The Digital Delusion

Lovely story on Quentin’s Blog:

The general population really doesn’t understand digital technology. And it’s costing them money.

This was brought home to me last weekend while helping a friend choose a new TV. In the local shop, I noticed a variety of HDMI cables for sale. Now HDMI, for those of you not familiar with it, is quite a nice standard. It provides digital video and digital audio down a single compact and convenient connection. Much neater than the bulky DVI, VGA, SCART etc which preceded it.

However, notice that it’s a digital standard. This means that, subject to major failures, what goes in at one end ought to come out at the other. Why, then, does the store sell a variety of cables of different qualities and prices? In the days of analog connections, there was something to be said for low-impedance connections and for careful screening. Who knows, those articles in the hi-fi press extolling the virtues of gold plugs and low-oxygen copper cables might even have had something to them.

But in the digital world, if you put ones and zeros in one end of a cable and don’t get something recognisable as ones and zeros at the other, you don’t get a slightly worse picture or sound. You get complete breakdown, and major image or sound corruption. A cable which does that should not be sold at a cheaper price; it shouldn’t be sold at all. Better-quality cabling will allow things to work over greater distances, but for the average user with a DVD player under his TV, it will make no difference at all.

For example, my (quite expensive) CD player is connected to my (quite expensive) amplifier through a digital COAX connection. I use a single phono-phono cable I bought for about $1 in a Radio Shack sale. And the sound is perfect.

So I asked the nice man in the shop about the fact that they sold a modest-length HDMI cable for over £100 just beside the one for £15 (which, incidentally, probably costs less than a dollar to make).

“Oh yes”, he said, “it does have an effect. We had a customer do a side-by-side test just recently and he could see a difference. He bought the more expensive cable.”