You've probably heard that expensive HDMI cables aren't worth the money, because all cables provide the same digital signal. And while part of that is true—expensive cables aren't necessarily better than cheap ones—it's not quite as simple as "any cable will do," particularly when it comes to modern game systems.
What Happens When You Use the Wrong Cable
"The whole scenario about 'all cables are the same' is not completely accurate," explains Brad Bramy, vice president of marketing at HDM Licensing Administrator (HDMI LA)—the agent that licenses the HDMI specification to manufacturers. First, there are differences in build quality. One cable could withstand sharp bends better than another, for example, or hold up to more abuse over time. He does agree, though, that price isn't always an indicator of that quality. "You can have an inexpensive cable that isn't cheaply made, and sometimes the most expensive cable isn't the best," he explains. If a cable seems too cheap to be true, though, it might be—so shop diligently, as you would for any other product.
But there's more to the story, especially when it comes to gaming. Different cables have different speed ratings that determine what they're capable of. While a lot depends on the HDMI spec present in your TV and receiver or soundbar—with HDMI 2.1 offering the latest and greatest gaming features—the cable also makes a difference. And if you're just using a random cable you found in your closet, you might experience issues with your modern game consoles.
It isn't quite as simple as "picture or no picture," either. Bandwidth issues can manifest in discoloration, flickering, or "sparkles" in the picture—not to mention audio dropouts or other quirks. Sometimes it's obvious. Sometimes you might not notice it right away, but when you do, your first instinct may be to dig through your TV's settings, futz with your game console, or throw your controller at the wall in frustration. And while you should definitely double-check your settings, you should also double-check your cable—something most people put too far down the list of concerns. You don't need to buy a $100 cable filled with gold and wizard's magic, but you do need the right cable for the job.
Modern Gaming Requires More Bandwidth
None of this was a huge concern through the 2010s because most HDMI cables sold were future-proof enough to handle what you threw at them. But in the past few years, as more people have moved toward 4K, HDR, and high-frame-rate gaming, things got a little more complicated. The more pixels you push, and the more often you push them, the more bandwidth you need along the entire signal chain.
So when you shop, look for a speed rating that matches what you're using the cable for. Here are the current ratings approved by the HDMI LA:
- Standard HDMI: One of the earliest HDMI designations, standard HDMI cables are capable of 4.95 Gbps, which is only guaranteed for 1080i or 720p video. You're unlikely to find these in a store today, but you may have one in the bottom of your big box o' random cables if you've been in the game long enough.
- High Speed HDMI: High Speed HDMI cables are much more common, thanks to their prevalence over the past decade and their future-proof nature at the time—their 10.2-Gbps bandwidth was ready to push 1080p at 60 Hz or 4K at 30 Hz. That means this old cable can play a 4K Blu-ray at 24 frames per second without a problem. But if you try to game at 4K with one, you might start running into issues.
- Premium High Speed HDMI: Premium High Speed HDMI, with a bandwidth of 18 Gbps, was the recommended standard for gaming on 4K-capable consoles like the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, since these cables can handle 4K video at 60 frames per second.
- Ultra High Speed HDMI: The latest standard, Ultra High Speed HDMI, was designed for HDMI 2.1, with a bandwidth of 48 Gbps capable of pushing 8K at 60 Hz, 4K at 120 Hz, and all the other next-gen gaming features you could want.
Even more confusingly, some cables may say they're High Speed—no "Premium" label in the title—but list the Premium bandwidth of 18 Gbps in their specs. Or, more annoyingly, some cables may try to sneak words like "ultra" into the description even though their cable isn't rated for that bandwidth. "The official name of the cable is 'Ultra High Speed HDMI,'" explains Bramy, "but we can't control the word 'Ultra,' so if someone wants to call their cable 'Ultra Speed' or 'Ultra 2000,' we can't do anything." You can see how things get confusing, especially if you're looking to game on a cutting-edge console or PC.
How to Shop for a Quality HDMI Cable (Without Spending a Ton)
If all of the above seems alarmist, don't worry: It's actually quite easy if you know what to look for. Your best bet, if possible, is to use the cable that came with your new game console. Those are designed specifically to handle all of that console's capabilities, and they are less likely to cause problems than the random cable you pulled out of a drawer.
That isn't always an option, though. Maybe you lost the cable that came with it, or you need a longer one than was provided. In addition, runs over 25 or 50 feet may require an active cable, and if you're running it behind a mounted TV, you'll need a cable rated for in-wall use. In those cases, you'll need to shop for yourself.
To start, narrow your search using the speed ratings above. Look specifically for speed ratings like "48 Gbps" in addition to the official name, like "Ultra High Speed HDMI." That should improve your chances, but with so many manufacturers on the market, Bramy notes that low-quality cables can still slip through. That's why he recommends looking for the Certification label on Premium High Speed and Ultra High Speed HDMI cables—it's a small badge with a QR code and a hologram.
This label is designed to be counterfeit-proof, and you can only scan it with the HDMI LA's proprietary app for iOS and Android (since normal scanners can't detect the hologram). So look for the word "Certified" in the product description and a picture of that badge in the listing. Then, when you actually get the physical product, scan the QR code to ensure it's authentic. The HDMI Licensing Administrator audits off-the-shelf products regularly, so if you buy a product they've approved, you can be a bit more confident the cable can push all those frames without a hitch.