Composite Video Cable & Connection Explained

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Using a composite video input or output for your home theater devices is usually a last resort, as a few alternatives will give you a better image.

However, there may be times when this type of connection will be just what you need for a quick and easy way to watch a video.

This article explains the composite signal and answers some common questions. Does a composite cable support audio signals? How does composite video work?

Read on to find the answers to these questions and more.

Key Points

  • A composite connection transmits a basic, low-quality analog video signal between devices. It sends standard definition 480i/576i video.
  • Composite video combines luminance and chrominance into a single signal, compressing and degrading quality. Component video separates signals for better quality.
  • Composite is a last resort option if no better connections like HDMI, DVI, component or S-Video are available. HDMI is replacing it.
  • You can convert composite to HDMI and vice versa with inexpensive adapters. Be careful to buy the correct directional adapter.

What Does the Connector Look Like?

A composite connection on most household devices looks like this:

Composite video signal connector

It is a single female RCA jack that is usually color-coded yellow.

Due to the design of this type of connection, you don’t have to insert the plug a particular way round in composite outputs and inputs.

In this case, the port is marked as an ‘AV Out’ – meaning you need to connect it to a display device, like a TV, to see the video.

For this, you would connect a composite video cable from the AV output to the composite input of your TV.

An output connection like this would usually be on the rear of a gadget that can play video material, like a DVD player or video camera.

It is also common for the composite connector to be paired with a stereo analog audio output/input, as in the picture above.

This is so you can send the picture and audio at the same time.

BNC connector and cable
BNC connector and cable

High-end professional equipment with composite ports is more likely to use a BNC connection and coaxial cable, providing better signal quality and a more secure fit.

What Does the Cable Look Like?

A composite video cable looks like this:

Composite video cable

It will have a single male RCA connector at either end and will usually be color-coded yellow.

The color coding is simply there to make connecting your system more straightforward, to make sure that you connect the cable to the yellow composite ports on your devices.

However, this isn’t a special type of cable you can only use for composite connections; you could use it to connect analog audio if you wanted to.

Or, you could use the white or red RCA cables generally used for audio connections. It doesn’t matter as long as you connect the cable to the composite input and output at each end.

What Does a Composite Video Connection Do?

A composite video connection transmits a basic analog video signal between devices.

It sends standard-definition video only, usually in a 480i or 576i resolution for NTSC, PAL or SECAM television standards.

If you use a composite signal for the picture, you will need a separate connection to hear the audio, as the composite connection is video-only.

When Should You Use It?

Composite outputs should typically be your last option for watching video from a device.

You will get a better image from these connections (in order of quality):

  1. HDMI connector
  2. DVI connector
  3. Component video connector
  4. S-Video connector

Therefore if you have any of these options available, it would be better to try those first.

The advantage of this type of connection is it is available on many audio-visual devices and so should allow you to get a picture in a wide range of situations – both new and old.

Many AV devices also provide cheap composite video cables in the box, so this is often the easiest type to set up.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the one you should necessarily use.

While you will still find composite connections on many devices, many newer models will not have a composite connection, and they are being replaced by HDMI in most cases.

However, you may still find a composite port for compatibility with older devices.

What Are the Disadvantages of Composite Connections?

Composite video signals are prone to electrical interference, which can further degrade this low-quality video signal.

The composite signal is already compressed in the source device, so sending this signal through an AV system can cause even more problems.

Poor TV picture with ghosting and noise
Poor TV picture with ghosting and noise

If you need to run long cables around many other electrical devices, you may find the picture ghosting and losing color and definition.

The only solution is to use shorter, higher-quality cables with more shielding, which can help reduce electrical interference.

However, the best solution is to avoid the composite connection and consider better-quality video formats.

How Does It Work?

Composite video is an analog signal that combines the different parts of a video signal into a single channel to save bandwidth.

The luminance (brightness) of the picture is combined with the chrominance (color) – itself a combination of hue and saturation.

Combining these signals results in a low-quality picture that won’t be good to watch – especially on larger screens.

The image will appear less defined on a TV screen – with poor color accuracy compared to better-quality analog component video.

A component video signal is better as it separates the color signals, producing a better picture.

How to Convert RCA Composite to HDMI

You can convert from composite to HDMI if you buy an adapter.

There are several scenarios where you may have an old device with a composite video output, but you only have a new TV with an HDMI input.

For example, you might have an old game console with a composite output connection or a VHS video player that you want to watch on your new TV or projector.

Fortunately, you can buy a relatively cheap converter that will allow you to output the composite video via HDMI.

This is a popular solution at Amazon:

Popular RCA to HDMI Converter
RCA to HDMI Adapter
What Is It: An adapter for converting composite video and stereo audio RCA analog output to an HDMI input.
  • For compatible game consoles VHS players, DVD players and cable boxes
  • Converts to 720p or 1080p digital video
  • 1 meter RCA and HDMI cables at either end
  • Supports PAL, NTSC & SECAM video
  • For RCA to HDMI only - not bi-directional

This model comes with 1-meter cables at both ends, saving you from buying extra wires.

However, if you already have cables to hand, you can buy a simple box that has only the required connections.

Converting HDMI to Composite

If you need to convert the video signal in the other direction, from HDMI to composite, you need a different converter.

You should be careful when buying adapters like these, as many will only work when converting from one signal type to another – and not the other way around.

So, for HDMI to composite connections, you can buy this adapter:

Popular HDMI to RCA Adpater
HDMI to RCA Converter
What Is It: An adapter for sending an HDMI output signal into a device with analog RCA inputs.
  • For Apple TV, Roku, FireStick, Blu-ray and DVD players
  • Connect any 4080i to 1080p HDMI output to a PAL or NTSC analog input
  • 1 meter cables at both ends
  • Power required
  • For HDMI to RCA conversion only - not RCA to HDMI

It’s similar to the previous suggestion but is suitable for wiring HDMI to composite.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is a Composite Cable?

A composite cable connects the composite inputs and outputs on home AV devices. It typically has a single RCA connector on each end and is color-coded yellow.

When Was Composite Video First Used?

Composite video was introduced in 1954, using a monochrome signal for black and white televisions.

Do Composite Connections Support Audio?

A composite video port does not send audio; it is for analog video only. You will need to make a separate connection for the audio signal.

Do Composite Connections Support HD Video?

Composite connections don’t support HD video resolutions. They support analog standard-definition 480i or 576i video resolutions.

Are Composite or Component Cables Better?

Component cables are better than composite cables because they split the signal into three channels, producing better-quality video.

Is Composite Better Than HDMI?

HDMI is better than composite because it is a high-quality digital video format. Composite video is a low-quality analog video format that should only be used if you have no other options.

What Is a Composite Connection on a TV?

The composite connection on a TV is an input for receiving a composite video signal from a DVD player, video camera or any other device with a composite output. It doesn’t receive audio, so you need to make a separate connection for the sound.

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About The Author

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment. You can find out more here.

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