Decoding AV Cables

When you’ve got a brand new home theater system, AV cabling tends to be no more than a side thought. But cheap cabling can take all the glamour out of a million-dollar home theater. Here’s how you can choose the best AV cables for your home AV equipment.

AV cables have been called the great equalizer of the electronic world: they can make all the difference between a $10 headset and a $10,000 home entertainment system. No matter how expensive your gadgets are, they’re only as good as the cabling behind them, at least in terms of sound and picture quality. If you’re spending thousands on media electronics, then a few more dollars is a small price to pay to make sure you get your money’s worth.

As you may have figured, AV cables are more complicated than they seem. The kind of copper used, the thickness of the strands, and even the plastic jackets can all make a major difference. Here are some things to look for when shopping for AV cables.

Oxygen-free copper

If you’ve shopped around, you may notice major brands advertising their cables as using “oxygen-free copper”. So what’s with all the hype? Simply put, OFC is made in an oxygen-free environment, which means that little to no oxygen makes it to the final product. Oxygen is central to the oxidation process that makes copper turn green, a process you may have observed in copper vases and weathervanes. In the long run, an oxygen-free AV cable will keep longer and offer better conductivity than a non-OFC one.

Gold plating

Check a few electronics in your home and you’ll notice that some have silver power connectors, while others have gold. This is not just a design factor—your connector material can greatly affect the performance and long-term stability of your audio-video equipment. Ordinary silver connectors may work for your toaster, but not for your brand-new plasma TV. Gold-plated connectors minimize friction against the socket, reducing the risk of scratches. They also give consistent signal transfer, which comes in handy on those all-night movie marathons.

Shielding

If you’ve noticed your picture flicker or your audio crackle in a still room, it’s probably the interference from your other power cables. You can avoid this by getting AV cables with shielding—a braid or foil wrapped around the core of the cable. Shielding works like an insulator, blocking out signals from other electronic devices to minimize interference. You won’t be able to check for shielding at most stores; you’ll have to rely on the product packaging. Most manufacturers indicate the shielding feature on the cable box.

Cable jacket

For equipment that gets moved around a lot (such as speakers), you’ll need cables that are up to the task. Constant bending and flexing can produce heat in the metal core, making it rough and brittle over time. The right cable jacket can minimize the strain it puts on your AV cable. It makes sense to choose a flexible jacket material, but experts suggest otherwise: a stiff jacket can actually soften the movement within the cable, resulting in less friction and better long-term performance.

Cable length

AV cables come in lengths of three to 100 feet. One thing to remember is that longer isn’t necessarily better; your available space should be taken into consideration. You want a cable long enough to connect Device A to Device B, but not so long that it snakes all over your cabinet floor. As a general rule, add at least five feet to the actual distance to give the wire some slack, so that it doesn’t overstretch.