Audio And Video Cables

Written by Serena Berger
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If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you pop a CD into your media player and there aren't cables connecting it to a receiver and speakers, is music being played? Zen pondering aside, the answer is yes to both questions. But how much good does that do you? Not much.

Cables are as Important as the Rest of Your Audio and Video Equipment

Audio and videophiles save up thousands of dollars to get the DVD and CD players they want, the HD-ready widescreen plasma TVs, or perhaps the Harman Kardon 7.1 channel surround sound speaker system or the Onkyo receiver they've determined produces their ideal soundscape. Ask an average music or television fan his favorite brand for a major component in a home theater system or audio dream system, and he'll probably have an answer. Ask him his favorite brand of S-video cables, however, and he'll probably have no idea.

In fact, people are often confused--or even angry--when a retailer suggests that they add one or two hundred dollars to the price of their home theater system to buy cables. The components come with cables--shouldn't that cable suffice? The retailer sent out a brochure listing a sale price for this speaker system--shouldn't you end up spending that amount when you come to buy the system? If you don't buy the better cables, you'll use the ones provided and never know how much better they could have been. If you buy the better cables, you'll never know how much better they are than the alternative.

Cables have the unfortunate position of never being appreciated for their attributes, but being immediately and evidently to blame when they are loose or faulty. Understandably, you do not want to trust a retailer who probably sells only one brand of high end cables and seems to push them on everyone who makes a purchase. What you do want is to understand why high end cables really are worth the price, and what makes them different from their free counterparts.

Five Attributes of Quality Audio and Video Cables

First, quality cables have quality connectors. No matter what's happening in the receiver and through the length of the cable, it can all be for naught if the connection between the cable and the input and output jacks is not snug. A good connector has the maximum surface area possible, and will touch the jack around all 360 degrees. If you shake the cable, the connector will not move at all within the jack. This means you will not get static from a lack of contact between source, cable, and destination.

Conductivity is the next crucial attribute of quality cable. Silver and high-grade copper are the metals used in most high end cables. Free cables almost never use these metals. In addition to the natural ability of a particular metal to conduct electricity (and therefore carry the signal), thickness is important. Smaller guage (thicker wire) conducts more electricity and allows your system to perform better.

The Importance of Noise Shielding

Noise Shielding keeps your cables from picking up signals in addition to the ones you want. If your cable is made from a powerful conductor, it will pick up any electrical signals in the vicinity unless effective noise shielding keeps it from doing so. Power cords are a huge culprit here, but other wires' signals and even radio broadcasts can interfere and make your sound fuzzy. Often, the noise shield is another piece of metal wrapped around the cable but not connected to the connectors. That way, it can pick up "noise," keep it away from your cables, and not send it to the destination. In cheap cables, the noise shield does double duty, and is supposed to carry some of the desired signals as well as the noise. It should be evident even if you don't have a degree in physics that no good can come of this. In high end cables, the noise shield is not connected to the signal path at any point.

High end cables also possess a trait known as balanced construction. Electrical signals have two charges (or halves)--a positive and a negative. Both of these are of equal importance, but come cheap cables use two different metals to carry the oppositely charged portions of the signal. This is typically related to the aforementioned case of using a noise shield which also carries part of the signal you want--usually the signal it carries is the negatively charged half of the desired signal. Balanced construction means that all aspects of the signal are given equal importance and thus an equal chance of reaching the speakers.

Last, but certainly not least, evaluate your cables with respect to time correction. Sound waves travel through the air at the same rate, but while they are electrical signals traveling along a wire, different sounds travel at different rates. High sounds can move more quickly than low sounds, which means that they would get to the speaker before the low sounds with which they are supposed to be in synch. The longer the cables, the more you might be aware of this problem. High end cables can slow down the high pitches as they travel, ensuring that they reach the speakers at the same time as the low sounds. What you ultimately hear will be much crisper and clearer if your cables provide time correction.


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