The Hard Way: Nordost's Blue Heaven HDMI Cable
able companies are easily the most misunderstood and maligned audio manufacturers. From audiophiles who bemoan the price of top-level cables, conveniently overlooking the lower cost of those further down the line, to those who think that their one DIY project -- pulling a few feet of cable from a spool, stripping the ends and crimping on connectors -- is exactly what cable manufacturers do, one has to wonder why anyone would make audio cables, which seems like a thankless endeavor. The answer is obvious: because there's a market for them. This has pushed the state of the cable art further and further along, with new products often taking as much R&D time, effort and expense as a new amplifier or pair of speakers.
This point was driven home with a sledgehammer during a meeting I had with Joe Reynolds of Nordost at last year's THE Show Newport Beach. I let slip that I had just bought a new plasma TV -- or rather, a plasma TV that was new to me: a used Pioneer Elite Pro-111FD. I bought the TV after doing research on the current state of video technology. The Pioneer Elite plasmas were discontinued in 2009, but they continue to be sought after for their inky blacks, deep color saturation and filmlike image. Feed one an HD signal and the result is stunning.
I mentioned all of this to Joe during our meeting by the pool (not all meetings take place in private back rooms). He immediately said, "You have to try one of our HDMI cables. It's the only one manufactured in the US." Only? That alone was intriguing. I knew little about HDMI, but Joe's contention seemed improbable. There's only one US-made HDMI cable? Where and how were all of the others made?
The answers to these questions turned out to be much, much more complicated than I could have imagined for reasons having to do with HDMI itself. HDMI, which stands for high-definition multimedia interface, is actually a set of rules, not a generic name for a cable. Rules for what? Digital audio and video transmission, Ethernet connectivity, power and control of interconnected electronics -- a veritable smorgasbord of different needs, along with specifications for impedance and termination. If you've ever peered into an HDMI connector, you've seen just how many connection points there are, each corresponding to conductors within the cable itself. Companies pay royalties for using the HDMI label, which means that the cable adheres to standards for construction and performance.
But there are standards and then there are standards, and for the Blue Heaven HDMI, Nordost believed that the only way to maintain manufacturing precision and consistency, to maintain its own standards, was for the cable to be made in-house, definitely not outsourced to China, which is the hotbed of HDMI-cable manufacturing. Many of HDMI's licensees are located in China, and using one of them to make your cable means it will test to the HDMI standards, although perhaps not to your standards. Make the cable yourself, as Nordost has done, and you have to do all of the testing, in addition to all of the manufacturing, yourself.
With the basics in mind, the task of understanding and creating an HDMI cable only becomes more complicated. There are actually five different HDMI-compatible connectors, although Type A is what's used most often, because it's used for flat-panel HDTVs. There are also two cable categories, Standard and High Speed, each corresponding to the speed in MHz for which they've been tested, and thus the video output they are capable of delivering: up to 1080i for Standard and 1080p for High Speed.
There is more -- much more -- to HDMI, but I've purposely simplified this discussion because it's a murky to begin with and not material to the story of Nordost's HDMI cable, other than to illustrate that making your own HDMI cable is no simple task. In fact, an HDMI cable is probably the most complicated type a company can make.
Enter Jeffrey Boccaccio, who, along with Derek Flickinger, literally wrote the book on HDMI. HDMI Uncensored reveals everything you will want to know about HDMI -- and more than you probably need to know, unless you're going to build a cable for yourself. Joe sent me a copy of the book after I received Nordost's Blue Heaven HDMI, and while it's chock-full of specifications and technical fine points, it's surprisingly readable, at least in small doses. Much of my paucity of knowledge of HDMI comes from it.
Boccaccio was Nordost's technical advisor for its HDMI project, and his DPL Lab tested the cable prior to its release. Blue Heaven uses Nordost's proprietary Micro Mono-Filament construction. It has nineteen 26AWG silver-plated solid-core conductors and air-spaced FEP insulation. Even its gold-plated connectors are proprietary, and each cable is terminated by hand.
If you do some Internet research on HDMI cables, you'll find that they are as disparaged as audio cables in general. The prevailing view is that they simply make no difference because they are primarily carrying digital signals. Of course, we audiophiles know that digital signals are just as susceptible to degradation from poor cables as analog ones, but any HDMI cable exists in a mass-market vacuum more than for the audiophile market, so a purist example must perform beyond its competition or its higher price will become an insurmountable obstacle to sales.
I have a few different HDMI cables, including a decent one that came with my Oppo Digital DVD player, and the Blue Heaven is so far superior to them all that even skeptics would have to admit it. And I refer purely to video here; I can't test audio performance, because I have no external speakers for my Pioneer Elite TV, or the Panasonic plasma used in a bedroom. The Blue Heaven's video image is clearer and more crisp than that of any of the other cables, while enriching the color saturation and deep blacks for which plasma technology is well known. In fact, as I've explained to a few people who have asked, the Blue Heaven combines the traits of the prevailing display technologies: the blacks and color saturation of plasma along with the crisp edge definition of LED. I have no in-home experience with OLED, but I suspect that what I described in the previous sentence is what it achieves.
The Blue Heaven costs $349 for a one-meter length, but its performance justifies the price -- and Nordost's R&D and manufacturing efforts. The Blue Heaven HDMI is an antidote to the belief that all HDMI cables are the same.
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