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So you’ve just bought a high-def home theater system. You get it home, plug it in with the included cables, and you’re set, right? Not so fast. If you’re using poor-quality cables, like the ones that come in the box with most audio/video gear, you could be throttling your system’s performance.

Think of it this way: if you owned a high-performance sports car, you wouldn’t outfit it with low-end tires — you’d get insufficient traction, poor handling, and increased road noise. You’d lose all the benefits of buying a high-performance car in the first place. In the same way, low-quality cables can rob you of the performance you paid for when you bought your system.

Poorly made cables can allow noise and interference to compromise the signals coming from your source components, resulting in a subpar listening or viewing experience. They generally won’t give you the best-quality connection, and often aren’t built to last. And of course some free cables may simply be too long or too short for your setup, making them less than ideal.

Replacing free “in-the-box” cables with higher-quality ones, or buying a step or two up from the cheapest quality cable you can find, can really make a difference when you’re building a nice audio/video system. You’ll enjoy more realistic sound and a clearer picture when your system isn’t hampered by weak links. So in this article, we’ll give you the information you need to choose the right type of connection for the job, and to find a good, high-quality cable.

What will you be using your cable for?

Finding a cable with all the capabilities that you need, and not one with more features than you’ll use, can really help you optimize your system without breaking your budget. Before choosing a cable, you should ask yourself three questions.

What kind of signal will it need to carry? 

If you’re hooking up an old VCR, then it’s okay to opt for a lower-quality connection. But if you’re connecting a high-def cable box to your HDTV, then you’ll want to go with a high-def-capable cable, like HDMI.

What length do you need? 

Measure the distances between your components to make sure your cables are long enough, especially if your components are shelved in such a way that the rear panels are difficult to access. There should be enough slack to let you pull the component forward and reach the rear panel. However, try to avoid long cable runs, if possible, since it’ll lead to more signal degradation. If you have no other choice than to make a long run, look for cables with a larger wire gauge — as a general rule, it’ll help preserve the signal better.

Any installation considerations? 

If you’re planning to install your cables in your walls, make sure any wire you’re putting behind a wall is UL-rated for that purpose. In most cases you’ll need a cable labeled CL2 or CL3 — Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification means the cable meets safety standards for in-wall installation. Also note that build-quality is especially important here — if you’re installing in-wall wire, you don’t want to go through the trouble and expense of replacing it in a few years time.

Will you be able to see and hear a difference?

It depends. If you have a good- to high-quality system and you know its performance well, then the improvement should be clear. If you’re not that familiar with your system yet, then cable upgrades may be more subtle. But if you’ve ever had to jiggle a loose cable connection to get the picture back on your TV screen, then you already know that having a well-crafted cable with a tight connection and well soldered plugs can really make a difference in the cable’s performance.

And of course, your cable is only as good as the components you’re working with, as well as the type of connection you’re making. For example, a high-quality composite video cable won’t be able to produce the high-def picture that an HDMI cable can. And even a high-quality HDMI cable can’t fix a fuzzy picture if the culprit is a poor signal from your satellite box — the best it can do is carry that signal faithfully. So remember that it’s really all about making every link in the audio and video chain strong.

Anatomy of a cable

Before we dive into all the different types of connections, it’s important to understand what makes up a typical cable. There are five main parts of a cable that affect signal quality:

The outer jacket contains the inner materials and protects the cable from damage.

The shielding material filters out any radio frequency interference (RFI) and electromagnetic interference (EMI)that’s attracted to the conductor and which can cause unwanted noise. It’s frequently composed of more than one layer, like the braid and foil layers pictured above.

The dielectric is an insulating material between the conductor and the shielding material that helps protect the signal.

The conductor is the part of the cable through which the signal actually passes.

And finally, the connector is the part of the cable that actually plugs into your gear. The type of connector varies depending on the type and quality of your components.

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