Review: XtremeMac XtremeHD TOSLINK Cable
Marketing hype aside, there's nothing magic about cables: they transfer electricity and sometimes light from one place to another, and so long as their pins and insulation are reasonably well-designed, they'll last a long time - possibly longer than the devices they're attached to. So when XtremeMac announced its XtremeHD series of cables, designed for use with Apple's new HDTV-centric media player Apple TV, there were really only three questions on our minds: how are they priced, how do they look, and do they truly work with the Apple TV hardware?
There are five different XtremeHD cables, all except one sold for $20, and each with the same general set of features. All of the cables are 2 meters (6.6 feet) long, shielded, and covered with a strong rubber coating for extended durability. They’re predominantly gray in color with white accents, gold-covered connectors, and hints of additional color where necessary to make proper connections with your Apple TV and other AV equipment. Having used lots of other cables, we’d describe all of the XtremeHD cables as a good value for the dollar relative to other options - they’re not as inexpensive as the cheapest such cables we’ve seen in each of their categories, but they have all the tangible signs of quality manufacture.
XtremeHD HDMI>HDMI Cable ($20) is an audio and video cable with HDMI connectors at both ends, and is designed for the most recent high-definition television sets. It promises full compatibility with the up-and-coming HDMI/HDCP 1.3 copy protection specification, as well as with all earlier HDMI devices. Much has been made of the fact that dual HDMI cables like this one carry retail prices of up to $120, as well as the fact that virtually identical cables sell for as little as $5; XtremeMac’s pricing is aggressive for a name brand cable but not the lowest we’ve seen.
For video, XtremeMac also sells the XtremeHD HDMI>DVI Cable ($20), which has an older DVI plug at one end and an HDMI plug at the other. This cable can serve two purposes: the DVI plug can go into most recent computers, including Mac minis and laptops, to connect those machines to an HDMI-equipped HDTV. Alternately, the HDMI plug can go into the back of the Apple TV unit, and the DVI plug into a DVI port-equipped monitor or television set.
Then there’s the XtremeHD Component Video Cable ($20). This one consists of three RCA-style plugs that carry separate video signals to older HDTVs and less popular “enhanced-definition” TVs. The Component Video Cable can be connected to Apple TV, many recent DVD players, and other devices capable of putting out 480p or better video signals, but unlike the HDMI cable, it doesn’t carry HDCP copy protection information, which some high-definition content providers have threatened to require for their highest-quality, 1080p-capable video discs in the future. Apple TV doesn’t include HDCP or 1080p support, so the issue’s somewhat moot for Apple TV users - at least for now.
XtremeMac’s final two cables are audio-only. The XtremeHD Audio Cable ($15) uses left- and right-channel RCA plugs to connect to basically any audio receiver or TV you might have, delivering two-channel analog audio. Its XtremeHD TOSLINK Cable ($20) is an optical audio cable with a single-plug design and a fiber optic core. This cable is capable of delivering clear 5.1-channel audio if the output device supports it, and you have a receiver capable of decoding and distributing it to multiple speakers. Unlike other TOSLINK cables we’ve seen, XtremeMac’s version includes very nice integrated caps for both of the optical connectors, as well as one connector adapter. Besides Apple TV, it can be used with Apple’s AirPort Express, and numerous Macintosh computers with optical audio output functionality. For Apple TV, you’ll need to buy a video cable to go along with either of these options.
Prior to Apple TV’s release last week, we tested the HDMI and DVI cables with other devices, and found that they worked just as expected, and looked pretty good too - their gray coloration is a better match for the silver and white Apple products than, say, the piano black Sony PlayStation 3, but if your cabling’s hidden away, there’s no doubt that these options are a much better value for the dollar than, say, Sony’s. Following Apple TV’s launch, we also tested all five of the cables with both Apple TV and other devices. We experienced no problems whatsoever with audio or video quality, and if anything, XtremeMac’s RCA plugs are a hint on the tight side rather than loose, so you can expect them to lock firmly into place on your devices and not come off until you remove them.
Ideally, you’d be able to get cables as nicely designed as these for prices closer to the $5-7 marks that discounters sell their audio and video cables for, and in all candor, if you’re just going to buy cables, connect them, and never mess around with them, you could get less expensive ones than these and not worry too much about their performance. But the XtremeHD line delivers enough quality and design to justify a small price premium, as they’re well-made enough to survive a bit of abuse, and still look good in the end. Though Apple really should have bundled some cables with the Apple TV, we consider these recommendable for use with that device, as well as with others.