Commercial and installed audio is at a crossroads. The inevitable merging of computer networking technology and audio distribution is here; networked audio has matured into robust and capable systems poised to rapidly eclipse what came before. It is time to re-examine the assumptions and concerns that are holding some professionals back from choosing networked audio, as decisions made today will affect their clients for years to come.
Whether you are dealing with a “green field” installation or retrofitting an existing installation, one of the challenges in the past was the availability of enough audio network-capable products in key product categories to fully realize the benefits of audio networking.
The product landscape has changed dramatically in the last 24 months: There are now more than 700 networked audio products available on the market. Complete end-to-end systems, from microphones to loudspeakers, can now be specified with audio networking, with new products released on a regular basis.
Manufacturers have also risen to the challenge of integrating with existing systems, delivering mixers, DSPs and power amplifiers that support multiple interface cards to bridge them simultaneously to network and non-network digital systems. This allows audio to flow where it is needed without unnecessary A/D and D/A conversion. Dedicated converters connect virtually any digital protocol to network systems, so older equipment can remain a vital part of modern installations.
Most importantly, the industry is rapidly coalescing around a very small number of audio networking solutions, creating a powerful de facto standard and spawning development of hundreds of compatible products from different manufacturers.
Legacy audio network solutions were criticized for being difficult to understand and use, relying upon arcane methods that bore little resemblance to computer networks. This was an inevitable early stage of development, but has it changed?
The leading audio over IP solutions take full advantage of modern networking standards and hardware to deliver a seamless plug-and-play experience that supports automatic discovery, plain language labels for audio sources and destinations, and easy software-based routing, management and diagnostics. Changing audio routes no longer means tearing out ceiling panels and disrupting client activities. An AV network can scale up to hundreds of endpoints, and changes now happen with the click of a mouse from anywhere in the facility, or even remotely.
Deep knowledge of IT is not required to use audio networking. The automatic addressing, discovery and self-configuring devices that are part of modern IP audio solutions means that basic setups are truly “plug and play” out of the box.
Early IP over Ethernet solutions (Voice over IP, or VoIP) were plagued with dropouts, pops and clicks, with most devices limited to a paltry 10Mbps bandwidth. Some thought that IP packets were never going to be fast enough to deliver real time audio. Is this still a problem?
No, it is not. Gigabit speeds and modern switching technology ensure virtually zero packet loss under real-life conditions, while providing bandwidth for hundreds of channels of audio and other data. The transition to gigabit has made IP networking indispensable as the best way to transmit bit-perfect audio between as many devices as needed, with low latency and tight synchronization. Just to highlight how far things have come, audio over IP now powers tours from big name artists such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Kenny Chesney, Foo Fighters, The Killers and more.
When digital audio transport first arrived, supported products were almost always more expensive than analog alternatives, though this is changing. Not only has the price of networked audio products come down as they have become more ubiquitous, but the cost savings in cabling and labor make it a much more cost-effective solution.
Changes to audio routes, room distribution and customer use cases can be made with software instead of laying new cable. Heavy snakes running through walls and ceilings are replaced with thin, lightweight Cat5e/6 Ethernet cable, which means more audio destinations at lower cost.
According to John Ball, Systems Engineer, Microsoft Production Studios, “The setups and teardowns for various sessions that used to take hours are a thing of the past. Permanent installations of hundreds of audio cables: again, a thing of the past.”
Audio networking brings solid benefits today, and lays the groundwork for the future of your clients. As media continues to advance, customers expect their AV systems to be capable of delivering refined and flexible experiences. Unlike analog and legacy digital installations, a standards-based audio over IP network will be relevant and easily upgradable for years to come.