As owners of custom-installed A/V systems can attest, it can be expensive to route audio and video signal cables all over your home, especially if you want to distribute HD video and high-quality audio signals from multiple sources to multiple rooms. Fortunately, Austin, TX-based NetStreams offers a simpler and potentially better solution in the form of its ingenious DigiLinX products, which let you turn your home’s multi-room Ethernet connections into platforms for flexible, network-based A/V systems.
Until recently NetStreams was known primarily for its network-based audio systems, but now the firm has released a new MediaLinX IP encoder and ViewLinX IP decoder that break new ground, together supporting distribution of uncompressed HD video signals via IP-based networks. The NetStreams system converts audio, video, and control signals into computer-type TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) data packets that can be transmitted from room to room via the same in-wall data cables that in-home Ethernet networks use. I was lucky enough to take this first-of-its-kind system for a test drive, and here’s what I found.
I evaluated the system using two test setups. In the first setup, I connected a Blu-ray player (actually a Sony PlayStation 3) to a NetStreams MediaLinX MLAV300 encoder and used this combination to deliver uncompressed high-def video signals via an IP-based network connection to two remote viewing rooms. Each room was equipped with a NetStreams ViewLinX VL100 decoder that fed decoded audio/video signals to a set of in-wall speakers and a 42-inch LCD HDTV.
The second test setup was a bit more involved. I used two HD source components—the PS3 Blu-ray player and a Toshiba HD-DVD player—to feed 1080i HD video to both viewing rooms. But this time, one of the rooms was equipped with a Rotel RSX-1067 A/V receiver (AVR) driving a full-blown 5.1-channel surround sound speaker system. This setup required two encoders—one for each source—and two decoders, one for each room.
I used three other pieces of equipment for my setups: a NetStreams SwitchLinX SW1024 gigabit Ethernet managed network switch ($2700), which connected the source-component encoders to the network, plus two 4.3-inch TouchLinX TL430 touchscreen control panels ($1600 each, shown above), one in each viewing room. The touchscreen panels provide full control over your source components—in my case, the Blu-ray and HD DVD players. Components were all tied together with standard CAT-5e cabling over an Ethernet managed network, meaning that the system also could be controlled by Web-enabled devices such as computers or PDAs. In fact, installers will typically use a laptop to set up and test the system. One thing to keep in mind as you think about how a setup like this might work in your home is that you will need an encoder for each of your source components and a decoder for each remote viewing room. And at $3000 for each encoder or decoder, system costs can escalate pretty fast.
In evaluating each test setup, I asked three key questions. First, did the NetStreams system provide sound and picture quality comparable to that of conventionally-wired systems. Next, were sounds and images in sync in each of the viewing rooms? Finally, were there any appreciable time delays from room to room? The latter question is important because one of the problems with traditional multizone systems is that audio signals sometimes exhibit significant (and unpredictable) time delays from one room to another, creating audible “echo-like” effects as you walk through the house. Video signals can lag as well, with arrival times varying by several milliseconds or more from room to room. In my first test using a single source/two-room setup, I wanted to see if I could detect any video or audio lag.
I evaluated the first setup (single source/multiple rooms) by playing the martial arts scene from The Matrix where Neo battles Morpheus, and I found that sound and image quality were every bit as good as in conventional systems. I moved between the two rooms during the action to see if I could spot discernible delays between sound and video, or between the presentations in either room, and found each kick, lunge, and resounding fall to the floor was perfectly in sync. There are two technical reasons for this. First, the NetStreams system distributes the uncompressed A/V stream over the network at a super fast 1 gigabit (Gb) per second. Next, signal latencies through the system are very low--so low that human ears and eyes won't detect whatever delays there may be. This means you can play a movie for your party goers to see as they move from room to room with cocktail in hand, and they won't be hearing any echo-delays or seeing an image in one room that doesn't match sound coming from the next room.