Audio and video cables may be a place to save

Allentown Morning Call

If you plan to buy a new TV at post-holiday or pre-Super Bowl sales, one of your side concerns will be which audio and video cables to buy.

These cables travel various routes, to and from the TV, cable or satellite box, receiver, DVD player and speakers. The cables create a rat's nest of connections many people don't really understand.

And because hookups are complex, it's natural when choosing cables to fall back on what we know is usually true.

These include "expensive is better," "heavier is better" and "bigger is better." That works for some products but not necessarily for audio and video cables.

Here's a good rule: go for digital over analog when deciding among types of cables. But among brands of cables, feel free to cheap out. That could mean buying a $5 high-definition multimedia interface cable, the best connection for a high-definition TV, instead of a $150 HDMI cable.

Why? Because there's no difference in the quality of sound and picture you get from pricey cables, some experts say. It's true that high-priced cables are high quality, made of good materials with good connections, and they look nice too.

They're probably even more durable. But experts say top-quality cables won't make your TV's picture or sound any better than cheap cables of the same type and gauge.

Buying high-priced digital cables for picture and sound is like buying a $100 printer cord in hopes your computer printouts will be sharper, said Don Lindich, a syndicated technology columnist and creator of Don Lindich's Sound Advice Blog (

For a non-technical example: Buying expensive cables is like using Evian bottled water to flush your toilet. It might be top-quality purified water, but it doesn't flush the bowl any better than tap water, Lindich said. And it's wildly expensive by comparison. Will a top-quality lamp cord finally bring out your bulb's brightness? Will a better cord on your microwave oven cook food faster? No.

Lindich cites his own video system.

"I have a $13,000 television hooked up to a $5,000 video processor with a $5 HDMI cable," he said. "That should say a lot about where my priorities are. If I thought a $200 HDMI cable would make a difference, I would have no trouble spending the money."

Consumer Reports has written such things as, "Cable prices vary greatly. We've found that expensive premium-brand cables don't offer much advantage over lower-priced cables" and "shielded generic cables ... should be fine and will cost much less."

Monster Cable Products, a leading brand of pricey cables, says it has a high rate of satisfaction among customers.

Ketch Rogers, a product manger for Monster Cable, said premium cables "absolutely" provide a noticeable difference.

He did say, however, that over a short distance people might not notice an improvement with many of today's relatively low-bandwidth signals, even for high-definition television. "Short lengths are relatively easy to have a good connection," he said.

He also touted Monster's customer service and some Monster cables' ability to handle future high-bandwidth video signals as reasons to buy the premium cables.

Arguments about high-priced cables have been long-running ones. Here are some things to think about.-- Connection types.

For best performance, go with the best "type" of connection your components can handle. The lowest quality is connecting components with coaxial cable, the ubiquitous cable or satellite TV wire that probably comes out of your wall. It carries both audio and video. The highest-quality cable, HDMI, also carries audio and video, although your cable box or audio-video receiver might not be equipped to handle HDMI.

Between the extremes of coaxial and HDMI are connections that separate audio and video with different cords. Video-connection options include component, S-video and composite. Component uses three connectors and is the best quality of the three. S-video and composite use a single cord, and S-video is the better of the two.

Common audio connections are optical digital audio, which is the highest quality, and the lower-quality composite, or RCA, connections with a red and a white connector.

-- Where to buy.

Once you choose a type of cable, don't worry about brands or retailers. For interconnection cables, all you need is shielding from interference and solid connections on each end. At electronics stores, you might find only expensive cables. Discounters such as Wal-Mart and Target often sell reasonably priced cables. Maybe the best combination of price and quality is available at online retailers, such as, where you can purchase a 6-foot HDMI cable for $5.24 plus shipping.

-- All or nothing.

It's difficult to be absolute about anything, but digital connections come close. A cable either delivers the digital signal or it doesn't. There's no signal-quality preservation or enhancement along the way.

"You're either going to have serious problems with your picture, or it's going to be perfect," Lindich said.

-- The 10 percent rule.

A long-standing rule of thumb is to reserve 10 percent of the entire cost of your audio-video setup for cables. It should be far less than that.

"Hundreds of dollars wasted on expensive wires and cables could be spent on better speakers, better speaker stands, room treatments to improve the acoustics of your listening area and a multitude of other things that will make a real, not imagined, difference in your system," Lindich wrote in his blog. "Spending 10 percent of your system on cables is ridiculous," he said.

-- Speaker wire.

For speaker-wire runs of 50 feet or less, 16-gauge electrical wire is all you need for most speakers. Gauge matters; brand does not.

-- In-wall installation.

You can't totally cheap out on cables and speaker wire running inside of walls. In many areas, building codes will require the wire to be rated for "in-wall use," a feature easily found on cable packaging or retail displays.

Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune Co. newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at

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