When you start looking into a home theater system there are allot of options to choose from. What is the best reciever, speakers, dvd, blu-ray, hd dvd players etc.? After you choose your components, and hopefully you weren't sold into something by the young salesman as I am sure we all have, you have to start looking at options for wiring. Most novices in the home theater arena may be surprised by the cost and options of the wires that connect all of your new equipment.
Lets take a closer look at what types of wires are availible and how we can connect all our wonderful new home theater components. We will try to break apart what carries sound and what carries picture to make the examples a bit more clear. All home theater wires carry either picture or sound, so it is easier to think about your setup options in these terms.
RCA cables are your run of the mill connectors that you recieve with many home theater products. You bring home that new dvd player and they provide with the traditional red and white cables for left and right speakers. As you can probably imagine, you don't want to use these in most cases. If your home theater system consists of a tv and a dvd player only, by all means just use what is provided. For the rest of you, traditional RCA cable are outdated and do not support multi-channel home theater setups. So if you plan on having more than just two speakers in your home theater, don't use these wires. Usually you will also recieve one yellow tipped connector for the picture, we will cover this in the picture section.
A coaxial cable (or coax cable) used for sound is different than the traditional coax cable used to hook up your your tv from the cable box. This on the other hand is a digital coaxial cable capable of carry muli-channel information from one source to another. This cable is a great connection type for digital and analog signals. It can be perfect to hook up a dvd player to your reciever.
Optical (Toslink) Cable:
The optical cable which is a fiber optic cable is my favorite choice for sending sound from one component to another. It sends multi-channel information for analog stereo, 5.1 digital audio, 6.1, or even 7.1 channel sound. There is supposedly no difference in sound quality between the coaxial sound cable and an optical cable, but it does work without any interference (hum) from other electrical sources near by.
Composite Video (RCA):
A composite video cable is usually colored with a yellow tip using one RCA type jack. You often see these attached to the red and white RCA sound cables provided with many components (red, white, yellow). The yellow ended cable combines all picture into one wire. It cannot carry progressive scan or high definition sources. I would only use this cable as a last resort.
S-Video cables are better than using composite (yellow) cables because it is able to seperate the picture information to avoid blending color and brightness signals together. This cable is capable of carrying progressive scan information (480P) from a dvd player to your tv, but not high definition signals.
Component Cables (RGB or Red - Green - Blue)
Component cables are identifiable by their red, green, and blue tips. These cables are capable of sending both analog and high definition signals (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p) from a component to your tv. Although not the best picture availible, they work fine for many situations including a dvd player (non-upconverting dvd player) to your tv.
DVI (Digital Video Interface) Cable:
This is an almost computer-like connector that can carry digital information including high definition HD signals (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p). This is an excellent connector for lossless digital signal transfer. Depending on the setup though, component video cables are supposed to have the exact same picture capabilities without any HDCP (High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) issues which may not allow recording of high definition signals. My HD DVR from Comcast uses this connection as an out to my tv.
HDMI (High Definition Multi-Media Interface)
HDMI cables can carry digital picture including HD (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p) and digital sound (5.1, 6.1, and 7.1). They have become very popular amongst dvd, hd dvd, blu-ray players, and tv manufacturers. For that reason, I would suggest when buying a new HD tv set, finding a tv or recieved even that supports as many of these connections as possible. Most new HD tv's come with at least two HDMI inputs. Many dvd players that upconvert to HD signals will require the use of an HDMI cable for the full upconverted picture, although again it is said that component (RGB) cables can provide a similar picture. Also, HDMI deals with the same HD signal protection (HDCP) that affects DVI connections.
So we have covered all the major connection types availible today. To give you background on my own personal setup, I have a 60" Sony Grand Wega LCD TV connected to my Comcast HD DVR using DVI (out) from the cable box and a HDMI (in) to my tv. I didn't cover this but there are DVI to HDMI different ended cables availible when needed. My sound is via optical cable (out) from the Comcast HD DVR to my Harmon Kardon receiver (in). This setup works great for all forms of media coming through the cable box from HD channels with digital sound to analog sound and standard definition picture. A few other connections: coaxial digital sound cable from HK dvd player to the receiver, component video and another optical cable from the Xbox 360 to the tv and receiver.
Brands and Prices:
There are many different brands of cables availible and as you can imagine they very greatly in prices. I have tried many of the high-end brands such as Monster Cable (most popular) and Pure AV. Monster Cable brand is most often sold when you are shopping at Best Buy, Circuit City, or Tweeter. It is by far the most expensive brand availible (outside of professional setup) and I still am not sure if it is always worth the price. A Monster Cable HDMI cable for example can run you up to $130. I would suggest buying a name brand cable, but shop the internet for a better price because often they can be had at 50% less than retail at a BB or CC.
It can be allot of information to take in, but to make it easy, just think about the sound and picture signals you are sending from one place to another. I would usually suggest using optical (Toslink) cables or coaxial digital sound cables for any availible sound sources and for picture I would go with HDMI or DVI cables or at a minimum some nice component (RGB) cables. Often you will have to mix an match based on what you have availible, but as long as you opt for a good quality cable that can carry digital sources, you system will always perform much better. Although they can be pricey, good cables and the right cables are essential to any home theater system.