Is There a Difference in HDMI Cables? Sort of, but Not Really

There's no such thing as HDMI Cable versions and other myths you should know

HDMI cables have looked the same for the near-20-years they've been available, but their performance and features have changed drastically over that time. Although cable companies have, for many years, tried to sell potential buyers on the benefits of overpaying for higher quality or higher speed cables, there isn't much in it, especially today.

HDMI cables have evolved over the generations, but today even the most capable of them are backward compatible and barely more expensive than their predecessors. That means there's little point in restricting yourself, especially if you're looking to connect mainstream consumer devices to a consumer display, like a TV.

There are some different HDMI cables out there, though, which can affect your setup.

HDMI Cable Types

In the past, there were multiple categories of HDMI cables. Category 1 cables could offer 720p or 1080i resolutions at up to 60Hz, while Category 2 cables could handle 1080p at 60 FPS or 4K at 30 FPS. Those were later renamed to Standard HDMI and High-Speed HDMI, respectively. There were also specific versions of those cables that supported Ethernet over HDMI too.

However, in 2021, you can throw all of that out the window. There are only three main types of HDMI cable you need to consider:

  • HDMI 2.0: Often marketed as 4K-ready or a 4K HDMI cable. They support the full 18Gbps bandwidth of the HDMI 2.0 specification and can support 4K resolution up to 60Hz, or 1080p up to 240Hz. Its official name is Premium High-Speed HDMI cable, and it's entirely backward compatible with every generation of HDMI ports that came before. It also supports the audio return channel (ARC) technology.
  • HDMI 2.0 with Ethernet: identical specifications to standard HDMI 2.0 cables, except with the addition of Ethernet over HDMI support.
  • HDMI 2.1: Often marketed as 8K ready, or an 8K HDMI cable, it supports the full HDMI 2.1 bandwidth of 48Gbps, making it capable of transmitting 4K at 120Hz, as well as 5K, 8K, and 10K resolutions (some with Display Stream Compression, or DSC). It has built-in Ethernet functionality, supports the more capable eARC technology, and is backward compatible with every previous generation of HDMI port.

HDMI 2.1 connectors and therefore cables are seeing greater support among modern televisions, particularly high-end 4K models, which support higher refresh rates. They're also mandatory for new-generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony to take advantage of high frame rates and resolution support and be a connector option on graphics cards from both Nvidia's RTX 3000 and AMD's RX 6000 ranges.

Prices are almost identical between HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 2.1, although you can save a couple of dollars by opting for the older standard if you have no benefit from the additional bandwidth of HDMI 2.1.

Active vs Passive

If you need a particularly long HDMI cable, you need to consider whether you should buy an active HDMI cable instead of a traditional passive one. Most HDMI cables are passive, which means they lack active signal boosting and are reversible. Active HDMI cables have specific source and output ends and can operate at far greater lengths without signal degradation.

Modern passive HDMI 2.1 cables can only extend to around 10ft before they run into trouble. An active 2.1 connection, however, can extend to 75ft without difficulty.

Do note, however, that active HDMI cables are vastly more expensive.

  • How can I tell the difference in HDMI cables?

    If you have access to the cable packaging, look for labels that tell you which HDMI versions they work best with, such as Premium High-Speed (for HDMI 2.0). Most HDMI cables have two Type-A connectors that fit into HDMI ports in TVs, monitors, set-top boxes, and more. If you see smaller connectors on one end, the cable could be specific to devices such as digital cameras or projectors.

  • What is the difference between HDMI 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 cables?

    HDMI 1.4 cables are called High-Speed HDMI cables and work with the older HDMI 1.4 version, which first came out in 2009. HDMI 1.4 cables support 4K video at 30Hz frame rates. HDMI 2.0 versions (including HDMI 2.0, HDMI 2.0, and HDMI 2.0b) came out after HDMI 1.4 and use Premium High-Speed cables for much wider 4K resolution and HDR support.

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