On Single-Source AV Systems and How We Get There

single-system-design-1115Last summer, I discussed the tension between selecting “best in breed” components from a single manufacturer and locking oneself into a single ecosystem. As time passes, the industry is certainly moving in a direction in which a single ecosystem is not only increasingly possible, but increasingly desirable as well. We’ve all heard horror stories about brilliant designs on paper involving sophisticated solutions selected from several separate sources that created countless technician-hours of headache and heartache to bring to life. This should be obvious, but for some it isn’t: Successful technical design is only successful if it can be successfully implemented, and saving money on equipment to turn around and spend it in time and labor is no bargain.

For a recent example, I was working in an AV design for a client who already had investment in Crestron’s building-management ecosystem. It was a centralized suite of rooms for which, after much discussion, we’d decided on a centralized infrastructure with minimal equipment in local spaces. It was a situation for which I could have advised the use of either HDBaseT or IP-distribution with a strong argument to be made for either, with the latter having a slight technical edge. At the end of the day (and after discussion with the client), the decision was made that the benefits in scalability and flexibility in an IP solution did not sufficiently offset the risk of having competing vendors supply AV control and transport. Could it have worked? Quite likely. Could it have been a disaster? Also possible. What we did know is this: If, on day two, after the installation, someone hits a touch panel button and nothing happens, they know which vendor to call. They know they won’t have the AV control vendor saying that it’s a transport problem and the AV transport vendor saying that it’s a control problem. There’s a clear responsibility for a working system and, hopefully, components which fit together.

The Route There: Buy What You Don’t Have

One big piece of news  in this arena — a bigger story than it is being treated as — comes from Harman, which is no longer treating itself as a holding company but rather as a single entity with several divisions. One can build a strictly Harman single-source AV system:

  • AMX Architectural interfaces
  • AMX Control
  • AMX local video transport (HDBaseT)
  • SVSI IP video transport
  • BSS Audio processing
  • Crown audio amplification
  • JBL Loudspeakers

All managed, of course, by AMX’s Resource Management Suite.

End to end it’s all Harman, and they got there with one acquisition after the next. In the short term this is an easier  “sell” for us in the AV industry; these are all familiar and well-respected brands in their respective parts of the industry. Harman doesn’t have to convince us that they know how to make audio amplifiers, for example, because we’ve been using Crown amps for years.

The weakness to this approach is that, at least thus far, they’ve been very separate entities with little to no tangible synergy. AMX and BSS and SVSI are all part of the Harman umbrella, but there’s not only a lack of native interconnectivity, but I could also argue that SVSI has better synergy with QSC’s QSYS than it does with BSS Soundweb London. QSYS can directly inject and extract digital audio streams from SVSI’s IP transport, eliminating the need for analog inputs and outputs. BSS does not, at present, have that capability. I have heard talk about AMX adding SVSI’s IP streaming to its Enova DGX line; this would be a real benefit but it will take time. The acquisition is a starting point, not an end-point; until product development cycles run their course we’re left with what are, de-facto, many separate brands with one label. This does afford users the organizational benefits of a single-vendor solution, but the technical benefits may be years coming — if we’re lucky. If we aren’t lucky, the separate sub-brands will continue to operate autonomously and the company will remain unified in name only.

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Another Path — If You Build it, Will We Come?

The other big players in our space — Crestron and Extron — have taken a different approach. Extron started making loudspeakers, audio amplifiers and DSP products years ago. The line is slowly growing with the recent introduction of Dante-enabled amplifiers and I/O wallplates, to take one example. Crestron as well has moved into the loudspeaker market, adding acoustic echo cancellation to its DMPS line, and has hired some very industry-respected talent in the audio processing realm.

Look at an all Extron system:

  • Extron architectural connectivity
  • Extron switching and control
  • Extron video streaming
  • Extron DMP-series audio processing
  • Extron XTA/MPA amplifiers
  • Extron loudspeakers.

That’s entirely possible. Were Crestron to introduce more amplifiers and a DSP (as I said, they already have AEC; I’d be surprised if they were TOO many years away), they’d be able to do the same. Getting to this point not only took Extron quite a few years with products slowly introduced over that time, but there’s been a challenge in leading people to accept them as, say, an audio manufacturer. Extron’s amplifiers have become accepted in the industry (justifiably so), but it took some time (and, to be fair, the line isn’t broad enough for quite all applications).

This process also takes quite a long time. On the positive side, once it’s don,e it’s done and everything is as much a single, integrated ecosystem as the manufacturer wants it to be; one doesn’t get that middle period between the acquisition and the hard work of tying things together.

Where Do We End Up?

I have no idea of the future path belongs to those creating from the ground up, those acquiring the best in the industry, or something between. What I do know is that this is the direction. The one part I’ve not spoken of here — but I have many times in the past — is the disappearance of the AV appliance. DSP, control, and asset management are all software. I can see a time in the very near future when instead of installing an AV control processor one will simply download an AV control application onto a general purpose server, and that this application will have various available modules and add-ons for audio processing, streaming, recording and content management.

We’re almost there, at a more hardware-free converged world. I see myself designing more and more systems without the familiar half-sized credenza racks full of gear under the flat panel. We’ll see which companies are there in the future, and what our world looks like.