Good, Better, Best -- Or Not?

Disconnecting Price from Perceived Quality

We have a lot of products in some categories. In SDI cable, for example, we probably have at any one time about fifteen different suitable cable stocks on hand (not counting things like multiple colors of the same cable). Some of these cost more than others, and naturally the question arises: is the expensive one the best? Or, as often as not, the answer to that question is assumed outright, and the question we are asked is: "What makes your most expensive cable better than your least expensive cable?"

This sort of question is natural enough. We are all accustomed to the idea that price can serve as a rough proxy for quality, and that, therefore, when two similar items are differently priced by the same vendor, the expensive one is bound to be better. After all, who would buy it if it were the same, or lower, quality than the lower-priced product?

"Good, Better, Best" is a typical way for people in the consumer a/v cable business to structure a product line, because it allows a vendor to cater to a variety of budgets. Whether the "Best" is actually better than the merely "Good"" is, in many cases, a legitimate question, the answer to which involves the whole of consumer psychology, from confirmation bias to conspicuous consumption -- Thorstein Veblen's classic work on that subject, The Theory of the Leisure Class, is still a good read, and still relevant today, more than a century after he wrote it.

We don't really like to do it that way here. Most of the time, in fact, it doesn't save us a lot of money to go "cheap" on materials or construction methods, and so we tend to think that the best way to structure the product line is "Best, Best, and also Best." But when we try to explain that in answer to the question whether our most expensive cables are much better than our least expensive cables, we do meet with a fair amount of bewilderment. Why would we sell something more expensive, if it's not better?

So, Why Do Products Have Different Prices?

Of course, if everything we sell is the best we can make of the sort, why would anyone buy anything other than the cheapest of the range? Well, simply put, the definition of "best" can depend upon what the product's being used for. Here are a couple of examples:

Plenum Versus Non-Plenum

We've been selling Belden 1694A, a popular SDI coax, from the first day we entered this business back in 2002, and over those years we've sold millions of feet of the stuff. It's great. But Belden 1694A has a more expensive sister product, Belden 1695A. 1695A is in most respects just the same as 1694A. It's an SDI coax, RG-6/U type, 18 AWG copper center conductor, similar shielding, et cetera -- but it costs more than twice as much. This has led a lot of people to the seemingly natural conclusion that 1695A is in fact a higher-quality version of 1694A.

Now, if we pull out spec sheets, there is an interesting surprise. 1695A actually doesn't quite perform as well as 1694A. It's excellent, but when we get up into high-frequency attenuation (a very important attribute in SDI coax), we find that it just cannot quite match 1694A. So, why on earth is it so expensive if, instead of being 1694A's higher-quality sister, it is apparently a slightly LOWER quality cable?

The answer has nothing to do with electronics, and everything to do with fire codes. 1695A is a plenum-rated cable, rated CMP, and therefore it can be lawfully installed in various environments -- chiefly, in ventilation return ways -- where 1694A cannot. To accomplish this, the plastics used in the dielectric and jacket have to be changed to more expensive, more fire-safe alternatives -- Teflon, in the case of the dielectric -- which results in the cable being much more expensive. Is 1695A "better" than 1694A? It certainly is, if you've got to install it in a plenum. If you don't, then it's no better, and indeed very slightly worse.

More Flexible Versus Less Flexible

Let's turn to another SDI coax, 1505A. Belden's probably sold more 1505A than any other SDI cable in its line because it is just a great all-around product. 1505A has a plenum sister, 1506A, just as 1694A does, and it also has another sister product, 1505F. 1505F is significantly more costly than 1505A. Is it "better"?

A look at the spec sheets will show that 1505F is worse, not better, in a technical sense, than 1505A. Its size is about the same as 1505A, but its center conductor is 22 AWG instead of 20, which causes significantly greater attenuation across all frequencies. What gives? And why would anyone buy this expensive, and seemingly inferior, alternative?

Here the answer has to do with flex -- both "flexibility" as commonly understood and "flex-life", the ability of the cable to endure many flexes without breaking. 1505A is a general purpose SDI cable, but 1505F is a high-flex SDI patch cable, and this distinction is reflected in the cable's design and construction. 1505F has a stranded compacted center conductor -- which costs more because more wire must be drawn, then it must be stranded, and then it must be swaged -- and it has two copper braids instead of a braid and foil, because foil doesn't flex well or endure flexing well. If you ever should happen to spend a bit of time in a cable factory, take a look at the different processes and how they move along. Wire can have dielectric extruded (or cable can have jacket extruded) over it so fast that you can't even tell how fast it's moving down the line. But braiding a shield on involves a lot of tiny wires on bobbins, all spinning around on a braiding machine at high speed, while the cable goes tick-tick-tick, advancing slowly through the center of the braider. Slow processes, complicated machines, lots of wire drawing, and lots of labor loading bobbins and setting up machines -- that's what coax braiding is like, and when you see it moving slowly along, you can really understand why it's expensive to do.

Is 1505F better than 1505A? It depends. If you've got a need for a bunch of patch-panel cables, or if you need a highly flexible cable to follow a mobile camera around, you bet it is; if you were instead wiring the back side of the same patch panel, up and out a cable tray and away to another patch panel a hundred feet away, you'd use 1505A.

To A Better Understanding of "Best"

What, after all, does "best" mean? There is often an assumption made that the "best" product for an application will be the one with the most impressive specs, and that certainly can be true. But "best" is a practical judgment, and it depends in many cases upon the conditions under which the product will be used. A waterblocked Cat 5e cable will almost always underperform its non-waterblocked counterpart -- but if you're going to inundate it, is there any doubt which is best?

We can sell you some very expensive cable, if you want it. We have some coaxes that could endure baking in the oven, like Belden 89259 or 89248, and these cost a lot of money. If your application requires that, then these are the best to use because they won't melt and burn up; but if you aren't asking about special applications and the like, our standard recommendations -- which often are also our lowest-priced -- are truly the best product we know of for the application, so don't let the presence of a costlier alternative on our site make you worry that you're not buying the best cable for your needs.

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