HDMI survival guide for home theater

HDMI survival guide for home theater

Summary: There's a lot of money to be made in the HDMI cabling and switch aftermarket and unfortunately that means a lot of consumers are getting tricked in to paying outrageous prices.  I've spent quite a bit of time helping my friends set up their home theaters recently and I thought I'd share that knowledge with my readers.

TOPICS: Hardware, Networking

There's a lot of money to be made in the HDMI cabling and switch aftermarket and unfortunately that means a lot of consumers are getting tricked in to paying outrageous prices.  I've spent quite a bit of time helping my friends set up their home theaters recently and I thought I'd share that knowledge with my readers.  If you're tired of paying high hundreds of dollars for HDMI switches and HDMI cables, read on.

What is HDMI? HDMI is a high speed digital interface for the transmission of high quality digital audio and digital video.  So if you plug your DVD player, your PlayStation 3, your satellite or cable TV box, or even your computer up to a modern HDTV with a single HDMI cable, then the sound and picture will all work.  The HDMI plug only has a single small connector so it's nice and simple.  Before HDMI, you had to hook up three separate connectors for just the video and two additional RCA plugs for stereo sound.  Instead of the two RCA plugs, you could also use an S/PDIF optical cable for the sound but it still adds a lot of cable complexity and clutter compared to a single HDMI cable.

Why are there different HDMI types? There are 4 basic versions of HDMI.  You have 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 and you can get a quick summary of the capability of each version here.  The easy answer is the higher the number, the better.  If you're shopping now, try to stick with the HDMI 1.3 devices if you can.

Do I need monster HDMI cables? No, HDMI monster cables are simply a monster rip-off.  If a cable is HDMI certified, it will by definition offer you a perfect digital signal.  Despite the fact that the electrical signals traversing an HDMI cable degrade as a cable gets longer, it will still offer perfect digital transmission so long as the signal loss or distortion is within a certain tolerance.  Analog cables might benefit from extra thickness and insulation because there's not much you can do to fix analog signal loss or distortion other than to amplify and maybe filter the signal a little to mitigate the bad side effects.  But when it comes to digital technology, the signal is either all there or it isn't.  There is zero measurable difference in the digital signal quality between the $6 HDMI cable and the $60 monster HDMI cable.

Where do I buy cheap HDMI cables? There are lots of online vendors that can be found via a quick Google search of "HDMI 1.3 cable".  These cables suppliers have always been reliable in my experience and they're many times cheaper than the local retailer.  Here's a few examples I compiled.

<Next page - Can I split or switch multiple input/output HDMI sources?>

Can I split or switch multiple input/output HDMI sources? Yes, and it's actually gotten amazingly cheap in the last year.  An HDMI switch allows you to plug in multiple devices in to a single HDMI port on your HDTV, LCD display, or HD projector.  An HDMI splitter takes one HDMI source and replicates it across multiple HDMI ports so you can drive multiple displays with the same high quality digital video.  There are combination devices that can switch and split at the same time.  Normally, a 4 port HDMI switch will be called a 4x1 and a 2 port HDMI splitter will be called a 1x2.  If a device takes 4 inputs and has 2 outputs, it's called a 4x2.

If you buy an HDMI switch or splitter in a retail shop, expect to pay hundreds of dollars.  If you buy some no-name brand on eBay from a reputable source, it costs around $30.  When I helped my friend set up his 200" HDTV projection home theater, he was shocked that the retail shop in Germany wanted 300 Euros for an HDMI switch.  He was concerned about buying a no name brand but I told him there wasn't a difference in quality so he took a chance and paid 32 Euros for a 4-port HDMI 1.2 switch.  Not only did the unit work, he loved the build quality and looks of the unit.

Here in the US, you can buy the same thing for less on eBay.  Even Fry's Electronics which usually has some steep discounts on sale items wanted $130 for the same thing while it was on sale so I couldn't believe the price he was paying on eBay.  If I had to guess, I'd say these guys are buying crates of these HDMI switches direct from a supplier in China to sell on eBay.  Eventually these types of prices will filter down to the discount retailers but it see  Here's a few examples of some great deals at low "buy it now" prices.  Most of these eBay sellers are simply quicker to adopt the latest gear.

What about using high-end receivers as an HDMI switch? You can do that but most receivers only have 2 HDMI inputs and 1 HDMI output.  You also need to be aware that these receivers may not support the latest HDMI 1.3 specification.  What may be the most practical solution is to use a 4-port HDMI switch and route the output in to the receiver to get 5.1 or 7.1 audio output.  That saves you from wiring hell with the simplicity of consolidated audio and video in HDMI.  See the image below for how this is hooked up.

Can I hook up my computer via DVI to HDMI cable? Yes, and you get the best results doing it this way.  HDMI is backwards compatible with the DVI interface although you lose the digital audio aspect of HDMI if you connect a DVI device.  That means you're back to the RCA jacks or using an S/PDIF connector if your computer has an S/PDIF out.  Note that the S/PDIF won't work as well as the HDMI connector in some rare instances because the bandwidth isn't high enough.  For example, multiple uncompressed audio streams from a Blu-Ray source may not fully function unless you're running audio over an HDMI cable.

Some newer video cards, both discrete and integrated, have HDMI outputs on them which include audio so this is something to be aware of.  But most video cards today are still DVI based so you usually have no choice but to use a DVI to HDMI cable.  The only thing you really have to worry about is whether your video card supports the native resolution of the display you're outputting to.  For example, a lot of 32 to 40 inch LCD HDTVs have 1366x768 resolution and not all video cards support this odd-ball resolution.  Not all video cards can drive the massive 1920x1080 resolution of true 1080p HDTVs and even if they support it, it may not support game play at that resolution unless it's a really fast video card.

Here are some examples of cheap HDMI to DVI cables:

What is HDCP? HDCP is a copy protection scheme that needs to be supported in the hardware and software on both the source and output device if you want to play content from HD DVD or Blu-Ray movies over a digital interface such as HDMI or DVI.  Not all devices with DVI/HDMI outputs or inputs support HDCP nor do they need it.  If either the source device or the output device doesn't support HDCP, the content won't play and it must be routed over an inferior analog interface.  For some HD DVD or Blu-Ray content, output over an analog interface might knock the quality down to quarter resolution.

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Topics: Hardware, Networking

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  • [b] Bless you my son.....[/b]

    Excellent article George!

    It's about time someone in the media started talking about the monster rip-off cables. I love the fiber optic cable scam as well. Why pay $60.00 for a 3 meter cable when the GE cable is only $8.00 in the same store? Do you think General Electric can?t be trusted to make a simple cable?

    If it is HDMI 1.3 certified (It will have the HDMI logo), then you are good to go. Have any questions about that, see the HDMI website at [b] http://www.hdmi.com [/b].

    A fool and his money shall soon be parted?
    • Yeah it's a big scam. I've talked before about it but not dedicated an ent

      Yeah it's a big scam. I've talked before about it but not dedicated an entire article to it before. Hopefully this will help a lot of people.
  • Thanks

    I was treated to a lecture by a Best Buy employee who was
    telling all about millisecond 'signal response time'
    differences and soldered vs crimped connections, all the
    while holding up a 6' $100 Monster cable.

    I listened politely because the kid seemed to truly believe
    what he saying, then said, "no thanks, show me cheapest
    hdmi cable." Turns out Best Buy doesn't see an hdmi cable
    under $60. I ended up getting one at HomeDepot for
    about $30. Still too expensive, but running around
    shopping gets expensive as well.

    All HDTV accessories are outrageously overpriced! Thanks
    for putting the truth out there. Gold plating, soldered
    connectors, thick insulation, slick packaging and racing
    stripes mean squat on a 6' hdmi cable.
    Len Rooney
    • Yeah they don't like to carry the cheaper cables or the switch boxes

      Yeah they don't like to carry the cheaper cables or the switch boxes. That's why it pays to be prepared and just order all the cables you need online. If you wait till last minute and you buy a $1000 HDTV and you're dying to try it out, you might just be inclined to buy that $60 HDMI cable just so you don't need to wait.
      • actually they do...

        You see George-- they DO carry the cheap cables and switches-- they just mark them up SO FRIGGIN' MUCH because they can.

        Once demand drops, prices will too. They just inflate b/c like you said-- customers are hot and bothered at the spot.
        • Correction taken

          Yeah they do carry the cheap stuff, they just don't sell it as cheap :).
    • thought your prices on the street

      Would be cheaper where you live than in UK,I bought mine nearly a year ago in a shop for $21-6ft ,Asda(wall-Mart)selling a 3ft for $16 now.
    • almost

      Gold plating does make a difference. Gold doesn't oxidize, so in the long run you get a better connection with it than without it. All the other stuff that you get charge big bucks for will usually not make a difference unless you plug and unplug the cables often.
    • Woooow Dude

      Len hit Fry's if you have one. We just bought a Samsung 40" HDTV 1080 (Love the Red framing edge) from best buy then found the same TV lower at Fry's. Called Best buy told them we were bringing it back. They refunded us the difference Plus 10% and at close to $1500 I am happy with the refund. We also got the HDMI certified cable's at a fraction of the price that they were offered at best buy. Plus we bought a Samsung Blue Rey DVD player that was the same model at they carried at best buy but more than $80.00 bucks cheaper... It pays to shop around. We have Dish HD and the picture quality on the TV is actually better than it looked in Best buy
  • Whatever happened to UHV TV?

    Used to be, you could go to your TV and select UHV and turn a knob like you were cracking a safe and bring in those 'fuzzy' stations.

    What happened?
    D T Schmitz
    • Um,

      the 1960s ended ;)
      Len Rooney
    • It was UHF not UHV and it is still there.

      That is where the digital channels are placed.
    • We still got them, but it's blocky when the signal is bad

      We still got them, but it's blocky when the signal is bad or insufficient. It's called ATSC :).
      • Ok good. Just checking. Thanks George.

        D T Schmitz
    • old tech.

      You must mean UHF and VHF. That just refered to where on the spectrum the channels were. The feature you describe, tuning in the channel with a dial, was available on both frequency ranges. That was fairly old technology before they came out with the self adjusting circuits that would tune in the channel to the strongest signal all by itself. So the dials were no longer needed.
  • RE: HDMI survival guide for home theater

    What happens with "cheap" cables is that the edges get rounded off and the receiving unit (TV) interprets the pulses wrong or need re-transmission. I have seen this with USB 2.0. Don't buy "cheap" cables.
    • For 1/5 the cost

      I can afford the replacements if your prediction comes true. I have never personally seen it, so I'll stick with my el cheapo cables. I make good money, but it doesn't grow in the back yard.
    • Never had a problem with any cheap cables

      Never had a problem with any cheap cables, EVER.
      • beer money

        I didn't check to see if this had been mentioned, but I believe
        Cnet uses the cheaper cables to test their equipment for the
        reviews they write. And they make a point to point that out.
    • So don't play with them...

      Sometimes cheap things aren't made quite as durably as expensive ones. So just don't play with them. Plug the stuff in and leave it.

      That's the main advantage of expensive cables - they have thicker insulation, which increases resistance to damage in flexing or abrading; they have thicker conductors that reduces flexing damage, they have stronger metals in the connectors that reduces wear damage, and they have soldered connections rather than crimped that...well, that actually break more easily on flexing...