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.

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Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 1

3d1There’s quite a few topics in home theater that are confusing for the average consumer. From volume levels on modern AV receivers to firmware updates to distortion, these topics make the purchase, installation, and enjoyable use of home theater gear both intimidating and sometimes perplexing. In the next few posts, let’s clarify some of these issues.

The following is an excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. The other blog posts in this series are listed below:

  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, 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 room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Volume in a Zero dB World

The volume, or intensity, of sound produced by a receiver or amp is expressed in decibels, or dB. The “bel” part of the term is in honor of Alexander Graham Bell, because decibels, as a unit of measure, were developed to objectively determine audio levels on the earliest telephone networks (and you thought it was all about jet engines and 1970s rock concerts by The Who….).

What is confusing about decibel readouts on today’s receivers—and has been in practice for only about the past decade or so—is the zero dB system employed. It’s inherently counter-intuitive. Basically, on the dB scale, zero (0) represents the receiver’s loudest output (if you turned up the volume to the maximum possible). You’d obviously have to decrease the volume to enjoy it at a reasonable level. These enjoyable volumes occur in the negative numbers. A reasonable zone might be -32, or maybe -25 (depending on the input source and your room). But it will always be expressed as a negative number. Because we’re talking about negative numbers, smaller numbers (ignoring the negative sign) equal higher volume levels (-10 will be much louder than -35). And this is where the confusion arises.

pioneer av receiverThere is a logic to this scheme, however. In the past, when higher numbers equaled greater volumes, the settings were entirely arbitrary, with wide variations among receiver manufacturers. One company might demark 1 through 10 (one being the softest, 10 being the loudest), while another would get more granular, adopting a 1 through 20 or even 1 through 100 scale. It was the wild west. The problem was that there was no objective way for a receiver to display to its owner the volume at which it was producing sound.

Zero dB originated in the commercial broadcasting and recording industries. On your home theater’s receiver, think of 0 dB as the tipping point for distortion and where you may begin encountering things like “clipping” (jarring cuts and dropouts in the sound) and other signs that the receiver is operating beyond its capacity to provide clean sound. Depending on the quality of your receiver, you may experience distortion at a volume below 0 dB. But a good unit won’t begin distorting until this point (a valuable litmus test when researching your purchase).

The specific dB level indicated by a receiver is still somewhat subjective. In addition to your receiver, your speakers and the room in which they reside significantly influence the actual volume at which you hear the audio reproduced. Take this number displayed on your receiver lightly, realizing that -25 dB with your old speakers or on your neighbor’s system won’t sound exactly the same on yours (but it should be in the ballpark).


Updating Firmware

A hardware component’s firmware is simply updatable software stored on a chip in the device that controls certain features and functions. Because players are basically audio and video-focused computers dependent upon complex decoding and processing software, manufacturers often release firmware updates that expand or enhance the functionality of their units—or fix existing bugs. It’s a good idea to keep the firmware of your home theater devices, specifically your Blu-ray player and AV receiver, up-to-date (check manufacturer websites on a regular basis).

The biggest reason to update your Blu-ray player firmware is to ensure that it can properly play the latest movie releases. Hollywood is continually revising copy-protection standards in an effort to thwart piracy. Sometimes new protection schemes can’t be recognized by a particular player (especially older models)—resulting in a movie that won’t play. Instead of having to purchase a new Blu-ray player (a ludicrous proposition at which consumers would obviously balk), you simply need to update your firmware to match the latest copy-protection encryption standards of new-release movies.

oppo bdp-103Depending on whether your Blu-ray player is connected to the internet, there are a variety of ways firmware updates can be applied. If your player features internet connectivity, simply follow the manufacturer instructions to obtain and install the update files. If your player lacks connectivity, you can download the files from the manufacturer website using a Windows or Mac computer and copy them to a USB flash drive. The USB drive is then inserted into the player to begin the installation of the update.


Disadvantages of Blu-ray

The biggest disadvantage of the Blu-ray format is that some discs can take a while to load (up to a minute or two), depending on the speed and quality of your player. This wait is so much greater than for DVDs that, on some titles, new owners sometimes believe they’ve run into a bad disc or that their player has locked up. More expensive and newer Blu-ray players feature faster processing chips, decreasing your wait time as the disc content loads into the memory of your player. If load speed is a concern, remember to demo, demo, demo. (For you geeky types, the Blu-ray video format transfers data at roughly 40 Mbps, which is why you can’t yet stream an uncompressed Blu-ray video over your internet connection.)

Models known for their speedy load times include OPPO’s $500 BDP-103, its $1,200 105 model, and the $400 Pioneer Elite BDP-62FD. Personally, my first choice would be the BDP-103 (pictured above). Those on a budget might prefer the BDP-62FD, which is very comparable to the entry-level OPPO (but not quite as powerful or refined).


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

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