In the world of today's home entertainment devices, you'll have a wide variety of connections available to get all your gear hooked up. Oftentime's the back panels of receivers, DVD players, and TVs have more plugs, jacks, and terminals than you would have ever thought possible on a single device. Those who wonder why we need so many different connections have good reason, as it seems in this modern age we could finally pick one standard and run with it. However, ditch the connections of yore, and all your gear from yesterday (that VCR that you play home movies on for example) wouldn't work without a multitude of connections to choose from.
The downside of all these connections is plain as day for anyone that's ever connected a home theater system together. Which connection is best? Which are you supposed to use? What some don't know is that these different connections offer various levels of audio and video performance. In other words, the connection from your device to your TV or receiver will be the limiting factor on how good it will look or sound. Using the best connections will yeild the best performance possible from your gear.
Warning! Warning! Avoid channel 3 at all costs! Anytime you have to flip your TV to channel 3 to see the cable box, satellite box, VCR, or anything else... you're connected with an RF cable, which is the worst possible audio and video connection you can make. Some TVs only have RF inputs, so if that's you it's time to start thinking about a new TV set. There's nothing much you can do to get a better picture. For those that are connected with RF, but have more options available... do I have a treat for you! Some upgrades to better connections will result in some new found performance... even if your gear is past its prime. The easiest step up from the screw-type RF connection is the most basic line level connection there is: composite video.
Composite video is the yellow jack, typically paired with accompanying red and white audio jacks. This type of connection will be a significant upgrade from the screw-type RF cables. Rememberr, unlike RF where audio and video come down the same line, this connection requires two or three cables, one for the picture and one or two for the sound (depending on whether your gear supports stereo sound). Though composite video connections were once the staple of performance for hooking up your gear, its fallen to the wayside as better connections that yield better video and audio performance have become more common.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to use the best connection your device offers. On many older products like first generation VCRs, composite is still the best connection you can make. However, newer products like S-VHS VCRs, DVD players, satellite boxes, digital video recorders, and surround receivers provide you with the means to maximize your performance through better A/V connections.
Examine the back of your components, TV, and surround receiver (if you use one). Picking the best connection is easy when you know what to look for. For example, if your TV only offers composite, then that is the best connection you can make. Here are the different connections you should look for, ordered from worst to best.
Video Connections(there are more, but below are the most common)
- RF - Screw on type "F" connector
- Composite - Yellow RCA style jack - Better than RF
- S-Video - Round jack with little holes in it - Better than RF & composite
- Component - Green, Red, and Blue Style RCA jacks - Better than RF, composite, & S-Video
- DVI - Wide computer-like connection with many little holes
- HDMI - Small, flat connection that looks like a large USB port. More on HDMI in the article, "Why HDMI is the Clear Choice for HDTV Connectivity"
Of these video connections, only component, DVI, and HDMI are HD capable.
- Analog - red and white RCA jacks
- Optical - Toslink jack (square and black, sometimes has a removable cover) - better than analog
- Coaxial - Orange RCA style jack - better than analog
- HDMI - Listed here as well since HDMI can also carry digital audio and video over the same cable
Optical and coaxial digital audio connections essentially do the same thing. There are negligible differences between them. Use whatever your device offers. If it has both, it doesn't matter on cable runs shorter than 50 feet. If your run is over 50 feet, then use optical.
For a complete list of available connections, read "Picking The Right Cables"
Which Connections Do I Use?
If your TV isn't from 1975, you'll most likely find RF, composite, and S-Video connections. If your TV was purchased within the last five years, you should have a component, and possible DVI or HDMI connections as well. All TVs have a different number of connections, you'll need to jot down how many of each connection you have. If you own a digital surround receiver, you'll probably find all of the audio connections on the back, but try to keep it straight which are in and which are out, and which are analog and which are digital since many receivers off a multitude of advanced connection features. Older "Pro-Logic" receivers will only have analog connections, but could offer video in and out as well. Keep your eye on the labels as you jot down what's what.
Once you've identified the best connections, choose the best devices to use them. Example: If your TVs best connection is S-Video, and it only has one, choose the best device to take advantage of it. If the choice is between a S-VHS VCR and a DVD player, the DVD player will make better use of that connection. Prioritize your devices and work down. The best connections should be reserved for the devices capable of producing the highest quality. So if your TV only has one HD component input, and you have a choice between a HD cable box and a DVD player, go for the HD cable box since it produces the highest quality images.
Using this method, you'll be able to give some, if not all, of your devices a boost in performance. Make sure that if you go shopping for wires, look for quality cables like those from Monster Cable. Only quality cables will give you superior results.