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BJC Bonded-Pair HDMI: Its Life, and Its Retirement

A possibly-too-long story of a product and a product life cycle

People have wondered what's coming in HDMI cables at BJC for a while, and the explanation of what's changing, and why, is a bit long and a bit complicated. It takes one into a lot of little side alleys. And so, rather than give a rah-rah speech for new product and simply quietly retire the old, we have a bit of a historical/business/political essay for you. If the grand and exciting history of the consumer wire and cable market doesn't float your boat, you may not want to read. But we think it's an interesting story in its way, and you may, too.

HDMI Comes To Town, 2002

We started Blue Jeans Cable in 2002, and that's when the HDMI specification was first published. At the time, almost all video was handled by analog cabling: much better and more robust as a way of delivering quality video, but not great if you're a content provider interested in digital copy protection. When we started putting connectors on cable on our dining room table, one could do all of this with a soldering iron and some stripping and crimping tools. Even multipin cables were not too bad from a small-scale assembly point of view: we could build high-quality VGA cables using five-mini-coax bundles and assembled metal backshells. But with DVI on the market, and HDMI to follow, things were changing.

We had come into a market where lots of people did what we did: put connectors onto coaxes. But, increasingly, we were met with requests from customers for DVI cables, especially to run longer lengths, and HDMI cables. We spent quite a bit of energy trying to work out how, and if, we could assemble these, and the answers were challenging. Most connectors were not exactly designed for ease of assembly, and the small size of the wire and need for a bit of pull strength meant that assembled metal backshells were problematic, and plastic injection overmolding was going to be required. But even if we tooled up for that, the sheer length of time required to solder all nineteen pins at each end of an HDMI cable -- usually affixed to solder pads with barely any space between them -- would result in a price that was not feasible. After a variety of experimental ventures including having our own connector prototypes made with a unique flexible PC board interface, and fiddling with various adaptations of cable stocks to those, we realized that we were going to have to do something we had no experience in: getting a product manufactured for us on contract.

Now, most people in our position, approaching this new HDMI market, tried very hard to "high-end" it: they bought stock Chinese HDMI assemblies, dressed them up to look fancy, invented new technical-sounding terms to describe them, and sold them for premium prices. That wasn't our gig. If we were going to buy stock HDMI cable on the cheap, we would sell it on the cheap (and, indeed, later did and still do, with our Tartan HDMI Cable line). If we were going to tout the technical quality of the product, it would be real technical quality, not mumbo-jumbo.

And technical quality was a real issue with HDMI. In the early going, the quality of HDMI assemblies was, by and large, awful. Many of the factories making the cable stock had little experience with precision paired data cables, making little beyond analog telephone wire. They made data cables that spectactularly failed Cat 5e standards (and they still make these!), which were less demanding than HDMI, so there were few reasons to be optimistic about their work. Message boards contained threads where people were desperately seeking a DVI or HDMI cable that would run 50 feet without problems.

BJC Takes Up The Challenge

We'd been using, as we still do, a lot of Belden (note: not Belkin!) products. And HDMI was a data cable, not much unlike the high-bandwidth data cables Belden was making for commercial data centers. Belden had an interesting technology it called "bonded pair," in which the wires in data pairs were not merely twisted together but were actually bonded together, for more consistent spacing even under flexion. The principal challenges in HDMI cable quality are return loss, resulting from impedance inconsistencies, and crosstalk -- and better dimensional control in bonded pairs improves both of these. But we were a small Belden customer and it took a while to get the attention of the engineering department. After a bit of noncommittal back-and-forth, we decided to go to Richmond, Indiana and visit the engineering team and plead the case for bonded-pair HDMI.

And, sure enough, after we made that case, the team said "yes" and a bonded pair HDMI cable was in process. That wasn't at all the end of the matter, because we had no practical way to get this cable connectorized, and so our next project was to find someone who could do this work for us. At that point in time, there was literally not a single company assembling HDMI cable anywhere on this planet other than in China, and so China it was. We had some strange experiences on that side of things, but ultimately wound up with our HDMI cable termination work being done by a very high-quality operation in Dongguan.

We introduced the Series-1 HDMI cable in 2006, and became an HDMI Adopter that year. The cable's performance was marvelous. Although it was almost certainly the costliest HDMI cable stock being made anywhere on the earth, and although it had a convoluted supply chain (order to Richmond; cable shipped to Seattle; saved up for container shipment, then containerized and sent to Hong Kong; overland to Dongguan; cut and terminated there; overland to Hong Kong, and then containerized and sent back to us in Seattle) which increased cost substantially, the markup that one routinely saw on ordinary HDMI cable by commonly available consumer brands meant that our cable came to retail at a much lower cost than people were being asked to fork over at the big-box stores. Better cable, lower price, and while the world didn't beat a path to our door, we sold a lot of it.

The Series-1 was awfully thick, and HDMI cables don't like to stay plugged in, so eventually we introduced the Series-F2, a 28 AWG version. Later, when the seldom-used Ethernet protocol was added, we introduced the Series-1E and Series-FE, slightly modifying the cable internally to accommodate that. We learned how to do all of this on the fly. We'd never dealt with two-way ocean freight, contract manufacturing, multi-plant products, independent certifications, or any of that. We were still a few years out from "hey, let's make some video cables on the dining room table."

The technical case for these cables was, as we thought it would be, vindicated by later events. The decision to put HDMI in data pairs had always been a disaster in the making due to the inherently limited impedance stability of paired cables (compared to SDI coax, used in the broadcast industry), but what made it worse was that the originators of this particular mistake kept doubling down. The earliest HDMI standard was limited to 1.65 Gbps/pair, straight binary (no multilevel encoding). That was already too much, and imposed limits on practical length: our Series-1 cable was shown at NAB one year running 1080p video 125 feet, but that was well beyond its compliance to the formal spec. Then the standards people went nuts. The next thing we knew, the standard was 3.4 Gbps/pair and the spec had been split into "standard" and "high speed" HDMI cable. A few more years, and with HDMI 2.0, the rate per pair went to 6 Gbps, STILL without multilevel encoding or any other provision to help reduce signal bandwidth. But our product kept passing these standards, without modification, because the quality of those bonded pairs really was that good. We were the first seller in the USA to have "Premium" certified products for sale, because our existing inventory already passed the tougher standard at a time when other manufacturers were having to do new design work to keep up.

And so it was that two people who spent all those hours at the dining room table cutting and connectorizing cable wound up with the most expensive (to make; not to buy) HDMI cable in the world. It was well timed. As HDMI took over the consumer video cable market, the amount of our goods that we could manufacture in our small shop (the dining room gig lasted only about nine months before we could no longer really fit in our house, and the two-person staff level didn't last much longer than that) kept falling and falling. Our many competitors, with their coax-dominated product lineups and their failed attempts to go "high end" with HDMI, kept leaving the business. But we endured that earthquake in our market because we had a credible HDMI cable: one that was principally US-made, one that actually worked at distances where others were liable to fail, and one that, though costlier than the three-buck Chinese specials, was still dramatically cheaper to buy than those three-buck Chinese specials which had been packaged nicely, put onto big-box store shelves, and priced at twenty to a hundred times manufacturing cost. Without that, we don't know what would have become of BJC; we'd probably still be here but we might not have weathered those years well.

HDMI 2.1 Arrives, Sloooooooowly...

Well, along came HDMI 2.1. And not.

For some reason, the HDMI Licensing people decided to roll out the announcement that HDMI 2.1 was coming, years before actually publishing even a preliminary specification. It was a really odd thing to do. Maybe things were slow down there. Maybe they thought the specification wouldn't be so long in coming. But one way or another, the announcement came along that HDMI would now support up to 48 Gbps bandwidth, and that it would do this by doubling the per-pair rate from 6 Gbps to 12 Gbps and by repurposing the clock pair as a full-fledged data pair so that the total rate is four, rather than three, times the per-pair rate. Details of all of this were painfully slow to come out, and from the very first announcements of 2.1 we were met with questions about when we'd be offering HDMI 2.1 cables and asking why we didn't have them when others did (principally because others falsely claimed they did, even before a testing specification had been released!).

At any rate, after some surprisingly long waits, the details began to emerge. The new "Ultra High Speed" certification would require use of new connectors certified for UHS, so unlike previous changes there was no question: this WOULD require new work, not just new testing of existing products. And then the testing standards emerged, which are a bit more convoluted and opaque than in previous versions. As we began to have UHS cables prototyped, we found that practical constraints, involving that long supply chain of ours, made production under the new standard impractical, and we opted, with regrets, to go with Chinese-made cable stock for our new UHS cables. We've run what will be, for the time being at least, our last run of bonded-pair HDMI cable, and when the existing stock of Series-1E and Series-FE sell out, that's the end of that particular story.

It's not, we think, a sad story. It's a great product. It worked, and still works, in installations where others failed. It possibly saved our company. And it provided employment not only for workers here in our Seattle shop but also for the people in Indiana and Kentucky who made all those millions of feet of bulk cable for us. But its time has probably gone past, once and for all, and you may wonder why.

HDMI, and How The World Changed

So, why? Why is this product, which we have been so proud to stand behind and which has done so well over the years, on its way out? The answer isn't all one reason. It's really a combination of a variety of factors, any one of which alone would probably not kill it.

First, the HDMI market has changed. When we first sold HDMI cables, most HDMI devices didn't come with a cable in the box. And a person looking for an HDMI cable in a store didn't find economical choices. As likely as not, the purchase of a nice $150 DVD player would lead one to the sales pitch for a $79 HDMI cable, and despite the colorful packaging and fancy writeups, a lot of people rightly smelled something fishy there, and did a little research on the Internet. Today, the principal vendor of those cables, once a major exhibitor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, shares a booth there with Barbasol. (Yes, really. Not kidding.) The offerings in brick-and-mortar stores are vastly more reasonable, and the choices are broader, than they were: at places like Best Buy, Target and Walmart, you can easily find HDMI cable which, while more costly than what you'll see in some online shops, isn't unreasonably priced. The people who fled the electronics salesroom in the old days saying "there's got to be a better way to buy an HDMI cable!" are now few and far between.

And it's now mostly a "replacement" market. Even if that new Blu-Ray player doesn't have a cable in the box, most people will take it home and plug in the cable that was plugged in to their last player. In the early going, people were buying their first HDMI cable ever. Today, they need one when the old one breaks or when it turns out not to do the job. Between the more reasonable brick-and-mortar environment of today and the replacement nature of the market, there's just a lot less opportunity to sell a fresh HDMI cable to someone. We see that especially in our Tartan HDMI cable line, where economical HDMI cables hardly move at all.

Second, changes in US trade policy over the last few years devastated our ability to sell a US-made product and handed a significant advantage to pure imports. When the US opened a trade war with China, the predictable thing happened: revenge tariffs. As a result of the US actions, including a 25% tariff on most Chinese goods, China imposed a 15% import tariff on wire and cable. Those of you who studied economics in college will probably remember the countless examples of how attempts to adopt protectionist trade policies caused harm to the very domestic industries they were intended to assist. Well, as they say, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, and that's what the US did. Chinese manufacturers of HDMI cable from Chinese stock pay a 25% tariff getting goods into the US; a whopper of a penalty, to be sure. But someone who has the cable made in the USA and terminated in China gets a double whammy: 15% just to get the goods into China (not refundable when they are then re-exported), and THEN 25% to get them back out again. It's already expensive to have your cable made in the USA; but US trade policy, ostensibly trying to help Americans at the expense of the Chinese, made it much worse, in a classic demonstration of the lesson that those who start trade wars always lose.

Third, the difficulty of shoving 12 Gbps, STILL not multilevel-encoded, through a conventional data pair is so severe that if one really wants to be able to reliably attest that the product will pass spec, one needs a close working relationship between the producers of the bulk cable and the assembly shop. Cable on which these bandwidth demands are placed will fail from time to time, and need to be replaced. When there's half a continent, and all of an ocean, between those parties, this becomes not only difficult but costly and time-consuming. And when the supply chain for the product is already typically at least six months, the contribution of new uncertainty really makes the whole thing quite unwieldy.

And So...

Between reduction in the overall market for HDMI cables, which makes doing this at scale difficult, and increased cost due to US trade policy, and the logistical problems of plant-to-plant coordination between two plants neither of which we control, we came to the conclusion that it's no longer viable for us to continue producing our HDMI cable stock in the USA. We were the first to do it, and the only ones ever to do it on a grand scale despite the tiny size of our company.

As we introduce our new UHS HDMI cables, made in Indonesia by our longstanding partner in HDMI cable manufacture, Elka International, we are immensely proud of what we accomplished with Series-1E and Series-FE. And those products aren't obsolete. Most gear still doesn't call for HDMI 2.1-type signals, and even when it does, the reported experience of many of our customers has been that, though we could not get the current cables certified for UHS (due to the use of a non-UHS-certified connector), these cables frequently work where the customer's certified cables don't work in handling UHS signals. Why is that? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but one is that specification compliance in HDMI is established not by testing every cable but by testing a few samples and then promising that the remaining production will meet the same standard. Some vendors, alas, have more of a commitment to cost than to quality. So if you want to use Series-FE in UHS applications, by all means give it a try. It's not certified, but there's a good chance it will work, especially at lengths of 5 feet or less (probability of success diminishing with length). If it doesn't, our unconditional refund policy always applies.

And this isn't necessarily the end. We keep our eye on market conditions, on product specs, and on opportunities to make changes. It's entirely possible that at some point in the future we will be reintroducing Series-FE, or some modified version thereof, as a UHS-certified cable. We have even had a bit of experience with HDMI manufacture in-house: a few years ago we sold a number of six-foot HDMI cables which met special fire ratings for installation in aircraft, assembled here in Seattle, but the process just wasn't efficient enough for the regular market and the doggoned things cost $300 apiece. If more sophisticated and semi-automated assembly methods were to become available -- and we have been learning about such things -- who knows?

We hope that this wordy glimpse into a product life cycle has been of interest to you. We try to do this sort of work, so far as we can, without artifice. We have been making, for years, what we regard as the best HDMI cable in the world. We're not entirely sure it's not still the best HDMI cable in the world, but its day in the sun has passed.

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Blue Jeans Cable
3216 16th Ave W
Seattle, Washington 98119
206 284 2924