I remember getting our first VCR in 1984 and the first VHS tape for it: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today, it is still one of my favourite films and I remember quite clearly hooking up the VCR to the television with the included coaxial cable.
The reality, however, is that it wasn't quite as clear as my young mind thought. You see, I was so excited to have that movie on my television at my command that I forgave any shortcomings in image quality. As someone who grew up with an antenna, (not cable) I was used to fuzzy television viewing, so any image that was consistently on the screen without fading in and out was a big plus. With cable, satellite, over-the-air and Internet connections providing clear high-definition signals, consumers of today are extremely spoiled.
As I got older and technology got better, I realized I could hook up that VCR to a computer monitor or higher-end television and get a much better picture using the RCA video cables (and later, s-video cables). I also discovered that not all cables were built equally, with higher quality cables often providing a better quality picture and most notably, better sound. Since earlier television signals were carried through analog cables, the build quality mattered because it is possible for the cable to still work and yet provide a poor signal. Think of it like the difference between a light switch and a light dimmer. Analog is a dimmer, providing everything from very low light (quality) to full brightness. Depending on the type of cable you purchased your dimmer could be anywhere from dark to bright and all points in between. Sometimes, a good cable could deteriorate over time because of crimps and twists.
Fast forward to today. Our high-definition televisions primarily use HDMI connections and cables (HDMI stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface) and they are wonderful because they carry both the sound and the picture (just like our old friend the coax cable did). Unlike coax, however, HDMI carries separate digital signals which means the quality is very high. It also tends to mean that either the cable works or it doesn't, more like a traditional on/off light switch. Although it's possible for some electrical interference caused by nearby Wi-Fi routers and other electronic devices can have some minimal impact on the signal, these cables either work or they don't and there is no real measurable difference between a cable that costs ten dollars versus one that costs 50.
The same theory applies to the USB cables we use to connect printers, scanners, and other devices as well as what we use to charge our cellphones and tablets. These cables either work or they don't. Where it gets tricky is with chargers. You have to make sure that the power adapter itself is providing the correct amount of power for the device (or it may take significantly longer to charge, if at all) but otherwise it should just work or not work. The only case I can see for spending more money on cables is if you are looking for value somewhere else, such as what colorcables.com provides by selling multi-colour, glow-in-the-dark cables that are tangle free by design. Other companies also provide stylish cables if that is what you are looking for, but if you are spending extra money thinking you are getting better quality it's just not the case.
Getting back to HDMI, while there is no real difference between a cheap cable and expensive one, HDMI does have various versions and specifications of its cables, so buyers need to be aware of what they are buying. When connecting your television or other device, check out the requirements of the cable and then buy the least expensive cable that meets those requirements. Some cables are certified to carry full high-definition signals (1080p) and some people might try to confuse you on speed ratings and so on. Just determine what kind of cable you need and then buy the appropriate one. For more information on how HDMI works, check out this guide on CNET.
The other thing to keep in mind is that as time has gone by, manufacturing has improved significantly. If I was to resurrect that copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I still have, by the way) and hook up an old VCR to the old TV, I could do it with the cheapest of cables obtained at the corner dollar store and be pretty confident of the quality level. Even the worst cables you can buy are pretty decent. I can hear the Raiders march song in my head now...