"High-end" Digital Cables vs. "Cheap" Digital Cables

Geickel -- Wed, 09/02/2009 - 10:28

I have read in several articles on websites (including CNET and Popular Mechanics) that conclude that there is no difference between "high-end" HDMI cables and "non-high-end" HDMI (and digital in general) cables.  I have always been under the impression (and it seems logical) that the quality of an analog cable matters, but since digital cables are only passing along the ones and zeros of digital information, these conclusions make sense.  As long as the digital cable is structurally sound, I would think that's all that matters.  However, I have no experience with different digital cables, and so have never tried to spot the difference.  I really would like to hear from the editors on this, as well as anyone who has experience with testing this claim.
As a side note:  I know that there are a lot of people that feel strongly that cables don't matter as much as the editors say they do, and, to that end, I think that it is highly subjective.  If you hear it, that's great (whether it's placebo or not).  Sometimes the illusion that something is better does heighten the experience; and guys, if someone has the money to buy a better power cable, or interconnect, or speaker cable, etc., why shouldn't they.  I mean, it all comes down to what a person values.  I like to think of myself as an audiophile, but I have yet to hear a truly high-end system, in a proper room, and properly set up; but I WANT to hear it.  I WANT to hear "Kind of Blue" bring me closer to being in the studio when they were recording it.  I WANT to FEEL the music, and since there is no way to measure a person's individual experience (and I don't think there ever will be), I have to experience it for myself.  You can try to tell me that cables (or conditioners, or connectors, or whatever) don't make a difference, but until I hear it (or not) for myself, sorry, I don't believe you. If you can't FEEL it, you're missing out on what it is that makes this hobby what it is, and that's coming from a guy who FELT the music, but has yet to experience the thrill that is listening to a true high-end audio system.
How about it?  Thoughts?  Feelings?  Measurements?

Sam -- Wed, 09/02/2009 - 11:22

I think with digital cables it's not as significant as other interconnects and speaker cables. The best way is to find a local dealer Or over the Internet /phone who would lend you a few wires to test in a system. If u have a decent quality system you would be able to tell and enjoy the difference. If you have a mass market crap system ud never get anything highend sound good. A baseline higheend system that is not significantly compromised like bestbuy,Bose,sears products is what's needed. A lot of people who claim digital(cd players) or cables make no differance are in the mass market products looking for cheap stuff. A true high end sound should be void of a pre conception of how much something costs or should cost. Of course there are budgets to stay with in. But to credit or discredit something that's cheap or pricy is not audio sound evaluation. Example cnet is a great site for some electronics but they limit themselves. Manyother well known brands or products are not even in their lists. I think they cater mass market really well and do a good job but there is better stuff out there. Test it urself after u find it.

Geickel -- Wed, 09/02/2009 - 13:17

Thanks, Sam.  I currently own a pair of Boston Acoustics VR1 towers (currently powered by a cheap old Kenwood surround receiver).  I got them because they retailed at $300/each and I found them for $100/each.  Because I have never gotten to spend any time with any "high-end" speakers, I have no basis for comparison; and since I'm powering them with a cheap amp, I'm sure I'm losing a lot before the sound ever reaches the speakers.  I know that Chris Martens reviewed the Boston Acoustics MCS130 a while back.  That's the only budget BA stuff I've ever seen reviewed by TAS, but I don't know if they skipped the VR1s because they could tell that it was not worth reviewing after a brief listen or they simply didn't have time, or they know that there are better speakers in the same price range.  TAS did an article a while back...I think it was "Six Affordable Hi-Fi Systems" or something like that, and the most affordable system consisted of NAD, PSB, and OPPO, which I've always heard are great for audiophiles on a budget.  I'm currently looking forward to the new PSB T5 and T6 reviews, as well as the Alpha (when PSB updates them), but I think I am going to look into the OPPO BDP-83 and an NAD integrated amp before I consider new speakers...Wow, where did that come from?  Talk about a tangent...I did want to point out that Best Buy has its Magnolia Home Theater in select stores, and they seem to carry some of the "high-end" brand names, although, from my own experience, they don't seem to know much about the stuff they sell.  Couple of other things:  Steve Guttenburg, who writes for AVGuide.com, also has his own blog on CNET, called the Audiophiliac.  Also, CNET's editor-in-chief of their television department, David Katzmaier, has, I believe, written articles and reviews on other high-end websites, if not this one.  That department uses "cheap" HDMI cables to test televions for reviewing, proving how strongly they believe that "cheap" cables are just as good.  Now, that's just for video, and I'm asking about audio over HDMI (and all digital audio cables), but I believe it's a valid question worth asking, since people like him are pushing cheap HDMIs.  And I think CNET just tends more toward mass market stuff since they cover soooo much, and they know that websites like this have the high-end audio market covered.  Secondly, I understand what the word "cheap" connotates, but that was my piont in placing it within quotation marks.  It is a relative term, and can mean either poorly made or inexpensive, depending on the person.

firedog -- Thu, 09/03/2009 - 03:31

A few points:

1. Most tests of cables are not done with high end systems - so the systems don't have the resolution necessary to show off the differences between various cables. In addition, the listeners often aren't used to listening to high end reproduction - so their ears can't hear the difference. I've read of tests where professional audio reviewers and musicians were able to tell difference between equipment and recordings about 90% of the time.

2. Digital cables: it's not just data bits. A digital cable needs to operate at a very close tolerance to 75 ohms in order to work properly.  Some cheap cables don't - and therefore don't sound good or transfer video well.

3. I'm not advocating $500 per meter cables. But at the least, get a cable you know is well made, and not a nameless off the shelf one.  This goes for both analog and digital cables. Such cables can be  had for $20- $100. Very expensive cables may sound even better, but that's a matter for testing and debate.

Geickel -- Thu, 09/03/2009 - 09:48

Thanks, firedog.  What really started this for me is this:  I am looking into purchasing the Oppo BDP83.  Oppo sells their own cables.  I doubt they make them, but I have a hard time believing that Oppo Digital would sell a product as hailed as the BDP83 (as well as their other products), and send you a crappy cable with it.  But that begged the question, for me at least, "Do all digital cables sound the same?"  What about gold plating, and shielding?  Do those things matter in a digital cable?  Thanks again for your response and knowledge.

firedog -- Thu, 09/03/2009 - 10:03

if you want a good quality inexpensive cable, try bluejeanscable.com

They will make you a cable built to the length and color you want, for a very reasonable price.

Sam -- Wed, 09/02/2009 - 15:53

This is just my personal opinion others could surely dissagree, so take it just as an opinion: I highly recommend going by that "Six affordable systems".  Also,  When you hit the 4 to 5K range system you have entered in the high end area solidly.  If your entire system is under $2000 I would not be too worried about cables.  Cables only fine tune a system they wont magically fix its flaws.  I don't know what your budget is.  If you are really pasionate about this stuff I would recommend setting up at least a $4K to $5K system and it will give you years of pleasure.  I know its a lot of money, you can build it over a year or so......but the sound quality jumps to phenominal levels.... Ex: look into the Magnepan 1.6QR speakers and a suitable amp with a decent CD player...... you will be blown away. IMHO

Paul -- Wed, 09/02/2009 - 23:25

I am amazed that "do cables make a difference" is still debated. Forget the tech spec. Let yours ears decide, not someone else's opinion or commentary. However, before spending a bunch on cables, yes make sure the basic system is working ok and the equipment works as a piece. Buying cables to fix issues does not generally work. Better to fix what is "broken" first (amp, speakers, source, etc.).
Cables can make a good system (good does not mean pricey) better, by transmitting a more pure signal. Generally, the more expensive you go with cables, you will get better quality but as with any upgrade there can be pitfalls. Make sure your dealer will let you return the cables or do a full exchange. I am lucky to have a local dealer who lets me take cables home and test with no money down. If they provide a cleaner and more pure result I will keep them, but if they introduce issues then back they go.
BTW, I have used the $50 HDMI cables and the $150 HDMI cables. No comparison. The cheaper cables have resulted in a washed out color on hi-def, and even less clarity. I use HDMI only for image, not to carry audio. I prefer analog cable in all connections, except to send digital from my DVD, CD changer, and multimedia hard drive to my Cambridge Audio 840C for upconversion, then analog to processor.
I have also gotten quite an improvement in upgrading from the bottom line or two of Audioquest to a level or two up from QED. Not taking a big leap here either. Going from a $50 RCA digital cable to ones in the $150 price range produced huge returns in my system. Removed the grunge and glare that the lower grade cable produced.
My entire system with all sources, amp, receiver, surround setup (but used mostly in 2 channel) plus all upgraded cables and tweaks comes in at less than $10,000, and really sings. You can judge the quality  of your system to some degree by how much you listen. Personally, I can't stop listening, and never have. Music has been my prime hobby for 30+ years and some better cables and the occasional tweak just make it more enjoyable.
Don't let the cable naysayers get you down... Cheers and good luck. Enjoy the music.


Geickel -- Thu, 09/03/2009 - 09:56

Thanks, Paul.  In response to the Great Cable Debate (that's what I'll call it...it's fun), you will always have people asking that question because you will always have people who are just getting into the hobby.  I, however, have known about the debate on this site.  But I've never seen anyone specifically address digital, always analog.  Maybe they have, but I've never seen it.  Your system sounds nice (no pun intended).  Thanks for the info.

stewp -- Thu, 09/03/2009 - 13:19

well, a couple of comments...
Regardless of where you land in the Great Cable Debate, there are a couple of caveats one must take into consideration (just for the record I am "pro" cabling...). I defer to a Stereophile article from some years back. Basically all the designers had some common ground:

  • use a quality mechanical connector
  • use a quality conductor
  • use a quality dielectric
  • look at the quality of the method of fabrication, ie: quality of solder joints, etc

I have used some fairly expensive cabling, and some really cheap cabling. Audio Art cable ( www.audioartcable.com ) is very good, given the relatively low buy-in. Also consider some of the cables sold by Grant Fidelity (www.grantfidelity.com . I have listened to these and they are excellent and not over priced for what you do get. Obviously there are a multitude of cables out there. I would suggest not spending  beyond the quality of your system.
With video cables, seeing is believing. Digital audio cables on the other hand are more difficult to "see", but if an improvement is heard, it is better. How a cable deals with EMI is one area where lots of folks don't consider. Another is in the possible impedance mismatches that can occur and create a reflection of the incident signal.
Hope that helps.

ambroseangle -- Mon, 09/24/2012 - 06:41

I bought the HDMI cables in discount for very cheap price which I didn't estimated any time.  No problem existed from then to now and the quality is also fine. The Cable that we are choosing should be able to provide us the better quality picture with total clarity and with fine volume. I used to download movies and games frequently and works more than eight hours daily. There is no problem and  data loss existed. Could you please provide some more attachments about the best cables?
 hdmi cable

Keladrin -- Mon, 09/24/2012 - 10:46

Hi Geickel
'I have read in several articles on websites (including CNET and Popular Mechanics) that conclude that there is no difference between "high-end" HDMI cables and "non-high-end" HDMI (and digital in general) cables.  I have always been under the impression (and it seems logical) that the quality of an analog cable matters, but since digital cables are only passing along the ones and zeros of digital information, these conclusions make sense.  As long as the digital cable is structurally sound, I would think that's all that matters.  However, I have no experience with different digital cables, and so have never tried to spot the difference.  I really would like to hear from the editors on this, as well as anyone who has experience with testing this claim.'

Well you will get two distinct answers on this: 
1. from reputable and independent test bodies like CNET, Popular Mechanics, Audio Critic, Independent white papers as well as the Audio Engineering Society (which is 100% respected amongst audio design engineers and anyone serious about the reality behind audio). The UK consumer TV show The Gadget Show tested a wide range of HDMI leads, for instance and, you guessed it, no difference at all in reality.

2. The other answer you will get from people who claim they can hear differences, people influenced by the marketing pseudo-science on websites and biased information in commercial audio reviews and audio retailers (who make a living out of selling snake-oil). If you read bewteen the lines this is an empty argument as it refuted by any serious trials out there.

I can tell you which is the correct path to follow - it's 1 believe it or not, and it doesnt take any kind of expert to realise this (the other is an empty argument as it always comes down to the Golden Ear 'I can hear it' argument, which really is no argument at all as it can never be backed up with real evidence. Reputable (real) science will tell you that for all intents and purposes (considering the magnitude of variables) there will be no audible affect of the audio cable, digital or not. There is some argument for purposely contrived speaker cable designs to make a difference (generally for the worse) in speaker wire but even this argument dissapears for digital. There is also the power conditioner and equipment rack lie, both of which are well known scams to those not taken in by the highly dubious anti-science on the usual websites.

The path to audio heaven is actually alot easier (and cheaper) than alot of people want you to think. For a start forget audio bolt-on products like cables and peripherals alotogether    as the business end of hi-fi is the speaker, recording quality (lack of compression and microphone), room acoustics and in rare cases speaker/amp mis-matching (but this is really broad compatibility rather than any exact matching).

Have fun!

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