Given that this appears to be Apple TV Week at Macworld , its seems appropriate to continue the trend here in Mac Gems. “How’s that?” you might be asking. “Aren’t Gems usually inexpensive products or things that offer good value?” Why yes; yes they are. And that’s exactly what today’s items are and do.
You see, the Apple TV is aimed at people with higher-end audio-visual systems in their homes: HDTVs, feature-rich home-theater receivers, good stereos, and the like. In fact, the Apple TV offers only HDMI and component-video outputs, along with digital and analog audio outputs, requiring you to purchase at least one or two cables than are considerably more expensive than the simple RCA (“phono”) A/V cables that can be found for a couple bucks at your nearest electronics store.
If you’ve done any shopping for these necessary cables, you may have been shocked by the price tags. When I purchased my first HDMI cable a couple years ago, I couldn’t believe how much even the discount retailers such as Fry’s were asking—over $50 for the generic “house” brand and well over $100 for a six-foot cable from a name brand that shall remain unnamed. Over the past week, I checked most of the major electronics chains here in the San Francisco Bay area, and the prices haven’t gone down that much. If you search long enough, you might be able to get a generic HDMI cable for $30 or so, but most people aren’t that patient and end up overpaying for something because it’s convenient (read: the only thing at the current store).
That’s why I was quite surprised—pleasantly so—when XtremeMac announced their XtremeHD line of cables earlier this year, with each cable sporting an MSRP of $20 or less. The line consists of HDMI to HDMI (video and digital audio), HDMI to DVI video, component video, Toslink digital audio (with one Toslink-to-3.5mm adapter included), and analog (left/right) audio cables, each 2 meters (6.6 feet) in length. The first four cables are $20; the last, $15. Each cable includes 24k gold-plated connectors, as well as rubber “overmolding” to protect the cable-to-plug joints from strain.
I’ve been using each cable off and on this past week while playing around with the Apple TV, and I’ve been impressed given the relatively low prices. Each cable offers good performance, makes solid connections, and feels well-built; the cables are thick but not so thick that they’re unwieldy.
I should tell you that I’m somewhere in the middle of the (near-religious) “cables matter” debate. I think a good cable does offer improvements over the cheap ones included with most consumer electronics; I also think there’s a lot of snake oil in the cable business. But rather than get into such a debate here, I’ll just tell you that I went out and bought a few cables that the typical Apple TV customer might be tempted to purchase and compared them with the XtremeHD models. For example, I bought a $50 house-brand HDMI cable from Radio Shack, as well as an $80 Monster Cable version. After watching a variety of videos—movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, higher-quality movies I ripped from my own DVDs, and HD videos—I concluded that the XtremeMac HDMI cable offered performance that was every bit as good as the other two when connected between my Apple TV and my Sony 34-inch Wega Trinitron CRT HDTV.
I performed similar informal tests with the component, digital-audio, and analog-audio cables, with similar results. I came to the conclusion that for the typical Apple TV owner, these cables are going to offer performance as good as the much more expensive stuff the salespeople at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Tweeter, Fry’s and the like are going to foist on you. And, conveniently enough, the XtremeHD cables are available at Apple’s online and retail stores; Jon Seff and Christopher Breen were even told by Apple during a briefing last week that Apple has tested the XtremeHD cables in-house.
That said, I should also point out that how good of a value these cables are depends on the cable. For example, $20 is a great price for a decent HDMI cable, at least when it comes to buying one at a retail store (see below); it’s also a good price for an HDMI-to-DVI cable. On the other hand, I’ve seen Toslink audio, analog-audio, and composite-video cables for less. The XtremeHD versions are built better than the less-expensive ones I've seen, but if you’re on a tight budget after spending $299 on an Apple TV, you can find cheaper offerings.
Now, I know a few people are already composing an email, or typing up a comment for our forums, about less expensive cables, from online stores such as MonoPrice.com, that make even XtremeMac’s $20 price tag seem high. And I can’t argue; I haven’t tested those cables, and I’m sure there are good cable bargains to be found around the Web. If you’re an online bargain hunter, the world is your oyster. But for those who prefer to buy in a physical store, would rather buy from a “name brand” (especially one dedicated to the Mac market), or who just purchased their Apple TV and want to hook it up now , the XtremeMac cables—especially the video ones—are tough to beat.