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This Is Why Many “Special” 4K HDR HDMI Cable Features Are Basically a Scam

by on October 5, 2017
 

Stephan Jukic – October 5, 2017

The HDMI cable selling business is cutthroat competitive and manufacturers are, to say the least, not shy about touting just how awesome their own specific brands will be in giving you the “best” possible experience at using their specific premium cables for your 4K or HDR content needs. In many cases, these cables also sell for higher than standard prices as a result of their supposedly unique specs.

Fortunately for you the consumer, most of the hype about how you need special cables for new cutting edge offerings of 4K Dolby Vision or HDR10 high dynamic range content are heavily smeared in bullshit. The reality is that, despite many popular claims to the contrary, most current HDMI cables are just fine for all modern content types and will continue to be so for some time.

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Before we explain why, here are some probably familiar scenarios:

One major example of how the above can have an effect is Apple’s recent launch of their Apple TV 4K set-top download and streaming box. Since the new Apple TV is the first ever set-top streamer to support HDR in the advanced Dolby Vision format and because it has to connect to your 4K TV via HDMI connection, some manufacturers like Belkin (and others) are now pushing new HDMI cables that they specifically promote for their compatibility with the Dolby Vision HDR standard. Naturally enough, these cables aren’t exactly cheap, with a 6 foot length running at roughly $30. In comparison to a generic “normal” high-speed HDMI cable that sells for between $6 and $10 for the same length, this is quite a price premium.

The same goes for other Dolby Vision and HDR-capable entertainment devices as well. Most of today’s 4K UHD Blu-ray players are at least HDR10-compatible and some premium models such as the Oppo UDP-203 player also support the superior Dolby Vision format. In other cases, we have new gaming consoles with streaming media technology, full 4K resolution support and the now pretty much obligatory HDR support that all newer 4K TVs are designed to display. For all of these, HDMI manufacturers tout their priciest cables as the best possible choice by insinuating (but not outright stating) that only these much more expensive cables will deliver the full range of high dynamic range features that such devices can deliver to a 4K HDR TV. Since many people who find themselves faced with the choice of these cables have already spent several hundred or even thousands of dollars on a 4K HDR TV and at least a couple hundred bucks on an external media device, the $30 or in some cases even much pricier “special” HDMI cables don’t seem so unreasonable.

The truth however is that such cables are actually almost guaranteed to be a pointless extra cost that can be easily substituted for cheaper variants which will perform exactly as well.

The Basics

Quite simply, HDMI connectivity works on a dumb pipe basis. In other words, as long as the pipe is big enough for everything you want it to squeeze through, it will transmit that data perfectly, and if it doesn’t, then the cable is more likely than not simply defective. Any failure of a cable to handle the information you’re trying to put through it will result in that information being completely absent. Defectiveness will probably mean catastrophic things like a complete failure of video transmission or massive interference that causes severe visual defects such as “sparkles”, which you can see in the image below.

HDMI connection failure sparkle

Again, the thing here is that these failures of any video throughput from any source to a 4K TV of any newer kind are extremely unlikely in any cable that isn’t simply outright defective for some reason. This possibility aside, an HDMI cable only needs to be of the modern, highly standardized High-speed variety to support any 4K video transmission to move through HDMI at a full potential speed of 60Hz with support for all associated standard modern HDMI standards of 48bit/px color depth, HDCP 2.2 and HEVC support, and support for all HDMI connectivity ports right up to the still very new and infrequently encountered HDMI 2.0b standard (most 4K TVs even for 2017 still support up to HDMI 2.0a in their HDMI ports). The above basics of modern High-Speed HDMI cables include capacity for high dynamic range video formats as well by default.

The above essentially means that these cables support both HDR10 and the more advanced, visually spectacular Dolby Vision standard. Furthermore, as newer HDR formats like HDR10+ or any possible update to Dolby Vision hit the content/display market in the next year, they too should flow through all newer HDMI cables just fine as well. In fact, HDR doesn’t even really need a great deal of bandwidth to pass between a TV and any device, so allowing it in any HDMI cable is actually quite a bit simpler than was allowing 4K UHD signals themselves at 60Hz.

Thus, one more time because it’s worth remembering firmly, any modern HDMI cable is essentially just a dumb pipe that either allows data to flow perfectly or doesn’t because it’s broken, not because it’s lacking any “special” features such as those touted by some disingenuous manufacturers. As long as your HDMI pipe is wide enough for high-speed connectivity, it’s almost certainly wide enough for all modern 4K content requirements.

What You Really Need for HDR, 4K Video and Dolby Vision

The major thing to bear in mind in relation to the above explanation is that virtually all HDMI cables sold even for fairly low prices by numerous manufacturers offer High-Speed connectivity. These are sometimes also called “premium-certified” cables but the basic point is that they all offer the full range of data through-puts we described above. This doesn’t guarantee that any cable will absolutely work for your video signals but buying it, testing it and seeing that the content types you wanted delivered, with or without Dolby Vision, HDR10 and 4K@60Hz support, reach your TV smoothly pretty much means that everything is in order, as long as the content you’re watching is HDR mastered and the TV you’re watching it on is capable of displaying the high dynamic range formats or 4K resolution you want from said content.

Dolby Vision 4K HDR visuals

Dolby Vision 4K HDR visuals

Thus, for your next HDMI cable purchase, the number of options is much more varied and highly affordable than some advertising would have you believe. There is no need for special $30 or more prices for even small 6 foot cable lengths. Instead, just go for whatever brand of cable offers a good price and claims to support high-speed connectivity (as most HDMI cables now do). Some examples: Amazon sells a “Basics” 6-foot length of HDMI cable which “meets the latest HDMI standards” (4K@60Hz, full color depth, HDR support and bandwidths of up to 18Gbps). The price of this cable? Just $7. Or you could go for a lengthy 15 foot “Premium Certified” HDMI cable from the brand Monoprice for just $16 and also be just fine for all your 4K HDR content needs. We ourselves here at 4K.com have used the Amazon Basics high-speed HDMI cable and other cheaper cables with the same specs without any problems in getting the TVs we review and use to display the best of their 4K video with Dolby Vision or HDR10 rendering.

These or any other cables like the above low-priced editions will almost certainly deliver everything you need for your home entertainment system. This is the case even if you’ve splurged on something particularly pricey like a brand new 2017 4K HDR OLED TV with Dolby Vision and all other HDR formats paired with a brand new Dolby-capable 4K Blu-ray player and the latest version of Apple TV 4K with its own Dolby Vision video content.

One Final Note On HDMI PORTS

HDMI 2.0a vs HDMI 1.4

 

The above connectivity basics apply to all 4K HDR capacities inherent to today’s high-speed HDMI cables. They do not necessarily apply to HDMI ports on devices. While all newer 2015, 2016 and 2017 4K TVs almost universally support full 4K content passthrough at 60Hz with all accompanying HDR format mastering that the content might have, some older TV ports are only of the HDMI 1.4 variety, which doesn’t support 4K at 60Hz or some types of HDR at the connectivity end of things. This applies to some streaming media devices as well. One notable example is the older (and now recently replaced) Amazon Fire TV 4K set-top box, which never came with HDMI 2.0a connectivity. In these cases, even the best HDMI cables won’t have any effect on what your devices themselves can or cannot handle.

Story by 4k.com

1 comments
 
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  • Jon Gardner
    October 5, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Interesting article, but you do need to be very careful with this.

    Those of us on AVS Forums, who for a year or so have been working to get 4K/60 4:4:4 to work reliably over “High Speed” cables have had a lot of issues, even over short distances, and definitely over longer ones. The theory that 18Gbps was possible over all “High Speed” certified cables that were only originally designed from ~10Gbps has been pretty much proven false, in practice, over any significant distance. Labelling is atrocious and often simply false. It is that very reason that “premium” certification was added late in the day. Even your comment that the cable either works or it doesn’t is not really true at these speeds. “Sparkles” – flashes of white dots often randomly across the screen due to errors in the data stream – are quite common with a marginal cable.

    One issue for purchasers of new 4K equipment is that they will frequently initially only test with UHD Blu-ray that is almost always 4K/24, which never exceeds 13.4Gbps, even at 4:4:4 and often the player will send 4:2:0 @ ~9Gbps. Then, later, they hook up a Playstation etc. and have problems.

    Here are a couple of AVS Forums threads that discuss the issue and one of them has extensive testing of, admittedly longer, cables showing a lot of failure at the highest speeds:

    http://www.avsforum.com/forum/168-hdmi-q-one-connector-world/2502818-uhd-blu-ray-long-hdmi-cables-what-works.html

    http://www.avsforum.com/forum/168-hdmi-q-one-connector-world/2834097-test-reports-hdmi-cables-properly-reliably-support-18gbps-hdmi-2-0b.html

    Personally, if someone is not able and sufficiently knowledgeable to test at a GUARANTEED 18Gbps I would recommend people go for a good value Premium Certified cable, such as the Monoprice ones you mention, over any High Speed cable. If they can reliably test and prove a High Speed cable in their environment then, of course, good luck to them.

    I am sure the “High Speed” cables are getting better as manufacturing gets perfected and you may well be right that over 1M- 3M most/many high speed cables will now work fine, but over longer distances spending on “Premium Certified” cables, many of which are now fiber optic is a good investment for hassle free installation, especially if cable is going in the wall.

    I’m totally with you if you are talking about “exotic” cables that claim “better picture quality” and alike. That is all nonsense. But 18Gbps is challenging and investing in a cable that is properly certified at 18Gbps could save a lot of problems down the road.

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