IP-based signal distribution provides advantages over other forms of signal distribution in terms of flexibility, capability, and in many cases cost. Manufacturers realize that some AV integrators are still concerned over working with IT-based solutions and have stepped up the resources to reduce perceived barriers to entry and simplify what was once an anxiety producing experience. Today AV over IT is often easier and faster to implement, more flexible and lower cost, with higher profit potential than the old-school options.
IP-based solutions allow for a single CAT5/6 cable to carry dozens –sometime hundreds – of signal paths over a single cable. This reduces termination costs, cabling costs, conduit utilization, and potential points of failure. Don’t worry; redundancy is available in most solutions so if a single cable fails, you don’t lose all your signals. Capacity and flexibility are increased since limitations are oftentimes determined only by available bandwidth and the location of a network jack. This is very different from other solutions that might require over-sizing or forklifting a matrix switch just to add one more source or output. IP based solutions also reduce the distance limitations and signal loss issues associated with conventional signal distribution methods since a network can cover a very large physical area.
IP Based solutions can be configured as one [source]-to-one [destination], one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many. One-to-One can be thought of as signal extension. While a 1:1 IP solution may not be cost effective in smaller environments, it can be a good option for sending signal over a very long distance.
A basic one-to-many example would be a taking the output of a single digital signage player and distributing the signal over a network to multiple displays throughout a venue or perhaps numerous displays campus-wide. Conference rooms are a common many-to-one scenario where microphones at each seat are connected to table boxes with an RJ45 connection on the back. A Cat5/6 cable is run from each mic to a network switch mounted under the table. A single Cat5/6 cable is then run from the conference room table to the audio DSP in the equipment room. In some cases, the microphone itself already has the network connection and there are even multi-channel wireless mic receivers that have all channels available on a built-in network connection. This can significantly reduce labor, cabling and conduit requirements. Another many-to-one scenario is using multiple IP-based cameras to bring signal to a centralized DVR.
The applications for many to many are vast; from small to large systems – anything from digital signage to mass notification, command and control, dynamic menu boards, and instantly reconfigurable multi-room audio in HOW, Higher Ed, Hospitality, Auditoriums, Stadiums, etc. Since equipment is now available that puts signal onto the network at the source itself (i.e. Wireless Mic with Dante outputs), process signals directly from the network (i.e. IP enabled DSP) and can pull signal from the network at the final destinations (i.e. IP enabled powered speakers and small format IP decoders that mount behind displays) it is now possible to create many-to-many systems that are very flexible, reconfigurable at the touch of a button, scalable, and limited only by the imagination. Let’s look at a few several IP based distribution methodologies and where they fit in.
CobraNet [“The Old Guard”] was introduced in 1996 to provide audio over IP. It found wide adoption and is still supported by many manufacturers since there are many legacy CobraNet systems in use. However, adoption for new systems is waning since newer options are more flexible and easier to use. CobraNet supports channel counts of up to 64 x64 with sample rates up to 96 KHz at 24 Bit. However, channel counts decline with higher sample rates and bit depths. Sample rates must match across the entire system. Audio is routed in bundles of 8 channels – not individually. Larger systems can be created with some network configurations. Since new systems with CobraNet are on the decline, you probably don’t need to be too concerned with how to make that happen. But if you are familiar with VLANs, then it is straight forward. CobraNet can work on existing networks with standard network switches. However, it is recommended to keep CobraNet on its own network to minimize potential audio dropouts due to other network traffic.
Dante [“The New King”] was launched by Audinate in 2003 to provide a complete end-to-end audio networking solution comprised of tools for equipment manufacturers and end users, software for design and control, and support to facilitate adoption and use. Their goal was to create a solution that is “Easy to Integrate, Easy to Install, and Easy to Use.” If growth is any measure of how they have done in meeting their objectives, over 250 manufacturers now provide Dante enable solutions with more than 30,000,000 audio channels of Dante in use. Dante is found in systems ranging from basic conference rooms to large scale installed and touring production systems. Some of the factors that have contributed to this adoption include:
- Dante Controller – This is the software that is used to manage, control and route audio in a Dante systems. It is very flexible and easy to use. For example every device can be given a name that makes sense instead of looking at IP addresses to route signal.
- Plug and play – connect a Dante-enabled device anywhere on the network and it is automatically recognized in Dante Controller.
- Compatibility with existing networks and off-the-shelf networking equipment. Managed switches are recommended and we can help with specifics.
- End to end solutions
- Audinate created a complete solution that goes beyond the equipment to include design and management tools (i.e. Dante Controller) and support.
- Equipment is available covering the entire signal path from microphones to speakers
From an integration perspective, using Dante devices from multiple companies within the same system is straight forward due to the consistency and simplicity of Dante Controller software. Plug-and-play device discovery also makes this easy. Dante supports channel counts up to 512×512 at 192 KHz/32 bit. Multiple sample rates are supported within a single system and channels can be routed individually.
Audio-Video Bridging / Time Sensitive Networking (“AVB / TSN”) was first brought to market around 2012 by the AVnu Alliance. The AVnu Alliance was founded by Broadcom, Cisco, Harman, Intel, and Xilinx with the intention of creating a new standard to help meet the requirements of audio and video signal distribution across a network. The intent was to create a solution that was interoperable across manufacturers and address the precise timing and low latency requirements of AV in an open standard available to anyone. AVB will work with any type of data, not just audio and video. AVB has not caught on with Pro AV in the way originally hoped and the AVnu Alliance is now changing focus to other markets where time sensitivity in networking is essential. AVB/TSN requires AVB certified network switches which means AVB will not pass on most existing networks. Until recently there were only a few available and they were more expensive. On the up side, AVB did make the network configuration very easy within the switch. Since AVB is really a standard and not a full methodology, the implementation varies by manufacturer. For example, there is not a common routing interface for all AVB products like Dante offers. The certified switch requirement, plus the lack of a consistent interface for integrators has contributed to some of the hesitation in adoption by the Pro AV market.
H.264 or MPEG-4 is one of the most common formats for distributing video and audio over IP-based networks. It has been adopted by numerous manufacturers in both proprietary and open implementations. One example of signal distribution with H.264 is the ClearOne ViewPro system. An encoder is placed at each source (i.e. signage player, source PC, camera, audio source, etc) and a decoder is located at each destination (i.e. individual display, video wall, projector, audio amplifier, etc). The encoders and decoders can be located anywhere on the network. Full matrix switching is provided through the included software that can run on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android platforms. The number of end-points is limited only by the location of network drops and bandwidth – and bandwidth requirements can be managed from within the software. HDCP compliance, audio embedding/de-embedding, bi-directional control, GPIO, USB IO, video wall composition modes, and multi-viewer functionality add to the flexibility of the solution. Being standards-based allows this type of solution to also work with any device that can decode an H.264 stream. This includes free software such as VLC player running on a PC. In some scenarios, additional licensing may be required to activate certain features.
Manufacturers recognize that some AV integrators are still getting comfortable with the convergence of AV and IT. In response some have done an excellent job of making it easier for an AV integrator to design and deploy these systems. By example, ClearOne has a dedicated team that provides full system design, including system drawings and an MSRP quote integrators would be comfortable sending to their customers. This is provided at no charge. The manufacturer will also work with the end-user’s IT department on behalf of the integrator and help close the business. Post sale, ClearOne provides assistance with deployment and system commissioning. They also offer extensive training for integrators that includes CTS RU.
Keep in mind, not everything with an RJ45 jack is IP Based. Baluns and HD-BaseT are two examples of non-IP based solutions that use UTP. The convergence of AV and IT has already happened and many IT companies are successfully moving into the AV world. Some AV companies on the other hand, have been a little slower to adopt the benefits that basic IT can offer. Granted, some IT companies still need to learn more about AV to do it well, but they have overcome the fear of learning a new technology. AV companies now have the resources to protect their market and utilize the benefits that IT – particularly IP brings to the table. Almo is familiar with the various technologies and can provide the resources to help your transition into this market.