There are so many different kinds of cables, it can be a nightmare trying to decipher what you need. HDMI, digital optical audio, coaxial, analog, component, RCA are all cables that could be used in your home theater configuration. I’ll go through the ones that you’ll likely use and leave the unnecessary cables out of the conversation.
HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface. It has gone through many transformations and has reached a point where it can be considered the one cable to rule them all. It can pass lossless audio and 4K video all in one cable package. The important thing to note when buying an HDMI cable (if you’re going to be using 4k content) is that it must support the latest HDMI specification, HDMI 2.0. You can tell a cable doesn’t support the latest spec if your tv displays an HDCP error message or displays nothing when connecting to a 4K source. HDCP is a copyright protection gate that is built into HDMI cables and the devices they’re connecting to prevent copyright infringements. The way to avoid these issues is to buy this cable and to verify that your devices support HDCP 2.2. (You would need to check the ports that your HDMI cable plugs in to). Your device user manual may state this information otherwise if your tv is listed, you can find HDMI port information at the bottom of this linked page. If you’re curious, there is other information about HDCP at the bottom of this post.
There are HDMI cables that sell for hundreds of dollars, here’s a good example, that are a complete waste of money. There are 5 dollar cables that carry the latest specification and will work just fine. These are the cables that I purchased that work perfectly. I wouldn’t suggest buying 2 dollar cables just because I’d call into question the build quality of the cable itself but you certainly don’t need to spend more than 10 dollars on any one cable. The cool technology built into HDMI cables for audio is called ARC. There’s a link to a great article in the bottom of this post that describes what ARC is in more detail.
Digital optical audio is the second most used cable in home theater setups and is strictly an audio cable. You can tell you’ve got a digital optical cable if you see a red light glowing out from the cable when connected to your tv or blu ray player. Optical is slightly worse in terms of the audio quality compared to HDMI. It has less bandwidth capacity than HDMI so it can’t carry lossless audio like Dolby TRUEHD or DTS-HD. This can carry Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and other lossy formats.
Digital coaxial audio is essentially the same thing as digital optical except the connector looks different. You might see this connection on your soundbar and if you want, you can use this cable instead of the digital optical cable since it carries the same audio quality. It is also unable to carry lossless audio so it’s not quite up to the standard that HDMI has created.
There are many other connections including RCA, component, composite, analog audio, and more but these aren’t really relevant unless you’ve got a VCR or other old device that you want to connect to your tv. If you’re looking for information on these legacy connections, check out the Best Buy cable guide article in the additional information section. The HDMI cable has really taken over the home theater for cables since you now only need one cable to connect all of your audio and video devices. Thanks for reading and let me know in the comments section if there’s a category or type of cable that you’d like more information on!
HDCP 2.2 (4K Copyright Protection)
Best Buy Cable Guide
Updated 1/4/17: Added more linked articles, edited HDMI section content