Are expensive HDMI cables worth buying? We asked an expert

Walk up to a wall of HDMI cables at your local electronics store or browse your online outlet of choice and you’ll see all manner of brands claiming their cables offer better picture and sound quality than the competition. Indeed, there is perhaps no consumer electronics segment more riddled with marketing voodoo and misinformation than the cable and wire industry. It’s nearly impossible not to be coerced into spending premium dollars in the pursuit of the best possible experience. But is there really a difference between expensive HDMI cables and budget offerings? We asked an expert to find out.

“In terms of picture quality there’s no difference,” explains Jeff Park, Senior Technical Manager for HDMI Licensing, LLC. “It’s digital, so it’s all or nothing.”

So the short answer is no. If you think a more expensive cable is going to deliver a better picture, then you’re mistaken.

“Whether you have a $100 cable or a $5 cable, if they meet the same specification requirements there should be no difference,” says Jeff. “From a technical point of view they are exactly the same.”

What are the HDMI certifications?

“Cables are rated by speed,” Jeff explains. “There are only two certifications: The original HDMI 1.0 Standard cable, designed for the first HD transition, so 720p, 1080i support, which are very rare now.”

“With the introduction of HDMI 1.3 we doubled the bandwidth from about 4.9 Gigabits per second to over 10 Gbps, and these cables are called ‘High Speed HDMI’ cables. Any cable that claims to be high speed must support the full bandwidth.”

If you have a High Speed HDMI cable then you’re set for watching anything up to 4K right now.

HDMI 2.0 makes the signaling method more efficient, so with the old method, a High Speed HDMI cable could handle 10.2 Gbps; now it can handle 18 Gbps.”

That means that existing High Speed HDMI cables, which should always be labeled as “High Speed,” both on the packaging and the cable itself, can handle 4K content at 60 frames per second. If you’re buying a new 4K TV and you already have a High Speed HDMI cable, then there’s no need to buy a new one.

“People don’t realize, but we actually supported 4K at up to 30fps back in 2009,” says Park.

If you have a High Speed HDMI cable then you’re set for watching anything up to 4K right now, and the price is not going to impact the picture quality. But are there other, valid reasons for spending more on a cable?

Where is the added value?

“There are major durability differences between different cables and many manufacturers offer additional features, beyond the ability to carry an HDMI signal, that could add value and cost” says Park.

There might not be any real benefits in terms of audio or picture quality with an expensive HDMI cable, but here are a few reasons that you might consider spending a little more.

Quality concerns

“Even if you design the perfect cable, making it exactly the same every time is difficult. An HDMI cable has 19 pins and it’s a pretty complex manufacturing process — scaling that up to produce thousands of cables and keep the quality the same will be a challenge,” says Jeff. And that’s before you consider the trade in fake cables, “We have bought cheap cables and literally found wires missing.”

HDMI does have a dedicated compliance team that polices the industry. They even shut down some exhibitor booths at CES over licensing issues, and they work with big retailers to ensure all the products they offer are genuinely HDMI compliant. Still, there’s always some risk that fakes can slip through into the market.

Active cables

“Some cables are active cables, particularly thin or long cables,” explains Park, “and they have active electronics on one side or both sides of the cable to help boost the signal and maintain integrity.” Monoprice’s Redmere cables are a good example of an active HDMI cable.

monoprice active hdmi cable
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Longer cables are inevitably going to cost a little more, and they are becoming more common as more and more people wall-mount their TVs. Thin cables are more portable, so they’re popular with laptop owners, but the thinner the cable is, the more difficult it is maintain signal integrity, so they employ active technology which adds to the cost.

Upscaling cables

“There are some HDMI cables out now that will upscale 1080p to 4K,” says Park.

That means you can plug an HDMI cable into a 1080p Blu-Ray player at one end and a 4K TV at the other end and it will scale up the image. Manufacturer’s claim it does a better job of upscaling the content than the TV can on its own. These cables may require a USB port to draw power.

Other possible reasons

  • Durability  If you’re unplugging and plugging in your HDMI cable frequently, then you may find that cheap cables don’t last as long. There can also be issues with wall mounted TVs where a cable is held at a right angle or has constant pressure on it. In these cases you may prefer something a cable with a more robust strain relief, or brawnier build quality.
  • Warranty  Some cable manufacturers offer an extended or lifetime warranty. If you want a cable that will last, or one that you can get replaced easily should anything go wrong, then you should plan to pay a little more.
  • Status symbol  You may not think of a cable as a status symbol, but if you gold-plate just about anything, people find it a more attractive option. Some folks want to buy the most expensive item available, regardless of whether it offers any real benefit over a cheaper option.

What to look for when buying an HDMI cable

“Ensure that the cable is clearly marked as a High Speed HDMI cable,” suggests Park. “Check the user reviews, even five minutes of online research can tell you a lot about a product.”

You can check out HDMI’s website for more details about what to look for, and there’s even a finding the right cable guide available. Stick to reputable retailers so you can return anything sub-standard, and check for positive reviews, but you shouldn’t really need to spend more than, say, $10 for a 3-foot cable.

“Price is not really indicative of signal quality; they’re not related at all. What determines quality is your source material,” says Park. “You’re not going to get a $100 signal. The quality of the content is everything. Cables, as long as they’re certified, will carry whatever you input and output it exactly the same at the other end.”

Home Theater

Select YouTube TV subscribers are getting a summer of Showtime for free

If you're a long-time YouTube TV subscriber, you may be in luck: The service is giving free access to Showtime until September 5, 2019, according to reports. Unlike other free trials, it does not become a paid plan on expiry.
Home Theater

HDMI ARC and eARC: What they are, and how they can simplify your home theater

HDMI ARC is one of the coolest TV features at your disposal. But if you're like most folks, you have no idea how it works, if you even know what it is at all. Here's our primer on HDMI ARC, as well as the next-generation technology, eARC.
Deals

The best soundbar deals for June 2019: Vizio, Samsung, and Polk Audio

We've rounded up all of the best deals on the top soundbars that the leading manufacturers have to offer, so you won't have to traipse all over the internet looking for a bargain.
Deals

Walmart drops a great deal on this Samsung 55-Inch 4K HDR TV

If you are looking for a 4K-quality TV on a budget, you can’t go wrong with the Samsung 55-Inch 4K HDR TV (NU6900). This smart TV model is currently offered by Walmart for $398, a decent drop from its original price of $528.
Deals

Get this Samsung 65-inch 4K Smart TV for a massive 50% off discount from Walmart

If you're looking for a quality smart TV on a budget, Walmart has a sweet deal you may want to check out. The online retailer has dropped the price of the Samsung 65-inch 4K Smart TV (NU7300 model) from $1,400 to $700.
Movies & TV

Stranger Things season 3 gets some new photos and an official synopsis

With a sophomore season as strong as its first, Stranger Things is now moving on to season 3. Here's everything we've learned so far about the Netflix series' upcoming third season, premiering in July 2019.
Deals

You won’t find a better deal on a 55-inch LG 4K TV than this

Another day, another fantastic deal on a 4K TV. This time, we're looking at a 55-inch LG 6-Series, which has had its price hacked from $500 down to $350 — and that's a deal that's not to be missed.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods — we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our favorites, with all the features you want.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2019, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR and much more.
Movies & TV

Will Smith’s best movies ranked, from Bad Boys to Ali to Hitch

A ranking of Hollywood actor Will Smith's best movies to date. From his early roles during the Fresh Prince days to his Oscar-baiting dramas, Smith has played all kinds of characters in a wide array of beloved films.
Deals

The best 4K smart TV deals for June 2019: Samsung, LG, and Vizio

A good 4K smart TV is the only way to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. If you're looking to take your home entertainment to the next level, then we've got the best 4K TV deals right here.
Home Theater

What is Dolby Atmos Music, and how can you experience it?

Dolby Atmos is a surround sound format that creates immersive, 3D soundtracks to make movies come alive. But the same technology is also being adopted for music creation, and it's a game-changer. Here's everything you need to know.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (June 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

Who needs sunshine? Stay inside and watch the best movies on Netflix instead

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.