Cable Distance Limits - Audio/Video
Every type of cable has a maximum distance. These distance limits can vary greatly from one type of cable to the next. Along with determining whether a cable will work, distance limits will also determine how well a cable works. Knowing the fundamentals behind cable distance limits is the first step in selecting the best cable for your needs.
Cables will always have some sort of “maximum signal” rating, depending on the type of the cable. For ethernet cables, it will be the maximum upload/download speed. For HDMI, it will be the maximum resolution of the video. And so on and so forth for other cables. Any type of “maximum” rating should be taken with a grain of salt.
Those ratings are the best possible rating the cable is capable of under theoretical, perfect conditions. For example, modern HDMI cables are all rated for 4k. But if the HDMI cable is running through a coupler, users will almost certainly not get 4k. Each time a signal passes through a connection, even just connecting a cable to something like a TV or computer, the signal quality degrades a little. Using devices like extenders and couplers will make the signal weaker; for example, coupling a 10’ cable to a 5’ cable will result in a weaker signal than just using a single 15’ cable.
Another key factor for signal quality is the distance of the cable. The further a signal has to travel, the more it will degrade by the time it gets from Point A to Point B. Going back to our HDMI example, a 15’ cord will give a clearer image than a 50’ cable. It is possible to get around this issue using an extender/booster. Some cables are also more subject to this issue than others, so doing a little research before running a particularly long cable never hurts.
When using cables with two different ends, the distance limit will be subject to whichever type of connector has the shorter maximum distance. For example, a standalone HDMI cable can go up to 65’ while a standard DisplayPort cable can go up to 15’. Therefore, an HDMI to DisplayPort cable will be stuck at 15’ for its maximum length.
Other factors such as electromagnetic interference or radio wave interference can also come into play. If the cable will be run near electrical cords or in an area near something like a radio tower, these issues can be mitigated by using shielded cables.
With this information in mind, remember that the rest of this article highlights the maximum distance a cable can run and still work. Some of these numbers are not officially acknowledged as industry standards, but real-world experience has taught us what to look for.
For information on data cable distance limits, click here.
2.5mm/3.5mm/¼” - 150 feet (regular); 250 feet (with extender, 3.5mm only)
2.5mm, 3.5mm (also called headphone cables), and ¼” audio cables have a maximum distance of 150’ on average. Off-the-shelf, standard audio cables will be rated with 150’ in mind. It is possible to go further by custom-making something using thicker cable than usual. The lower the AWG, the greater the distance you can go.
3.5mm can go up to 250’ by using a balun, which allows ethernet cable to be used as an extension.
XLR - 100 feet (official); 1000 feet (theoretical)
Practically, an XLR cable can run for 100’ before it starts running into problems. Not problems with the signal quality, but problems with having to manage a massive physical cable. XLR is usually used with microphones, amplifiers, or similar equipment. With the right equipment, a boosted and shielded XLR cable could run upwards of 1000’ without losing signal quality. Keep in mind that the further the cable runs, the less likely this will go off without a hitch.
Optical Toslink - 15 meters (49 feet, average)
Toslink signals are just as limited by the equipment they are connected to as the cable itself. Low-quality and older cables may only support optical signals up to 5 or 10 meters. Modern Toslink typically runs 15 meters, although some brand-new electronics (mainly computers and satellite receivers) can use up to 30 meters. If extra distance is needed, do not buy the least expensive Toslink cables you can find (you will get what you pay for).
Speaker Wire - Various
Speaker wire is a bit more complicated than other cables when it comes to distance limits. Depending ohms and AWG of the cable, the maximum distance changes. A more detailed breakdown can be seen here, while the chart below provides a simple conversion..
S-Video - 150 feet; 650 feet (with extender)
S-video is an older type of connection, now considered obsolete. Newer electronics are not built with s-video included, but this older technology had plenty of time to be developed in its heyday. When using an older TV, VCR, or other electronic, 150 feet will be the distance limit.
With an extender balun, ethernet cables can be used to extend s-video up to 650’. Keep in mind that a single ethernet cable can only go up to 328’. If extending the S-video past that, ethernet extensions will also be needed.
VGA - 150 feet (regular); 650 feet (with extender)
VGA is an analog signal and will get weaker over longer distances. For high-quality video, the maximum recommended distance is 25 feet. From 26-100’, mid-level quality video will be received. Past 100’, the video resolution will be low-quality.
Using a balun, ethernet can be used as an extension cable to allow VGA to go up to 650’. Keep in mind that individual ethernet lines can only go 328’, so anything past that will require ethernet extensions as well.
DVI - 15 meters (49 feet, digital); 5 meters (analog)
For maximum signal quality, DVI cables will work up to 5 meters. 5 meters is also the maximum length for DVI-A (analog) cables. The 5-meter limit extends to DVI-I (integrated) since it is capable of analog as well as digital. Any distance from 6 to 15 meters will result in lower signal quality but is available for DVI-D (digital) cables.
Whether a DVI cable is single-link or dual-link does not affect the maximum distance limit. However, dual-link cables have higher bandwidth and will suffer less degradation over longer distances.
Composite RCA - 100 feet (regular); 250 feet (with extender)
There are two main types of RCA, composite and component. Composite RCA (usually just called “RCA”) is the type with three cables: red, white, and yellow. This older analog signal is well tested but has largely been replaced with newer, digital cables. Being analog, the image quality can degrade at longer lengths but the loss is not noticeable at 100’ or shorter. It is possible to go up to 300’ with a regular cable, but the quality level will vary.
A balun can be used to extend composite RCA using ethernet, but it only works for the audio (red and white) cables. It is unavailable for the video (yellow) cable.
Component RCA - 100 feet
Component RCA (usually just called “component”) is the type of RCA with five cables: red & white for audio and red, blue, and green for video. The quality of the cable makes a big difference in the quality of the image. Well-made component cables can go up to 100’ while retaining HD quality. However, the maximum recommended distance to guarantee HD quality is 16’. Going past 16’ could result in standard definition video, with the odds of lower quality increasing as the cable gets longer.
HDMI - 65 feet (standard); 375 feet (ethernet extender); 1000 feet (fiber optic extender)
While there are various types of HDMI connections (regular, Mini, Micro), they are all subject to the same distance limits. However, types of HDMI connected to smaller devices like cell phones and tablets are generally only available in shorter lengths since those devices are usually left close to the TV or monitor they are connected to.
The quality of the cable will determine the maximum distance. Basic cables, for example, can only go up to 20’. Mid-grade HDMI goes up to 50’ while the top quality cables go up to 65’. When going beyond 50’ on a single cable, issues with image quality may start to crop up. In these instances, joining two cables together with a booster is the easiest course of action. When trying to maintain a 4k signal, aim at keeping the cable under 16’. Going past that limit can still provide an HD signal, but not necessarily a 4k one. Here is where HDMI baluns will help the situation.
If a booster is not enough, using a balun extender will allow ethernet cable to be used to extend the HDMI signal. Different baluns have different maximum lengths so be sure to select one that works with your specific set-up.
In extreme cases, multimode LC fiber cable can be used with a special balun that will run the HDMI signal for up to 1000’.
DisplayPort - 25 feet; Mini DisplayPort - 15 feet
Recent innovations have allowed DisplayPort cables to extend to 25’, with the old limitation being 15’. Unless you have a DisplayPort cable that is very new, 15’ is likely the maximum distance on it. For Mini DisplayPort, 15’ is still the hard cap on its distance limit. The 15’ limit also applies to DisplayPort cables that go to other formats (HDMI, DVI, VGA).