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HDMI Case Studies

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Hagai Gefen
c/o Linda Morgan
818-534-8254

Digital HD Breaks out of its Shell: Using HDMI to Bring the Home Theater to the Whole House

By Hagai Gefen

An all-HDMI installation need not be inflexible or limiting in its ability to grow. When the owner of a firm that specializes in high-def A/V connectivity solutions decided to build a home theater in his own house, he also built a showcase demonstrating that HDMI is more than just a connection for consumers to plug a Blu-ray player into an HDTV. The experience of turning a home theater into a whole-house installation proves that HDMI is a stable foundation on which the professional installer can expand a media room into a digital platform for the viewing of HD content on any installed screen in the house.

The Job

A whole-house AV, security, and HVAC system (although this study will focus on the video aspects of the job). The installation was scaled up from an advanced dual-use home theater, which was created from a section of an oversized garage. The theater was also designed from the ground up to be expanded into the whole house using the theater's equipment rack as the head-end enclosure for the entire installation.

The Problem

As the founder of a company that provides hardware solutions to achieve end-to-end AV transmission, routing and distribution, I wanted to show the market that HDMI is a good platform for whole house audio/video. Furthermore, I wanted to be able to use the system to test new HDMI sources and our own long-distance digital routing and distribution solutions for multiple display devices, regardless of the underlying technology and without resorting to pulling new wires. As an example of the challenges that installers faced in jobs like this, HDMI sources were defaulting to the lowest resolution when they distributed a video signal to displays of several resolutions. Compounding these problems was consumers' insistence on keeping older source equipment, such as VCRs or laser discs with s-video or composite output. So the other goal in HDMI installations is to make sure that the signals from all source equipment be able to be transmitted over whole-house distances through specialized switching and distribution equipment without data loss.

Therefore, the main issues in the installation were:

  1. How to ensure that the system be able to incorporate disparate installation components without sacrificing quality; and
  2. How to achieve an all-digital backbone that could scale to the whole house regardless of distance and component mix.

The Solution

The initial phase of the installation consisted of a garage that was renovated into a home theater, replete with cork flooring, acoustic paneling, sound-dampening curtains, and motorized black-out shades. The video sources in this phase were a DirecTV receiver, an HD DVR, a Samsung Blu-ray player, a PS3 gaming device and a Gateway PC. The displays were a Samsung 720p home-theater projector, projected onto a 110-inch motorized screen, and a 1080p 65-inch Panasonic plasma TV for casual television viewing.

All the AV equipment is controlled by a Creston 15” monitor panel. My choice to provide one-button access to all the major home-theater scenarios like DVD movie watching was instrumental in getting buy-in from the family for the initial home theater.

To blend the disparate electronic devices into a seamless installation, I used the whole-house control system from Crestron. The controller was chosen by the installer (Entek Systems) because of Entek's familiarity with Crestron and their expertise in implementing whole-house systems. The control system's scalability was the critical factor behind our later ability to expand from the home theater into the whole house.

For the home theater phase of installation, the test of the installation's intended flexibility came when an HDMI signal was sent to the 720p and 1080p displays simultaneously. At Gefen we develop a set of devices that enable consumers and installers to connect sources of one signal type to displays of another. These converters drive flexibility without compromising performance.

When developing these devices, we quickly realized that the ultimate flexibility could be achieved if these converters simultaneously scaled to the appropriate resolution in a mixed resolution environment. For our home theater, this meant using the Gefen 1080p Scaler on the receiving end of the transmission path for the 720p projector. On the input of the Gefen 4x4 HDMI Matrix, a Gefen Home Theater Scaler Plus is employed to bring analog component and composite video into the digital domain. Thus, a pair of these Scaler devices - one near the 720p projector and one connected to one of the Gefen 4x4 HDMI Matrix switching system -upscales or downscales as needed for the 720p projector and bring all the other analog component and composite through the Gefen Home Theater Scaler Plus.

In the case of a 1080p signal from the Blu-ray player, the path is direct to the 1080p TV and does not employ scaling, which ensures the best picture quality on the television. On the projector, the 1080p Scaler will “down-res” the signal to 720p. If the signal is 1080i from the satellite receiver, both display devices would handle the pixel matching.

This method of up- or down-scaling allows us to avoid the problem of the system's synchronizing on the lowest available resolution - thereby resolving the first issue, which was connecting different source types and displays without losing quality. Transcoding equipment such as the Home Theater Scaler Plus played a key role in our also being able to test legacy equipment. During our tests of older source equipment, we do not need to revert back to the transmission of analog signals over our cabling system; all signals are successfully converted to HDMI, including component and s-video from the VCR and laser-disc players we tested.

The value of this solution became apparent when the home-theater rack was expanded into a whole-house head-end enclosure. A DirecTV receiver and Denon DVD player were added in order to drive another theater that I built into the bedroom, but these video-source products remain on the home theater's rack. This was the “mini-theater” in the master bedroom that employed concealed elements, such as a 42-inch 1080p Toshiba plasma that rises from an “antique” credenza and a 5.1 surround sound system that blends into the bedrooms interior.

Maintaining optimal resolution in a mixed resolution environment was the issue of the day in the home theater installation. Now, the distance to displays being added throughout the house from the whole-house theater rack was the main challenge in the new phase of the installation. The distance problem was solved by using an HDMI fiber-optic solution and by Gefen's HDMI-over-Cat5 solutions. Running the cables in an existing, occupied home was made possible by a forgiving attic space and by crawl space underneath the house. In this sense, our whole-house expansion is not representative of every installation's potential, but it does represent a possible approach when pulling cable is an option, such as in new construction or when the requisite pre-wiring was done before the home's completion.

Schematic

The schematic above is merely intended to give the reader a basic idea of the equipment used to achieve the whole-house distribution of HDMI signals. As you can see, there is only one Gefen 1080p Scaler in the diagram despite the fact that several of these devices were utilized to achieve resolution optimization in our mixed resolution environment (as described in the solution to the home-theater issue above). Furthermore, we have chosen to omit the fiber-optic extenders from this diagram; despite the fact that orange-coded cables extend from both the 2x2 switcher and the 4x4 matrix, there is no fiber output on the router devices themselves. The fiber boxes that enable the distribution of HDMI over optical media from these ports have been omitted for the sake of the diagram's simplicity.

Also simplified is the location of the video source equipment. All source equipment is located on the home-theater's equipment rack, which includes:

  1. DirecTV set-top boxes
  2. A standard Denon DVD player
  3. A Blu-ray player
  4. A PS3 gaming machine
  5. Gefen 1080p Scalers.

For the routing and distribution, we also employed:

  1. A Gefen 4x4 Matrix
  2. A Gefen 2x2 Matrix
  3. A Gefen Cat5 MS Extender
  4. Two Gefen fiber-optic extension solutions.

The Gefen 2x2 Switcher is located in the office closet. (The office is the room in the diagram that includes a fireplace bracketed by bookshelves.) As the diagram shows, into this Switcher was plugged the DirecTV receiver and the Denon DVD player that were added as part of the whole-house expansion.

Since the office closet was close to the home-theater rack, this device needed only be connected by a standard HDMI cable. From there the HDMI signals from the DirecTV receiver and Denon DVD player were sent to the office display (a 32-inch Sharp 1080i LCD-TV) by Gefen's Cat5 MS Extender. The 2x2 Switcher also mirrored this video signal to the bedroom's mini-theater via HDMI over fiber. Besides the fiber signal from the Gefen 2x2 Switcher, the mini-theater was also supplied by 1080p signals over standard HDMI cables from the Gefen 4x4 Matrix.

The pristine quality of both audio and video in the mini-theater are a testament to the flexibility of HDMI in being transmitted over a variety of media without performance degradation. The ability of the installation's cabling system to carry these high-frequency signals was the critical factor in bringing 1080p digital video to the various 1080p devices throughout the house.

The Samsung 720p home-theater projector in the converted garage space was calibrated by none other than Joe Kane, the expert that assisted Samsung in developing the product to maximize its video performance. The standard HDMI cable used to deliver video content to this projector was more than sufficient to provide it with the best possible picture at 720p. The Gefen 1080p Scalers, arranged as described above, also extended the effective length of the run between the source and the projector.

The 65-inch plasma in the same theater, however, was not only a longer cable run from the 4x4 matrix, it also required a higher signal frequency due to the nature of 1080p signals. The cable used here, therefore, was a Gefen fiber-optic solution. This fiber cable was installed during the initial, home-theater phase described above. Because Gefen had yet to release its Cat5 solutions, fiber was the transmission media of choice.

Another 1080p device was the Gateway monitor in the kitchen (the room with the table and four chairs in the diagram). Although this display is a monitor, its video performance is in no way inferior to the televisions throughout the house due to its 1080p resolution, fast response times and home-theater-quality black levels. The display was intended for the highest quality of video, as is evidenced by its dual-link DVI and HDMI inputs and its high-end Silicon Optix video processor. Again, standard HDMI cables through the Gefen 4x4 were sufficient to provide the lossless 1080p content that this display deserves.

As the kitchen photograph here shows, the Gateway monitor and the other installation components are controlled by Crestron touch-panel remotes. These devices hide the complexity of the installation from the family, who are only aware that a few buttons can access not only the video from inside the room in which the user may currently be sitting but also from any component connected to the Gefen 4x4 Matrix. For instance, the remote system allows the family to effortlessly move a movie from the home-theater to the mini-theater. When a television show from one of the DirecTV boxes needs to be played in the bedroom, the Crestron handles the switching to the port that pipes the content into the other zones.

The Crestron system also controls the lighting, AC and audio from a variety of sources, not just in the home theater. In addition to the video, we have easily added audio components, such as an iPod dock in the theater. We also have a 100-disc CD changer in the kitchen. The audio zones include the kitchen, dining room, bedroom, office and theater - as well as two audio zones outdoors: the pool and the lawn.

Another case study would be required to address all the non-HD-video uses of the whole-house installation as it is includes security and HVAC control, but suffice it to say that the entire system has proved to be exceedingly flexible. As promised, the entire installation was easily able to incorporate several legacy source devices that my colleagues at Gefen subsequently tested in the installation as part of the engineering and design phases of Gefen product development.

The installation proved that nothing today must inhibit a professional installer from incorporating any number of devices into a custom-residential job using HDMI as the video transmission medium of an all-digital, multimedia home.

The Takeaway

The lesson learned from both the home-theater installation and the whole-house expansion is that digital HD video is a reality for complex switching and distribution that can be implemented today and in the future with increasing ease as new products designed specifically for these purposes continue to become available. Gefen is helping move this process forward by distributing these signals in a remote-controlled environment and with a minimum of performance compromises. The experience in my own home shows that, with some training and a modicum of forethought, an installation can be achieved that meets the needs of more than a one-room home theater. Home theaters can also include a variety of sources and display devices and can be expanded when a consumer is ready, providing well-earned revenue both now and in the future.

Hagai Gefen, President and CEO of Gefen Inc., first pioneered post-production studio automation design. In the 1990s, Gefen focused on engineering KVM extension products again geared to the audio/video production industry, which eventually grew into today's complete connectivity solutions for the conversion, integration, distribution and extension of A/V signals for residences and businesses. These products are augmented by a line of premium cabling.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of HDMI Licensing, LLC, the HDMI Founders or any of their respective parent organizations or affiliates.