The market for high-end residential AV is now encompassing larger numbers of zones and channels for immersive experiences in the home and is looking to the professional audio world for effective, flexible solutions that fit inconspicuously into decor while providing the highest possible quality.
The residential marketplace to date has been largely driven by analog systems that are controlled by elaborate switching matrixes. These systems are costly to deploy and can often only be expanded by replacing or adding expensive matrixes that have a fixed number of ports and entail the routing and re-routing of huge amounts of dedicated, single-purpose cabling through walls and ceilings.
Meanwhile, the world of professional AV has been moving in a different direction for quite some time. Here, computer networks have replaced most analog and digital connections between devices, delivering benefits tailor-made for residential applications.
Point-to-Point vs. Networked Connections
All analog systems and many earlier digital systems are connected “point-to-point.” This means that each device has dedicated inputs and outputs, and connections must be made using a dedicated cable from one output to one input.
The flow of signals is determined by these physical connections. Changing or adding connections requires the moving of physical connectors on devices, which may or may not be easy. These systems are easy to comprehend but are very rigid in actual use. Workarounds for this rigidity are costly switching schemes, which are themselves difficult to implement and change.
Networking is a completely different model. Here, all devices are connected as equals using common networking hardware, making each one capable of exchanging data to any other member of the network. All data paths are controlled using software, eliminating the need to move physical cables completely.
Rather than requiring a matrix switch, simple software does the job with near infinite flexibility. This software-driven approach is easily programmed, allowing configurations to be changed as part of home automation schemes.
Streaming Services vs. Audio-Over-IP
When told that music is being transported over a network, many people assume this is similar to the way that audio is distributed over the internet with streaming services. While both technologies transport audio, the similarities end there.
Streaming services are built to achieve massive distribution over a semi-reliable medium – the internet – using a variety of connections of wildly varying quality. In accordance with these goals, the content is often heavily compressed and any semblance of “real-time” operation is discarded as it is not needed. If the latency between a source and an end listener is several seconds, it is of no consequence.
In contrast, audio over IP was developed for professional use in real-time audio applications like concert halls, recording studios, and stadiums. Latency is vanishingly small, typically 1 millisecond, and devices are kept in tight synchronization. All audio content is completely uncompressed and may accommodate sample rates from 44.1 kHz (the old CD standard) up to 192 kHz as desired.
Designed to drive large, complex systems, audio-over-IP on common 1 Gbps networks achieves incredibly high channel counts of up to 512 channels per device, and hundreds of devices may share a common network fabric.
‘Traditional’ Home Use
While a relatively new offering to the residential market, audio-over-IP is now being adopted by many manufacturers who are truly household names. The results of this adoption will be realized for many through impressive home AV systems.
Because of the high channel counts afforded by 1 Gbps infrastructure, the needs of even the most elaborate home entertainment setup are easily covered. And, because the system utilizes the increasingly common network infrastructure seen in newer or renovated residential spaces, there is a level of impressive flexibility in terms of device placement, replacement of devices, and system scalability.
Further, because these systems have matured in the pro audio space, they are assured to deliver pristine, noise-free digital audio in any location you’d like – all with a single cable.
That said, there are other uses that are growing in the space as a result of the current global pandemic and that are likely to gain long-term traction.
Home is Where the Mic is
Recording studios have been adopting audio over IP as a logical step. They must often manage dozens of connections at a time, making quick changes and charging by the hour. An IP-driven approach allows engineers to capture multi-track audio directly on computers with no need for additional conversions or adapters. With support for thousands of devices, this has been a logical evolution for the recording industry.
Under the current pandemic conditions, home studios have become more important and useful than ever, and pros prefer to use the same, interoperable gear at home that they might in a dedicated studio. If the home is already equipped with structured cabling, then a big part of the installation job is already done; a recording studio can easily share the home network with entertainment and security devices, as well as general internet usage.
A home network can truly be the hub for both personal and professional audio, whether for enjoyment or for productivity.
Broadcast is another area that has been pivoting to IP-centric workflows for many of the reasons outlined above – the massive multi-channel, time-synced nature of the work lends itself perfectly to the advantages and cost savings of networked AV.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen many broadcasters and talk show hosts pivot to at-home production with some charming results. While initial efforts were made using consumer AV products, such as phones and tablets, the long-term nature of the quarantine is leading more broadcasters to outfit homes with professional gear for superior capture and reliability. This is a new kind of redundancy, a secondary location that must provide what previously was in the realm of a dedicated studio.
Broadcasters can leverage the same home network used for recording and entertainment to provide high-quality feeds for post-production, with no need for a massive snake of cables run through the dining room. Instead, any nearby Ethernet jack can get the job done and a single, slender cable may be all that connects a home to a broadcast truck.
The advantages of IP-based residential entertainment systems go beyond the cost savings, flexibility and ease of installation. Networking enables a home to use professional-grade AV equipment without running heavy dedicated cables everywhere and provides a solid foundation for new uses in the future.