Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 9

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age and covers more topics that often confuse both new and old hi-fi and home theater fans alike: Ethernet (hard wired, high-bandwidth computer and hi-fi gear networking), separates, and the role of a broadband internet router in a modern home theater.

The internet router is especially important for those who enjoy streaming media (like Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu Plus) and have multiple mobile devices sucking down wi-fi.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Ethernet

From Chapter 3: Components

Ethernet is a standard for connecting computers and home theater components to your home network. Unlike wi-fi, which is a wireless communications standard, it is a wired scheme that operates over special cabling. Like its cousin wi-fi, Ethernet enables audio and video to be streamed from the internet or a part of your network to your home theater. In terms of audio and video components (specifically receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes), Ethernet is a valuable feature that provides a better connection than wi-fi, but may involve more expensive installation of cabling in your home. (For more info, see the Ethernet section of the Connection Types chapter.)

ethernet-cablePersonally, I’d seriously consider skipping components that lack Ethernet. Why? Simply because it’s the best way to connect the pieces of your home theater to your local network and the internet, especially for streaming high-definition video. The media formats of today—and tomorrow—all flow more smoothly when transported via Ethernet instead of interference-prone wi-fi.

From Chapter 5: Connection Types

As you learned in the Components chapter, Ethernet is a wired connection technology from the computer networking world that is used in other types of components, such as home theater and home automation equipment. It supports relatively high speeds, has been around for decades, and is very reliable. Many, but not all, receivers and all major streaming media boxes feature Ethernet ports. This connectivity standard operates over special cabling called CAT5 and CAT6 (the current and most robust standard) and can reach lengths of more than 300 feet (100 meters).

Sometimes labeled “LAN” on a device’s back panel, Ethernet isn’t only reliable, it’s the fastest connection available. In a typical home network, Ethernet is roughly two to 20 times faster than wi-fi (when measuring real-world data throughput)! Although most components don’t take advantage of this speed, future standards—like true 4K video—will benefit from it. Another superiority over wi-fi is the lack of sensitivity to radio interference (such as from cordless phones and microwaves). In addition, Ethernet is much less prone to hacking or unwanted eavesdropping than wi-fi. Ethernet is simply the best connection option for computers and home theater equipment.

In most homes, wi-fi is obviously used by all mobile devices (iPod Touches, smartphones, tablets, and laptops). But your receiver never moves, so it doesn’t need the mobile flexibility provided by wi-fi. It does, however, need a fast, solid internet connection—and especially benefits from one that’s much more immune to interference and several magnitudes faster than its wi-fi cousin (helpful when streaming high resolution audio or video without interruptions or buffering).

For these reasons, I decided to connect my receiver and other home theater components to my home network (and the internet) using Ethernet. Because my components aren’t consuming wi-fi bandwidth, they aren’t competing with the mobile devices in my home. If you’ve already gone to the installation expense or invested DIY time to run CAT6 cable from your home’s internet router to your home theater components, there’s no reason to not supply Ethernet to all of your devices.

Splitting Ethernet with a Switch

Sharing a single cable drop with multiple home theater components can be done easily and inexpensively using an Ethernet switch. Similar to a USB hub, this device simply splits and manages the incoming Ethernet signal from a single cable into multiple feeds (some switches provide five ports, while others offer eight or more). There are a few speed standards supported by Ethernet switches. It’s recommended that you get the fastest possible switch to help future-proof your system. This would be a gigabit switch, which is very affordable, with entry-level models costing only about $35. With even higher definition TV right around the corner, data consumption will only increase exponentially.

ethernet switchA friend of mine was recently shopping for a receiver. He had been plugging his cable box and Blu-ray player directly into his TV. He purchased a Chromecast dongle, but his TV features only two HDMI ports, both of which were occupied. Thus, he was forced to purchase a receiver to accommodate his three HDMI inputs (of course, he’s pumping much better sound to his speakers in the process). Instead of paying more for a receiver that featured wi-fi—he was on a tight budget—we simply ensured that the receiver had an Ethernet port. This allowed him to save $120 by purchasing a model lacking wi-fi—while at the same time delivering a considerably faster and more reliable internet connection to his receiver.

For non-mobile devices and when practical, always choose Ethernet over wi-fi.

Separates

From Chapter 3: Components

One thing this book doesn’t deal with in detail is what in the audiophile world is called separates. These are specialty components that handle specific tasks within your home theater, primarily multichannel amplification or surround processing. These are both tasks assumed by a standard AV receiver, although typically—by audiophile standards—at a lower quality level than can be delivered by separates.

It’s hard to argue with the benefit of different power supplies and avoiding any electrical crossover or interference between separate components. It is, in both theory and actual listening reality, an approach that’s superior to that of integrated receivers. But, as with all areas of life, common sense should prevail. There are poor examples of separates on the market, as well as integrated receivers that produce incredible sound and video with robust power (and better value).

As you might guess, separates can get alarmingly expensive. If you want to research separates on your own, check out Anthem, Bryston, Classé, Emotiva, Integra, Marantz, NAD, Parasound, and Rotel. With the exception of Emotiva and (sometimes) NAD, get ready for sticker shock. Even Yamaha joined the game in 2014 with a $6,000 pre-processor and power amplifier pair.

If I was buying separates today, I’d probably go with Rotel, NAD, or Emotiva. I like Rotel’s Class D digital amps and its reputation for clean, refined audio with a wide soundstage. I love NAD’s understated grey matte finish and its legacy for audiophile-quality sound at all volume levels. I also enjoy Emotiva’s engineering philosophy and how the company throws tons of watts at its separates (although other companies offer classier, more refined component styling). The company’s wattage-per-dollar ratio is off the charts. Unlike most separates manufacturers, Emotiva’s prices won’t motivate your spouse to begin Googling ways to kill you in your sleep.

Broadband Internet Router

From Chapter 3: Components

I know, I know, this is a book about home theater, not computers. But with so many streaming services delivered to your home theater via the internet, having a weak router can be more frustration than pleasure. Dropouts when listening to streaming music and freezes for buffering while watching internet video aren’t any fun (somewhat destroying the suspension of disbelief during engaging movies). While problems like this can’t be completely avoided due to internet traffic and server hiccups (issues completely outside your control), they can sometimes be dramatically decreased with a good dual-band router.

Think of a high-end router as serving the role of an internet traffic cop who not only likes to increase the speed limit, but also optimizes your network for the increasingly media-based data pulled down by your increasingly device-filled household.

Wi-Fi Everywhere

Not convinced of the importance of wi-fi in your home? Consider that Roku uses wi-fi even in its remote controls, while Nest sells a wi-fi-enabled smoke detector to complement its wi-fi-based smart thermostat. There are even various models of door locks and LED light bulbs on the market that require wi-fi to configure and operate. From your display panel and AV receiver to your laptop or your child’s iPod Touch, the quality and reliability of your wi-fi connection has never been so important, affecting every member of your family—and even your guests who bring their own mobile devices.

netgear nighthawk r700Better router models provide several advantages, including stronger amplifiers and dedicated antennas to enhance signal strength, range, and overall data speed. Consider that YouTube and Netflix together make up more than 55% of the overall volume of data consumed on the internet. In other words, most of the data streamed online is video—and sometimes HD video in Dolby Digital surround sound. This video consumes a lot of bandwidth, more than any other type of data on your network or the internet.

Also consider that this data isn’t consumed in short bursts, like traditional computer-based internet use involving a web browser or mobile apps for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Watching a two-and-a-half hour movie on Netflix or Apple TV requires not only good bandwidth, but a data stream that’s consistently reliable. Now recognize that there might be two, or even three, simultaneous video streams from the internet entering your home at certain times of the day (such as after school or work, during the evening, or on weekends). This is when most readers begin to understand the sheer volume of media streaming that occurs in their home and the pivotal role played by their wi-fi router.

When you sign up for internet service, there’s a good chance that your ISP, or internet service provider, will provide you a combination modem/router that includes basic wi-fi capabilities. This is the device that is both bringing the internet into your home via coaxial, twisted pair (telephone), or fiber optic cabling and then, as a second step, wirelessly broadcasting it to your home via a wi-fi signal. Any internet-connected device in your home relies on your router for the upload and download of all data.

The Free One Sucks

For companies like AT&T, Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner to make money, they obviously must keep overhead as low as possible. This means that the modem/wi-fi router box they provide with their ISP accounts isn’t the best available. Not by a long shot. Regardless of the inherent quality of these freebies, they aren’t giving you the best experience possible. With so many mobile and home theater devices in your home demanding a robust and full-time wi-fi connection—and typically streaming bandwidth-hungry audio or video—the role of your router is more important than ever.

Buy Dual Band

First, be sure to purchase a wi-fi router that’s dual-band. This will include support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices, essentially putting them on different networks and boosting the bandwidth provided to all devices by helping prevent bottlenecks and streamlining data flows.

A benefit of a dual-band router is that you’re guaranteed to have the latest wi-fi standard, 802.11ac (sometimes called gigabit wi-fi). This gives you the fastest wireless connectivity, helping provide the best possible performance, especially with new devices that enter your household that probably support this standard. Routers from ASUS, Cisco, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear are recommended because of their quality, affordability, and long track records with consumers and enterprises.

Buying the best router possible for your home in 2014 is a $130-$280 endeavor. Check out the $200 Netgear Nighthawk R7000 (my personal pick and a PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice, pictured above), the $130 ASUS RT-N65U or $220 RT-AC68U, or the $230 Linksys EA6900 (another PC Magazine Editors’ Choice recipient). Also consider the top-shelf $280 Linksys WRT1900AC. Another nice contender is the $175 TRENDnet TEW-818DRU (street prices will typically be lower on most models). Not chump change, but by the end of the operation you’ll know you have the fastest, most reliable, and most manageable wi-fi on the block.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

The Case for Home Theater Ethernet

3d1Most middle class homes have multiple mobile devices floating around. From iPod Touches to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the average family has quite a few gadgets relying on its wi-fi wireless connectivity to get to the internet and consume social media and streaming content like video and music.

Many consumers don’t realize that there’s an alternative to wi-fi called Ethernet. Ethernet is a hardwired technology, meaning there’s nothing wireless about it.

To use Ethernet, you must run a special cable from your internet router (where the broadband enters your home) to any Ethernet-connected equipment you wish to receive wired bandwidth. A networking technology that evolved within the computer world, Ethernet has been around for decades. In its current implementation, it’s extremely fast and reliable. It operates over special cabling called CAT5 or CAT6. Compared to wi-fi, Ethernet is considerably faster and more stable. Baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and microwave ovens all compete for the most common variety of wi-fi on the same 2.4 GHz frequency. Because it’s hardwired, Ethernet lacks the sensitivity to radio frequency interference that plagues wi-fi.

Wi-Fi For Mobile Only

Thus, with bandwidth and reliability being so much better with Ethernet, why is everyone using wi-fi for devices that don’t demand it? Wi-fi should be considered an optimal connectivity option for mobile devices only. Smartphones and tablets that need to move about, tether-free, are why wi-fi was created and has become so popular. We’re simply over utilizing this cool wireless tech due to its low cost and super-simple implementation (and who doesn’t like a lack of obnoxious cables?). Companies selling us stuff love to tout wireless. If wireless data is the path of least resistance, consumers are going to accept what is often the default communications method. Even my Nest thermostat uses wi-fi to upload data to the cloud and allow me to control it from any mobile device.

The vulnerabilities of wi-fi really wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone wasn’t sucking down so much high-definition video (sometimes with a six-channel surround sound audio track). The irony is that we’re taking the most frail connection technology, wi-fi, and taxing it with the most robust and “heavy” data there is, high-definition video.

The good news about Ethernet is that you might not need to purchase new equipment to take advantage of it. Newer AV receivers and Blu-ray players, as well as streaming media boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, all feature an Ethernet port (often labeled “LAN,” for Local Area Network). Your internet router necessarily supports Ethernet. All major media streamers, with the exception of Chromecast (which is wi-fi only), support Ethernet. If your receiver and Blu-ray player do also, it’s a compelling reason to run Ethernet to all of these devices in your home theater.

ethernet switchIt should be noted that you (or your installer) will be running a single CAT6 cable from your internet router to your home theater equipment. However, if you’re like me, you have between two and four devices that need an internet feed, not one. How does a single CAT6 cable accommodate multiple devices on the receiving end? Simple, with a device called an Ethernet switch, also referred to as a gigabit switch (ensure that you purchase one that supports gigabit data speeds).

Ethernet Switches

An Ethernet switch simply takes a single input (from your router, possibly on the other side of your house) and splits it into multiple outputs (similar to a USB hub). Fortunately, these devices are affordable, with prices beginning at $35. You can provide bandwidth to as many devices as the switch has ports (models are available that provide between three and eight ports, on average).

Many people have non-mobile, stationary devices that are being fed wi-fi. Good examples include AV receivers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, and desktop PCs. In my Kindle books Home Theater for the Internet Age and the shorter version, Understanding Home Theater, I make a case for choosing Ethernet over wi-fi whenever possible. If a device isn’t mobile, give it Ethernet. Period.

One big benefit to getting most or all of your non-mobile devices on Ethernet instead of wi-fi is freeing wi-fi bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need it. Most people are consuming streaming media, specifically high-definition video, on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. They need all the bandwidth they can get. Taking a bandwidth-hungry Netflix video stream and moving it from wi-fi to Ethernet frees tons of wireless bandwidth for iPhones and Nexus tablets (which are probably also sucking down their own high-definition video).

If you’re tired of your video buffering on Hulu Plus or the image on your display panel freezing when you’re watching Vudu or Crackle, segmenting your home network bandwidth between wi-fi and Ethernet may be just the ticket to alleviating your headaches. Just like how the car traffic on a multi-lane freeway will flow most smoothly if the vehicles are roughly equally distributed among the lanes, home networks that segment bandwidth consumption to avoid competition as much as possible will result in far fewer technical glitches and less frustration. The last time you want to encounter problems is when you’re trying to enjoy your entertainment, not play junior network admin and troubleshoot your router at 10:30 pm after three beers.

the-case-for-home-theater-ethernet

While you’re at it, you might want to consider purchasing a high-end internet router, something that could dramatically improve both your wi-fi and your Ethernet (a good example, and my personal choice, is the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 for about $200, pictured here). Modern “dual band” routers include not one, but two networks, each operating at a completely different frequency (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). This provides you with considerably more bandwidth and segments your devices into logical, device-appropriate networks (older devices that support only 2.4 GHz obviously reside there; newer gadgets that can do 5 GHz always should). Maybe I’ll write a future blog post about the benefits of upgrading to a top shelf router (some models can even automate your backups).

The Potential Downside

The only problem with adopting Ethernet connectivity for your home theater is that it might not sit right beside your internet router. Thus, you (or an installer) may need to make some cable runs and install some face plates to facilitate the jump from wi-fi to Ethernet (costing you some money).

Back in 2013, when I was installing a new home theater in a spare bedroom and upgrading an existing theater in the living room, I paid a few hundred dollars to a professional installer to bring CAT6 cabling from my upstairs data closet (tucked nicely in a laundry room) to my downstairs living room media cabinet. The installer wasn’t simply an electrician, but instead a small firm that specialized in security systems and high-end home theaters. They knew what they were doing. Which is good, because they ran into tons of headaches related to the layout and construction of my house, which required them to be tenacious and creative.

So yes, making the leap from wi-fi to Ethernet may cost you a few bucks. One nice aspect is that much home theater equipment comes Ethernet-ready (but not all; buyer beware). Newer models are more likely to feature support for Ethernet. If a manufacturer is going to charge extra for something, it will typically be wi-fi and Bluetooth. My Pioneer Elite receiver, for example, lacks wi-fi, but Pioneer will sell me a ridiculously overpriced wi-fi dongle for $130. I’d rather give that money to a pro installer and forever rid myself of the need to primitively provide bandwidth to my home theater using wi-fi.

As I discuss in my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, there is a middle-ground option when it comes to providing bandwidth to non-mobile devices in your home called a powerline adapter. While not as fast or reliable as Ethernet, powerline adapters are brother and sister pairs that plug into power outlets (one beside your router, the other beside the devices you wish to feed broadband) to deliver a relatively fast internet signal. Powerline adapters are cost effective (typically under $100) and very easy to install. They’re plug-and-play and almost never require attention. I use a powerline adapter to deliver broadband to my upstairs home theater and have experienced smooth streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.