Saturday, 17 March 2012

On HDMI Cables

I have been conned recently: I ended up wasting $50 on buying a fake HDMI cable at eBay. In particular, I thought that I can get the Monster Cable top of the line connector, the M2000HD, for less than a quarter of its normal USA price (Australian prices are always too inflated to make any comparison worthwhile). Shortly after ordering the cable I remembered reading how Monster was annoyed at the proliferation of fakes, which sent me looking at their website. There they have extensive resources on fakes and look-alikes, enough to make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was wronged. I should have known better, really, before I fell for the too good to be true.
My incident is currently being disputed with PayPal. Although I’m the last to expect anything good to come out of PayPal, I am aware of past cases where they refunded the buyer upon the buyer providing proof of destroying the fake product. In my case, I would have to provide a photo of the fake cable after I tear it to pieces. Should be fun!
The real question I will try answering with this post is this: why did I bother looking after this particular HDMI cable anyway? Aren’t all HDMI cables the same?

Well, the simple answer is no: HDMI cables are not all the same, even if physically they are all compatible with one another. That is, you can take a $5 HDMI cable and connect your PlayStation 3 to your TV with it, and you can do the same with a $1000 cable; however, it is highly likely the quality of the picture and the sound will tend to be better with the latter.
You don’t have to take my word for it. The performance of HDMI cables can be measured and assessed using regular lab electronics (check this example for reference). What the measurements show is the often significant level of distortion in the analog representation of digital signals communicated via HDMI cables, to a degree that this digital signal may be wrongly interpreted at the other side of the cable. Or rather, you will see the wrong picture / hear the wrong sound (or, if this happens often enough, your equipment will just go blank as it loses sync).
While errors in the digital signal are relatively rare, timing errors are a different matter. Jitter, the phenomenon where you receive the right signal at the wrong time (even nanoseconds matter with human hearing), has become an epidemic in the context of HDMI. Any audiophile would tell you the best way to ruin the sound of a CD player is to connect it via HDMI. It gets even better: the more information you cram down your HDMI’s cable’s throat, the more problem prone that connection would be: transferring the normal output of a DVD through HDMI is not the same as transferring the output of a full blown 1080P Blu-ray with a non compressed 7.1 soundtrack.
Can something be done about these problems?
Yes. First, you can shop around for home theater components with good, low jitter interfaces (and this website’s reviews will gladly point you in the right direction).
Second, you can do your homework and choose your HDMI cables well. Sadly, reviews rarely measure cables’ performances; however, most hi fi reviewers do provide subjective sound quality advice, and once you cross reference several trustworthy sources you should be fine. Or at least that was the course of action I took after my eBay failure…
I ended up choosing the AudioQuest Pearl HDMI cable (pictured). I have had a good relationship with AudioQuest over the years: my main speakers are connected with their cables and have been for more than a decade now, as did my analog components (during the days I actually had analog components). In my opinion, AudioQuest represents relatively good value for money when it comes to hi fi. The particular HDMI cable I chose, the Pearl, has received glowing reviews from What Hi Fi (where it was named the best HDMI cable for 2011). Oh, and I got it for much less than I paid for that fake Monster Cable…

Photo: AudioQuest