Category: The Front Line

Product Review: ClearStream Eclipse TV Antenna

It’s been a while since I reviewed my last batch of TV antennas, but the topic is worth revisiting with the ongoing spectrum auction and an apparent increase in cord-cutting as people ditch more costly pay TV packages for free, off-air reception of broadcast TV channels.

Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Olympics are under way and NBC has saturated the airwaves with coverage across a multitude of channels, including Telemundo. That means you may be able to watch events on two broadcast channels in addition to streaming channels.

A couple of weeks ago, the folks at Antennas Direct sent me one of their ClearStream Eclipse antennas. ($59.99, various retailers) It’s shaped like a big loop, is flexible, and has a black finish on one side and white on the other. Plus, the surface is known as SureGrip and will stick to just about any surface, over and over again.

The ClearStream Eclipse loop antenna and amplifier.

The ClearStream Eclipse loop antenna and amplifier. ($59.99)

Like other ClearStream antennas I’ve tested, the loop appears to be optimized for UHF reception. And that could be problematic, since the FCC may wind up taking away at least 10 (if not more) UHF channels after the spectrum auction, assuming the bids are successful.

That, in turn, may force more than a few TV stations back onto high-band VHF and (horrors!) even low-band VHF channels if they want to stay on the air. And digital TVs need much larger antennas to pick up broadcasts on channels 2 through 6, unless you’re located fairly close to the TV transmitter and the signal levels are very high.

ClearStream has also included an inline amplifier to boost signal levels. Technically, it qualifies as an antenna-mounted amplifier, although you can place it anywhere ahead of the TV or set-top box receiver. This amplifier does make a big difference, as you’ll see in a moment.

THE TESTS

For the purposes of this review, I went into my lab and fished out my trusty Radio Shack bow tie antenna (not available anymore, but it cost all of $4 back in the day) and also a spare Mohu Leaf antenna; both for comparison. I also grabbed an “anonymous” inline, 15 dB VHF/UHF preamplifier that would normally mount on a mast but was quite happy sitting on the floor.

I also set up a crude antenna support – a shipping box from a well-known retailer of just about anything electronic in New York City. I taped each antenna to the box (which was standing on its end) and placed the box atop a perch my cats use to look out the window.

The ClearStream Eclipse under test. Note the high-tech mounting surface...

The ClearStream Eclipse under test. Note the high-tech mounting surface…

 

My well-traveled, well-worn Radio Shack bow tie antenna, under test.

My well-traveled, well-worn Radio Shack bow tie antenna, under test.

 

And to round things out, a Mohu Leaf joins the fun.

And to round things out, a Mohu Leaf joins the fun.

This box was positioned near the window in an upstairs room, facing in the general direction of the Philadelphia DTV antenna farm. I operated much as the average TV viewer would – I didn’t know exactly where to aim the antennas, but used consumer DTV sites to use dead reckoning and hoped for the best. 20’ of RG-59/U cable ran from each teat antenna back to a two-way splitter, feeding a spectrum analyzer and my Hauppauge Aero-M USB stick DTV receiver.

I connected each antenna and scanned for VHF and UHF channels three times – once without any amplification, once with my ‘anonymous’ amp, and once with the ClearStream amplifier. I captured spectral waveforms for selected channels on the analyzer and also ran a quick MPEG stream analysis using TS Reader.

The stations I looked for were in order WPVI (ABC, channel 6), WBPH (IND, channel 9), WHYY (PBS, channel 12), WPHL (My, channel 17), KYW (CBS, channel 26), WUVP (Univision, channel 29), WPSG (CW, channel 32), WCAU (NBC, channel 34), WYBE (IND, channel 35), WTXF (FIX, channel 42), and WFMZ (IND, channel 46). Channels 9 and 46 originate from Allentown, PA; the rest come from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, about 20+ miles from here over an obstructed path.

THE RESULTS

After compiling that data, I had a pretty good idea of how each antenna worked. The results can be seen in table 1, and once again, it’s pretty amazing how functional the bow tie is. Not a great performer without an amplifier, but with the ‘anonymous’ amplifier it grabbed 9 of the 11 stations, including WPVI on channel 6. It performed even better with the Eclipse amplifier, pulling in 10 of 11 stations. (WTXF-42 reception was erratic.)

Mohu’s time-tested Leaf was next. As a solo act, it sniffed out 5 of 11 stations and also found WPVI without amplification, so its low-band VHF performance was good. Adding the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved the score to 8 out of 11, and switching to the Eclipse amplifier added one more station. This was the only antenna to pull in WTXF-42 reliably, using amplification.

Finally, it was time for the Eclipse to take its turn. Riding bareback, the Eclipse tied the Leaf and snared 5 of 11 stations – but not WPVI-6. Adding in the ‘anonymous’ amplifier improved its score to 9 up and 2 down, while switching to the Eclipse amplifier resulted in one less receivable station (WPSG-32, which is a bear to pull in at any time). But I could not receive WPVI in any of the three modes.

The UHF TV spectrum, using the Eclipse and its companion amplifier.

The UHF TV spectrum, using the Eclipse and its companion amplifier.

 

Here's the UHF TV spectrum as seen by the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier.

Here’s the UHF TV spectrum as seen by the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier.

 

And here's what the Mohu Leaf saw, using the Eclipse amplifier to pull in UHF TV channels.

And here’s what the Mohu Leaf saw, using the Eclipse amplifier to pull in UHF TV channels.

 

WPVI (ABC) on channel 6, as received by the ClearStream Eclipse with amplifier. Or should i say, 'not received.' (the tall carriers to the right of channel 6 are FM stations.)

WPVI (ABC) on channel 6, as received by the ClearStream Eclipse with amplifier. Or should I say, ‘not received.’ (the tall carriers to the right of channel 6 are FM stations.)

 

Here's how WPVI-6 looks coming through the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier. This setup worked very well.

Here’s how WPVI-6 looks coming through the bow tie antenna, also using the Eclipse amplifier. This setup worked very well.

 

WPVI also came in reliably using the Mohu Leaf with the Eclipse amplifier.

WPVI also came in reliably using the Mohu Leaf with the Eclipse amplifier.

 

And the spectrum analyzer grabs show why. WPVI’s 8VSB waveform is at least 20 dB above the noise floor with either amplifier, and actually closer to 32 dB C/N when you add the correction factor for this resolution bandwidth. Using the Eclipse, channel 6 measures only 10 db C/N (22 dB with correction factor) using the ‘anonymous’ amplifier and barely 14 dB C/N (26 dB with correction) using the Eclipse amplifier.

That’s just not strong enough for reliable reception, especially when you see the 6 dB notch in WPVI’s carrier from multipath. There’s also about 6 dB of multipath tilt through the Leaf, but the overall signal is much stronger and well within the range that can be corrected by adaptive equalization. And the cleanest signal was seen with the bow tie – not as strong as the leaf, but minimal tilt and notching and easy for the TV to demodulate.

Based on my measurements, the inline Eclipse amplifier has somewhere between 18 and 20 dB of signal gain, and lo and behold, that’s what it says in the dual-side instruction sheet. No specification was given for noise figure, but it appears to be about 2 dB in the UHF TV band, based on my noise floor measurements (-88 without, -86 with).

CONCLUSIONS

Table 1. Here is how each antenna/amplifier combination performed in my tests.

Table 1. Here is how each antenna/amplifier combination performed in my tests.

The ClearStream Eclipse is certainly small and can go just about anywhere – and it’s not likely you’ll damage it, given how flexible the housing is. This loop antenna is a decent performer with UHF and high-band VHF signals, but just doesn’t have enough gain for reliable low-band VHF TV reception.

That may not be a problem if you don’t have any low-band V’s in your area, but you should check TVFool.com in any case as we’re starting to see lots of low-power repeaters and independent stations lighting up on channels 2 through 6 all across the country. One of those stations could be your ticket to watching a TV network you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

The Mohu Leaf did a better job with channel 6, but was no better in overall station count unamplified. And connected to an amplifier, the bow tie gave both the Leaf and Eclipse a run for their money. With the Eclipse amplifier, it was a dead heat between the Leaf and bow tie (10-1 scores), with the Leaf locking in WTXF-42 and the bow tie securing the difficult WPSG-32.

As The World Turns: Vizio Is Acquired by LeEco

A press release crossed my desk yesterday, detailing how the TV brand Vizio had just been acquired by the Chinese firm LeEco for $2B. LeEco, while largely unknown on this side of the Pacific, is the 7th largest TV brand in China and also operates an online video content delivery business.

It’s expected that the combined operations of both companies will push them past Skyworth as the #6 worldwide TV brand, according to analysis from IHS Technology I just received this morning. (Never heard of Skyworth? Give it time.)

Vizio, which started operations over a decade ago, has become a powerhouse brand in the U.S. Although they don’t release their revenue and market share results, the company has given Samsung a run for their money over the years with a full line of televisions, most recently taking steps into HDR and UHDTV with Dolby Vision-equipped sets.

Yet, not everything the company has touched has turned to gold. There have been brief forays into smartphones (gone), tablets (gone), and computers (also gone.) In contrast, the company has done very well with sound bars, which all flat-screen TVs benefit from.

This news didn’t surprise me at all. The TV marketplace has become a very cutthroat business as prices and profits went into free fall, aided and abetted by competition from China where the nexus of LCD panel manufacturing is moving.

Numerous prominent nameplates have been victims of this downward trend, starting with Hitachi several years ago and continuing through Mitsubishi, Toshiba, and Sharp; all of whom have withdrawn from the North American TV market. (Hisense continues to sell televisions with the Sharp brand name in the U.S. and Canada.)

Panasonic, once a major player in TVs, is in the unusual position of offering an Ultra HD Blu-ray player (DMP-UBD900, $699) this fall, but no UHD televisions to bundle it with. For now, the company is not selling TVs at retail in the U.S. even though it demonstrated a 65-inch OLED UHDTV at CES that used an LG RGBW OLED panel.

Only Sony remains as a Japanese TV brand, and they’ve paid a dear price to stay in the game, losing hundreds of millions of dollars for a decade.  Samsung and LG, meanwhile, have maintained their positions in the Top 5 even as worldwide TV shipments have gone into decline by an average of 3-4% per year, offset somewhat by double-digit growth in UHDTV shipments.

What’s interesting about LeEco is that, according to the HIS analysis, they’re willing to sell TVs at or below manufacturing costs – or even give them away free as a promotion – to secure paid subscriptions to their online content in China. That’s not a model that is likely to work here, but it does indicate how aggressive the new LeEco / Vizio marketing approach could be here and overseas.

Checking this weekend’s sales fliers, I spotted a Vizio 50-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR for $800 and a 70-inch model for about $2,000; both at Best Buy. Connect the dots and you can see why TV prices continue to fall, and why the bulk of TV sales are transitioning from 1080p to Ultra HD in a hurry.

Sharp (again, now made and marketed by Hisense) did Vizio one better this week, offering a 55-inch Ultra HD set for $650 (no HDR). We’re not far off from seeing $500 55-inch Ultra HDTVs, which will probably be on store shelves in time for the fall football season and certainly by Christmas.

Vizio’s conversion to a publicly-held company a year ago set the stage for this sale and is more proof of the shift in power to China for manufacturing and sales of televisions – at least worldwide. Will TCL and Hisense make further inroads to the U.S. market? What impact will they have (if any) on Vizio’s market share?

Stay tuned…

On CE Week, Shoot-Outs, And Flies In The Ointment

Last Thursday, I made the trek up to the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City to check out the annual CE Week show. And I must say that it wasn’t nearly as valuable an experience as it was a few years ago, when the show was affiliated with the Consumer Technology Association.

If my understanding is correct, CE Week was a way to keep interest stoked in the rapidly-changing world of consumer electronics. When the show first started, HDTV was a big part of the equation, with exhibitors like Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and LG either showing off their latest models on the show floor, or exhibiting at nearby off-site locations.

That landscape has changed considerably, thanks to the collapse in TV prices and the shift to panel manufacturing in China. Only two companies had dedicated exhibits for UHD TVs – Samsung and Westinghouse Digital – while other models were represented in the annual Value Electronics Shoot-Out in a downstairs demo room.

Once arriving at the event, I quickly toured the booths and saw products to connect your landline phone calls to your mobile (Voice Bridge), give you a 360-degree camera view (Kodak PixPro), “enhance” the detail in your new Ultra HDTV (DarbeeVision), and bundle audio and large images into a compact go-anywhere cube projector (Aiptek). (I was also buzzed by a few drones here and there, the fastest being a $60 glowing green/blue number sold by Odyssey that really whipped around the show floor.)

This Odyssey drone was flying around the show floor, uncaged.

This Odyssey drone was flying around the show floor, uncaged.

Kodak - or, more correctly, someone licensing the Kodak brand - has a 360-degree VR camera for you.

Kodak – or, more correctly, someone licensing the Kodak brand – has a 360-degree VR camera for you.

Voice Bridge lets you forward your landline calls to your mobile phone, wherever you are. Question: Why not just use a mobile phone all the time?

Voice Bridge lets you forward your landline calls to your mobile phone, wherever you are. Question: Why not just use a mobile phone all the time?

Epson was also there, showing a full line of front projectors for home theater use, including a new model (PowerLite 5040UB) that, although it uses a traditional 1920×1080 3LCD engine, incorporates a new “4K Enhancement Technology” that uses pixel-shifting to create what appears to be images with full 3840×2160 resolution. (Oh, and it can display HDR content, too. Oh, and it will cost about $3,000, and its full brightness specification is 2500 lumens.)

Scoping out all of that stuff took only about an hour, so I decided to descend the stairs and check out the UHDTV Shoot-Out, put together by Robert Zohn of Value Electronics. There had been some arguments among videophiles in the past about the winners (Shoot-Outs tend to end that way, trust me), so I decided to keep a low profile and sit in the very back as a passive observer, passing on the evaluations and scoring.

Joel Silver was on hand from the Imaging Science Foundation to explain a wide range of TV topics from grayscales and CIE color plots to high dynamic range and black levels. After discussing each parameter, those in attendance were invited to walk by each of the five displays and score them on performance for that parameter. At the end of the session, the votes would be tabulated and a winner announced.

For the record, the UHDTVs on hand came from LG (OLED), Samsung (HDR LCD), Sony (HDR LCD), and Vizio (HDR LCD). Just for fun, an older Pioneer 1080p plasma TV was also positioned to the left edge of the array, next to the LG OLED.

The introduction of high dynamic range with wider color gamuts (and eventually, higher frame rates) really does change the notion of television from what we know today. Instead of a nominal peak white brightness of 100 to 200 cd/m2, we’re now looking at 800 to 1000 cd/m2. And the range of colors our displays can reproduce has expanded considerably, particularly in the green and red loci. So viewing HDR/WCG content really is a step closer to what our eyes see every day, and makes conventional SDR HDTV look a bit dated.

The 1026 Shoot-Out under way. (Yes, they did turn of the lights for certain evaluations.)

The 1026 Shoot-Out under way. (Yes, they did turn the lights off for certain evaluations.)

(Left to right) A vintage 2006-7 Pioneer 60-inch plasma, LG's OLED65G6P, Samsung's UN78KS9800, Sony's XBR-75X940D, and Vizio's RS65-B2 UHDTVs.

(Left to right) A vintage 2006-7 Pioneer 50-inch plasma, LG’s OLED65G6P, Samsung’s UN78KS9800, Sony’s XBR-75X940D, and Vizio’s RS65-B2 HDR UHDTVs.

As the session wound on, I noticed that the grayscale images shown on the LG OLED (model OLED65G6P) had a noticeable greenish color cast that wasn’t seen on the other sets. Intrigued, I got up and walked over to stand at a zero degree offset from the TV’s centerline – and voila: The tint vanished.

Additional images with lots of white, light grays, and pastel colors were shown during the test, and I moved back and forth between the on-axis viewing spot (several rows of chairs back from the audience) and my original seat at the far left rear, which looked to be about 30 – 35 degrees off-axis. Sure enough, the greenish color tint was still there.

I pointed this out to a couple of LG representatives, neither of whom had noticed it previously. I also mentioned it to Zohn, who replied that he also noticed it before but stated “What options do we have? It’s still better than the loss of luminance and color shifting on LCD/LED TVs.” Uh, maybe not, if someone viewing at a moderate angle is seeing a greenish tint that someone else isn’t. None of my plasma TVs ever exhibited this condition.

Silver told me he doesn’t recommend using these displays for color grading or critical viewing because of an inconsistency in yellow shading. I didn’t notice that, but it was hard to miss the green shift. I alerted a few other people in the room to look for it, including my colleague Ken Werner. (You can see it quite clearly in my photos.) But if you were one of the crowd seated in the first couple of rows toward the center, you wouldn’t have seen this “fly in the ointment.”

Even so; this display won the Shoot-Out, according to a press released that landed in my inbox this morning. Quote: LG Electronics’ SIGNATURE 4K OLED TV was crowned “2016 King of TV” in the 13th Annual Value Electronics TV Shootout™ in a competition among four contending flagship 4K Ultra HD TV models from LG and other leading brands during CE Week in New York City. The 65-inch class (64.5 inches measured diagonally) LG SIGNATURE OLED TV (model OLED65G6P) with HDR was voted the top-performing TV by both general attendees and an expert panel of professional calibrators based on eight different picture quality attributes.”

The LG 65-inch OLED (left) and Samsung's 78-inch LCD (right) viewed on-axis - at the optical centerline.

The LG 65-inch OLED (left) and Samsung’s 78-inch LCD (right) viewed on-axis – at the optical centerline.

 

The same two displays, now being viewed at at angle of about 35 degrees to the left of the optical centerline.

The same two displays, now being viewed at at angle of about 35 degrees to the left of the optical centerline.

 

A closeup view of LG's OLEDD65G6P (left) and Samsung's UN78KS9800 (right), again viewed at a 35-degree angle to the left.

A closeup view of LG’s OLEDD65G6P (left) and Samsung’s UN78KS9800 (right), again viewed at a 35-degree angle to the left.

Hmmm. I’m surprised that the “expert panel of professional calibrators” didn’t pick up on the LG color shift, particularly since models of LCD TVs are routinely hammered for their intrinsic off-axis viewing limitations (elevated black levels, color shifts, and contrast flattening).  So what’s causing it?

I have some theories. Several years ago, Sony introduced its first OLED monitors for professional reference monitoring. To improve color purity and make it easier to achieve clean white balance (and possible to improve brightness as well), Sony’s top-emitting OLED pixels were equipped with cavity filters – basically narrowband (notch) optical filters.

Unfortunately, these cavity filters created an unwanted low-frequency roll-off effect when images were viewed at an angle, producing a marked blue color shift on the parts of the image farthest from a viewer. This effect was most noticeable when grayscale patterns were being shown. (My understanding was that Sony re-engineered the design of these filters to improve off-center frequency response in subsequent models.)

So is that what caused the color shift in LG’s 65-inch Signature OLED UHDTV? Possibly. Using these filters could flatten out and sharpen the red, green, and blue peaks, although a color gamut chart shown by Silver seemed to contradict that theory.

It’s also possible LG is using some sort of micro lens or prism technique (or even a polarizer) in the optical path to enhance brightness, and that could be the problem. The result would be brighter images with excellent color saturation, but a narrower viewing angle. (Everything in life is a trade-off!)

Does this affect all models of LG OLEDs? I can’t say, and I don’t recall seeing anything like this at CES when visiting the LG booth and LG Display suite and taking pictures of various OLED displays at different angles. I’ve sent off an inquiry to LG Display to see if they can provide any insights. And my congratulations go to LG for winning the Shoot-Out. (Hey, that 10-year-old Pioneer plasma still looks pretty good!)

But as much as I prefer emissive (plasma, OLED) displays over transmissive (LCD), what I saw at the CE Week TV Shoot-Out gave me real pause. In my family room, viewing angles can be as wide as 40 degrees, and as you’ve just seen, the color shift would be very noticeable at that angle.

Prior to attending CE Week, I had planned to pick up an OLED UHDTV next year, after all the HDR compatibility and support issues (and hopefully display interface speed limit problems) are worked out. Now? That’s on hold until I can figure out what’s behind the shift, and if it’s a characteristic of other 2016 LG OLED TVs.

Those flies in the ointment can be quite annoying!

Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 28 to correct the original quotation from Robert Zohn of Value Electronics.

InfoComm 2016 In The Rearview Mirror

Another InfoComm show has come and gone. This is my 23rd InfoComm and it’s hard to imagine when I first set foot in Anaheim way back in 1994 – ostensibly to cover the now-defunct Projection Shoot-Out – that I’d still be making the treks to Orlando and Las Vegas, let alone teaching classes and joining the InfoComm faculty.

For this recap, I’ll focus on trends I saw at the show that will continue to impact our industry for some time to come. And there were plenty of them, everywhere you looked.

First off; I’ve been saying for several years now that software is becoming increasingly more important than hardware in our industry (and across all market segments  – look at how inexpensive Ultra HDTVs have become already), and that we’d start to see less of a focus on expensive hardware and more of an emphasis on software and managed services.

And that’s exactly what I spotted in Las Vegas. Astute observers noticed that the once humongous booths set up by the likes of Sony, Panasonic, Crestron, LG, Samsung, Hitachi, and other companies have gotten a bit smaller. (NEC, Da-Lite, and Christie were exceptions to the rule.)

AMX, when it was a stand-alone company, used to have an enormous booth at the show (not to mention a huge party every year). Now, AMX is limited to a few small stands within the Harman booth.  Walk the show floor these days and you’ll recognize other once-mighty brands that have been acquired by holding companies and now occupy much smaller footprints.

And this trend shouldn’t be any surprise. When hardware used to sell for four and five figures (and in some cases, six figures), you could justify those million-dollar booths that looked like mini-malls. (Remember the huge tented Sanyo projector booths?) But that’s not the case anymore.

Kramer's huge booth at InfoComm, touting a shift away from

Kramer’s huge booth at InfoComm, touting a shift away from “big boxes” to software and the cloud, was one of the exceptions to the trend to go smaller.

 

LG is doing some very cool things with curved displays, thanks to advancements in OLED and LCD manufacturing.

LG is doing some very cool things with curved displays, thanks to advancements in OLED and LCD manufacturing.

Practically speaking, how much real estate do you need to talk about software programs and managed services? The same thing is happening at NAB, where once humongous companies like Harris (now Imagine) are largely touting services and not hardware.

Even Digital Projection has scaled back its enormous multi-tier InfoComm booth. And projectiondesign has shed some square footage since being acquired by Barco, which has itself gone on a square footage diet. Ditto Sharp, which had one of the smallest booths ever at this show, perhaps related to the company’s ongoing financial challenges.

Surprisingly, Toshiba showed there is indeed a second act by showing up with a nice-size booth full of LCD monitors for tiled display walls. That’s not exactly an easy market to compete in, what with LG, Samsung, and NEC having a big footprint. But they’re giving it a shot.

Toshiba has re-entered the super-competitive world of display walls...a market they once dominated 20 year ago.

Toshiba has re-entered the super-competitive world of display walls…a market they once dominated 20 year ago.

 

The

The “surfer dude engineers” from Santa Barbara have a very nice 4K-over-IP encoder/decoder line-up!

Another trend that’s really picking up speed is the move away from projection lamps to solid-state illumination systems, most often lasers with color phosphor wheels. The availability of large, inexpensive LCD displays has cut deeply into sales of projectors – particularly in small classrooms and meeting rooms, where we used to put in “hang and bang” projection systems.

If you talk to people who’ve made the switch away from projection to direct-view, the reason they most frequently cite is that they don’t have to change out lamps anymore, and the LCD displays can be used under normal room lighting and turn on instantly.

Well, projector manufacturers have gotten the message and are moving en masse to solid state light sources. Early adopters like Casio have reaped the benefits, but now everyone from Sony and Panasonic to Vivitek and Optoma is on board.

Even so, the corner wasn’t really turned until this year when Epson – one of the big manufacturers of projection lamps – showed a 25,000-lumen 3LCD projector powered by a laser light engine. And I saw more than one UHD-resolution projector using the laser-phosphor combination, even in ultra-short throw configurations.

Epson finally got religion and showed its first laser/phosphor 3LCD projector this year - a 25,000 lumens model.

Epson finally got religion and showed its first laser/phosphor 3LCD projector this year – a 25,000 lumens model.

 

And Panasonic harnessed laser/phosphor technology to a new high-brightness 4K projector.

And Panasonic harnessed laser/phosphor technology to a new high-brightness 4K projector.

How much longer will we be changing out lamps? I don’t think it will be more than a few years before the majority of projectors offered for sale will use laser or LED light engines (or both). There will be exceptions for certain models, but for all intents and purposes, short-arc lamps are toast.

Here’s another trend – LED walls. I tried to count all of the exhibitors at InfoComm and lost track after wandering through the North Hall. And just about every single exhibitor was based in China, with names you would not recognize. Were they looking for U.S. dealer/distributor partners? It’s not likely many would pick up customers here, and that may be why Leyard (another Chinese manufacturer) bought Planar last year – everyone knows who Planar is.

I also saw LED walls with pitches as small as .9mm. That’s smaller than the pixel pitch of a 50-inch 1366×768 plasma monitor from 1995! And if anyone continues to go big with their booths, it’s the LED wall manufacturers. (Not like they have any choice!) Leyard’s 100’+ 8K LED wall was a perfect example of why bigger is still better when it comes to a booth.

And Sony’s Cledis 8Kx2K LED wall shows just how much farther we’ve come with this technology, creating what appeared to be a perfectly seamless, pixel-free panoramic LED wall that dazzled with bright, super-saturated color images.

Sony's CLEDIS 8K x 2K LED wall did an excellent job of hiding its seams - and pixels.

Sony’s CLEDIS 8K x 2K LED wall did an excellent job of hiding its seams – and pixels.

 

Planar (Leyard) is building some amazingly big and bright display walls. And they've got 8K resolution, too, thanks to using 16 2K panels.

Planar (Leyard) is building some amazingly big and bright display walls. And they’ve got 8K resolution, too, thanks to using 16 2K panels.

The Chinese dominance in LED displays shouldn’t be surprising. They’re moving to a similar level in the manufacturing of LCD panels, monitors, and televisions, undermining the Korean manufacturers (who undermined the Japanese, who took our U.S.-based television business away in the 1980s).

In fact, so much of our hardware is fabricated, soldered, and assembled in China and Southeast Asia these days that it should be no surprise prices have dropped as much as they have. Back in the day, a quality line doubler (remember those?) would set you back as much as $5,000 to $8,000. Today, you can buy a compact scaler that works to 1080p and Wide UXGA for a few hundred bucks.

My last trend has to do with the slow migration of video and audio signal distribution and switching away from hardware-intensive platforms based on display interface standards to software-based platforms that use IT switches, encoders, and decoders. Wow, did I spot a lot of those products at the show, even from some previously-vigorous defenders of HDMI-based architectures.

The interest in learning how to move to an “open” IP-type AV distribution architecture must be considerable: I taught a class on AV-over-IP this year at InfoComm and was astounded to see that 185 people had signed up to attend. And there were very few no-shows, as I found out when I had attendees sitting on the floor and standing along the back wall for almost the entire 90-minute class.

You know there's considerable interest in AV-over-IP when these guys show up.

You know there’s considerable interest in AV-over-IP when these guys show up.

 

RGB Spectrum's new Zio AV-over-IP system has one of the most user-friendly interfaces I've seen to date - touch and swipe to connect video streams.

RGB Spectrum’s new Zio AV-over-IP system has one of the most user-friendly interfaces I’ve seen to date – touch and swipe to connect video streams.

What’s more, a substantial portion of those attendees came from the higher education market segment, and an informal poll revealed that most of them were still upgrading from older analog systems to all-digital infrastructure. In essence, they were telling me that they preferred to skip by HDMI-based solutions and move directly to an IP-type solution.

Hand-in-hand with this discovery came more responses about transitioning to app-based AV control systems and away from proprietary, code-based control that requires specialized programming. Well, there were a few companies showing app-based AV control products in Vegas that had super-simple GUIs; software that just about anyone could learn to use in a few hours.

Throw in the accelerating transition to UHD resolution displays (they’ll largely replace Full HD within a year), and you have some very interesting times in store for the AV industry as this decade winds on…

AV-over-IP: It’s Here. Time To Get On Board!

At InfoComm next week in Las Vegas, I look forward to seeing many familiar faces – both individuals and manufacturers – that have frequented the show since I first attended over 20 years ago. And I also expect to find quite a few newcomers, based on the press releases and product announcements I’ve been receiving daily.

Many of those newcomers will be hawking the latest technology – AV-over-IP. More specifically, transporting video, audio, and metadata that are encoded into some sort of compressed or lightly-compressed format, wrapped with IP headers, and transported over IP networks.

This isn’t exactly a new trend: The broadcast, telecom, and cable/satellite worlds have already begun or completed the migration to IT infrastructures. The increasing use of optical fiber and lower-cost, fast network switches are making it all possible. Think 10 gigabit Ethernet with single-mode fiber interconnections, and you can see where the state-of-the-art is today.

You’ve already experienced this AV-over-IP phenomenon if you watch streaming HD and 4K video. Home Internet connection speeds have accelerated by several orders of magnitude ever since the first “slow as a snail” dial-up connections got us into AOL two decades ago. Now, it’s not unusual to have sustained 10, 15, 25, and even 50 megabit per second (Mb/s) to the home – fast enough to stream Ultra HD content with multichannel sound.

And so it goes with commercial video and audio transport. Broadcast television stations had to migrate to HD-SDI starting nearly 20 years ago when the first HDTV broadcasts commenced. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Now, they’re moving to IP and copper/fiber backbones to achieve greater bandwidth and to take advantage of things like cloud storage and archiving.

So why hasn’t the AV industry gotten with the program? Because we still have a tendency to cling to old, familiar, and often outdated or cumbersome technology, rationalizing that “it’s still good enough, and it works.” (You know who you are…still using VGA and composite video switching and distribution products…)

I’ve observed that there is often considerable and continual aversion in our industry to anything having to do with IT networks and optical fiber. And it just doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it originates from a fear of losing control to IT specialists and administrators. Or, it could just be a reluctance to learn something new.

The result is that we’ve created a monster when it comes to digital signal management. Things were complicated enough when the AV industry was dragged away from analog to digital and hung its hats on the HDMI consumer video interface for switching and distribution. Now, that industry has created behemoth switch matrices to handle the current and next flavors of HDMI (a format that never was suitable for commercial AV applications).

We’ve even figured out a way to digitize the HDMI TMDS signal and extend it using category wire, up to a whopping 300 feet. And somehow, we think that’s impressive? Single-mode fiber can carry an HD video signal over 10 miles. Now, THAT’S impressive – and it’s not exactly new science.

So, now we’re installing ever-larger racks of complex HDMI switching and distribution gear that is expensive and also bandwidth-capped – not nearly fast enough for the next generation of UHD+ displays with full RGB (4:4:4) color, high dynamic range, and high frame rates. How does that make any sense?

What’s worse, the marketing folks have gotten out in front, muddying the waters with all kinds of nonsensical claims about “4K compatibility,” “4K readiness,” and even “4K certified.” What does that even mean? Just because your switch or DA product can support a very basic level of Ultra HD video with slow frame rates and reduced color resolution, it’s considered “ready” or “certified?” Give me a break.

Digitizing HDMI and extending it 300 feet isn’t future-proof. Neither is limiting Ultra HD bandwidth to 30 Hz 8-bit RGB color, or 60 Hz 8-bit 4:2:0 color. Not even close. Not when you can already buy a 27-inch 5K (yes, 5K!) monitor with 5120×2880 resolution and the ability to show 60 Hz 10-bit color. And when 8K monitors are coming to market.

So why we keep playing tricks with specifications, and working with Band-Aid solutions? We shouldn’t. We don’t need to. And the answer is already at hand.

It’s time to move away from the concept of big, bulky, expensive, and basically obsolete switching and distribution hardware that’s based on a proprietary consumer display interface standard. It’s time to move to a software-based switching and distribution concept that uses an IT structure, standard codecs like JPEG2000, M-JPEG, H.264, and H.265, and everyday off-the-shelf switches to move signals around.

Now, we can design a fast, reliable AV network that allows us to manage available bandwidth and add connections as needed. Our video can be lightly compressed with low latency, or more highly compressed for efficiency. The only display interfaces we’ll need will be at the end points where the display is connected.

Even better, our network also provides access to monitoring and controlling every piece of equipment we’ve connected. We can design and configure device controls and interfaces using cloud-based driver databases. We can access content from remote servers (the cloud, again) and send it anywhere we want. And we can log in from anywhere in the world to keep tabs on how it’s all functioning.

And if we’re smart and not afraid to learn something new, we’ll wire all of it up with optical fiber, instead of bulky cables or transmitters and receivers to convert the signals to a packet format and back. (Guess what? AV-over-IP is already digital! You can toss out those distance-limited HDMI extenders, folks!)

For those who apparently haven’t gotten the memo, 40 Gb/s network switches have been available for a few years, with 100 Gb/s models now coming to market. So much for speed limit issues…

To the naysayers who claim AV-over-IP won’t work as well as display interface switching: That’s a bunch of hooey. How are Comcast, Time Warner, NBC, Disney, Universal, Netflix, Amazon, CBS, and other content originators and distributors moving their content around? You guessed it.

AV-over-IP is what you should be looking for as you walk the aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center, not new, bigger, and bulkier HDMI/DVI matrices. AV-over-IP is the future of our industry, whether we embrace it or are dragged into it, kicking and screaming.

Are you on board, or what?