For many people, the answer to home entertainment interconnection questions is to bypass it. An integrated system with everything in a single box, the connections tucked away and out of sight, except for the loudspeaker wires. That can be an economical and convenient solution, but it is not very flexible. When it comes to the time for repairing, replacing, or upgrading a component, what do you do? Some all-in-ones are more expandable than others, with limited opportunities to plug in to aux sockets, but separate elements afford much greater adaptability.
Certainly, it can be complicated and puzzling to connect everything up, but breaking it down to the various elements, consulting sources of advice, should lead to the right set of terminated interconnectors for any given setup. Briefly, home entertainment cabling can be divided into two aspects: loudspeaker wiring and terminated interconnectors. Loudspeaker wires are kept as a separate topic because strictly speaking, they do not need terminals. A "terminated interconnector" is any cable that runs between the individual elements. Buyers need to know about the main types of cable that might be required and also the needs of individual components, taking into account the needs of both audio and video, in order to figure out the necessary terminated interconnect to buy.
Basic Cable Types
Most audio connections, and some video connections too, use parallel pairs of wires terminated by RCA jacks, also known as phono plugs. The other most common type is a coaxial cable, but there are several others.
The main use for coaxial cable is in conducting analogue radio frequency signals from aerials to television and radio receivers. High grade coaxial cable is also used for digital signals, particularly for satellite television. The standard terminal for this type of cable is called a Belling-Lee connector.
Although these cables are made from parallel pairs of wire, both having one positive and one negative pole, they are usually called RCA leads or Phono leads. RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America, the organisation that pioneered the connection in the early days of high fidelity in the late 1940s and 1950s. Phono is an abbreviation of phonograph, the type of equipment that RCA and other similar vendors were manufacturing.
Another term for the RCA type of cable is "unbalanced", which makes it sound as though something is wrong with them. This, though, is only to distinguish them from "balanced" leads, which are a type of heavy duty cable designed with professional audio in mind, with the intent of minimising signal interference in sensitive equipment, such as microphones. The balance comes from a third wire, with two positive ones of opposite polarity, and a shared negative. Their usual name is XLR, apparently from a part number in an early manufacturer's catalogue, or sometimes Cannon connector.
Optical cables are usually used to carry digital audio signals. They are usually called either Toslink, after their original manufacturer Toshiba, or else S/PDIF, or Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format. There are subtle differences between the two, but normally they are interchangeable. Devices with this type of connection include minidisc players, CD and DVD players, computers, and game consoles. They require a suitably equipped audiovisual receiver in order to complete the connection. Furthermore, there is an analogue version of S/PDIF, called digital coaxial audio cable. If the AV receiver can handle optical S/PDIF, it can probably handle digital coax too, but this should be carefully checked.
Unlike the multicore cables discussed above, the composite video lead is a version of coaxial that uses a single wire pair, although not necessarily in coaxial configuration. It is usually terminated with a single RCA connector, conventionally coloured yellow.
I2S is a specialised five-conductor cable that is sometimes used to connect multiple CD transports to digital audio converters, or DACs. It requires a 5-pin DIN connector.
Firewire, also often designated by its standard number IEE 1394, is a multimedia cable designed for high-speed real-time links between audio and video equipment and host devices, typically computers. They are in some ways similar to USB2 connectors but can pass signals both ways between host and source simultaneously and can usually sustain a much higher data transfer rate than generic USB.
The Universal Serial Bus is a widely used interconnection protocol. Common versions are 1.1 and 2.0, while the current standard is 3.0. Because they are so common and originated with personal computers, they tend to get overlooked in discussions of audio visual cabling.
For video devices, such as DVD players, televisions, and video game consoles, the video element usually requires a more complicated cable. There are three main types: SCART, S-Video, and HDMI.
SCART is a 21-pin French standard known also by a variety of alternative names, among them Peritel, EuroConnector, EuroAV, and EIA Multiport. It has a distinctive rectangle-plus-lean shape and a fairly large footprint, so it is difficult to confuse with anything else.
The S standing for "separate", an S-video cable carries only video, and it is used for standard-definition analogue video signals. The connection resembles a DIN plug, with its semicircular arrangement of pins and holes. It is more common outside Europe than in it, owing to the prevalence here of SCART.
Since its launch in 2002, the High Definition Multimedia Interface has become the de facto standard for connecting High Definition Television sets and computer monitors to content delivery sources like HD-DVD and Blu-ray players, personal computers, and digital camcorders. There are five types of connector: types A through E. Type A has 19 pins and is the most common, used in SDTV and HDTV modes. Type B has 29 pins and is expected to be used in advanced future high resolution applications. Type C is a mini connector with 19 pins, designed for portable devices. Type D is a micro connector, again with 19 pins. Type E is designed for automotive applications and has a locking device to keep it from vibrating loose.
Home Entertainment Devices and Their Cables
Having reviewed the main types of cable connections in use in audiovisual equipment, evaluating the specific type that might be needed in any given instance can perhaps best be started by running through the most common types of equipment with an eye to their sockets. In all cases, the best advice when planning cables for specific pieces of equipment is to get a copy of the user manual and study the diagrams. Anything made within the last twenty years should be represented in some form or other on the web, though with older equipment it might be necessary to review discussion group posts or even to join a forum.
Amplifiers and Receivers
For what we might call "old fashioned" hi-fi, the hub of a set-up is the amplifier. In modern media centres, the same term might be used but so too might the term "receiver". As such, especially in the latter case, there is probably be a welter of different connector sockets ready to receive RCA jacks and an array of AV cables of the kinds listed above. These should be reviewed with care, especially with older models of receiver, because they sometimes lack up-to-date high definition options.
Often, tuners are built into amplifiers and receivers, but stand-alone tuners are available too. They need a coaxial cable and Belling-Lee connector to get a radio signal and also a set of RCA leads to take the output to an amplifier.
It should be pointed out that modern amplifiers and receivers often do not have a designated input for vinyl turntables. In these cases, playing those old 45s and 33s require a pre-amp plugged into an auxiliary RCA input on the amplifier. The turntable itself normally has pre-attached RCA leads though some have sockets instead. Shielding, which is affected by a third earth wire running the length of the cable, is advisable for turntable outputs.
Cassette recorders normally require two sets of RCA leads. One set connects the player's output to the amplifier's tape input. The other connects the amplifier's record output to the recorder's input.
Minidisc Players and Recorders
The minidisc was a technology, now obsolete, pioneered by Sony in the 1990s. They were designed to supersede audio cassettes but did not gain wide acceptance. The simplest types are equipped with RCA outputs. More advanced models also have RCA inputs for recording, and these would connect to the same sockets on an amplifier that a cassette recorder would previously have used. Some additionally have S/PDIF sockets.
Older CD players, and indeed modern ones, may need nothing more than a single stereo RCA cable. Some modern ones also have optical S/PDIF connectors.
DVD Players and Recorders
There is a certain crossover between CD players and DVD players since the latter are normally capable of playing the former. Because they are also intended for video playback, though, they also have the appropriate sockets for connecting to a television. At their simplest, they can be expected to have composite video and SCART sockets, together with audio connectivity. They may have a digital coaxial audio cable, which need the appropriate terminal at the receiver or amplifier end. HD DVD players and recorders may, and Blu-ray players will, also have HDMI outputs, and possibly optical S/PDIF outputs too. Again, the receiver needs matching terminals.
Modern televisions are equipped with HDMI and USB inputs as well as SCART and other backwardly compatible options. Some are equipped with audio return channel feeds, which enable the TV to send audio back to the AV receiver. Normally, televisions are not equipped with outputs. They are either driven from the AV receiver or run directly from a dedicated cable or satellite receiver.
The basic output of a VHS recorder was a TV signal, conveyed by the same type of coaxial cable as used for the aerial. Some VHS recorders also have SCART connectors, and other video output types. There are also models with audio outputs via RCA cables, which enable them to play Dolby-encoded pre-recorded tapes through a domestic hi-fi system.
There are situations in which someone might want to connect pro audio gear to a domestic AV receiver. A basic home studio, for instance, can use the receiver via an interface connected to a computer through a USB or Firewire cable.
Buying Terminated Interconnectors on eBay
Often, the purchase of terminated interconnectors goes with the purchase of a used home entertainment component. Since that is a type of deal that easily conducted through eBay's listings, it is a great time to find out what types of connector you are going to need. Not only can you research the item on the web, looking for manufacturer manuals for guidance, but you can also contact the seller for advice.
When you know what you need, then it is simply a matter of searching for the appropriate item. The most common searches are for items like "SCART lead", "HDMI lead", and so on. All you need to do is enter the type of interconnector into the search box from the home page and progressively refine your search.
As well as straightforward cabling solutions, you can also find a wide variety of adapters that can convert between some of the less standard cable types to match your available inputs and outputs. Sometimes, these will come up in general search results, though at other times it might be necessary to make a specific search.
One way of considering the question of what kind of terminated interconnect to buy is to respond by pointing out that new equipment generally comes with connecting cables supplied. The answer, in that ideal world, is "none". However, sometimes the package only includes some of the possible cabling options that a user might want to choose, and more often than not, a used or ex-display item might be bought with no connections at all.
With careful research and judicious advice, it should be quite a straightforward matter to find the right type of cable for any set of components. Many of them use the most common standards, such as RCA and HDMI. Even the more unusual types are not too difficult to find with the help of outlets like the many vendors advertising on eBay. It can be a fun pursuit too if there is the scent of a bargain to be had when the various elements are married up. If buyers educate themselves on the various types of media devices and connecting cables, they are sure to figure out which they need for their household.