Digitally networked audio lets you build flexible live sound installations, replacing expensive, error-prone analog cables with much less expensive CAT-5 UTP and standard networking equipment. Consider: Audio over Ethernet's digitized structure lets you send more than 500 channels in each direction over just one networking cable, it isn't susceptible to ground loops or interference, and you can run a line that's longer than a football field before running out of signal strength.
Compare that to conventional set-ups: you carefully plan around existing utility structures and architectural hurdles, but don't run too far out of the way or you'll start bumping up against voltage drop issues. Factor in conduit (you'll probably need it on every line), and solder on a couple of connectors at the end of each line. And don't forget, you'll want that powered speaker to actually turn on, so go ahead and throw down a 220 somewhere nearby. If you're lucky, you won't need a signal repeater, ground-loop killer, or patch bay. Now do it all over again for every single channel in your system.
No matter how you do the math, running analog cable just plain sucks. With networked audio, you can say goodbye to the soldering iron, metal connectors, and power-conditioning equipment. You'll be happy to trade them in for plastic RJ-45 clips and a crimping tool. Choose PoE-equipped equipment, and you won't even need to wire up a power outlet.
Analog sound suffers on every step of its journey:
Go digital, and your sound becomes pretty much bulletproof. Sure, you might have to add another off-the-shelf switch every now and again, but at the end of the day, ones and zeros just aren't threatened by the kinds of signal interruptions that plague analog. You don't even have to use shielded cable, and you can go through many connections without introducing noise. Now that you can install affordable networked AV right at the wall, you can turn what used to be a 100-foot analog run with ten or so chances to degrade your signal into a four foot run with just one connection on each end.
- Every time you terminate a cable, analog sound suffers, and it gets worse when your run gets longer. Networked A/V uses a digital signal and at-the-wall DSP processing, so you all but eliminate the chances of adding noise to the system. Plus, you save miles of cable, and may even get rid of some expensive intermediary devices.
Come to think of it, your networked AV transmission can actually sound better than the original. After all, we've already got a digital signal in the box, so why not apply some digital signal processing? In a fraction of a second, our wall plate runs a quartet of audio improvements – configurable compressor, EQ, gain and delay – then send it on to the digital cloud.
Has something like this ever happened to you? You're wiring up a P.A. system in an elementary school, and the speaker in room 207 refuses to squawk when you send a signal from the receptionist desk. Room 193 is intermittent, and there's a slight hum in the auditorium. Faulty connector? Voltage drop? Wiring mistake? Busted circuit in the switch? Missed connection on the patch bay? Defective cable? Looks like you've got some detective work to do, and your problem rooms are on opposite sides of the building. This just doesn't happen in networked audio. Run the CAT-5, plug it in, and if it turns on then move on to setting up the software—you're done with the install.
Did a three-year-old just try and find out if she could cram a whole peanut-butter & jelly sandwich into one of your XLR jacks? No need for a service call. Just send the client a new box, reloaded with your saved configuration, and it's Miller Time. And on the install front, why not have the IT guys or an electrician do your cable runs, too? Now that you're using CAT-5, you can rest easy having someone else do your bidding, without fear of them introducing analog headaches for you to troubleshoot.
- With all of your audio routing chosen by software over the network, you can radically change your setup with the click of a mouse. For instance, a hotel ballroom sees a lot of different uses, from convention hall, conference, business meeting, dining, exposition, or as an open party. With networked A/V, you have the flexibility to integrate multiple microphones, consumer electronics, computer audio, musical equipment, public address systems, and more, all without touching a single cable. Heck, change the config via the network, and you don't even have to be there!
Networked audio lets you disconnect, reconnect, route, reroute, P.A., intercom, private line or party line, connecting every single device in your design, all without touching a single cable. Try doing that with analog. Every device is connected to send/receive a signal from every other networked device, and it's all configurable by running software on the LAN. Imagine a hotel ballroom that converts from a split meeting room/dining room, into a large conference hall, all with the push of a touchscreen or a command from a remote control room.
Or imagine a customer requesting a new single mic line to our fifteen-room sound setup. Such a simple request, but it's a one way ticket to cable-pulling, patch-bay-rat-nest-making, interference-inducing hell. Unless, you're using our networked AV system. You'd just run some CAT-5 from the switch (or cannibalize an existing data line), plug in a PoE, network-at-the-wall box (CobraNet) (Dante) configure the software, and you're done. That was easy.
Distribution is a huge side of the digital equation, but it's not the only one. A digital signal is just begging for some DSP lovin', and who are we to argue with fate? Send the signal on to a networked rack for some big-iron processing, or run it through some simple conditioning in the original box; either way, you have every opportunity to send some expensive analog equipment to the scrap pile. At the very least, you'll eliminate a ton of cable and soldered connectors. And there won't be any need for isolation transformers or distribution amps.
Besides saving a ton of cash by eliminating the cable, labor and external processing equipment, there's also a direct client benefit to using networked AV. Whether it's a wall-mounted junction box or a mini-rack signal processor, you're also eliminating big, bulky boxes that are in constant danger of getting damaged, stolen, or reconfigured by a sticky-handed 8-year-old named Timmy. For small venues, those DSPs give them access to features that they'd otherwise just learn to live without.
- CobraNet protocol lets a single CAT-5 cable carry as many as 64 individual channels, for as many as 100 meters. In comparison, analog cables require shielding (and usually conduit), carry one signal per line, suffers voltage drops as the length progreses, and is highly prone to noise, hum, and interference.
Is networked AV right for your customers? "Hello, McFly!" Right now, the only thing that has really kept digitally networked audio from completely immolating the analog world is the cost and availability of equipment. Those barriers are finally starting to erode, and we're doing everything we can to fuel the audio over Ethernet revolution. More and more clients are requesting networked audio not because they know exactly what's out there, but just because they figure that everything else can live on a network, so something like this just has to exist. Make sure that you are the one to play matchmaker. Integrators can save a ton on installations, offer flexibility and expandability to their clients, and are finding that demand for their networking know-how is the future.