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HDMI 2.1 explained: TV and gaming with PS5 and Xbox Series X

For the best in next-generation gaming on PS5 and Xbox Series X, you need an HDMI 2.1 TV. Here's everything you need to know.

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Technology is always improving. Much like USB 2.0 became USB 3.0, and 802.11a Wi-Fi became 802.11n Wi-Fi, the standards that define how our devices work always evolve. In 2021 and beyond, the technology industry has adopted a new standard for the high definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable. We've moved past HDMI 2.0 and now we use HDMI 2.1.

It doesn't seem like such a big deal when you look at the numbers. HDMI 2.0 vs HDMI 2.1 can't be that big a leap, right? Well, it's actually quite significant.

Despite being early days for this new HDMI standard, it's undoubtedly the future of TV. Already we're seeing popular devices such as the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X gaming consoles depend upon HDMI 2.1 to hit their promised experiences. This next-generation technology sends their content to your screen via an HDMI 2.1 output port, and if your TV doesn't have an HDMI 2.1 input port, you're missing out.

So, what is HDMI 2.1, why is HDMI 2.1 important and what do you need to do to get it?

Why are technology standards important?

When we talk about "standards" in technology, we refer to universal components that exist across all devices in a category. They are agreed upon and often funded by all the manufacturers in that category. As such, it becomes a common language that all devices in that category and even across categories, can understand.

This makes it easier for both manufacturers and consumers. Imagine a world in which your TV used one kind of Wi-Fi standard and your phone used another, then your air-conditioning used another again, and so on. It would be a mess trying to get it all to work.

By unifying technology to certain standards – HDMI, USB, 802.11, PCI-e, Android OS, etc. – manufacturers and consumers can operate with a certain confidence that the fundamentals, the basics, will work. This allows them to focus instead on innovation and use respectively.

What is HDMI 2.1?

HDMI 2.1 is the latest standard for transferring video and audio content from one device to another. It uses the same-shaped port as previous HDMI cables and as such, the HDMI 2.1 ports are backwards compatible. You can connect an HDMI 2.0 port to an HDMI 2.1 port using an HDMI cable of either standard. However, you will be bottlenecked by the transfer speed of the lesser port or the lesser cable.

HDMI 2.1 supports the wide colour gamut: BT.2020 and 16 bits per colour.

HDMI 2.1 speed 2

HDMI 2.1 vs HDMI 2.0

The main difference between HDMI 2.1 and HDMI 2.0 is bandwidth. This refers to the amount of information that it can transfer in any given moment. The more bandwidth a cable and its connecting ports can handle, the more content it can send and receive in any given unit of time.

HDMI 2.0 allowed for 2.25GB per second of data to be sent and received. The new HDMI 2.1 cable can deliver 6GB per second. (I've converted these from the advertised gigabit rates of 18Gbps and 48Gbps to make it easier to understand.)

In short, HDMI 2.1 is almost three times faster than HDMI 2.0. It can transfer three times more data.

What does this mean in layman's terms? The higher the quality of video and audio content, the bigger the files. With HDMI 2.0, it could handle 4K resolution at 60 frames per second. But even then, it downgrades aspects of that content to function. For example, the added data required for dynamic HDR and variable refresh rates (VRR) have to be scaled back in order to "fit" the bandwidth.

HDMI 2.1 on the other hand can deliver 4K resolution at up to 120 frames per second. It can also deliver 8K resolution at 60 frames per second and even stretch as far as 10K content in the distant future. In addition, HDMI 2.1 doesn't have to compromise dynamic HDR or VRR and can allow for additional features such as auto low latency mode (ALLM) and quick frame transport (QFT).

In addition, it can allow for full audio resolutions to be passed through to sound receivers. This is called enhanced audio return channel (eARC), which I will go into further down the page.

Gigabit (Gb) vs gigabyte (GB)

One confusing aspect in the way speeds in technology are measured is found in the little b or the big B in per second rate. A small b refers to "bit" whereas the big B refers to "byte." Most people are used to dealing with bytes. You might have a 256GB hard drive on your phone, for example. Or you may have a 16GB USB stick.

When referring to transfer speeds, the term bit is generally used. It's an entirely different metric. One gigabit is equal to 125MB. So, it's substantially less than 1GB as you'd be forgiven for thinking at first glance. Ultimately, the speed itself does matter. What matters is that relative speed to the previous technology.

What is eARC?

For years now, TVs have had audio return channel (ARC) ports. They look like normal HDMI ports, but can be used to deliver audio from your TV to a receiver. For example, you may have a home theatre amplifier or a soundbar that you use instead of your TV's speakers.

The ARC port acts not just to pass on audio coming from the TV itself, but also acts as a pass-through for audio content coming to your TV via an external device. This could be a video games console such as the PS5 or Xbox Series X, a Blu-ray player or set-top box such as Foxtel IQ or Apple TV.

With the arrival of HDMI 2.1, the ARC feature can make use of the added bandwidth to pass on lossless higher resolution audio to your sound system. These have now become enhanced audio return channel (eARC) ports.

Yet again, it's video gaming where we are seeing the boundaries of what is possible with entertainment audio being redefined. In particular, the PlayStation 5 uses Sony's new Tempest engine to deliver 3D Audio, which creates a more immersive listening experience that provides greater detail in a game's world.

The Xbox Series X opts for Dolby Atmos as its audio solution, which is a different approach. However, it still benefits from eARC.

How do you get HDMI 2.1 to work?

There are three pieces to the HDMI 2.1 puzzle, and you need all of them in place to reap the benefits. The device sending the content needs to have an HDMI 2.1 port. The display, such as a TV or monitor, needs to have an HDMI 2.1 port. And the two ports need to be connected together using an ultra high speed HDMI cable. This is also simply known as an HDMI 2.1 cable.

If any of these three puzzle pieces are missing, you'll still be able to see and hear what is going on. And it will still look and sound pretty great. However, it will be bottlenecked to the HDMI 2.0 standard. So even if your PS5 is outputting 4K at 120fps, you'll only be seeing it at 60fps and without the flourishes of features like dynamic HDR.

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How to find an HDMI 2.1 TV?

Most of the major TV manufacturers started including HDMI 2.1 and eARC ports from their 2020 models onwards – especially those higher-end OLED models. In 2021 and beyond, it'll be close to the standard in all the TVs you come across. It's always worth double checking a TV's specifications, of course.

If you're ready to start looking to upgrade, you can find the best smart TVs in Australia in our guide.

Do you need HDMI 2.1 right now?

As we enter 2021, there isn't a whole lot of content that can make use of what HDMI 2.1 offers – unless you're a gamer, that is. If you have a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox Series X, there is plenty of content available that displays at 8K and/or 4K at 120fps. Plus, these games offer the latest in visual and audio technology, the latter including 3D Audio and Dolby Atmos.

If you have a PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X, then you have an excuse to upgrade to an HDMI 2.1 TV. The games will look and sound a lot better, and they'll play a lot faster. However, for general entertainment, such as movies and music, content is thin on the ground. If this is your core use case, you're better off waiting until the prices of the latest model TVs have come down.

However, as a rule of thumb, if you're about to buy a new TV, make sure it's an HDMI 2.1 TV. It is the future, and making sure you have a TV with HDMI 2.1 ports will futureproof you against needing to upgrade again a few years down the track.

HDMI 2.1 monitor vs HDMI 2.1 TV

In this article we have consistently referenced HDMI 2.1 TVs, but of course you can also get HDMI 2.1 monitors. Indeed, the latest PC graphics cards have the power to release high resolution graphics and ultra fast framerates. Just like TVs, in order to make the most of these graphics cards you need monitors that have an HDMI 2.1 port.

The same principles that define HDMI 2.1 on TVs define HDMI 2.1 on monitors.

Thankfully there's a growing number of HDMI 2.1 monitors on the market and they're significantly cheaper than the high-end TVs. Of course, they're also smaller. But if size isn't an issue, playing your Xbox Series X or PS5 on a monitor could be an option to getting all that next-gen goodness on a budget.

List of HDMI 2.1 graphics cards

  • nVidia GeForce RTX 3070
  • nVidia GeForce RTX 3080
  • nVidia GeForce RTX 3090
  • AMD Radeon RX 6800
  • AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT
  • AMD Radeon RX 6900 XT

List of HDMI 2.1 monitors

  • BenQ EX2780Q 27″
  • BenQ EL2870U 27″
  • BenQ EW3270U 32″
  • LG 32UK550-B 32″
  • LG Ultragear 27GL850-B 27″
  • LG Ultragear 27GL63T-B 27″
  • LG Ultragear 27GL650F-B 27″

Comparing HDMI cables

How to choose the right HDMI 2.1 cable

Before you buy an HDMI 2.1 cable, make sure the device you're looking to hook up to your TV didn't already come with one. In most cases, you likely already have an HDMI 2.1 cable. The PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X both come with an HDMI 2.1 cable, for example. Even if you already have one, you may want to improve the quality or the length of the cable.

There are a few things to consider when choosing the right HDMI 2.1 cable.

Length: Make sure it's long enough to reach from where you plan to sit your device through to your TV or monitor. But don't over-compensate; the longer a cable, the further the data must travel and the more likely there will be some loss on that journey. This is especially the case if the cable has to go around any tight bends, which can compromise its integrity.

Active or inactive: This is only relevant for people who intend to run their HDMI 2.1 cable an excessive distance – potentially from a server or media room to another room in the house. If this is what you're going to do, you can look towards an active HDMI 2.1 cable. These include a processor that will actively help retain the integrity of the signal over a long distance.

Build: Cheap cables feel limp in your hand and have poor heads that don't seem like they are strongly connected. More expensive cables are more solid and strong in your hand, and the heads feel very securely connected. It's a sure sign that the construction of the cable is more robust and there is less likelihood of kinks in the performance.

Is your TV mounted to a wall?: If so, where are your HDMI ports? Are they rear facing, or do they face to the side? If they're both, which one will you be using? The reason we ask is because if you plan on using a rear-facing HDMI port on a wall-mounted TV, there isn't much space for your HDMI 2.1 cable to plug in. If you choose a cable with a big head and thick, inflexible cord, you may struggle to stick it into the port and bend it towards your device before it hits the wall. You may want to opt for a cable that is a bit more flexible and slighter. Otherwise, the cable will hold the TV off the wall, damage the gyprock, or both.

Speed: You'll come across three types of HDMI cable. There is standard speed (10.2 Gbps), high speed (18 Gbps) and ultra high speed (48 Gbps). For HDMI 2.1, you want to make sure you get ultra high speed.

Brand: Do you need to consider a known brand when buying an HDMI 2.1 cable? Not so much. But you do need to pay attention to what the cable is made from and the price. If it's cheap, take a good look at the specifications. The more fibre there is in the cable, and the better quality the metal in the head – such as gold-plated – the better the HDMI cable is going to perform. You can also find out if the cable itself is surrounded by durable materials such as nylon, or specifically graded for in-wall or outside conditions

Where to buy HDMI 2.1 cables

As you might expect, the majority of your favourite technology-orientated stores will sell HDMI 2.1 cables. This includes JB Hi-Fi, Officeworks, The Good Guys and eBay. One of your best bets for getting good quality HDMI 2.1 cables at a reasonable price is Amazon. Amazon has the full range of HDMI cables, offering different build qualities, lengths and designs.

HDMI 2.1 frequently asked questions

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