HDMI 2.1 TV: why the new cable standard matters

The end of an HDMI 2.1 cable
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

HDMI 2.1 is a new standard of HDMI. It might not sound exciting, but the implications of HDMI 2.1 are huge and the improvements to your viewing experience are already here, shaking up the way many people watch TV shows, movies and play games.

Until recently very few TVs and displays had HDMI 2.1 capability. Granted you still won’t find it everywhere, but now we’re in 2022 it’s becoming much more standard and HDMI 2.1 ports are built into many of the best TVs of 2022. 

The reason why HDMI 2.1 is such a game-changing new development is because it works by allowing more information to pass between games consoles, AV receivers, TVs and other devices. 

What that means for viewers is they’ll get to see a significant upgrade in the resolution and refresh rate of their TV or display. In other words, pictures are more detailed, images are sharper and games look better in pretty much every way. This is why many people (the team at TechRadar included) think HDMI 2.1 is already beginning to transform entertainment.

Although HDMI 2.1 might be a big deal for every type of screen-based entertainment, including your favorite TV shows and movies, we think you’ll notice the most significant difference in gaming. Especially with the next-gen PS5 and Xbox Series X consoles – if you can find one, that is.

PS5 console in white with controller

(Image credit: Sony)

Both of the next-gen games consoles from Sony and Microsoft need an HDMI 2.1 connection to support frame rates up to 120 frames per second (fps). This is far higher than the usual 60fps and 30fps frame rates you’ll see on past games consoles. This is the reason why many TV companies are bringing out new displays that are primed for the future of gaming.

When High Definition Multimedia Interface (or HDMI) first arrived, it shook up the AV industry in a similar way. It was much more practical and convenient to no longer have to use bulky SCART connectors, or confusing component video cables. Instead, HDMI offered high definition video with a connector that was only a little bigger than a standard USB.

There have been many improvements to HDMI over the years since. Extra features are added as the needs of TVs have changed and HDMI 2.1 is the next big step.

The headline feature for HDMI 2.1 is support for 8K content at 60fps. However, there are many smaller features that add up to a much more capable standard, including support for Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), Dynamic HDR, and Quick Media Switching, which should make it faster than ever to change between the devices attached to your television.

The big elephant in the room here is that it was revealed in December 2021 that many TVs labelled HDMI 2.1 might not come with all of the features you'd expect from HDMI 2.1. We cover why this is important in this guide, but what you need to know is that just because a TV says it has HDMI 2.1 capabilities doesn't mean it'll do everything you need it to. 

Below you’ll find our guide to everything you need to know about HDMI 2.1 and all of the changes that have arrived with this new HDMI standard that is already shaking up TV, movies and gaming for the better. 

When is HDMI 2.1 not HDMI 2.1?

But wait, here’s where it gets confusing. You’d think any devices labelled with HDMI 2.1 would have the high-end features that come with it, right? Like dynamic HDR, variable refresh rate and auto low latency mode, as well as 4K video passthrough at 120Hz? Not so fast.

As reported by Ars Technica in late 2021, many HDMI 2.1 capable devices might not actually have these high-end features after all. Apparently that's thanks to a quirk in the official HDMI guidelines – it turns out that the spec for HDMI 2.0 has been wholly replaced by HDMI 2.1, instead of simply building upon it.

What that means is that manufacturers can choose to solely support a handful of HDMI 2.0 features and label them as HDMI 2.1, given they're still technically a subset of full HDMI 2.1 capability. But the result is that an HDMI 2.1 TV, or the HDMI cables used to connect to one, may not support everything that the average shopper thinks it does.

Ideally, the guidelines will be adjusted to allow for a proper distinction between HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 2.1, not just to prevent further confusion, but also to stop sneaky manufacturers from claiming their products are HDMI 2.1, when they're cherrypicking older specs instead.

But, until then, consumers need to look beyond whether a TV is labelled HDMI 2.1 or not and keep an eye out for other features. This is tricky and involves a lot of looking at specs and comparing displays.

HDMI 2.1 resolution and refresh rates

A close up of an HDMI 2.1 connection

HDMI 2.1 'lays the pipe' for the TV and VR industries

The new HDMI 2.1 cables allow faster refresh rates. This includes 8K resolution video at 60 frames per second and 4K at 120 frames per second – and it's that second feature that's a real selling point for both gamers and home cinema geeks who want content to look as good as it possibly can.

"We've increased resolutions and frame rates significantly," Jeff Park, Director of Marketing at HDMI Licensing, told TechRadar, adding that "NHK [Japan's national public broadcaster] is going to push 8K120 as an actual broadcast stream, and many consumer electronics manufacturers want to hit that target, so we're laying the pipe to give the industry flexibility. It's practical stuff."

HDMI 2.1 can go even further, supporting resolutions as high as 10K at 120Hz – though that kind of capability isn't here yet and isn't supported on commercial sets.

HDMI 2.1: a saviour for gaming?

A pair of hands holding an Xbox controller

(Image credit: Shutterstock/Miguel Lagoa)

HDMI 2.1 might have the biggest impact on the world of gaming. Especially if you have a next-gen games console, like the PS5 or Xbox Series X. Both of these new consoles must have a TV that supports HDMI 2.1 to work properly.

That's because HDMI 2.1 covers a number of technologies, including capability for 4K gaming at 120Hz, or 8K gaming at 60Hz – both of which are visually impressive if you have the hardware and cables to support them.

8K gaming is a while off still, but HDMI 2.1 means you soon won't have to choose between 4K resolution and high refresh rates, being able to experience both together.

HDMI 2.1 also enabled VRR (variable refresh rate), which helps to keep games looking smooth by switching up the refresh rate on the fly to best suit how much is happening onscreen. That means less image lag, stutter and frame tearing similar to the effect achieved by FreeSync and G-Sync.

This is great news for gamers, because HDMI 2.1 enables a 3D graphics processor to render and display images in real time, which will result in more fluid gameplay and greater detail.

HDMI 2.1: what is eARC?

It's not all about TVs, either; soundbars, AV amplifiers and other audio equipment also benefit from HDMI 2.1 – though it will mean upgrading all of your equipment.

For the last few generations, HDMI cables have had an Audio Return Channel (ARC), which means audio can be sent both ways between a TV and audio gear. This essentially enables a display to send its own audio – perhaps from a built-in Netflix app – to a soundbar or surround sound system, bypassing its own speakers.

AV amplifiers and other audio equipment will also benefit from HDMI 2.1 – although it will mean upgrading all of your equipment.

Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) is nothing more than a simple update to keep pace with changes in audio codecs, specifically to include the new object-based audio codecs, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

"eARC ups the bandwidth significantly,” says Park. “Previously you were limited to two-channel PCM or legacy Dolby Digital or DTS audio, but with eARC that reverse channel can now support much higher bandwidth audio including Dolby True HD, DTS HD, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X and other object-based audio at much higher bandwidths."

HDMI 2.1: what is a 48G cable? 

An HDMI 2.1 cable being put into the side of a laptop

Incoming HDMI 2.1 cables will cope with 48Gbps (Image credit: Shutterstock)

This is about defining a new specification of a HDMI cable's speed, with so-called 48G cables (for now just a working title) offering 48Gbps bandwidth for sending uncompressed 8K video, with HDR, over a HDMI 2.1 cable.

So why do we need a 48G-rated cable? "Because we're carrying so much data now – we've gone from 18Gbps in HDMI 2.0 to 48Gbps in HDMI 2.1," says Park. "Today we have 'standard speed' and 'high speed' HDMI cables, and 48G will be related to that."

Ditto the compliance tests that each HDMI 2.1 cable will have to pass in order to be labelled as such. Backwards-compatible with earlier versions of the HDMI specification, and able to be used with existing HDMI devices.

HDMI 2.0 cables are all really the same, despite what some manufacturers will try to tell you with their branding – but an HDMI 2.1 cable with 48Gbps will be necessary to experience the technology's capabilities, and you'll need a compatible HDMI 2.1 port on any connecting hardware (TVs, soundbars) too.

HDMI 2.1 TV: what screens are out there?

The Sony AG8 OLED TV in a grey room

(Image credit: Sony)

Now we're in 2022, HDMI 2.1 has become much more commonplace. But 2021 is the year it went mainstream. Before that it only received piecemeal support on a handful of high-end sets, often with only one HDMI 2.1 port with two or three HDMI 2.0 ports alongside.

That's still the case with some manufacturers (the Sony A90J OLED features a mix of 2.1 and 2.0 inputs), while others are going all-in on HDMI 2.1 ports on their premium TV ranges. Both LG and Samsung are in this latter camp, and you can expect up to four HDMI 2.1 ports on select sets, especially the new TVs for 2022.

There are some solid options from last year from Sony if you're looking for HDMI 2.1 ports, like the Sony X90J, a native 120Hz TV with two full-spec HDMI 2.1 ports for the Xbox Series X and PS5. 

When it comes to Samsung, you'll find HMDI 2.1 in a handful of sets from last year, which includes the Samsung QN85A, and Samsung QN90A Neo QLED TV. But again, HDMI 2.1 will be available in more of Samsung's TVs for 2022.

Other brands have HDMI 2.1 options as well, including the TCL 6-Series 2021 8K QLED TV and the Vizio P-Series Quantum X.

Jamie Carter originally contributed to this article.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.