AudioQuest Defends HDMI Marketing

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AudioQuest CEO Bill Low: “I chose the words very carefully ... Delivers 100% of the data required for 120Hz, 240Hz and 600Hz displays.”

AudioQuest CEO Bill Low agrees with HD Guru that TV refresh rates have nothing to do with HDMI cable, but says company must match the competition with messaging.


Aug. 26, 2010 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

As we all love to do, HD Guru Gary Merson recently took aim at HDMI cable manufacturers who mislead with their product labeling.

The gist of his article is this:

Have you seen HDMI cables online or in stores labeled “120 Hz,” “240Hz” and “480 Hz”? It’s easy enough to slap such labels on HDMI cables but it’s a sham. … The same HDTV signal flows through all HDMI cables, whether labeled “120Hz” or “480Hz.” …

Clearly the intent of the refresh rate labeling is simply to confuse you into spending more money on HDMI cables than you need to. …

Monster, Audioquest and other HDMI cable makers mislead consumers by mis-labeling their step-up quality HDMI cables with the various refresh rates used by set makers to improve picture quality. The signal fed by an HDMI cable to a set never exceeds 60Hz.”

AudioQuest takes offense to Merson’s claims. (Monster Cable probably does, too, but we didn’t hear from them.)

CEO Bill Low posted comments on Merson’s story as well as our own rehash of the HD Guru article on sister site CEPro.com.

The pieces, he says, “make me smile and make me wince.”

The smile part is that I’m delighted to see deception and purposefully confusing claims taken to task, and I’m proud of how carefully I balanced responding to market pressure by only telling the truth. And, I wince at the less than perfect muckraking which is unfairly tarnishing AudioQuest.

Issue One: Refresh Rates

After giving us a long lesson on TV response time, refresh rate, and frame rate, Low concedes, “HDMI cable has next to nothing to do with any of them.”

Even so, he tells us, it isn’t a crime to suggest that a cable may be relevant to a certain refresh rate, just as (using Merson’s analogy) a garden hose might be labeled as especially well-suited for sod lawns.

And, when other manufacturers are doing it, it’s tough to compete without joining the rhetoric.

As Low puts it:

Because of the confusion in the general market about refresh rates and frame rates, because salespeople are also sometimes confused, because no warrior wants to go into battle unarmed ... AudioQuest received great pressure to put 120/240/600Hz on our boxes, or risk losing business.

Low says he went kicking and screaming into that battle, and finally came up with the verbiage that he says balances the “need” of the marketing department with the “truth” of HDMI engineering.

“I chose the words very carefully,” he says: “Delivers 100% of the data required for 120Hz, 240Hz and 600Hz displays.

I happen to agree with Low’s assessment:

Who can read that and call it a lie? I carefully use the refresh rates as adjectives modifying “displays.” The cable “delivers 100% of the data required” totally true, not a shred of BS. If someone thinks this is misleading advertising, rather than simply harmless self-defense, then take a look at laundry soap commercials, much less diet plans.

He goes on to defend AudioQuest’s marketing by telling us that all AudioQuest HDMI cables carry the same messaging: “We don’t down-rate some models in order to make a more expensive model falsely appear to be more desirable.”

Issue 2: Cable Data Rates

There is one more major claim that Merson raises in his article: It’s misleading when manufacturers claim higher data rates than the HDMI specs call for.

“There is absolutely no picture quality advantage of purchasing a cable that is rated higher than the HDMI “High Speed” standard of a 10.2 Gbps!” Merson writes.

He highlights Monster’s shameless plug of a “Higher Performance” 17.8 Gbps HDMI cable.

Such claims are defensible, Low says: “Our experience at AQ is that past a point, past not much more than HDMI’s High-Speed requirement, higher bandwidth has no effect on audio or video performance ... but it’s not criminal for others to believe differently.”

Furthermore, he explains, since cable length is the enemy of data rate, manufacturers might look suspicious if they portray two different cables of different lengths but similar construction as having the same data rates.

Who’s Right, AudioQuest or HD Guru?

On the main points of the article, Merson and Low agree: 1) The scan rate of the TV has nothing to do with the cable and 2) data rates beyond a certain threshold don’t matter.

So why do manufacturers make consumers think that these data points are somehow relevant to HDMI cable? Low tells us that AudioQuest needs to play the same marketing game that Monster and others are playing. Who could argue?

Even so, the messaging discussed here sets a bad precedent. “By relying on misleading labels,” Merson tells us, “under-educated consumers will think they need to spend more money to buy a cable that gives them no added benefit.”

But there’s something that troubles Merson (and me) even more: “Consumers rely on salespeople to help them choose the right equipment, in this case the right cable,” he says. “But salespeople often rely on the package labeling.”

How many times do you ask for a salesperson’s help in selecting the correct product for your application and they simply do what you would have done anyway—check the labeling?

When in doubt, they will recommend, and you will buy, the product that looks like it fits your specific need—whether you need a hose to water your sod lawn or an HDMI cable to connect to your 240 Hz TV.

But Wait, There’s More

For Low’s entire 2,000-word response, including comments about audio-over-HDMI, see page 2.

AudioQuest CEO Bill Low Responds

Posted by William Low on 08/15 at 01:46 PM

Mr. Merson’s HD Guru article about HDMI Cable Makers and Ms. Jacobson’s passing-on & packaging of that piece in CE Pro ... make me smile and make me wince.

The smile part is that I’m delighted to see deception and purposefully confusing claims taken to task, and I’m proud of how carefully I balanced responding to market pressure by only telling the truth. And, I wince at the less than perfect muckraking which is unfairly tarnishing AudioQuest.

In the real world, people are confused. The world of this month’s video buzz word comes from the hardware side. “LED” is being used to describe LCD monitors with LED backlighting. These are not LED TVs! LCD monitor manufacturers are shouting about their 120Hz, 240Hz and 480Hz refresh rates, often implying frame rates of 120, 240 and 480 ... it’s downright difficult to figure out if a given TV with a 240Hz refresh rate is displaying a frame rate of 24, 30, 60, 120 or 240. “Refresh rate” and “frame rate” are being purposefully jumbled up by some hardware suppliers.

As HD Guru points out, there are no monitors which need to be fed more than a 60p signal for 2D video, though 3D does require the equivalent of 120p (60p x 2), no matter what the monitor’s refresh rate, and no matter whether the set includes the computational ability to create (through interpolation) frame rates of 120 or 240. As for the 480Hz or 600Hz “refresh” rate of a plasma set, that’s usually only a claim equivalent to an amplifier’s or a cable modem’s bandwidth. It’s a type of possibility and not necessarily a claim that any signal direction is taking place at that rate. Plasmas have vastly superior response time (ability to change quickly) compared to LCD, but how often the picture is refreshed by the combination of electronics and display is not necessarily the same number.

When a 24fps film is displayed in a movie theater, the same frame is flashed 2 or 3 times. This makes the refresh rate 48 or 72, while the frame rate is still 24. A Pioneer plasma display with a 72Hz refresh rate “flashes” the same frame 3 times per 1/24 of a second. An LCD display with a 120Hz refresh rate, flashes each frame 5 times per 1/24 of a second. While LCDs are improving fast, in the past it was remarkably obvious that a refresh rate of 72Hz on a fast-response plasma, yielded much smoother motion than 120Hz in a slower response time LCD.

There is a particular relevance in the 600Hz claim for some plasma displays; the lowest response-per-second time which would accurately display 24fps film, 25fps PAL/SECAM video, 30fps NTSC video, and 30 and 60Hz HD video is 24Hz x 25Hz = 600Hz.

So, there are really 3 levels of rating to the display-speed issue: response time, refresh rate, and frame rate ... and HDMI cable has next to nothing to do with any of them.

Because of the confusion in the general market about refresh rates and frame rates, because salespeople are also sometimes confused, because no warrior wants to go into battle unarmed ... AudioQuest received great pressure to put 120/240/600Hz on our boxes, or risk losing business. Being who I am, my first reaction was “no way!” Then, with more pressure, and more time to think about how to balance the need and the truth, I came up with the line quoted in the article, and shown on the photo of the AQ Cinnamon HDMI box in the HD Guru piece. I chose the words very very carefully:

“Delivers 100% of the data required for 120Hz, 240Hz and 600Hz displays”

Who can read that and call it a lie? I carefully use the refresh rates as adjectives modifying “displays.” The cable “delivers 100% of the data required” totally true, not a shred of BS. If someone thinks this is misleading advertising, rather than simply harmless self-defense, then take a look at laundry soap commercials, much less diet plans.

And, every model of AudioQuest HDMI cable, starting at $25/1m carries the same statement. We don’t down-rate some models in order to make a more expensive model falsely appear to be more desirable. AQ makes 8 quality levels of HDMI cable, and all carry the same phrase about supplying data to a monitor.

We also don’t play a numbers game. All AQ HDMI models up to 8m are High-Speed ... and that’s all that anyone needs to know. However, there is a major flaw in HDMI LLC’s Standard-Speed rating because Standard-Speed only guarantees a 1080i performance level, whereas much of the world is actually in-between. For example a 16m AQ cable carries 1080p and Deep Color, and yet because of HDMI LLC’s guidelines (which AQ follows to the letter), the customer is actually misled into believing that the cable is less capable than is actually the case. Wanna hit me for under-claiming the cable’s ability?

It’s easy to make ... well, it’s easy for a really good high-speed data cable manufacturer to make a 10m High-Speed HDMI cable (of HDMI’s many conductors, the 4 pair used for audio and video are essentially standard data cables). AQ doesn’t make 10m HDMI cables, we jump from 8m to 12m ... and because 12m doesn’t pass the eye-pattern test for High-Speed, we rate it as Standard-Speed, even though it’s good for Blu-Ray 3D (broadcast 3D is only the equivalent of 1080i).

There’s another numbers game which HD Guru refers to; the shenanigans about data rate or “speed rating.” I’m mocking the game, but I would also defend that there’s no lie in claiming a particular data rate for a particular cable of a particular length. Because length is the enemy of data rate, 1m cable and 2m cable using the same construction have different data rates, when you see 1m and 2m cables with the same construction having the same rating, you know there’s a game going on. So, what’s to be gained from bragging that a cable exceeds the bandwidth required in order to qualify as a High-Speed or Standard-Speed HDMI cable?

For exceeding HDMI’s High-Speed rating, there’s the implication that more capability will result in better performance within the bandwidth required. This is often true for other products; the faster response time of a plasma display is an advantage, driving a car in the same manner with more horsepower on-hand is a different experience, and amplifiers should have bandwidth way beyond the 20-20,000Hz that is consider the audio band. Our experience at AQ is that past a point, past not much more than HDMI’s High-Speed requirement, higher bandwidth has no effect on audio or video performance ... but it’s not criminal for others to believe differently.

I would also defend other cable manufacturers’ claims about 4K. The HDMI LLC 1.4 specification includes 4K. Yes, I agree that 4K doesn’t exist in the consumer marketplace ... but whether it ever will or not isn’t the point, the spec exists and all High-Speed HDMI cables meet the 4K spec.

However, we disagree a lot more strongly with other cable brands about scaring people into thinking that higher data rates are necessary in order to future-proof their system. We don’t know, but for now we do believe, that if and when data rates greater than the current HDMI spec are required, the plug and cable will change. Higher bandwidth dual-link HDMI already exists, with a different plug for the additional pins required, but this isn’t used in the consumer marketplace. In a parallel example, USB 3.0 is a dual-link system (as is 9-pin FireWire 800), which even manages to use a backwards compatible plug, but it has to have more conductors and more pins that a USB 2.0 cable. A probably impossible magical faster USB 2.0 cable wouldn’t make any difference because the hardware will require USB 3.0 connections.

I’ve waited until far down in this too long piece, after most people would got bored and move on, to bring up something more self-serving ... justifying multiple models, who’s prices go up to $895 for an AQ 1m Diamond HDMI cable. AudioQuest makes no claim, in our sales material or on the box, to differences in video performance between our $25 cable and $895 cable. I am very respectful of the physical and physics reality that HDMI video is quite robust. The combination of minimal signal degradation and error-correction circuitry, is that AQ “accepts” the baseline that all HDMI cables make the same picture. On the other hand, we marvel at how often there is a real difference in video performance ... I don’t mean the “sparklies” that show up when pixels are lost, or the black screen which is usually the result of lack of copy-code authorization. I mean what is most often seen as a lack of contrast, perceived color density, and of black-black. Considering that there’s a pretty narrow window between works-perfectly and doesn’t-work, it is surprising that any cable should fall in the small band of over-the-cliff, but hasn’t-crashed ... and given that thanks to error-correction, the HDMI system can make 100K errors per second look “perfect,” it is surprising that a cable with zero errors can be better or worse than another cable with zero errors. There’s always more going on than humans yet understand, though I suspect that deep in the labs, there are people who know perfectly well that nothing is “perfect,” that it’s a matter of presumed thresholds of perception, etc.

So, I’m essentially agreeing with the closing paragraph in the HD Guru article, to not pay more for an HDMI cable because one expects a better picture. However, depending on the particular hardware (source drive capability, input circuit capability, error correction ability) and the particular cable, it’s an area worth investigating for those so inclined. I’m pleased that this buyer-beware statement is about picture quality, because ...

Audio quality, good old fashioned audio quality is why AudioQuest makes so many models of HDMI cable. The very same added-expense ingredients which create higher performance in AQ’s digital coax, balanced digital, and USB cables, are used to great effect in the HDMI series: better metal (increasing use of silver up to pure PSS silver), and AQ’s patented Dielectric-Bias System (DBS), make the some wonderful obvious slap-in-the-ears differences with HDMI audio as with the other also surprisingly fragile methods of moving audio around. Video requires a lot more pieces of data, but audio’s lower data rate is vulnerable in many ways that video is not. The point here is that cables which cost more to build, and which sell for higher prices, offer very real improvement in performance, in audio performance.

Those of a certain mindset find it difficult to believe that digital audio isn’t all perfect. While I can describe some of the ways in which a wire cable or a fiber-optic cable introduces jitter, the “argument” is not won in the intellectual domain. The fact is that when people listen, they hear. If they care, they buy at the level that makes sense for them, just like choosing the quality of loudspeaker or car that makes sense for the individual.

It’s an interesting irony that after decades of controversy about whether all amplifiers sound the same, all cables sound the same, whatever, that the “subjective” claim that one piece of audio is or is not better than another, is less onerous than misleading with actual numbers. Hmmm, maybe that $119 shelf-system with hundreds of watts and 30-20KHz performance, and LCD TVs claiming to be LED TVs (I have an OLED set, a entirely different class of product), and cables claiming to pass 480fps are all manifestations of a permanent phenomenon ... death taxes and deception will always be with us.

Sincerely, Bill

William E. Low
CEO/Designer
AudioQuest



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