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Transmission Line Effects in Video Cables

by August 29, 2004

The Do's and Don'ts of Component Video Cables Supplemental

We established a pretty good foundation of the important metrics governing component video cables in our Component Video Cable Definitive Guide article. However, we recently stumbled on some very poorly designed component video cables which according to the manufacturer are best suited for audio and video applications because of minimization of "eddy currents" and a host of other unproven pseudo sciences contained herein. Out of respect to the manufacturer they will remain nameless in this article. However, we will examine their cable to determine its validity for High Definition (HD) video applications.

This cable was examined with scrutiny only after I noticed resultant poor video quality (ghosting and loss of resolution) in application on my HDTV system. It wasn't until I dissected this cable that it all began to make sense.

Exotic Component Video / Esoteric Audio Cable

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Cross section (left); Side view of cut cable, outer conductor separated (right)

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Inner conductor spread apart, notice the plastic material in the center; Outer jacket removed, this is their idea of an effective shield

Exotic Manufacturer Description

This cable minimized eddy currents and is suitable for high end audio and HDTV video as well. The wire is considerably more advanced than other cables used for this purpose using OHNO Continuous Cast Single Crystal Copper and is one of the most expensive raw wires. There is no center conductor in this cable. The inner core is an XLPE monofilament. The signal conductors are spiral wound around the inner core. A thin layer of polypropylene dielectric separates the inner conductors from the return conductors which are spiral wound around the signal conductors but in the opposite direction.

The insulation is polypropylene. Cheap cables use PVC. The outer conductors on coax cables are considered to be the shield. Adding an extra shield on an unbalanced cable would serve no purpose in this case and would be harmful to proper signal transfer especially in the time domain.

Our lesser designed cables are 75 ohmcharacteristic impedance. These higher quality video cables are 50O. Since lengths shorter than approximately 24' are not transmission lines at video frequencies exact impedance matching is irrelevant. In this case, a 50 ohm characteristic impedance may be better due to less signal loss.

Inexpensive OEM Video Cable (Patch Cord )

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The cable depicted here is the typical free cable supplied by the Satellite/Cable provider. Notice the inclusion of a foil shield in addition to the braided shield. The shield coverage of this cable is significantly better than the $1200 exotic video cable in the previous example.

Also notice the solid core center conductor and thicker dielectric material. The conductor spacing between inner and outer conductors, in conjunction with the dielectric is what determines characteristic impedance of the cable.

Pursuing the Truth…

Unfortunately the manufacturers claim about impedance matching being irrelevant at video frequencies is incorrect.

The sample rate for 1080i HDTV is 74.25 Mhz. This is arrived by taking 1920 horizontal pixels plus 280 samples for sync per line times 1125 lines including sync (1080 +45) times 30fps. With a factor of 2 (based on Nyquist theorem) the highest analog frequency you can theoretically achieve is 37.125 Mhz.

This approximates to a real world number of about 30 Mhz for 1080i with about 20% overhead.

Coming up with the highest frequency component possible in a digital HD system is very straightforward. Here is how it is calculated:

  • Step 1: Figure the pixels per line (including sync). For a 1920x1080 system, SMPTE-274M specifies the "total sample periods per line" to be 2200 (1920 Active and 280 non-Active.). For a 1280x720 system, SMPTE-296M specifies the "total sample periods per line" to be 1650 (1280 Active and 370 non-Active.).
  • Step 2: Find the total number of lines (including sync). For a 1920x1080 system, SMPTE-274M specifies the "total lines per frame" to be 1125 (1080 Active and 45 non-Active.). For a 1280x720 system, SMPTE-296M specifies the "total lines per frame" to be 750 (720 Active and 30 non-Active.).
  • Step 3: Figure what frame rate you are figuring out. For this example I will use 30 fps for 1080 line (corresponds to 60 field interlace (1080i/60) or 30 frame Progressive or Progressive Segmented Frame (PsF)(1080P/30 or 1080PsF/30)) and 60 fps for 720 line (corresponds to 60 frame progressive (720P/60)).
  • Step 4: Figure the sampling frequency. This is found by this formula: pixels per line x lines per frame x frames per second = sampling frequency For 1080: 2200 x 1125 x 30 = 75,250,000 samples per second or 75.25MHz For 720P: 1650 x 750 x 60 = 75,250,000 samples per second or 75.25MHz
  • Step 5: Lastly, remember Nyquist. For digital sampling, you need to sample at a rate over twice the frequency of the highest frequency component in the waveform that you are trying to sample. Taking 75.25MHz, the absolute theoretical maximum frequency that can be carried by this sampling rate would be just under 37.125MHz. Now in the real world, we don't often deal with perfect theoretical maximums so the common accepted bandwidth for these two common HD formats is between 30 and 35MHz. (The SMPTE specs noted above define a nominal bandwidth of 30MHz for analog interfaces of 1080i/60, 1080P(sF)/30 and 720P/60. It also specifies 60MHz for the 1080P/60 standard which is sampled at 148.5MHz).

An update proposal to SMPTE 274M can be found at: http://www.smpte.org). The other thing to remember is that this is in a perfect world where digital processing is not messing with the signal. In addition to the large amount of compression done to an HD signal for distribution (which is what most people see), one common HD production format, HDCAM, "pre-filters" (subsamples) the 1920 active pixels in each line to 1440 reducing the bandwidth to about 24MHz at the production stage.

For additional references, check out the glossary that Scott Thomas (Director of Engineering - The Victory Studios) helped write for HighDef.com and the Highdef-411 directory found here: http://www.highdef.com/library/glossary.htm

For more information about Video Bandwidth, I recommend the excellent article found here:


What about Uncompressed HDTV?

According to Belden, uncompressed High Definition Video Signals is greater than 1500MHz and is considered more of an RF signal than video. The bandwidth of a single uncompressed high definition video picture now exceeds that of standard multichannel CATV/broadband signal. Further, the bandwidth limit of HD is often higher than the transmitted channel frequency!

Thus when dealing with uncompressed HDTV the cable characteristic impedance and termination impedance is critical for even the shortest cable lengths. Other factors such as Return Loss must be considered.

Transmission Line or NOT?

Manufacturer Statement
"Since lengths shorter than approximately 24' are not transmission lines at video frequencies exact impedance matching is irrelevant." Exotic Cable Vendor Statement

Pursuing the Truth….
The argument of transmission line relevancy, or lack thereof at video frequencies must be considered.

If we use classic and proven transmission line theory to determine the importance of cable impedance matching we derive the following:

wavelength (in meters) = v / (f*sqrt(er))

where f is the frequency of the signal in Hz, v is the velocity of the signal =

3x10^8 meters/second (vacuum) and er = velocity of propagation factor



d = outer diameter of inner (center) conductor (approximate value for stranded)

D = outer diameter of dielectric

e = dielectric constant (e=1 for air)

This equation supports the fact that the characteristic impedance of a coax cable is directly related to the diameter of the conductor and the dielectric. For component video cables, this characteristic impedance should be 75-ohms. With characteristic impedance (Zo) held at a constant 75-ohms, the variables are the diameters and dielectric constant.

Once an understanding of the engineering principles behind 75-ohm cables is established, practical issues that apply to designing, or considering the purchase of a 75-ohm video cables include conductor material and diameter, dielectric material and diameter, grounding shield, noise protection, termination (solder joints) and RCA connector design.

Characteristic Impedance:

Transmission Line Effects in Video Cables - page 2

With HDTV at 30 MHz, and 480p video at about 12 MHz, the wavelengths in question are 10 meters and 25 meters. Using a solid dielectric, with approximately the same dielectric constant as PE, we're running at around 66% velocity of propagation. This cuts the physical wavelengths in question to 6.6 meters and 16.7 meters. A quarter wavelength, which is often used as the benchmark for where the characteristic impedance of a transmission line becomes critical, is then 1.65 meters or 4.16 meters. Many think a quarter wave is a bit too long to use, and prefer to go with 1/10 wavelength or so. But staying with ¼ wave, and converting to feet, we get 5.41 feet and 13.7 feet as "critical" distances for impedance. Bear in mind that many people switch video, so this may represent a couple of cables linked together through a receiver on the way from the source to display. Do you know anybody who doesn't have at least 5 1/2 feet of cable between his source and display?

Again, if we are considering ultra high performance, and use more conservative estimates to determine the point at which the cable's electrical length becomes long (with respect to a wavelength) to consider transmission line effects for video cables, we use 1/10 wavelength as our critical distance.

In this case, a cable of greater than 2.25 feet becomes critical NOT 24 feet as the Exotic Cable vendor states!

Manufacturer Claim

"In this case, a 50 ohm characteristic impedance may be better due to less signal loss."

Pursuing the Truth…
This claim almost implies that the vendor is confusing characteristic impedance with resistance, incorrectly inferring that the lower the ohms, the lower the loss. Not so!

The biggest factors for loss of image quality in a transmission line are:

  • Impedance match, for which 50 ohm cable is unsuited in a 75 ohm circuit,
  • Capacitance. 50 ohm cables generally have nearly twice the capacitance of 75 ohm cables. 75 ohm cables generally run anywhere from about 16 to 21 pF/ft, with the best ones at the lower end of the range, while 50 ohm cables run from about 24pf/ft to 32pf/ft.

Video Cable Measurement Comparison

Exotic Cable AU24

OEM Patch Cord




Inner Conductor DCR




Outer Conductor DCR

(shield resistance)




Total Loop Resistance




Inductance (1kHz)




Capacitance (1kHz)




Characteristic Impedance
(Zo = sqrt(L/C))



As you can see, the exotic video cable has nearly 63% higher capacitance and 66% higher resistance than the free OEM patch cord. It is interesting to note that the free patch cord has a lower shield resistance than the $1200 exotic cable which is exactly opposite of the cable vendors concern that added shielding will do more harm then good.

Closer Inspection of the Exotic Video Cable In Question

First, it's easy enough to come up with a central tube; there are video coaxes which use a hollow tube around the center conductor, with a spiral thread of PE wrapped around to help maintain distance. If one were to ask a cable supplier (such as Belden) to build a cable like this, it'd be easy enough for them to produce the tube without the PE and the inner conductor. Apart from the missing center conductor, this exotic cable really looks like a very low-grade Triax cable in construction; low-grade because Triax normally would have a braided shield, with or without foil, while this has two "serve" or "spiral" type shields around the nonexistent center. The material cost and labor for such a cable would be, on the order of $0.50/ft for long runs of about 25K feet. I'm hard pressed to think of any real world application for it, though I suppose that something weird like a microwave transmission cable might be built that way to maximize center conductor skin area. The problem with that, though, would be that a serve shield can act as an inductor, and you wouldn't want a big unpredictable inductance, varying as you flex the cable, on a transmission line carrying extremely high frequencies.

Manufacturer Claim

"The wire is considerably more advanced than other cables used for this purpose using OHNO Continuous Cast Single Crystal Copper and is one of the most expensive raw wires."

Pursuing the Truth…
I am uncertain what the exotic cable vendor depicts as "OHNO Continuous Cast Single Crystal Copper". The only features of copper that have much to do with performance are annealing (which makes it less brittle) and purity (which, up to a point, makes it more conductive and less corrosion-prone). I checked with several cable supplies and E&M experts such as Henry Ott , and nobody could make any sense of this.

The fact that the "monofilament" in the center is PE tends to make me think, if that tube is hollow, that it might indeed be a modified triax design, because PE is very commonly used as a dielectric.

As for the dielectric between the center and the outer spirals, polypropylene is an unusual choice. I know that it does have a good dielectric constant, but it's not used nearly as much as PE. Why that is, I'm not sure. It may be that it's more costly, or it won't foam, or it's harder to produce in consistent density, or it's harder to extrude to a consistent size, or it's more brittle, or something else I haven't thought of....nothing wrong with using PP, so far as I know, but it's an unusual choice. As for the assertion that "cheap cables use PVC," I have seen PVC dielectric cables, but rarely. Cheap-and-poorly designed Chinese molded cable assemblies sometimes have "coax" cables with PVC dielectric, but PVC has a terrible dielectric constant and isn't used as a dielectric in any product of even halfway decent quality. It is, of course, commonly used as a jacket material, where its low cost, flexibility and durability are all benefits and its lousy dielectric constant is irrelevant.

Adding an extra shield would have nothing to do with altering the performance in the time domain. The velocity of propagation of the signal in the center conductor is purely a function of the dielectric material with which it's in contact. When we're talking about audio, too, any discussion of the time domain vis-a-vis cable construction is pretty silly. The only way you'd get a time domain issue would be by having enough capacitance and resistance to start having serious R/C network issues.

Industry Experts in Electromagnetics and Signal Propagation Assessments

I submitted pictures of the exotic cable in question to E/M & EMC Industry experts (John Escallier and Henry Ott , respectively) and both arrived at very similar conclusions regarding the geometry and shield effectiveness of the cable.

According to John Escallier
First, the frayed outer shield is frayed only after you cut it and splayed it out. Prior to it being dissected, what did the shield look like? Ten to one it was a nicely spirally wrapped, uniform coverage shield...Not 100%, mind you, but certainly uniform.

Second, by spiraling the inner wire around a plastic core, they eliminate the internal inductance of the inner conductor. For all non tubular wires, the internal inductance is 15 nanohenries per foot...this inner wire construction eliminates that internal component. The inner wire inductance will actually be 15 nanohenries divided by the number of strands the inner wire is composed of. (that correction factor accounts for the non zero thickness of the tube).

However, there is one thing that is wrong in the design, one which should probably not be used for hf signals, even though it may be ok for audio stuff.

They wound each conductor in a spiral fashion..In doing so, they have created a solenoid component of magnetic field. The outer spiral is opposite pitch from the inside. What this does is create a solenoid field component that is not cancelled by the coaxial geometry. And it causes deviation from the ideal equation L*C=1031*DC. In other words, this cable will have external sensitivity; will have too much inductive storage... It may be of the correct dimensions for 75 ohm impedance, but by spiraling both (either) of the conduction paths, they have a horrible high frequency response, consistent with your ghosting experience.

Measurement Update: Based on phsically measuring the inner and outer conductor spacing of the cable in question, it was found that the characterstic impedance was somewhere between 50-55 ohms which also correlates to the calculated characteristic impedance based on the measurements above.

Closing Comments

So what have we learned from all of this? With respect to cables, you don't always get what you pay for. Sometimes free patch cord supplied by the manufacturer is BETTER than the expensive exotics. Care must be taken when choosing cables, especially video cables. When you see an exotic cable manufacturer repackaging a typical 50 ohm audio cable for HD video use, be very cautious as you may be buying into snake oil . The three basic essentials in component video cables to look for are:

  • 75 ohm characteristic impedance
  • Good double braided / foil combo shielding
  • Quality soldered or crimped terminations

If the component video cable you are considering doesn't have these basic three elements, consider looking elsewhere. If you are concerned with the best video quality, leave the snake oil at the hifi store and buy a cost effective cable that will do no harm to your precious high performance home theater equipment that you worked so diligently to assemble.

We sincerely hope the exotic cable manufacturer in question will view this article as constructive feedback in efforts to improve their product performance which benefits the end user. We don't have a problem with an exotic cable vendor asking high $$$'s for their cables unless the actual cables in question don't perform to our minimum established standards. Component Video cables costing as little as a few dollars per foot meet our minimum design criteria. The exotic cable vendor in question can simply repackage a decent inexpensive shielded 75 ohm component video cable and charge more for their added cosmetics and marketing appeal.


About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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