Among the myriad connections, cables and equipment that make up a home theater, one remains misunderstood: HDMI. At times it gets a bad rap for being too expensive. Other times it’s praised for its ease of use and ability to de-clutter the back of your equipment rack. Even though in most cases HDMI works perfectly, there are some shortcomings to this wünderkind cable.
High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) was launched in 2002 as a partnership between Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, Toshiba, Philips, Thomson and Silicon Image. Designed to be the one cable to rule them all, HDMI has been hampered by confusion around its multiple versions and the wide range of prices for cables.
While it has enjoyed a tremendous adoption rate among manufacturers, there remain questions in consumers’ minds. I talked to Steve Venuti, President of HDMI Licensing, LLC, the group in charge of the HDMI spec, about the issues facing HDMI and how his group is working to resolve them.
Much like Blu-ray is suffering from the multiple profiles associated with it, HDMI has created consumer confusion with its many versions and sub-versions, the latest being HDMI 1.3c. “From a consumer standpoint, the versions are meaningless,” Venuti says. “We want people to look for features. If you want deep color, look for a component that supports deep color, not for a version number.”
To combat this, the HDMI Licensing Group is working with manufacturers to reduce the emphasis on versions and highlight features instead. The confusion really expanded with version 1.3, when a lot of different features were added. The problem was, 1.3 could differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. If equipment supported just one of the items from the 1.3 spec, such as deep color, they could claim HDMI 1.3. Seeing this, the licensing and trademark guideline was changed last year, and as of Oct. 17, 2008 you can’t claim version support unless you clearly list all the features of the spec that are supported, such as “HDMI (V.1.3 with Deep Color).”
A check of two national retailers’ websites shows cable prices between $40 and $299. At Amazon.com you can find nearly two pages of four and five-star rated cables for less than $10. “Price differences are not untrue in any product category, although it might be more egregious in the world of cables,” Venuti says. “Our main concern is compliance. If a cable meets compliance and sells for $10, while another similar cable sells for $100, we don’t get into that. Certainly consumers could be surprised by the cost of cables at retail, but that’s a market factor that we don’t get involved with.”
The wide price gap leads to the question: is a cable a cable? If you’ve bought equipment with HDMI recently, you were likely encouraged to purchase the latest cable featuring high-density triple-layer shielding and gas-injected dielectric sheath for reduced signal interference and improved signal consistency and strength (that’s an actual product description from an HDMI cable). But are you getting anything more with that than if you drop $10 online?
Since HDMI is an all-digital cable, it’s simply sending 1s and 0s from one place to another. Problems that plague analog cables such as interference and signal loss have no effect on a digital signal, it either gets there or it doesn’t. If a cable works, it should provide the exact same image as any other cable.
That said, HDMI compliance testing doesn’t factor in things like durability or in-wall use. Especially in longer runs, quality manufacturing is extremely important. Always look for cables marked with the HDMI logo to ensure they have been tested, but when it comes to buying your cable, my suggestion is to save the some money and buy a couple extra Blu-ray discs.
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