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Monday, April 22, 2024

4K HDMI cables (are nonsense)

We’re well into the transition to Ultra HD “4K.” Most mid- and high-end TVs are now Ultra HD resolution, with many also supporting HDR. Not surprisingly, cable manufacturers are jumping at the chance to sell new and more expensive “4K” HDMI cables.

But guess what — you probably don’t need 4K HDMI cables, because your current ones can likely do 4K just fine. Seriously.

In case you missed the previous tetralogy on HDMI cables, check out Why all HDMI cables are the same, Why all HDMI cables are the same, Part 2, Still more reasons why all HDMI cables are the same, and the HDMI Cable Buying Guide. – It’s also worth mentioning there’s a new version of HDMI that has come out since this article was first written, it’s called HDMI 2.1, and I’ll mention the details below.

You’d think I’d have said my piece by now, but apparently not. So here’s the short version: There are only four kinds of HDMI cables for the home:

  • High-speed with Ethernet
  • High-speed without Ethernet
  • Standard-speed with Ethernet
  • Standard-speed without Ethernet

There’s no reason to get standard-speed cables anymore, as the price difference is negligible between those and the high-speed versions. There’s also no real reason to get cables with Ethernet, since nothing uses that, and probably nothing ever will.

So that leaves High-speed HDMI cables… which haven’t changed much in years. It’s important to remember, there’s no such thing as HDMI cable “versions.” There’s no such thing as a “HDMI 2.0 cable.” The version numbers refer to the HDMI connections in your gear. Which is to say, your TV can have HDMI 2.0 inputs, but your HDMI cable is just an HDMI cable. Any High-speed will do. So even if you bought a High-speed cable when all your gear was 1080p and HDMI 1.4, it will probably work now with 4K HDR and HDMI 2.0a gear.

Probably. Check out HDMI 2.1 and Do you need new HDMI cables for HDR? for some nit-picking specifics.

Not just theory

This isn’t just numbers on a page, or theoretical knowledge. I reviewed one of the first 4K TVs and plugged in a $2.50 HDMI cable between it and a 4K source. Guess what? It worked perfectly. So do the cheap HDMI cables Senior Editor David Katzmaier uses in his reviews. I’ve also used a 40-foot HDMI cable (with RedMere) that worked perfectly.

The vast majority of 4k content is 3,840×2,160/24, i.e. 4K at 24 frames per second, and will be for the foreseeable future. This is because nearly all 4K content right now is either TV or movies, and these are nearly all 24fps. Yes, we could see some higher framerate content in the future, like sports, but this is a long way away from being common.

Which is to say, over short distances, most HDMI cables can handle current 4K content, even when you throw in the extra data for HDR.

The exception is if you’re a gamer. PC gamers have had 4K gaming for several years, and the latest version of both consoles can output 4K. However, it’s still worth checking if your current cables can handle the extra bandwidth. Though the resolution is the same as a 4K movie, the extra frames per second mean a lot of extra data over the same “pipe.”

With any resolution, keep in mind that if you’re getting a 4K signal, it’s not possible for a different cable to make that 4K look better. The only differences in cables is one will allow you to get a stable, 4K image, and another one won’t. If it drops out, or has sparkles, the cable can’t handle what you’re trying to send over it. If it looks right, and you’re getting the resolution you want (i.e. 4K from your PS4 Pro), then it’s perfect. There’s no “partial 4K” or “better colors” or any such nonsense with different cables. That’s not how HDMI works.

A caveat

Just because a cable is called High-speed, it doesn’t mean it actually is. Some cheap HDMI cable manufacturers might just throw the label on a cable that can’t actually handle the data or that can’t handle the data over long distances. In this case, the cable won’t work with 4K (this is true with 1080p as well, btw). This does not mean that all cheap HDMI cables don’t work with 4K; it only means that cheap HDMI cable doesn’t work with 4K. Get a different brand of HDMI cable, at the same price, and it will likely work.

If you’re the type of person that doesn’t want to think about it, and doesn’t mind spending slightly more, consider Premium Certified HDMI cables. They cost slightly more than non-certified, but they’re tested to work with the heavy bandwidth required of 4K HDR content. The difference in price isn’t massive. You can still get cheap HDMI cables that are Premium Certified, they’re just not quite as cheap as the cheapest options. You don’t need to buy these, mind you, but if you just want to buy one thing and not think about it, that’s your best option.

Update 1/2017: A new version of the HDMI spec has come out, called HDMI 2.1. For most people it’s way beyond what they’ll need at home, but there are some new features and a new cable type that’s good info to know.

Bottom line

You probably don’t need new HDMI cables. You absolutely don’t need to spend a lot of money on new cables. Even if your current cables don’t work for 4K, different cheap HDMI cables will work. Both Amazon and Monoprice (and others) offer inexpensive HDMI cables that are rated to work with 4K.

If you’re doing something like 2160p/60Hz gaming (0r beyond, with HDMI 2.1), then you might need to pay a little extra, but for most people regular cables will be fine.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he’s written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED, why 4K TVs aren’t worth it and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his sci-fi novel and its sequel.

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