Confusing cables: which one do I use?

With so many different devices and gadgets in your home, working out which cable to use can be very confusing. Whether you are gaping in horror at the endless wall of cables at the electronics store, or staring in confusion at the tangle of wires in the technology drawer (we’ve all got one), this dummies guide to audio and visual cables will help you work out exactly which type you need.

To put it simply: cables carry audio or visual information from  one device to another. Some cables carry both at the same time. They can carry information between your DVD player and your television, and your stereo receiver and your speakers. Cables don’t change the information they carry – they just transport it. Cables are made up of three main parts. There is the wire, sometimes called the conductor, which carries the signal. There are shielding layers which wrap around the wire, both to stop you from getting a jolt and to stop the wire from picking up radio frequencies. And then there are the connectors – the bits on either end which connect the wires to your devices.

Audio cables
Analog RCA cableThe most commonly used audio-only cables are called analog RCA cables. These are the cables with red and white, or sometimes red and black, connectors (pictured). These are often used to connect VCRs and DVD players to televisions, and CD players to stereo receivers. The red ends are always for the right stereo, and the black or white are for the left.

The next most common type of audio cable is speaker wire. Speaker wire runs from a stereo receiver to a speaker. Each speaker needs its own wire. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the speaker wire needs to be the thicker the gauge you should buy. For anything up to six metres in length, 14 gauge should be fine. A common myth is that speaker wires all need to be the same length – they don’t.

Video cables
The most common type of video-only cable is a composite video cable. It is a single yellow RCA connector which is usually bundled with red and white analog RCA audio cables (the ones pictured above). These cables are fine for watching VHS cassettes on older televisions, but they don’t carry enough information for newer digital televisions.

Another common video cable is the S-video cable. Although many televisions and DVD players have an S-video jack (a place to plug it in), they only carry a slightly better quality picture than the composite video cable, so if you are using an HDTV they won’t give you a good picture.

There are two high-quality video cables. The first is the component video cable (pictured). It has three RCA connectors in red, green and blue. These are ideal for connecting high-definition devices, such as blu-ray players and HDTVs. The second is a DVI cable. This delivers the same quality as the component video cable, but it also comes with a built-in copy protection protocol, which some people claim causes compatibility issues with some devices.

Audio/Visual cables
The most common type of audio and visual cable is an HDMI cable (pictured). HDMI cables were designed to be used with high-definition devices, so again they work well with DVD or blu-ray players and HDTVs. The older fashioned DVI cable will work just as well.