“You’re so money and you don’t even know it!” – Trent from Swingers
The same could be said of many HDTV sets all over the world, so let’s take a step back and cover something that may have been taken for granted: How to connect that wonderful HD display to an HD source.
When you buy an HDTV today the back panel or jack pack can be pretty intimidating. Much of it is for backwards compatibility. Manufacturers want to make potential customers feel at ease that upgrading to HD will allow them to still use every piece of gear in their existing equipment rack. No matter how old or archaic the connection. This certainly has its pluses, its minuses, and the potential for confusion.
Thanks to the DTV Transition, glorious 1080i and 720p images are the new standard. To display these high definition resolutions on capable displays, you need the correct connection. In most that means an investment in a new cable. Very few devices, typically only high end appliances, will ship with an HDMI or even a Component cable. Before you go shopping, you should know what they are and what they can do. It is always best to have the right tool for the right job. No need to spend more than you have to, but don’t cut corners at the expense of quality.
- HDMI – This is the money. Full HD video, full uncompressed surround sound audio, all on one cable. There are more variants than you’d care to know, so focus on features not version numbers. Hint, the two you really care about were mentioned above. Videophiles may venture in Deep Color territory and audiophiles may want the High Bit Rate (HBR) loss less codecs.
- DVI – Business class. Too big to fly coach. And certainly no first class. DVI is completely compatible with HDMI for video only. Rarely scene on newer gear, however older gear with only this type of connector should use a DVI-to-HDMI cable or adapter for an image that’ll be money.
- Component – Old school. The one that started it all, has stood the test of time. Three cables, not one, but here’s a dirty little secret: any RCA cables will work. That means the yellow-red-white triplet that came with your VCR is good enough, and better than nothing. The downside is that it will transmit 1080i and 720p, but not 1080p. However, if you do not yet own a Blu-Ray Disc player, don’t get video-on-demand from satellite, there’s not much else to really choose from that will have resolution that this connector can’t handle. Remains a very nice, value alternative or fallback.
Fallback? Why do we need a fallback? HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection. Content owners like to feel protected from digital piracy. HDCP is a mechanism that verifies that a transmission system (content source, audio playback, and video playback) will not retransmit or record the content at its highest quality. HDMI supports the capability to enforce this. Equipment meeting an older version of HDMI, unaware or HDCP, may not handshake properly with newer equipment. Cascading or daisy-chaining equipment may not properly pass the handshake signaling along. Make sure if you have a piece of gear acting as a man in the middle that it will properly handshake with your HDTV.
HD programming comes with free Dolby audio, more often than not, encoded for surround sound. Nothing enhances an already crystal clear picture better than a digital multi-channel sound field. With all due respect to display manufacturers, their specialty is just that: displays. The speakers on and HDTV will certainly do a fair job, but to preserve the integrity of the content, surround yourself with the sound.
You’ll need a receiver, five speakers, and a subwoofer. The subwoofer has a range one tenth of the other five speakers, hence 5.1 Surround Sound. You’ll see other versions of surround, some with greater number of speakers. While you are certainly welcomed to investigate those, 5.1 will satisfy the greater majority of content out there, including all OTA, IPTV, and cable programming.
So what now, more connectors? If your source (STB, BD player, etc.) has HDMI, you are good to go. Configure it to output the audio over HDMI and select the appropriate format. If you only have your TV speakers, then you want 2 channel PCM. If you are connecting it to a receiver, then select either Dolby Digital (e.g. on a STB) or Multi-channel lossless PCM (LPCM) (e.g. a BD Player). Again, there are other formats, these a just a few examples. Make friends with your user manuals and make sure all the devices that are connected to each other speak the same language.
If you are using one of the other two video only connections, DVI or component, then you will need audio connections. For digital, your equipment will either have a Digital Coaxial or Optical. If you have both, good on you. Which one is better? Six of one, half dozen of the other. They each have their subtle differences, but should be indistinguishable, especially when compared to analog.
Once again, in your setup options, make sure you select Digital for the Audio. The limitations of these more or less legacy digital interfaces is the lack of support for the newer multi-channel formats: the HBR encoded streams and the LPCM. Fear not, there will still be a compatible format for you to surround yourself with high fidelity audio.
Believe it or not, you can still get life out of an old receiver and it may be just as good as an HDMI connection. Typically, an AVR will have multi-channel analog inputs, a holdover from the days when the surround decoders were only in DVD players. This principle still applies today to the higher echelon BD players. Manufacturers will include the HBR decoders and multi-channel connectors for this method of connectivity. Some experts even say this is the second best way to connect for HBR surround, if HDMI is not an option. The primary reason being some of the fancier Blu-Ray features require audio mixing and this is best accomplished in the player and delivered as LPCM.
Now you know enough to be dangerous. You have the claws, you have the fangs. Go get that bunny!