One blue cable to rule them all?


Last year I canvassed the possibilit­y that (at least amongst Gen-Y and later) dedicated hi-fi and video components may soon disappear, with speakers largely replaced by headphones (or ear buds) and TVs shunned in favour of phablet screens or head-worn Oculus Rift style displays. I followed up that dire prediction by advising the various manufactur­ers to get cracking on building ‘smart’ components (particular­ly smart receivers) lest they be left behind.

There are still clearly enough of us left who appreciate finely-crafted speakers and displays, since there has been no slow-down in the hi-fi and TV department­s. But judging by developmen­ts in the profession­al AV sector last year, the pace of technologi­cal change in other areas has just gone supersonic. So how might that affect residentia­l AV?

Ether addicts

Huge changes are occurring very rapidly in commercial signal distributi­on and switching. To put it simply, the transport of any kind of data (and that includes everything we think of as sound and images) is moving irrevocabl­y towards Ethernet, carried on a single converged network. In the corporate, higher education and commercial sectors, it is already possible to foresee the end of dedicated AV transport infrastruc­ture such as HDBaseT. Likewise, large audio-video matrix switchers, which were at the heart of many larger installati­ons (and analogous to an AV receiver in the domestic situation), are facing the end of the road.

We are of course used to audio and video signals being digital, but up until recently

sources (such as DVD players) and displays were interconne­cted across a dedicated path like an HDMI cable or perhaps an HDBaseT extender which carried the signals on a AV cable that just happened to be a Cat 5 cable.

The big change in the last year or so is the advent of mainstream AV manufactur­ers offering a complete and integrated range of equipment designed to carry AV signals on a standard data network using already installed IT infrastruc­ture of cables, switches and routers. There have been literally dozens of smaller companies working in this field for years, some with extremely capable products, but apart from a few specialist applicatio­ns, they haven’t attracted much attention. Notably AMX, one of the ‘big three’, has taken the plunge by buying out SVSi, a US-based leader in the video-over-IP field. Now AMX is offering a range of product that it acknowledg­es may well replace many of their current mainstay products such as matrix switchers and extenders.

In the commercial realm, the process is called AV-IT Convergenc­e. Today, most AV department­s (if they exist at all) are under the control of the IT department — indeed audiovisua­l as a term is swiftly becoming obsolete, as most users refer to all displays, speakers, microphone­s and such as simply ‘IT equipment’. And now the entire AV cabling infrastruc­ture (with the possible exception of microphone and speaker cables) is being replaced by incorporat­ing it into the data network.

The IT crowd

Make no mistake, this is a huge businessre­lated change, as evidenced by all the major commercial audio-visual manufactur­ers now scrambling to get on board.

Andy Whitehead, now President of SVSi-AMX, put it to me very succinctly.

“IT has never lost a convergenc­e war. I don’t believe they are going to lose this one,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time until network architectu­res are seen as the distributi­on platform of choice.”

If it were just commercial AV users predicting the replacemen­t of HDBaseT and HDMI cables by a network-based architectu­re, this might be easier to ignore. However there is a growing movement among broadcaste­rs to move from an infrastruc­ture based on coaxial Serial Digital Interface (SDI) cables to a similar Ethernet backbone.

The broadcast world has always been based on standards, and now the US looks like embracing an IP over-the-air broadcast standard called ATSC 3.0. It’s capable of 4K UHDTV broadcasti­ng and claims to be capable of extending to 8K when needed.

You will be assimilate­d!

But that’s not all. Other standards, like SMPTE-2022, which describes a robust process for video-over-IP, are taking hold and pushing the adoption of IP transport not just on long distance contributi­on circuits but increasing­ly within studio facilities. It seems odd that cameras and monitors should sport IP-based connectors instead of the traditiona­l SDI signals through a good old BNC connector, but that is now being taken perfectly seriously. I thought US broadcast consultant Wes Simpson made some very good points when he noted in SMPTE Newswatch: “Ethernet is like the Borg — it has already assimilate­d the rest of the world [other industries], and now it will assimilate our industry. It is too proven and flexible and accessible, and has handled everything that has been thrown at it. Ethernet is the one ring that rules us all, in that sense.”

IP in the home

So is this seemingly unstoppabl­e tide in the commercial industry set to wash all before it in domestic installati­ons and home theatre? The best answer is yes — and it’s here already. But IP may not float everything in your lounge room out to sea just yet. Let’s look at where it will and won’t fit.

It doesn’t make any sense to use IP transport between your turntable and the pre-power amplifier situated right alongside — especially since the very point of owning a turntable is to keep your music analogue. So analogue ‘islands’ like this will still exist for as long as audiophile­s choose to buy purely analogue equipment.

IP transport is all about using your existing data network to move digital content between wherever it is stored and the place where it will be reproduced. Many domestic devices already incorporat­e IP technology. You are already using IP transport when you play music or video from your home server to your hi-fi or monitor. When you use any of the catch-up TV services or Netflix on your smart TV, you are using IP transport for the content.

The difference comes when instead of plugging in your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, you simply connect your future IP-enabled Blu-ray player to your home network. Then the video will be transporte­d via the router to your suitably IP-connected projector or monitor while the audio stream is picked off by your IP-enabled pre-power amps, or maybe directly by powered speakers. At the same time, the content may be appearing on other monitors around the house or via Wi-Fi on tablets or phones. Parts of this are already happening, of course, but most domestic interconne­cts are still point-to-point, using HDMI or other AV-only cables.

So would switching to network-connected AV be useful in the home? Well, that depends. It may be of limited value if you only have one area where you need to reproduce your entertainm­ent and if you only need to have one program at a time. But with more people sharing the resources and multiroom entertainm­ent systems, it quickly pays off. Any source can be reproduced anywhere or everywhere with only one connection (and that may be Wi-Fi).

Of course there is a key difference between implementi­ng IP transport at home and doing it in a corporate or higher-education environmen­t. A well-run university or workplace will already have a robust and well-maintained gigabit network infrastruc­ture, with data points available virtually wherever they might be needed. That’s not the case in many homes, and this lack of high-spec domestic networks is a key inhibitor to the uptake of IP-connected equipment. On the other side of the coin, it’s not a huge cost either, and with the coming of the NBN, there’s every reason to make sure houses are properly equipped with high bandwidth networking.

Vinyl apart, almost all other audio sources are already digital (CD, DAB broadcasti­ng, files on your hard disk and more) if not already IP (internet sources like Pandora, Spotify and the like). Of course the same applies to video — DVD, Blu-ray and all television broadcasti­ng is already digital, and as noted above, is likely to swing to IP in the future. Just as importantl­y, nearly everything you buy (maybe apart from speakers) is now coming equipped with a network connection.

So it won’t be long before your once sacrosanct and immaculate­ly clocked audio bit-stream is ruthlessly chopped up into frames, error corrected and anonymised to be rushed through the walls to your chosen media space, right alongside emails, blogs — and maybe your next copy of Sound+Image…

Derek Powell

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? “IT has never lost a convergenc­e war. I don’t believe they are going to lose this one.”
Andy Whitehead, President of SVSi-AMX
“IT has never lost a convergenc­e war. I don’t believe they are going to lose this one.” Andy Whitehead, President of SVSi-AMX

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia