both convey the same amount of information, 1080p offers it in sharper, smoother-moving form.  (Both, however, can look amazing.)

Not every HDTV can display 1080p, and not every device can output that quality of video. 

  • Standard HDMI can go as high as 1080i.  If your TV doesn't support 1080p, this is all you'll need.

  • High Speed HDMI can handle 1080p, making it he better choice if you want to get the most out of your 1080p-enabled TV and Blu-ray player / console.

Do I need a cable "With Ethernet"?

You will only need it if the device at both ends is "Ethernet Channel Enabled".

Ethernet-enabled HDMI can carry an additional stream of data in addition to audio and video.  This is particularly useful for recent Smart TVs that use an internet connection.  HDMI with Ethernet will ensure compatible devices share that connection, saving the need for separate ethernet cables.

HDMI with Ethernet
Image Source: HDMI.org

What about Standard Automotive HDMI?

Cables labelled with this are specifically designed as internal wiring for entertainment systems in vehicles (including cars, buses, boats and caravans), accommodating the extra durability required for travel.

Should I be worried about different "version numbers" of HDMI?

Every few years, the HDMI standard is upgraded.  We're currently at "Version 1.4b".

In an effort to avoid confusion, manufacturers are not allowed to mention version compatibility on their packaging.  Since 2010, this has been a strict requirement to using HDMI name and logo, 

If you see a version number on the packaging, you're either looking at an older cable, or dealing with a non-compliant company.  It should only be distinguished as one of the five varieties listed above.

Source: HDMI.org

How much should I pay?

As little as possible, provided it doesn't break the next day.

The difference in HDMI prices is phenomenal.  Some brands and retailers will charge $4; others will charge $40, or even $400!  This is particularly astonishing considering that (besides the difference between Standard and High Speed) there is no difference between them in audio/video quality.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation, confusion and outright false advertising behind the idea of "quality".  One cable can be more durable than another, or less prone to interference.  However, digital signals will not degrade or wear down (like radio or traditional TV static).  In most cases, digital data either will either reach its destination completely intact, or it won't reach it at all.

Some cables are cheaply made and prone to stop working without warning, so durability can certainly be a concern.  However, many salespeople will push "higher quality" cables, oblivious to the way digital data works.  

This is reminiscent of the confusion over speaker cables, which are prone to similarly excessive markup.  However, while there is a measurable difference between high- and low-end audio cabling, there is none whatsoever with HDMI.  Shop wisely.

Have you ever been persuaded to pay a premium price for a "better" cable (HDMI or otherwise)?

Updated: 12/10/2012, RobertKeith
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