Author: David Feller, BOCS Company
This is the ninth and final chapter of a multi-part series covering all aspects of low voltage wiring in the home: entertainment, security, automation, and future planning.
Table Of Contents:
The entire eBook is available for download at www.BOCSco.com/prewire along with new updates as they are released.
One of the biggest topics to cover, and perhaps the one with the most controversy since there are so many available products out there and each has its own distinct features and installation options. I will be discussing a few specific products and brands, but see the Appendix A with links to a host of sources and brands that all will accomplish the same basic goals.
This chapter will go through specific topics with examples of each system:
The Media Server:
Movies, Music, Pictures, and streaming internet on one or all your TVs is not particularly new, but it is beginning to become mainstream and once you see a system running you will most definitely want one for your home.
Let’s define it first – there are literally thousands of features and applications. Think them all through up front and choose your system wisely. Never base your decision on what a product or company promises will be included in the next release. Consider the following capabilities:
Purpose built systems: Many vendors offer specific media servers such as Crestron, Kaleidescape, and Vidabox that are capable of ripping DVDs and Blu-Ray to Hard drives and serving them up on demand. They work very well, but tend to be expensive. These systems are almost exclusively sold and installed by trained dealers. You should at least take a look at them in a local showroom.
NAS with a media player: Using the general definition here – Network Attached Storage can either be a dedicated NAS box, a server computer set up as a purpose built machine to file share within the home, or even just a shared hard drive on your normal desktop PC. Your media files can then be streamed over the in-home network to a device that can decode the file and play it on a TV (or through a whole-home video distribution system – more on that in a minute). There are, again, lots of options and if you search for “Connected Media Player” or “Networked Media Tank” you will find a lot of options.
The key benefits of this type of system include: dedicated playback – playback is not dependent on shared processor time. Multi-use of the home desktop – meaning that if you want to watch a movie you can still be working on your desktop PC as it is only acting as a file server. And perhaps most importantly a dedicated video output – they just work. Perhaps the best example out there right now is the HDX1000 that can be found online at www.amperordirect.com. For a relatively low cost, this device can pull media streams (movies, pics, music) from any PC or NAS on the local network AND stream internet content real time. As an added benefit it also has a bittorrent engine built in so it can download content and display it without the need for a computer. AppleTV also falls into this category but versatility is limited.
Key features of a media player to look for:
Media Center PC:
Whether you decide to place a dedicated PC for Media viewing next to your main TV or run it through a whole-home video distribution system, a purpose built PC is becoming a popular way to serve up your content. Every computer manufacturer offers pre-built systems that have been tweaked for just this purpose but building your own is certainly a viable option to keep costs down. Any PC with proper Audio and Video outputs (preferably composit and either HDMI or Component as well as optical toslink out) and running a software package capable of providing a 10 foot interface will serve your needs.
The software provides the decode function as well as the simple user interface. Microsoft offers a version of windows called “Windows Media Center” that has been the predominate player. The version for XP is solid and the user interface works very well. I recommend avoiding Vista, but the Windows 7 version has a huge set of feature upgrades and seamlessly integrates a variety of internet streams and supports third party software to enhance the experience. Check out www.madeformediacenter.com for third party applications.
There is also a version of linux that supports a 10 foot remote control interface although it takes some expertise to get up and running.
You should also consider other software packages like boxee www.boxee.com as some specialize in online connectivity and better codec packages. Boxee, in particular, is a free download that can be run in place of a windows media center installation.
What does the author use in his home? (see www.bocsco.com/wholehome to see pics of my setup). Actually I use both a windows media center PC AND an HDX1000. That gives me the best of both worlds in that
How to get content:
I make absolutely no claims as to legality of any of these things – you need to be careful as you search for and get content. The entire process is riddled with folks looking to do you harm from viruses to companies looking to prosecute you if you take their content illegally. My goal is simply to give you a quick overview. (Seem strange to cover this in a pre-wire guide but recall the main purpose for writing this document is to answer the most common questions I’m asked on a daily basis)…
iTunes is by far the most popular, but many radio stations, bands and labels offer free music downloads as well. Don’t forget internet radio stations as well as the digital music channels on your satellite or cable set top box. Like recording to a “tape deck” off the radio, it is legal to record live broadcasts. Many title are also available via peer-to-peer networks like bittorrent, but keep in mind much of what you find out there is illegally shared. It is always legal to “rip” CDs you buy onto your system.
The situation is a little stickier with DVDs as the studios have sought to protect their “property” to a much greater extent. Technically, it is legal for you to make “archive” copies of DVDs you own onto an on-demand digital media server although to do so you have to “break” the CSS encryption on the DVD itself. It is that act that is considered prosecutable. There are plenty of software packages that will rip a DVD to your hard drive like www.dvdfab.com and packages like that will also let you compress the original VOB files (generally 4-5GB/movie) down to an avi file at 1-2GB/movie with little to no loss in quality. Again, caution on legality download only what you know is open content, but pretty much any title is available via torrent downloads – starting with a good search engine like www.scrapetorrent.com is a good way to get going.
Moving Video Around the Home:
Retrofit Systems - Modulation:
Here is the scenario: you move into a home that is sorely under-wired (not even the absolute minimum wiring from chapter 3) but you still want to put all your media sources in one place and distribute them home-wide either for convenience or to benefit from a shared DVR experience in each room. You have looked and either you want to go low budget or there is no way to run new wires to every room. You are most definitely not out of luck! The answer is to re-use and share wires that you do have – modulation.
“Wait, I heard modulation was a dead technology and it results in a bad picture anyway” – that was all true until two new companies jumped in, BOCS and ZeeVee.
Disclaimer – I’m about to cover a product made by my company and a competitor so I’ll go a little overboard giving information on how it all works so you can make your own decision on whether it applies to you.
If we go back 5 years, the simple solution would have been off-the-shelf RF modulation. Plug each device into a modulator and add some kind of wireless IR repeater system and for about $1200 you could get everything you wanted. But times change and modulation like that is not really an option. It’s also hard to be satisfied with the low end video quality of available modulators. Name brand or not, the quality is pretty bad – poor picture quality and no way to balance the signal so its good in every room. More importantly, however, is the loss of available bandwidth to put new channels. Cable companies have been forced into providing more and more content to compete with satellite service and maintain subscribers. Every useable frequency is either occupied with analog local stations, unusable due to interference from local emissions, or filled with stacked digital channels and services.
It is a little different in each region, but in general, cable companies use the lower channels (typically 2-60 or so) to broadcast local and some special interest analog stations with each channel occupying 6MHz of bandwidth. Everything above channel 70 (or so) is stacked with digital channels.
Using Quadrature Amplitude Modulation [QAM], a cable company can put 5-20 digital stations in each old 6Mhz channel. Normally, they put an HD station and 3-5 SD stations in each slot. Note that some smaller and less scrupulous operators stack so many channels that they can no longer be really called high definition – although they continue to market them as such. That leaves very little “open bandwidth” in which to put your own channels. There is the FM band (88-108MHz) of course, but so much signal from those high-powered radio stations stations leaks into the cable companies long cable lines that they can’t get a clean enough signal through and so they tend to avoid that band.
Typical modulation is out (you really don’t want to lose ESPN or A&E to be able to watch your DVR in the bedroom right?). Each modulated channel actually takes up two cable company channels and the extra harmonics created cause trouble with higher frequencies if you don’t take care where the new channels go.
If you put those new channels above cable channel 70 (most modulators actually only work above channel 70) you lose 10-20 digital cable channels for each of your own you insert. See the little diagram above – you instantly knock out two channels where you want to put yours, then the harmonics step on many others up the spectrum as well.
You could certainly put in a big video switch and run composite or component cables all over your home – expensive and hugely labor intensive. You could simply put a DVR at every TV (plus a DVD player, a media player etc) – again hugely expensive and requires a large monthly payment to either the cable company or TiVo. You could network all your TVs – oh yeah you don’t have Ethernet at every TV and there isn’t enough wireless bandwidth yet to support all that simultaneous video.
What’s left? How about that FM band 88-108MHz. Turns out that in Cable-TV land, that is actually channels 95-99 and, strangely enough, channel 14. If we were to just clean that up as it enters the home it would make a great place to put our new channels.
Obviously, this all has to work together as a system
A filter to clean up the FM spectrum as the CATV enters the home
A high performance A/V modulator with its own special filter to get rid of the harmful harmonics since without that extra filter in the modulator, you would take out a bunch of digital channels.
A system that distributes that new signal all over the home
A wireless control system
Could you put all that together from discrete components available at your local home theater distributor? Sure. There are lots of ways to put it together, but each require a lot of cash and, frankly, a lot of labor. You would also be left with the inherent problems of finding the right place to put the channel that does not destroy something else good on your network, running new coax and Ethernet lines throughout your home, and dealing with large and complicated remote controls.
New coax you say? Unless you live in a brand new home with 2 coax ports to every TV, you will need one to feed the new channels back up to your demarcation point and another to receive the combined signal for your TV.
There is a system that puts all of that together in a single box – ironically it is called BOCS. BOCS obviously provides a means to use a super high quality modulation within the home by integrating the various filters, signal conditioning, and channel agility required to circumvent “Big Cable’s” conquest of the entire frequency spectrum. But the two last pieces (distribution and control) are what really set BOCS apart.
Most of us only have one coax to our TV, and yes, that main TV is the best place to stack all you’re A/V sources. So what we need is a way to use that single coax bi-directionally: receiving cable TV down the wire and sending our new signals back up the same wire to the main junction box. Then when those new channels get back up there, we need a way to send them back down to every other TV in the home. It’s not magic, but since it is squarely in the domain of the RF engineer, it’s pretty close. The BOCS system includes a Supercombiner (we originally named it the “fancy mixer thing that goes at your demarcation point to allow whole-home distribution” but that name didn’t do so well in focus groups) – it looks basically like a cable TV splitter, and all you have to do is insert it right before the main splitter in your home to solve all those difficult wiring issues and keep you from having to run any new coax in your walls or attic. The Supercombiner has upstream and downstream amplifiers so your cable modem and VOIP service will still work from any room.
So now we have three sources (a BOCS MediaHub has three inputs and creates three new channels within the home), they appear on every TV in the home, and you don’t have to install any new wires to get it all up and running. In fact, with any luck you have spent all of 15 minutes on installation up to this point. But firing up a movie in the living room and watching it in your bedroom is only half the battle – the integrated wireless remote control system completes the control loop.
The system uses a set of 900MHz remotes that let users in any room communicate back to the main BOCS MediaHub location. Quick sidenote – 900MHz? Seriously? Isn’t 2.4Ghz or 5.8GHz better? All the wireless LAN gurus have moved on from 900MHZ… Well, unless you have really fast fingers, you really don’t need 100Mbps through a TV remote but you do need reliable coverage and range – so what BOCS did was put the reliability of a two way “Ethernet like” communication system into a long range 900MHz radio infrastructure. Now when you push the channel up button, the remote doesn’t just send a blast out hoping someone will hear, it verifies that the MediaHub got the message and retries until it does. And the cool part is that since this is a wireless remote, no more laying in bed holding the remote above your head in awkward contortions to skip a commercial on your DVR (you all know you have done it) just leave it under the covers…
When you are on “Red” and push play, then, an RF signal is sent from the BOCS remote back to the MediaHub that basically says “Play Red”, then the proper Infrared code for playing whatever is attached to red is flashed by the MediaHub into the A/V device plugged into the Red channel via a small IR flasher stuck to the front of that device.
As for use-ability, BOCS breaks down your choices in each room to 4 simple to remember options. “Local TV” means just watch normal cable TV like you always have in that room. Then you have the Red, Green, and Blue channels – those are your three new channels that are fed by your three A/V sources. You don’t have to remember which channel the Tivo is on or which channel the DVD is on – it’s just Red, Green, and Blue.
So, the BOCS system solves the major problems with home distribution, eliminates any new wiring, and makes use-ability simple.
Wait, you say, what about HD? The majority of customers that want HD at a second location simply leave one HD DVR in that other location – but if you want whole-home distribution of HD in the short term, we recommend adding a Zeevee QAM modulator onto the basic BOCS system. This essentially replaces the Blue channel with a QAM modulated version. ZeeVee specializes in HD modulators for your home computer – the cheapest, and standard model, has a VGA style input and can modulate that signal on just about any cable channel. ZeeVee also makes a consumer as well as a commercial component input modulator. So you can plug your Blue-Ray player in, and have its audio and video transmitted home-wide via standard coax. The missing pieces, however, are a way to put that signal in the FM band and a way to control that Blu-Ray from the other side of the home – so combining BOCS and ZeeVee solves all the remaining issues.
Switched Matrix Systems:
If you read the previous chapter on whole-home-audio, you are way ahead, all the same basic concepts apply to video although the equipment, cabling, and requirements are different. Sources should be co-located, you will need a matrix switcher, and each room needs a means by which to control the source selection as well as the source itself – normally a universal remote. But before we jump into various systems available, the actual cabling in the walls you have available will govern your choice of equipment. If you truly have a clean slate, I recommend going the Cat6 route for flexibility.
Max distance:30-50’ using standard micro-coax with RCA end
Audio: digital through another coax
Pro/Con: If you are running wires anyway, go ahead and at least upgrade to component
Component over Coax:
Max Distance: 150’ using triple coax (mini or RG6) – amplified to 1000’
Audio: digital through another coax
Pro/Con: Possibly outdated in a few years if HDMI becomes required for security
Component over Cat6: - Recommended
Max Distance: 1000’ typical – one Cat6 will support component AND spdif audio
Upgradeability: Excellent as long as you go ahead and put in a second Cat6 for future use
Audio: spdif connector normally present on baluns
Pro/Con: Easily upgraded if any standards change. Some sources will not output full 1080p except on HDMI outputs due to security protocols but component is much more universal even on older tube TVs and does not need a unique license for each receiver. Quality and distance capability of baluns varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer – look for reviews on www.avsforum.com or other reputable sites.
Max Distance: 30-50’ depending on the TV and Source involved. Either it will work or not at a specific distance – watch for flickering and speckles in the picture as indications of getting close to the end of the length.
Upgradeability: Minimal – unless you use the HDMI wire in a conduit and can pull new wires.
Audio: digital through the same HDMI cable
Pro/Con: Limited distances and little to no upgradeability makes this a potentially poor choice.
HDMI over Cat6:
Max Distance: 100’ typical – TWO Cat6 wires will support HDMI 1.3 which carries audio as well.
Audio: digital over HDMI
Pro/Con: Easily upgraded if any standards change. Some sources do not have multiple licenses/keys to support switching – component is safer but does not support 1080p from all sources (mostly Blu-ray players right now).
Note about switching HDMI: The whole reason for HDMI is NOT improved video quality, it is about convenience (a single cable for all audio and video) and perhaps more importantly a method to secure connection that was demanded by studios. If protection flags are set, the source actually queries the display to make sure both ends have the proper keys to exchange high quality digital audio and video. That means it is more difficult to “steal” 1080p content and everyone involved has to pay large licensing fees to make sure their equipment is approved and able to communicate with everyone elses. Frankly, component video works just as well and I almost always recommend that route except for the most extreme of installations.
Back to those keys – as mentioned in the cabling option matrix above, if a source (say a Blu-Ray player) is hooked up to a matrix switcher, it has to be able to supply and track enough keys for each of the matrix outputs. Crestron did a study where they tested a bunch of sources to see how many keys each had and the results can be found HERE. If you have trouble with a switcher not being able to supply multiple rooms simultaneously using HDMI or HDMI over Cat6 that might be the issue.
If you plan to use a wire for a purpose other than what it was originally created for you need at minimum an adapter and likely a balun. Generally, cables, and in fact the circuitry that transmits and receives them, are designed around the type of signal they need to carry. For example, speakers are driven by a high current low impedance source specifically so the amp can move the big voice coil on the other side of the home. Obviously, you want cable that is capable of handling the higher currents (14 Guage or bigger) but since impedance is low, interference is not as much of an issue so you really don’t need a shield. Logically, then, speaker wire or lamp cord works best and is cheapest for speakers. Running speakers through Cat6 doesn’t make sense since the wire guage is small so adapters and baluns don’t exist to transform between those wire types.
Running audio or video over Cat6, however, is a natural compatability. Obviously, Cat6 is capable of handling high speed analog and digital signals but you can’t just put an RCA connector on the end of a Cat6 cable and get HD on the other side of your home. Yes, that would work for short distances, but it is a brute force approach and will result in loss of high frequencies that show up as loss of detail in only 10-20 feet. The reason is that the different signals have different requirements. Video is typically carried over 75ohm shielded coax (whether large or small) and the signals extend to 8-10MHz for SD and up to 35MHz for HD. Analog audio is only 20-20KHz and is frequently carried over “coax-like” cables in the 35-50ohm range that minimize costs. If you insert a signal, lets say component video that needs 75ohms, onto an audio cable (35ohms typical) you will get reflections as well as high frequency roll-off. A good source of more information can be found on the audioholics.com site.
One more item that has to be converted is the style of the signal drive. Basically, some signals are referenced to ground (unbalanced) and some are symmetrically driven (balanced). Balanced signals are less susceptible to EMI but take more complicated circuits to drive and receive. Audio and video signals are generally unbalanced, but the unshielded environment of a twisted pair wire like Cat6 work better with balanced signals.
So, what we need is something that will match impedances both on the signal and cable sides, transform from unbalanced to balanced, and if possible help with reducing EMI interference between wire pairs. That device is called a balun. The simplest of them are basically just transformers with circuits like this:
The transformer is specifically designed to match a particular signal type to a particular cable.
Common types include:
Composite video over catX wire (most commonly used for security cameras)
Component and SpDif over Cat6. you can get them that only have component video, component and composite, component and analog audio or component and spdif digital audio. Generally you can do HD video up to 500 feet, SD video up to 1000 feet, digital audio up to 600 feet, and analog audio up to 3000 feet.
HDMI over Cat6 (takes two Cat6 wires per signal)
You can also get combo products that include multiple functions. This one has a component distributino amplifier and multiple baluns all built into one package. This kind of product is typically used for distributing a single source to multiple TVs (like in a school distributing high definition video to all the TVs in classrooms. The drawback is that everyone has to watch the same thing.
One last note about baluns – you must have one for each end of the cable. You need to transform the signal so it can be transmitted on the cable and then transform it back once it reaches the TV end