Home Theater Cables: How Do I Know Which Ones I Need?

You have many options to choose from when it comes to home theater cables, the most popular of which are HDMI cables and component video cables, and with so many choices and price points on the market, the task of finding the right ones can seem a little daunting.

The audio/video cables you choose to use with your home theater system can have a tremendous impact on your overall listening or viewing experience. So what differentiates one type of cable from another, and why are some cables significantly more expensive than others? This buying guide will answer these questions and more, helping you make an informed decision about your cable needs.

In short, cables carry the audio or video information from your receiver, DVD player or other device to your speakers and/or television. Using low quality cables is likely to degrade the quality of the final output, such as a movie or album. If you have a high-end HDTV and a top-of-the-line home theater system, most audio professionals will tell you it’s worth it to spend a little extra money on quality HDMI, component video and home theater cables in order to optimize the performance of your television and home theater system.

To put this into another context, imagine installing an expensive water filtration system under your sink, running a water line from the filtration system to your high-end refrigerator/ice maker, and then using mildewed tubing for the water line that connects the two. Even though you have the best filtration system and in-door water and ice service, using dirty old water lines contaminates the end product and doesn’t give you the outcome you were looking for.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the role cables play, let’s look at the different types of home theater cables. The most common cables you may encounter are HDMI cables, which are digital, and video component cables, which are analog. We’ll also cover a few other types of cables.

HDMI Cables: HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface.HDMI cables have the ability to deliver the highest quality sound and picture in a single cable. The use of HDMI cables is a good way to avoid compromising sound quality, which often occurs when converting and reconverting digital to analog, due to HDMI’s use of a 19-pin connector that transfers digital audio and video signals between components. HDMI cables are surround-sound compatible, and are the only cables that support up to eight channels. Industry experts expect HDMI to become standard in coming years.

Component Video Cables: Component video cables are your best non-digital option for high definition video. Component cables look identical to composite cables, but the signal quality is much higher. This is because these cables break the video signal into three cables, thus maximizing both image clarity and sharpness. Most component cables are color-coded, making them easy to install, but note that component video cables are not backward-compatible with composite, so you will want to make sure your equipment will work with component video connectors before making your purchase. You will want to look for cables that use copper center conductors and double- or triple-shielding to help preserved the video signal. Secure-fitting gold-plated connectors are another element to look for when shopping for component video cables.

DVI Cables: DVI stands for Digital Video Interface, and these cables offer a fairly new type of connection that offers superior video quality. They work by maintaining the video signal in its digital form from its source to the final output, such as your television or projector, and this results in extremely high quality picture.
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This technology is still under development, so there are no universal standards yet for DVI cables.

F-Type Coaxial Cables: These are probably the most common and least desirable cables on the market. They work by “modulating” both the audio and video signal onto a single cable, which diminishes the quality of the signal. The F-Pin connections used by these cables are only capable of supplying mono audio, not stereo. Component video, S video, or composite video cables would all be better choices than F-Type Coaxial Cables when it comes to the quality of the final output.

Composite Video Cables: These cables are typically considered a step up from standard coaxial cables and feature RCA connectors. Similar to F-Type cables, composite video cables carry all the video signals on a single cable, resulting in a lower quality output. Often composite cables will be used in conjunction with analog audio cables.

S-Video Cables: S-Video cables are considered a significant improvement over composite video cables because they break the video signal into two parts. Inputs for S-video are found on most high-quality televisions and A/V components.

As you explore the world of home theater cables, you will probably find a few types of cables not discussed here, but this overview should serve as a good introduction to the most common types of cables. Most people end up selecting HDMI cables or component video cables for their home theater systems, but if you need assistance you can work with an A/V professional to ensure you get the right cables for your specific needs and equipment.

I am a hands-on business owner, professional systems integrator, and long-time technology buff. I have received certifications from CEDIA, SpeakerCraft, Control4, and other organizations related to audio/video, low-voltage, and automation.

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