When I said the RCA cable was dead

Sometimes I get it right. Back in 2015 I asked whether or not the RCA cable was doomed to disappear from consumer electronics. Turns out, it has, almost completely.

RCA cables were a staple of home electronics in the 1970s and 1980s. They entered most homes through stereo systems, where they were the go-to connection choice for “hi-fi” audio systems. The RCA cable was built to handle a lot of radio-frequency interference. The jack side has a metal shield around the outside. Take a look.

The plug side also has additional shielding, and the center connection pin is nice and fat ensuring a good strong connection.

These features made RCA cables good for more than just speakers. It turns out they were really good for the kinds of video connections people had in the 1970s.

Even from the beginning though…

RCA cables were easy for homeowners to connect, with molded plastic connectors that could be made in multiple colors. The connectors pushed together and formed a strong bond that was hard to disconnect by accident but easy to disconnect if you really wanted to.

However, the RCA connection just wasn’t the top of the line in video. Even in the 1980s there was a push to move to a connector that was more suited to high-quality picture and sound. Still, the RCA connector dominated the world of home video for thirty more years. Every time there was a new technology that came into play, somehow the lowly RCA connector was there.

And then…

It seems like it’s been about four years since we stopped seeing RCA connectors on our home equipment. For the most part,  they’ve been replaced by HDMI connectors. The HDMI connector can carry video and multiple channels of audio on one compact connector.

Like RCA, the HDMI connector has additional shielding on both sides. Like RCA, it connects firmly but is easy to disconnect. It’s the connector we use now, and it’s one of the only connectors that will work for video in the future.

So did HDMI kill the RCA cable?

It’s not quite that straightforward. HDMI cables came into play not because of the need for high-definition video, but because of the need for copy protection. Starting in the mid-2000s, manufacturers and content providers came together. They were worried that the combination of digital signals and fast internet would mean that piracy would destroy their profits. So, they devised a copy-protection scheme that required a two-way digital connection.

HDCP, or High Definition Content Protection, is built into every satellite TV receiver, every streaming box, practically everything you use to watch video. It’s even built into some computers. Its purpose is to let the box playing the video know that the connection is secure. It does this by communicating back and forth over and over, asking for information from the TV. The TV provides that information back and the video proceeds. If the TV doesn’t answer back in as little as two seconds, the video stops.

This sort of scheme, along with 8 channels of audio, would require as many as 16 RCA connections all working together to make it work. No one really wants that when they can have one simple RCA cable.

So, it’s not about technology…

it’s about copy protection. And realistically, that copy protection isn’t so hard to break. It wouldn’t be hard for a device to pretend it was another device. Even though the data stream is encrypted, it’s possible to intercept it. If you look hard enough you’ll find devices that do just that. You won’t find them from any manufacturer you’ve heard of, though, since nearly every major manufacturer in the world has agreed not to do this.

In doing so, they’ve doomed the RCA connector. Oh well I guess time marches on, but sometimes… I do sort of miss the old thing.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.