So you finally broke down and got that awesome LCD TV you’ve had your eye on. Now you envision a home theater setup with your new flatscreen mounted cleanly on your wall without that huge, cluttered stand that your old DLP (or worse yet, CRT) sat on. You get the nifty articulating wall mount for it, get it secured to the studs, and then you realize your problem. All those cables. Ugh. You can put your components off to the side somewhere, but you still have to get the cables connected to them. HDMI in particular has a pretty severe limitation in length before the signal begins to falter in a typical setup. Also, there is the problem of whether the cables are routed inside or along the walls. If you aren’t dealing with new construction or major remodeling, internal routing can be impractical and/or expensive. Rainbow Fish Fiber Optic HDMI Cable offers some relief for both of these vexing issues, although it comes with a hefty price tag, starting at $179 for the 20-foot H3D-TR020F version that I tested.
Rainbow Fish: the Unboxing
The packaging is a bit more stylish than typically found in average AV cables, but there is actually some substance to this as well. The cable is wound around a nifty looking spindle for protection during shipment and operation. Fiber optic cables are particularly sensitive to bend radius, and the spindle prevents tighter winding that can break the core. It allows you to unroll just the length you need and tuck the rest safely away in its plastic cartridge.
The connectors are a bit larger than typical HDMI overmolds. It has to house the PCB to convert the signal from electricity to light, so it will stick out a full 70mm from the back of your video equipment. Add to that the aforementioned bend radius issue, and you require even more clearance from the HDMI socket entrance. It also has these attractive caps over the plugs, but they do present the annoying challenge of keeping track of them after the first removal.
Umm… Why Is This in Here?The other notable component in the package is the surprising presence of a USB cable. This attaches to the connector on the receiving end of the cable and must plug into a USB port on the output device. It makes sense… HDMI carries an electrical signal via copper wires, so a fiber optic cable sending data via photons will need power to convert back into an electrical signal that the television can understand. The problem is that there is no indication on the outside of the box that this is part of the cable connection requirements. Not all devices have easy access to a USB port, or they may have a smaller number of them than the source devices needing connections. The USB cable is 20″ long, so there may be an issue of accessibility between the two ports. I suppose a powered USB hub could solve this problem, but that doesn’t excuse the obfuscation of this detail.
Rainbow Fish: Performance
The best test for the output quality of this new HDMI cable was going to have to be my BluRay Disc Player (a full uncompressed 1080p, unblemished by the artifacts and glitches my DirecTV DVR can suffer). Firing up X-Men: First Class, I saw smooth images without any noticeable flaws. This really isn’t a high standard to reach, but the fact that it happened on the end of a twenty-foot length of very thin cable is pretty impressive. The datasheet claims the cables can handle 16Gbps of throughput, which exceeds the HDMI standard.
Rainbow Fish: Who Needs This?
This certainly is not for everyone. I see two very specific use cases that are a perfect fit for the fiber optic HDMI.
Long Run In-Wall Routing
If you want to keep all your video equipment in a closet or mounted in a remote rack, you could have a very long way to route the cables inside your walls or over your ceiling. Typical HDMI cables you can get are not going to effectively carry your signal longer than 12-15 feet. As we have seen, for those lengths, there is no reason to spend big bucks on your HDMI, but beyond that, quality of materials and manufacturing will drive the price up. Copper cable can get thick and stiff in addition to expensive as the distance goes up, but even that will generally max out around 100 feet without adding some sort of power boosting along the way. The consumer version of the Rainbow Fish comes in 20′ and 35′ lengths, but the professional version is available in a 1000′ length. Yes, you read that right. One thousand feet. You could run the signal down your block to the neighbor’s house. Send the images from the press box down to courtside at the American Airlines Center. Pull a signal down eight floors in an apartment building. This comes at the staggering price of around $1800, and there may be a cheaper way to send video over that distance, but the fact that it can be done at all in a single cable with no signal degradation still has me shaking my head.
On-the-Wall Mounting with Exposed Cables
No one wants to mount their flatscreen on a big open wall only to have an octopus of black wires streaming from the bottom and sides of their TV. Power is easy enough to hide… just move an outlet to the wall behind the TV, and the power cable never has to protrude beyond the edges of the screen. Connecting to those video devices still strings cables into view, but the fiber optic cables can minimize the visual impact of that. They are only about 2mm in diameter, and they come in white or clear versions. They aren’t invisible, but they are far less imposing than seeing several 6-8mm black cables snaking along the wall.
Rainbow Fish: the Verdict
The specifications and details of HDMI cables can be a little intimidating, but the main issue is that a digital signal is a digital signal. As long as it gets to the end of the cable, the image will be the same. Losing signal integrity results in pixelation, black spots, or simply no image at all. Rainbow Fish has created a beautifully packaged, technologically remarkable method to transport HD audio and video much farther than most copper cables can manage. For a very specialized group of users, this would be an effective solution to some tough cabling challenges, but for most, this is probably just too expensive to be worth choosing.