March 02, 2007
HDMI and error correction (do your cables make a difference? v2)

Gregory from HT Custom Cables mailed me last night with information missing from my gold-plated HDMI cable rant:

Agreed all digital cables transmit o's and 1's, not true that it works or doesn't work. As unlike compter data there is no error checking on HDMI so errors occur in the bitstream which are never corrected. In computer cables lots of errors occur because o's get changed to 1's (and vice versa) along the cable as a result of interference, howevere error checking ensures these are corrected. When you plug in the $20 and the $100 cables there will generally be 5-10% difference in quality as a result. Not much but for some people worth the spend.
The authors over at Blue Jeans Cable seem to back this up:
It is often supposed by writers on this subject that "digital is better." Digital signal transfer, it is assumed, is error-free, while analog signals are always subject to some amount of degradation and information loss. There is an element of truth to this argument, but it tends to fly in the face of real-world considerations. First, there is no reason why any perceptible degradation of an analog component video signal should occur even over rather substantial distances; the maximum runs in home theater installations do not present a challenge for analog cabling built to professional standards. Second, it is a flawed assumption to suppose that digital signal handling is always error-free. DVI and HDMI signals aren't subject to error correction; once information is lost, it's lost for good. That is not a consideration with well-made cable over short distances, but can easily become a factor at distance.
[...]
As a general rule, with consumer equipment, one simply doesn't know how signals are processed, and one doesn't know how that processing varies by input. Analog and digital inputs must either be scaled through separate circuits, or one must be converted to the other to use the same scaler. How is that done? In general, you won't find an answer to that anywhere in your instruction manual, and even if you did, it'd be hard to judge which is the better scaler without viewing the actual video output. It's fair to say, in general, that even in very high-end consumer gear, the quality of circuits for signal processing and scaling is quite variable.
[...]
Cable quality, in general, should not be a significant factor in the DVI/HDMI versus Component Video comparison, as long as the cables in question are of high quality. There are, however, ways in which cable quality issues can come into play.

Analog component video is an extremely robust signal type; we have had our customers run analog component, without any need for boosters, relays or other special equipment, up to 200 feet without any signal quality issues at all. However, at long lengths, cable quality can be a consideration--in particular, impedance needs to be strictly controlled to a tight tolerance (ideally, 75 +/- 1.5 ohms) to prevent problems with signal reflection which can cause ghosting or ringing.

DVI and HDMI, unfortunately, are not so robust. The problem here is the same as the virtue of analog component: tight control over impedance. When the professional video industry went to digital signals, it settled upon a standard--SDI, serial digital video--which was designed to be run in coaxial cables, where impedance can be controlled very tightly, and consequently, uncompressed, full-blown HD signals can be run hundreds of feet with no loss of information in SDI. For reasons known only to the designers of the DVI and HDMI standards, this very sound design principle was ignored; instead of coaxial cable, the DVI and HDMI signals are run balanced, through twisted-pair cable. The best twisted pair cables control impedance to about +/- 10%. When a digital signal is run through a cable, the edges of the bits (represented by sudden transitions in voltage) round off, and the rounding increases dramatically with distance. Meanwhile, poor control over impedance results in signal reflections--portions of the signal bounce off of the display end of the line, propagate back down the cable, and return, interfering with later information in the same bitstream. At some point, the data become unrecoverable, and with no error correction available, there's no way to restore the lost information.
This 'cliff effect' makes sense: digital signals can deteriorate slightly in poor cabling over long distances, and the message, rather than buy the cheapest possible HDMI cables, is that "your mileage may vary" and it can be worth doing some testing before buying...

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