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GROUP TEST

 

SCART LEADS

 

STANDFIRST

The leads and cables in a home cinema system are just as important as the boxes they're plugged in to, but is there any point spending a small fortune on connectors? We've been putting a selection of AV cables through their paces to find out

 

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Connecting leads are a bit of a contentious subject in hi-fi circles. Reviewers wax lyrical on the relative merits of various wiring products, debating the often quite subtle changes a particular cable can make to the sound of a system. It hasn't spilled over into home cinema yet, but give it time... Nevertheless, the fact is the quality, or otherwise, of a cable and connector can have a noticeable impact on the picture and sound performance of your equipment. When you've just spent the thick end of a couple of grand on a system, you don't want to go spoiling it for the sake of a few quid, now do you?

 

The chances are you already have. Judging by the gloomy reports we get from accessory companies, many home cinema system owners seem perfectly content to use the leads supplied with their AV components, or discovered lurking in the backs of drawers. At the very least they will cheapo items, of indifferent quality, at worst they are going to degrade the picture and sound. But how is that possible? Surely a cable, is a cable, is a cable? They either work, or they don’t…

 

It helps to think of a cable and the connectors at either end as a section of water pipe. If a pipe is narrow or made in such a way that it restricts the flow, then not everything that goes in will come out of the other end. Badly made pipes can leak, allowing some of the contents to spill out, or outside contaminants to leach in. If the joints are weak that can cause problems, and the quality of the materials used to make the pipe, will determine how well it performs in the longer term. Cables can be too narrow -- not necessarily in the physical sense -- but in the way they restrict or attenuate particular frequencies. Cables can leak, creating interference in other poorly screened cables, and poorly made joints, or connectors can suffer from high resistance, generate noise or cause intermittent contact.  

 

Video and audio signals are actually quite robust and cable faults can be hard to spot (or hear), especially if they're being masked by other problems or shortcomings within the system. However, the point is, they are easy to avoid in the first place. It would be untrue to say that replacing all of the leads in your system will bring about any miraculous improvements in performance, but every little helps. What's more, by upgrading to good quality leads you will be able to eliminate at least one potential source of trouble, before it starts. Lead faults can develop slowly, so slowly in fact that you probably won't notice that it is happening; good quality leads shouldn't deteriorate, so it will be one less thing to worry about.  

 

Decent leads don't have to be expensive, we're still some way away from the 'five pounds an inch' syndrome that has arisen in top-end hi-fi. A complete set of leads needn't set you back more than a good night out, and remember, they don't wear out, you don't see them so there's no need to worry about them looking trendy, and they'll continue to earn their keep, even when you come to upgrade. 

 

BOX COPY 1

HOW THE TESTS WERE DONE

The physical and electrical characteristics of the conductors inside a cable are only one of the factors we consider. The connectors at either end are just as important, if not more so, as they can have an even greater impact on the cable's performance. We check the quality of the outer insulating sheath and the strength of the join or bond between the cable and the sleeving on the plug or socket. A series of good old-fashioned tugs, vigorous wriggling and putting excessive pressure on contact pins sorts the men from the boys. Where possible we check the quality and neatness of soldered joints. The plating on the connectors is important; gold scores extra points because of its immunity to corrosion. Other forms of plating are satisfactory, provided they remain clean and bright after being left wrapped in a damp flannel for 24 hours. We test the connectors for intermittency during the signal tests, by moving them around in their sockets. The signal tests involve side by side comparisons, checking the high and low frequency components of audio and video signals (using calibrated test tones and patterns) before and after they pass through the cable, and looking out for any increases in noise levels and bleed through, from adjacent signals. 

 

BOX COPY 2

INSTANT EXPERT

Connecting lead technology exists somewhere in a netherworld between cutting edge science and the black arts. The bottom line is that there are no perfect solutions, and enormous potential for unscrupulous manufacturers to peddle dodgy snake-oil remedies. The essence of a good lead is quite simple. It starts with the connectors at either end. They need to be electrically sound, plated to make them resistant to corrosion or oxidisation and securely soldered or otherwise intimately connected to the cable's conductor or shielding. All conductors have DC electrical resistance, (we're still waiting for room-temperature superconductors), this should be as low as possible. A cable's AC resistance or impedance and its capacitance needs to be constant throughout its length, and appropriate to the function. AV signals survive best inside cables with an impedance of 75 ohms and a screen to core capacitance of 50 to 150 picofarads/meter. If those values deviate by more than a few percent then signal losses will occur. 

 

Capacitance -- the ability of two closely spaced electrical conductors, separated by an insulator (i.e. a coaxial cable), to store an electric charge. The capacitance of a cable has a direct effect on its frequency handling characteristics

 

Connector Plating -- gold is the material of choice, it has very low electrical resistance and it doesn't tarnish or corrode. Nickel plating is common on most other types of lead

 

DC Resistance -- the ability of a conductor to pass an electric current, measured in ohms. The higher the resistance of a cable the greater the loss of signal

 

Impedance -- resistance to an alternating current (AC) i.e. a fluctuating current as in an audio or video signal. A cable is at its most efficient when its impedance matches that of the equipment to which is connected

 

SCART -- Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio Recepteurs et

Televiseurs. Euro standard 21-pin connector system, used on all VCRs, TVs and AV devices like DVD and laserdisc players, to convey audio and video signals

 

S-Video (aka Y/C or component video) -- video signal format whereby the brightness (Y or luminance) and colour (C or chrominance) information is handled separately, to prevent interaction. Eliminates characteristic 'herring bone' and moiré effects in heavily patterned areas of a television picture

 

THE REVIEWS

Rather than look at every type of AV lead on the market we've focused on just two types. They are the fully wired or 'Type U' (U for universal) SCART, and the S-Video (or Y/C) cable, that is becoming increasingly common on TVs and higher performance video components, such as Super VHS video recorders, laserdisc and DVD players. SCART leads are mixed blessing, they're convenient, because they carry a mixture of audio, video and data signals, but they can be cumbersome and unreliable.

 

SCART connectors first appeared in the early 1980’s initially as a means of simplifying the interconnection between TVs and VCRs, however it was also used as a means of controlling the flow of non-EU products. In 1983 the French devised the Poitiers plan; all imported TVs and VCRs had to be individually examined by Customs agents, in the town of Poitiers, where French armies stopped a Saracen invasion in 732... There were only nine customs agents in the town, so it quickly became a bottleneck, achieving the desired effect. The plan eventually backfired, the Germans protested because their goods had to pass through Potiers as well, and eventually Japanese manufacturers got around the regulations by setting up manufacturing plants in Europe, using just enough locally sourced components to qualify as being manufactured in the EU.

 

SCART TO SCART

HAMA 043534, 2-metres, £15.99, ****

The 043534 is a typical mid-market cable from a respected manufacturer, with no special claims to fame. The quality of construction is satisfactory though the terminations for the outer earth screen could have been more effective. It passed the pin push-test with no problems and the gold plating on the outer earth screen stayed clean and bright following the corrosion test. All of the AV signal paths are effectively screened and there was no change in noise levels or AV interactivity. Fair value, worth considering.

 

Construction               ****

Performance               ****

Contact                       Hama PVAC Ltd., telephone (01256) 374700

 

Caption            Conventional design and construction, a good performer with no significant faults or problems

 

 

CABLE CONNECTIONS CUSTOM LEAD, £45, 1m, ****

No, you're not seeing things, but then it is custom made to order. But what a lead, it's built like a wiring loom, made up of twelve individually screened cables, with a separate earth braid. The cables are bundled together inside a woven nylon outer sleeve; the SCART connectors at either end have gold plated contacts. The ends of each cable are neatly wrapped in a heat shrink insulating collar, and all of the earth braids are sheathed, the quality of manufacture is outstanding, so too is the performance, with no detectable impact on audio or video signals. A mad price, but if you need a top quality lead made to order, this is it! 

 

Construction               *****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Cable Connections Ltd., telephone (0151) 3423030

 

Caption                       Hand-made custom quality doesn't come cheap but it's not going to let you down

 

IXOS 126AV, 1.5m, £39.95, ****

The first thing that strikes you about this cable is the weight! The plugs with their gold plated contacts are encased in metal covers, screwed together for extra security. Inside the bundle of screened cables are contained within a second foil screen. Earth braids are adequately insulated with sleeving; it's not very neat looking but it's not going to come apart in a hurry. It's the sort of cable you'll be able to hand down to your grandchildren! AV performance is excellent, noise levels are unchanged and AV signal integrity is unaffected. Pricey but indestructible.

 

Construction               *****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Path Distribution, telephone (0121) 7492240

 

Caption                       Bulletproof plugs and cable, this lead is near indestructible…

 

VIVANCO PROWIRE, 1.5M £19.99, ****

The distinctive maroon cable and connector covers are a feature of the Pro Wire range, as are the gold-plated contacts and earth shields. Signal-carrying cables are all individually screened and oxygen-free copper wire is used throughout. The pins are solidly located and resisted our best efforts to unseat them. The covers are moulded on, so we can't say too much about the soldering but it passed the tug-and-twist tests with flying colours. No problems with signal handling either, the screening is effective, there was with no detectable increase in noise or any significant losses. Give it a try.

 

Construction               ****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Vivanco UK, telephone (01442) 403020

 

Caption            Add a little colour to your system, red and gold always go together…

 

 

S-VIDEO TO S-VIDEO

 

HAMA 0294747, 1.5 metres, £9.99, *****

The key feature on this lead is the gold plated contacts on the mini DIN plugs at either end. The plating is good and thick and doesn't scratch off easily so it should last the course. The construction is otherwise perfectly straightforward with moulded sleeving on the plug surrounds. The pins are rigid and mounted firmly, all internal connections are stable and the electrical contacts are solid. We detected no increase in noise and the screening appears to be adequate. Worth considering.

 

Construction               *****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Hama PVAC Ltd., telephone (01256) 374700

 

Caption            The gold plated contact pins and earth screen add a little to the price but this should pay dividends with as far as lone term reliability is concerned

 

PANASONIC STANDARD, free, 1.5 metres, ****

This S-Video cable is a supplied accessory with Panasonic digital camcorders. The construction is unusual in that the cable is a flat twin coax. This actually makes a lot of sense as it further reduces the chance of signal interaction. There's nothing special about the materials or quality of manufacture, both are satisfactory. The connections were unaffected by our strength and fatigue tests, the pins and shielding showed good corrosion resistance. Video signals passed through the cables without let or hindrance, with no detectable increase in noise or frequency losses. If you've got it, use it!

 

Construction               *****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Supplied with Panasonic digital camcorder

 

Caption                       The unusual flat twin coax helps keep the two video component signals apart for greater immunity to cross-colour and patterning

 

 

UNBRANDED, £2.99, 1.5m ****

This was the cheapest S-Video to S-Video lead we could find; it came from an electrical goods stall at a Sunday market/car boot sale. We were expecting a load of old rubbish but it turned out to be a bit of a bargain. The only real problem was grubby contact pins and shield. The lead had clearly spent some time exposed to the elements but after a wipe-over it came up clean with no trace of corrosion. After cleaning it passed all of our stress tests with no difficulty, and signal handling showed no abnormalities or deficiencies. A lucky buy, but treat cheapie leads with suspicion!

 

Construction               ****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Your local street market

 

Caption            Despite the lack of branding or any special features this street market cheapie did very well

 

VIVANCO PROWIRE, 5m, £24.99, *****

Part of Vivanco's ProWire Home Cinema range, you can tell straight away that this one is going to stay the course. The plugs are all metal construction, with 24-carat gold plating on all contact surfaces. The cable is a heavy-duty oxygen-free type, with double shielding. It's available in a range of lengths, from 1.5 metres up to 10 metres; we looked at the 5M version. The standard of construction and finish are both excellent, as is the performance. Despite the length it's as close to being transparent to as any of the video cables we've tested. Recommended.

 

Construction               *****

Performance               *****

Contact                       Vivanco UK, telephone (01442) 403020

 

Caption                       A solid, all-metal plug and thick, heavy duty cable, that's built to last

 

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ã R. Maybury 1998 2407

 

HOME ENTERTAINMENT                                                            TEXT 2…98

 

HEAD

TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER

 

 

ADD COPY -- THE VERDICT

 

If our tests prove anything, it is that you don't have to spend a small fortune on fancy AV leads to achieve optimum results, though we have to admit that our very fortunate experience with a cheap and unbranded lead may not be typical. Nevertheless, there is a case for spending a little extra on premium products, if only for the peace of mind that comes with superior materials, quality of construction and long-term reliability.

 

The performance differences between the best and worst leads in this particular roundup are very small. Indeed, given the nature of AV signals we defy anyone to spot them without recourse to sophisticated test instruments, certainly they're not going to be visible or audible on normal TV pictures and sound, coming from a low-band AV source, like a VHS video recorder. Lead-induced aberrations might just about show up show on a laserdisc machine or DVD player connected to a top-quality TV or monitor, but again they're going to be almost impossible to spot on a moving picture and busy soundtrack.  

 

There were no loosers in this group and such negative comments as there are relate to relatively minor design points or construction details, but to keep things neat and tidy we will rank the leads. In reverse order we start with the market stall cheapie. It did remarkably well in the tests, but this was pure luck and we really don't think street markets are a reliable source of quality AV accessories. The other surprise was the Panasonic S-Video cable, it performed every bit as well as paid-for cables and we would be happy to use it in all applications but again it bucks the trend and usually the leads supplied with budget and mid-range equipment can be improved upon.

 

The Cable Connections S-Video lead comes next but only because of the price, all other aspects of the cable's design, construction and performance are flawless, but forty-five quid is a lot to pay for a metre long cable, no matter how well it is put together. However, it's worth noting that it is custom made, so if you have need for a high-performance cable of a very specific length this is one way of ensuring you get what you want.  The Ixos Type U SCART is in a similar price bracket to the Cable Connection product but we have to say it's built like the proverbial brick outhouse, it is industrial strength and unlikely ever to let you down. Now we come to the mainstream products and the Hama 043534 SCART to SCART cable is the right lead, for the right price and suitable for the vast majority of applications, in other words a thoroughly worthy product, and we mean that in the best possible sense. The same goes for the Hama 0294747, solidly made, dependable and sensibly priced. The two Vivanco leads make it to the top of the pile for being so well presented, and going just that little bit further in terms of materials and quality of construction, without the price getting out of hand.  

 

TABLE

Make/model               Price            Length            Format            Perf            Const            VFM

 

Cable Connections            £45            1M                  Type U/S      *****            *****            ***

Hama 043534             £16            2M                  Type U/S      ****            ****            ****

Hama 0294747            £10            1.5M               S-S                  *****            *****            *****

Ixos 126AV                £40            1.5M               Type U/S      *****            *****            ***

Panasonic Std            £n/a            1.5M               S-S                  *****            *****            *****

Unbranded                  £3            1.5M               S-S                  *****            ****            ****

Vivanco ProWire            £25            5M                  S-S                  *****            *****            ****

Vivanco ProWire            £20            1.5M               Type U/S      *****            *****            ****

 

ADD COMMENTS FOR CABLE GROUP TEST

 

Cable Connections            VFM ***

A slick-looking and extremely well made cable that gave outstanding results in all of our tests. It is definitely worth considering, particularly if you have any special requirements, but be aware that this kind of one-off customisation commands a premium         

 

Hama 043534             VFM****     

This well made and realistically priced cable has an impeccable pedigree. It would be a good starting point for a lead upgrade, and the rest of the range is worth investigating, particularly if you need a special length or alternative configuration (i.e. SCART to phono)

 

Hama 0294747            VFM*****   

Another quality product at a sensible price. In construction terms it is a definite notch up on most standard offerings, passing all of our stress tests and ageing without difficulty. The gold plated connections should ensure a long, noise-free life.

 

Ixos 126AV                VFM***

If we could award points for looks then this lead would be an easy winner, it's just a shame you won't get to see it on most set-ups. It is as tough as it looks and it's going to easily outlast anything it's connected to.            

 

Panasonic Standard            VFM*****

Cheapo standard leads are usually a good excuse to upgrade but not in this case. Panasonic's supplied offering compares well with any of the over the counter products we've reviewed. If you find one of these in the box, use it!

 

Unbranded                  VFM****

A street market is the last place you should buy AV connecting leads but this one is the exception that proves the rule. We were very fortunate, damp and dusty market stalls are not the best place to store cables.            

 

Vivanco ProWire            VFM****

Pro Wire is convincing proof that AV leads do not have to be boring and black, this eye-catching design is made from top-grade materials, and it works well too. That and the extra design touches and the sensible price make it well worth shortlisting.

 

Vivanco ProWire            VFM****

A well-built lead that looks as good as it performs. In this case the extra length has no effect on performance. Noise levels and signal handling characteristics were on a par with shorter 1 and 1.5 metre S-Video cables.

 

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HOME ENTERTAINMENT                                                            TEXT 2…98

 

ADD COPY -- INSTANT EXPERT/HOW AND WHERE TO BUY CABLES

 

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Unlike most other categories of audio and video product there are no clear and easy to follow signposts, that tell the average consumer anything meaningful about the quality and performance of products. In fact cables and connectors have a lot in common with washing powder and toothpaste, with all kinds of miracle ingredients and quasi-scientific claims bandied about on packaging and promotional literature. What, for example are the benefits of UHP-OFC low grain copper wire, compared with multi-strand polycrystalline or monocrystal formulations, and what will silicone rubber insulation do for your love life?

 

The trouble is there's no easy way of telling what these mystical materials and additives will do for your system, until you get the cable home and plug it into your system. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that the law of diminishing returns applies to all things audio-visual. After spending a small fortune on interconnects for a £250 DPL mini system, it will still look and sound like a £250 mini system, so get your cable requirements into proportion.

 

If you're about to spend big bucks on a set of cables talk and listen to the experts. You can be fairly certain that the advice you'll get from a specialist dealer will be a lot more comprehensive than that dispensed by a part-time sales assistant in a multiple electrical discount store. That's not meant to disparage the quality of cable products sold in chain stores, indeed as our small survey proves it is perfectly possible to find top grade products in the high street. However, there's unlikely to be the same opportunity to discuss your specific needs and even compare different cables, as you would get in a well-equipped hi-fi dealership.

 

Brand awareness is very important, do a little homework and shop around before you part with the plastic. Accessory manufacturers who dabble in the lead business tend not to last very long. You can be reasonably certain the ones who have been around for a while, who have built up a comprehensive range of cables and connectors must be doing something right.

 

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ã R, Maybury 1998 2708

 

 

 

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