Where Does HDMI Cable Come From?

After we began to publish a number of articles about HDMI cable, there was one point which we were surprised to find readers disputing again and again; that was our assertion that all HDMI cable (apart, of course, from our Belden HDMI cables) is made in China. Time and again, we have been e-mailed and telephoned about this one, with a customer swearing up and down that So-and-So Cable manufactures its own HDMI cable, in the United States. In every case, we've checked it out, and in every case to date, it's turned out not to be so.

But this experience made us realize just how effectively the origin of goods is often obscured, and just how easy it is to create the impression that a product is US-made when it isn't, and it also made us realize that, if we're going to go on telling people that all HDMI cable other than our own comes entirely from China (ours comes from the US, but currently we have it terminated in China), we probably should explain how and why we came to that conclusion and--more importantly--how our customers can confirm that fact for themselves.

1. Our own Experience:

When we began to investigate terminating HDMI cable ourselves, we began by checking into sources of raw cable stock supply. What we found was that no American manufacturer of bulk cable made any HDMI cable; this remains true today, apart from our Belden HDMI cable products (which, by the way, are custom products made to our specification--not available as a "stock" Belden cable). Belden1, the most obvious candidate for the work, had never been asked to make HDMI cable for any of its customers; likewise, no one at any other manufacturer had any familiarity with the product type; and this is a rather complex product, which only a handful of U.S. manufacturers have the capability to produce.

We went further, and shopped for a cable assembly house that was doing HDMI termination work (and, by the way, if you think that trade journals make for dull reading, you ought to try trade journals in the wire harness assembly industry!). Again, no results; nobody we could find was building HDMI assemblies in the United States. What's more, when we looked at connectors available for HDMI, we could not find anything suitable for termination in a high-labor-cost market; everything we could find was slow and time-consuming to terminate, which suggested that these connectors were designed for termination in a market where the cost of labor is very low.

We are approached, constantly, by all manner of vendors selling HDMI cable. At no time has any vendor ever offered us a cable made in the United States, and that squares well with what we see in the bulk cable and connector market.

2. Detective Work, Stage One: the HDMI Adopter List

The HDMI trademark is licensed to manufacturers wishing to use it by HDMI Licensing, LLC, an organization created by the founders of the HDMI spec. To be licensed to use the HDMI trademarks, a manufacturer must pay $10,000 per year to HDMI, LLC, along with royalties on the sale of products bearing the HDMI mark. A manufacturer who pays this fee and royalties is deemed an HDMI "Adopter." HDMI, LLC does not require a license for a reseller, however; so when a retail chain, for example, buys HDMI cables for resale, it need not be an Adopter itself. As long as the manufacturer of the goods is an HDMI Adopter, use of the HDMI trademark in marketing is authorized.

So, when you see a cable vendor selling cable bearing the HDMI trademark, there really are only three possibilities vis-a-vis the cable vendor's relationship to HDMI, LLC:

Blue Jeans Cable falls in the first of those three categories; we are a licensed Adopter and we pay royalties on our own HDMI products (though the physical manufacture of our cable stock is done by Belden and, at least for the time being, our termination work is done by other vendors). The list of HDMI Adopters is available at the HDMI website, and a quick look at that list will show very few familiar names; you will not find many American brands there at all, and those you do find (e.g., Gefen) do not have their cable made in the U.S. (see our next section, on UL E-codes). Note one category of vendors completely absent from the list: the well-known cable brands available in big-box retail stores. If you can name a brand, chances are it's not here.

We imagine, though one never knows, that there aren't many people in that third category, trademark infringers; certainly, anyone who spends the time, money and effort required to manufacture HDMI cable in the U.S. is not likely to balk at paying the relatively modest licensing and royalty fees.

What's left is the second category. If a vendor of products bearing HDMI trademarks isn't an adopter, and isn't an infringer, then he isn't a manufacturer, either. He's buying his HDMI cable from an Adopter, or from some sales agent for an Adopter. Now, this isn't surprising, where people in the retail business are concerned. But there is a conclusion to be drawn here that surprises many people. Consider, again, those well-known cable brands you see for sale in the big-box retail stores. They're not on the list, and that's because they simply buy cable assemblies from others, give them fancy branding and packaging, and resell them--often at a very substantial premium.

3. Detective Work, Part 2: Authorized Testing Center Certifications

Any HDMI cable sold with the HDMI trademarks must be tested by an HDMI Authorized Testing Center, and when the ATC approves a cable, it issues a compliance testing certificate. If a vendor is manufacturing its own cable, it'll have a certificate like this, bearing its own name. If someone tells you that he manufactures his own cables, ask for a copy of his ATC certificate; chances are you won't get one, for one of two reasons. Either (1) there is no ATC certificate, or (2) there is a certificate, but since your vendor is buying his cable from someone else, he doesn't want to send you a document that shows the real name of the manufacturer of his product.

4. Detective Work, Part 3: The UL E-Code -- A Secret out in the Open

Sometimes, there seems to be no way of knowing where an HDMI cable comes from; there may be a brand on the jacket, but anybody buying a sufficient run of cable can get his name on the jacket. How to track it down? It can often be much easier than you might think. Have you ever wondered what all the gibberish on cable jackets really means? Here's the key to an interesting little piece of it.

Underwriters Laboratories is responsible for the famous "UL Listing" service, among other things, under which products are evaluated for compliance to safety standards. UL also acts as an independent testing lab to certify that products comply with certain codes, including the National Electrical Code (NEC). You've seen NEC ratings on cables; these include such markings as "CL2", "CL3", "CM" and the like, which indicate that a cable has been tested to verify that it complies with certain burn standards for fire safety. When our Bonded-Pair HDMI cable was being designed, we had to submit a large sample of it to UL, to be exposed to fire so that its burn characteristics could be evaluated.

When a cable is UL Listed or has been tested for NEC compliance by UL, it normally will carry more than just the resulting rating. An electrical inspector examining a run of installed cable may want to be able to verify that the "CL2" or "CM" on the jacket is not counterfeit, and that the cable really has been tested as the rating would indicate. But how does he know who made the cable? How does he know whether the manufacturer of that cable has approvals on file with UL for that cable?

The answer lies in a string of numbers beginning with the letter "E", found in the jacket lettering. For example, looking at a length of our Series-1 Bonded-Pair HDMI cable, you'll find the E-code E108998. This is a UL code, and can be looked up at UL.com. Just plug the code into the field marked "UL File Number" and hit the button, and you'll get a report which tells you that this code belongs to Belden Wire & Cable.

In most cases (there are exceptions, which we'll get to in a minute), the E-code will trace back to the manufacturer of the raw cable stock from which the cable was made. At the CEDIA Expo in 2007, we walked around to a variety of booths for cable vendors selling cable under American brand names; some of these were quite ordinary offerings with quite ordinary prices, but quite a few were cables selling at very, very high prices with some extraordinary claims of clever engineering and high performance. What did we find? In every case where the E-code was present (as opposed to an unlabeled jacket, or one where the jacket lettering had been covered up with nylon braid), it traced back to a Chinese manufacturer. Many went back to Copartner (E139956 and E119932); others went back to Sure-Fire Electrical (E308028) or Der An (E126286). Not one went back to a U.S. company.

Now, that only covers the production of the raw cable stock, not the termination, and there's no way to know where these cables are terminated if the vendor won't tell you. But considering that labor is much, much cheaper in China, it strains credulity to suggest that any of this Chinese cable stock is being imported whole to the U.S. and terminated here when it is so easy to have the work done there.

A couple of cautionary notes are in order. First, it should be understood that we're not suggesting that everyone who sources cable from the same manufacturer is selling the same product. Chinese factories can and do make a variety of cable stocks, and apart from raw cable stock, quality of assembly can vary between assemblers, who aren't shown on the E-code. Second, on occasion you'll find that a product's E-code does trace back to a U.S. company, and that doesn't necessarily mean that the company manufactures the cable itself; it merely means that the company has opened its own UL file. The largest resellers of cable in the U.S. consumer market do this, and once they've done it, they can designate as many factories as they like, in any countries they like, as producers of the products under their listings, without having to disclose to the consumer where the cable is made. So, while the E-code may clearly show that the cable is not made in the U.S. (because no U.S. manufacturer would want to relabel his goods as being of Chinese origin), it cannot conclusively show that the cable IS made here. If you do find a U.S. company's UL code, but neither that company nor any other named party in the chain of sale is an HDMI Adopter, that's a very clear sign that the cable is not of U.S. origin. So which Chinese firm really makes that cable? Unless the owner of the brand name will tell you, there's no way to know for certain.

5. Nobody Actually Claims to Manufacture HDMI Cable in America.

Usually, when we are confronted with a claim that So-and-So makes HDMI cable in the U.S., our attention is directed to some page or other on So-and-So's site which is said to contain this claim. But when we read these pages, we never actually find an explicit claim of U.S. manufacture. Rather, we find at most a sort of careful, indirect suggestion that the cable is made under the auspices of the company in question. "We manufacture these cables to the finest tolerances" or "we spare no expense in manufacturing to bring you the best cable on the market today" does not equate to "we build these in our own shop with our own hands." Rather, when a private-labeled product is manufactured to order, it is conventional--if arguably somewhat misleading--to refer to oneself as the manufacturer when one is really only the party ordering it from the manufacturer.

We choose to be very direct and explicit about this. We do not manufacture our own HDMI cables; but Belden makes our cable stock, in Kentucky and in Indiana, according to a design which was engineered for us, which is unique to Blue Jeans Cable and which is not available anywhere else, and we currently have this bulk cable terminated for us in China. We hope to move our cable termination work, at least in large part, to the U.S. in future; if and when we do, you'll know--because we'll say so in straightforward and unambiguous terms.

6. If someone did Manufacture HDMI Cable in the US, What Would it Look Like?

We are confident that, at this date, there is no manufacturer who makes HDMI cable and terminates HDMI cable assemblies in the United States; but anyone who has information to the contrary is welcome to prove us wrong. Here's what one would expect to find, if there were a U.S. manufacturer of HDMI cable:

We've worked on US termination of HDMI cable; we've had special proprietary connectors made on a prototype basis, and have put many hours and lots of money into the problem, and haven't cracked it. The problem, simply, is that Chinese labor is very, very cheap, and hard to compete with; we have concluded that while it's practically feasible to terminate the cable in the USA, when our customers saw the price tag we'd have no customers left. We remain, however, the ONLY vendor whose HDMI cable stock is manufactured in the U.S. If you are looking for an HDMI cable with actual U.S. content, our Belden HDMI products are the only ones that fit the bill; and while our termination work is still being done overseas, approximately 80% of the money we spend on Belden HDMI goes not to China, but to the men and women of Belden. We work out details with Belden engineers and sales people in Richmond, Indiana, and when we visit the plant, we shake hands with the skilled workers who run the machines that draw, extrude, wrap and cable our HDMI products. We are proud to be an American manufacturer, and we are proud to support American manufacturing, and America's manufacturing workers, to the fullest extent possible.

Footnotes:

1. We raise two points here regarding Belden, to avoid confusion. First, BelDEN is not BelKIN; Belkin is a vendor of, among other things, Chinese-made HDMI cables, and is unrelated to Belden. Second, in approximately October 2007, Belden intorduced an HDMI cable under its own brand, in its "HomeChoice" line, marketed primarily to installers; this product is made in China by Belden's LTK subsidiary and is not related to the American-made cable stocks which Belden designed and builds for us.

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