Basic HDTV Cabling – How To

January 4, 2006

RCA JackEverybody’s probably had the experience of hooking up an antenna or cable coax to a TV, and a lot of people are familiar with the old “yellow-red-white” RCA jack hookups for VCRs and DVD players.

But the first time you start wiring up an HDTV can be a little daunting.

A friend of mine who got a 42″ Plasma for Christmas just e-mailed me and asked me about cabling:

“I have been using my regular video cables to watch my TV (only with Directv, no DVD). Last night I bought component cables and tried to hook the DVD up with my Directv. One problem, no audio. Could you give me a brief explanation of the order in which they should be connected and what cables I need to use?”

Since this is a fairly common place to get stuck, I thought this might be a good opportunity to do a basic introduction to HDTV cabling.

We’re assuming here that you’re hooking up an HDTV to some sort of video and audio source — a set top box from a cable or satellite provider, or a DVD player or even a DVR or game console.

If our programming source provides an HDTV output, then there are probably a variety of ways that you can hook things up.

Here’s the rundown:

You can pretty much always treat the audio and video wiring as separate animals. The exception is that supposedly HDMI can carry both, but since I’ve never seen that work (the source and the display both need to be compatible), we’ll assume that they’re all separate.

Analog Video Wiring

(from worst case to best)

Composite — a single RCA-style connector and cable, usually coded Yellow. This is standard definition, worst picture quality (color and intensity are all carried in a single pair of wires in the cable). See the picture at the top of this post to see what an RCA-style connector looks like.

S-Video (aka SVHS) — a single DIN-style connector and cable (DIN means it has a fat round end with 4 – 8 pins in a grid). This is standard definition, slightly better picture quality (color and intensity are carried on separate pairs of wires in the cable)

Component — Three RCA-style connectors and cables, usually coded Red, Blue, and Green. This is standard or high definition, best picture quality on an analog cable (each color has a separate cable with a pair of wires that carry information just for that color).

RGB (aka VGA) — Essentially the same connector and wiring you’d use to connect a PC to a CRT monitor. Three rows of pins in a “sub-mini” d-shell connector.

Digital Video Wiring

In all of the above the picture is converted (from digital, in the case of satellite, digital cable, DVD, over-the-air (OTA) HD) to analog and sent to the display. In the case of LCD and Plasma, it’s then converted back to digital. This is a “lossy” step, so there are now cabling methods that keep the picture digital all the way.

DVI – A sort of odd looking cable that has three rows of pins, plus a broad horizontal blade at one end, D-shaped, but wider than a VGA connector.

HDMI – A smaller connector, with a “flattened” end roughly half an inch wide.

The picture should be identical on either of these, and in fact you can convert between them with an adapter cable. HDMI can theoretically also carry digital audio, but I’ve never had it happen successfully (there appear to be some standardization issues). HDMI also supports “HDCP” (High Definition Copy Protection) which will at some point probably be required in order to watch some programs.

Analog Audio Wiring

Stereo (RCA Jacks) — a pair of RCA-style connectors and cables, usually coded Red and White, for Right and Left channels.

Stereo (1/8″ submini jack) — essentially the same style jack you see on headphone connectors. Can be converted to/from Stereo RCA jacks with adapters or adapter cables. Seen a lot on computer-oriented gear, less on dedicated video gear.

6 Channel Direct Surround Audio (RCA Jacks) — 6 RCA-style connectors and cables, one each for front left, front right, rear left, rear right, center channel and subwoofer. Color codes are all over the place on this stuff. Lots of variants, including additional cables for 6.1 and 7.1 audio, and cables with one end terminating in speaker wire instead of RCA jacks.

6 Channel Direct Surround Audio (1/8″ submini) — The same as the above, just presented as three pairs of 1/8″ submini stereo jacks (again, like you’d see on headphones). Usually coded black for front channels, green for rear, and yellow for center channel and subwoofer.

Digital Audio Wiring

Digital Audio (Optical) (aka “TOSLINK”) — A single fiber optic cable that carries digital surround information to a receiver that then decodes it and attaches the speakers, etc.

Digital Audio (Coax) — The same as the above, just carried on a (specialized) RCA style cable instead of fiber optics. Can be converted to / from Optical with an adapter.

Buying Cables

The difference in performance between the cheapest cables you can buy and the most expensive is far, far less than the difference in the price between them.

Outside of issues of shear quality — bad solder joints, broken conductors, etc., you’re probably not going to see or hear the difference between a 6 dollar cable and a $60 (or even $600) “high end audiophile/videophile” cable.

In fact, in the case of digital connections (DVI / HDMI / Digital Audio Coax / TOSLINK) there should be no difference, detectable or otherwise; being a digital connection, it will either work or not; it won’t get static or interference.

Unfortunately, the “high end audiophile/videophile” cables are about the only cables some of the consumer electronics shops sell.

If you can stand to wait, you’ll do your wallet a lot of good NOT buying the expensive cables where they sell the TV, and going to a basic electronics shop (Radio Shack used to be good for this, but they’ve got the “monster” bug these days too; if you can’t find a cheap cable there, look for an independent electronics shop) or even your local home improvement warehouse to buy cables.

If you can plan ahead a bit, or wait a bit, you’ll probably do even better to buy online from monoPrice — they’re inexpensive, honest, and have great cables. Even overnighting cables from them is cheaper than buying the “high end stuff” in most places.

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2 Responses to “Basic HDTV Cabling – How To”

  1. Mike on December 12th, 2006 12:50 am

    Thanks for the great article. Two questions,

    1) If using the standard red, white and yellow rca cables, is it even possible to get dolby 5.1 sound?

    2) If using a digital audio cable (fibre or coax), does the receiver automatically know where to direct the sound or is there another step? Seems odd that one cable could direct sound to 5 speakers plus a sub woofer.


  2. Chuck Lawson on December 12th, 2006 10:08 am

    Hi Mike!

    1) Sorta — for various values of “Dolby 5.1 sound” anyway. The predecessor of modern Digital Dolby surround was “Dolby Prologic”, which encoded some surround information in the analog stereo channels. If you have a receiver that supports Dolby Prologic, and a signal source encoded with it, you can get a species of surround sound from the analog stereo signal carried on the red and white cables. It’s not going to be as well defined as Digital Dolby or DTS (Dolby Theater Sound), but it’s better than nothing.

    2) The other step is actually preformed in the receiver, and that’s the decoding of the digital signal into the surround information. Don’t think of that one cable as sending a single analog signal — rather it’s carrying a bitstream of digital information that includes the data required to reproduce the proper sound for each channel — somewhat like a single coax cable from a rooftop antenna can carry all of the digital information required to reproduce an off-the-air HD picture.

    Depending on your receiver, you may need to switch it to the right settings to decode Digital Dolby or DTS from the digital audio stream; most receivers have a variety of settings to tell it how to decode it, and how to modify the decoded signal to best fit the constraints of your speaker system and your listening environment.

    Hope that helps…

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