by Mike Shea on 23 January 2010
A month ago when I was buying my new TV, I couldn't help but gawk and give the poor salesman at Best Buy some crap over the $160 "Chocolate" HDMI cable they were selling. To his credit as a salesman and discredit as a human being, he never broke from his story. It improved color accuracy on higher-end TV sets, he said. If one bought a really high-end Pioneer plasma screen, one needed such a cable to keep the signal as high quality as possible, he continued.
Of course this is all bullshit. HDMI is a digital connector. The Chocolate $160 HDMI cable is, from an electronic and signal standpoint, the same as a $3 HDMI cable from Amazon. HDMI passes a digital signal with all sorts of built-in error correction. There isn't any way in hell the color of red will be different over a digital signal. Maybe you'd have signal loss but it's not likely to be any different regardless of the quality of the cable. I won't get into it too much but here's a good PC World bake-off of low to high priced HDMI cables.
So there's probably no actual visual or audio difference between the $3 HDMI cable from Amazon or the $160 Chocolate HDMI cable. In blind tests, I'm betting there's no one who can tell the difference.
But what about people who actually buy a $160 HDMI cable? I would argue that, to them, the picture is actually better.
I've wrote before about Dan Gilbert's TED presentation, "Why Are We Happy"? which tells us that our perceived manufactured happiness is just as real to us as the happiness that come from real changes in our lives. Our subconscious attitudes make us just as happy or unhappy as our real life situations. Again, this video is well worth 15 minutes of your time to watch.
I've also been listening to the audiobook Blink, by Malcom Gladwell. In the middle of the book he talks with marketing people who proved time and again that our taste is actually altered by the packaging of the food or drink we're tasting. At one point he says that a can of ravioli with a cartoon version of Chef Boyardee tastes worse to many people than a can with a photo of the chef on it. He mentions that they changed the green color on a can of 7-Up to make it 15% more yellow and people said the drink tasted too citrusy. Margarine wasn't accepted as a substitute for butter until they put a crown on the package, made it more yellow, and wrapped it in foil. It's easy to hand-wave these ideas, call the tested people idiots, and assume we're different.
But we're not.
Our brains are extremely complicated computers able to draw in incredible amounts of data and mix them together. When we drink wine from a beautiful decanter, it tastes different than the same wine out of a cheap bottle. That's how powerful our brain really is. It takes in an entire experience when we taste or see or hear something and the whole experience can affect each part.
If we combine these ideas, we can see why some might say that they like the picture better when they're using a $160 HDMI cable. It's part of the package. Deep down they know they have this big thick cable with 15% silver connections and a solid polyethylene dielectric and the picture they see, in their brain, is actually improved.
There was a big home theater scandal a few weeks ago when it was discovered that a $3500 Lexicon blu-ray player was actually a metal package surrounding the lifted chassis of a $500 Oppo blu-ray player . Some saw it as a flashlight on the home theater alchemy that has diluted the industry since the days people put record players up on $800 spikes. If we consider the nature of happiness, though, we can see that, even though it's the same DVD player, someone who spends $3500 on a blu-ray player in a beautiful metal Lexicon case might actually have a better experience than he or she would with a $500 Oppo.
Is it a scam? Probably. But that doesn't make it an extremely powerful bit of knowledge about the manipulation of the human brain. Whether we use this knowledge to become happier people or scam artists is up to us, but that doesn't make the effect any less real or any less powerful.