Audio over IP is coming home as popularity grows for residential projects

An established technology in the commercial sector, audio over IP is now moving into the residential space. Amy Wallington investigates why this is and how the pandemic might have spurred the move.

Those of you in the UK might have picked up on a small football reference in the title of this article: football might not be coming home, but audio over IP (AoIP) certainly is. Put simply, AoIP is the distribution of digital audio over an IP network rather than point-to-point connection. Replacing legacy technologies such as traditional analogue connections with IP networks has been done for many years in the commercial space, but it is now being adopted for residential applications too.

It is easy to see why AoIP is used in commercial settings such as broadcasting or live events because so many audio streams are being carried to multiple locations. For homes, it adds convenience and futureproofs the property as it allows a virtually unlimited number of sources to be installed.

According to Brad Price, senior product marketing manager at Audinate, there are two forces driving the residential adoption of AoIP: the multiple benefits it brings to an audio system and the increase in work from home applications. He says: “There are several benefits to having AoIP including ease of use, ease of install, cost savings, management, observability, scalability, interoperability, all brought into an audio system for the home. Consider this: any house with wired ethernet cables can quickly and easily expand their audio system to any room or location in the home. If there is no network infrastructure, the cost of adding it is far more affordable than adding point-to-point cabling.

“The second reason for adoption has to do with the increase in work from home applications,” Price continues. “People are bringing their music studios, broadcast applications, and other production quality workflows into their homes to ensure they can work on projects with more freedom and flexibility. With AoIP, moving a studio or recording room into the home is far easier and cost effective than it would be with traditional infrastructure.”

Image: Metech-Multimedia / Shutterstock 

The whole home can benefit greatly from having AoIP. Not only does it speed up deployment, saves money, and provides an easy path for upgrades, but it also improves the quality of sound.

“If you take an average residential project, it is usually divided into three types of zones: rooms with surround sound and 4K video, rooms with two-channel audio and 4K or even 1080p video, and rooms without video, just two-channel audio,” states John Clancy, executive vice president at Crestron. “If we were to choose a matrix solution there, the audio quality would suffer as soon as the source is connected to a sink or endpoint that doesn’t support multichannel audio. It would be immediately downgraded to two-channel. For instance, a satellite receiver by default receives and emits surround sound, but as soon as it makes that connection through a traditional matrix to any two-channel room, by default that source would turn off surround sound and slip to two-channel, which means the entire house, even the zone where surround sound is installed, will only receive two-channel.

“However, the robust and diverse nature of the right AV over IP encoders and decoders allow for systems to use an assortment of products based on their needs, so it doesn’t matter if there’s surround sound in one room and stereo in another. The same applies to resolution and frame rate. No matter what sources or displays are in the home today or in the future, AoIP makes everything work seamlessly, delivering what is required throughout the house.”

Blurred lines

Since the pandemic and people are spending more time at home, the very clear lines between commercial grade installations and residential grade are now blurring. Homeowners are seeking the same level of performance for their homes that was previously only found in commercial grade applications.

“This sector, due to the pandemic, is largely working from home, and with the work at home culture and the building of home studios, the awareness and benefits of the technology is being realised and brought in front of the installers eyes which promises commercial grade quality at home,” says Amit Ravat, managing director of Lithe Audio.

Image: Crestron

“The nature of how the technology works, whereby it breaks down the data set into small packets, transmits over the CAT cable then decodes, allows installers to confidently create more complex and large-scale audio installations with precise control of the distribution of audio to each speaker. Coupled with a robust connection and ease of install, using products such as PoE powered ceiling speakers, saves time in the install and delivers more control.”

Jumping on the bandwagon

David Meyerowitz, technical sales manager at Trinnov Audio, recognises the adoption of AoIP with manufacturers too: “We are definitely seeing a growing requirement for this technology. We are currently seeing growth in active speakers and power amplifiers featuring input and output via AoIP. Source material for home cinema is still being delivered predominantly via HDMI but I can certainly see an AoIP output coming to source devices in the future.”

One of the most popular AoIP protocols being adopted at the moment is Dante. “Manufacturers are certainly starting to produce more residential products supporting AoIP,” says Price. “Audinate is seeing true growth of Dante, the company’s AoIP protocol, in the CEDIA market, and that is incredibly exciting. Dante is currently implemented in more than 91% of AoIP pro audio solutions, so we believe there will be continued growth of the protocol into residential products. Home studios and broadcasting are both heading into the home now. The enabling factor that makes that possible is the effective, affordable, and quickly scalable infrastructure of AoIP.”

“The configuration, processing and routing of the audio streams then become a simple computing exercise.”

StormAudio is another company already deep in the residential AoIP game. “This month, we are releasing a new optional module that can be added to any ISP MK1 and MK2 and allow for 32-channel input/output interface based on AES67 / Dante standards,” Sébastien Gailleton, director of product management, StormAudio announces. “There are certainly other manufacturers planning for this move. The main objective is clearly to simplify the system’s interconnection and audio routing.”

Crestron has recently released its first AoIP product to the CI channel, as Clancy explains: “We have just started shipping the Crestron DM NAX Amplifier, an AoIP amplifier that puts Crestron multiroom audio distribution on the network. This highly-anticipated, all-in-one AoIP solution provides the connectivity and audio functionality integrators need to appeal to residential customers. DM NAX takes whole home audio to a new level by removing the scale and functionality constraints that used to bog down usability. It also integrates simply with legacy Crestron systems and offers extraordinary flexibility within its compact form factor, allowing for audio from any input to be sent to any output.”

Futureproofing is key

We all know better than anyone how fast technology is developing and how important it is to futureproof a home. As soon as you’ve finished installing the best solution, something else comes along that would work even better. High-end homeowners are constantly looking to upgrade their systems, something that is much easier to do using AoIP.

Gailleton explains why: “AoIP has proven to be reliable, easily deployable and with precise audio synchronisation and low latency in commercial setups. With home entertainment becoming mainly digital and multiroom, it is hard to anticipate all the future usages and therefore, the associated wiring. With AoIP, installers simply need to foresee some RJ45 connectors in the rooms, wired to a main technical room where all the required networking gear would be installed. The configuration, processing and routing of the audio streams then becomes a simple computing exercise.”

This can also be very useful in home cinema applications, as Gailleton continues: “It is quite easy to catch how simple it becomes for the integrator to wire the room in a home cinema. You don’t have to anticipate each speaker assignment upfront; you simply route the ethernet cables to the speakers’ locations together (or not if using PoE) with the AC power cables. The speaker layout description and configuration can be done later with total flexibility. Additional advantages comes from the ease of integration of a Dolby Atmos cinema ecosystem that also interfaces with AoIP, allowing for a theatrical release to be played back at home on the very same day as the commercial cinema release. End customers can enjoy the original theatrical mix rendered up to 32-channels with a StormAudio processor.”

Things to consider

Like anything, the use of AoIP in the home does have some downfalls. It is always key to think about multiple solutions in order to decide the best option for the customer’s needs. It’s also important to consider how the technology might affect the install in a negative way.

“Residential networks are typically very busy with lots of different types of traffic being sent,” recognises Meyerowitz. “Management of this data, to offer each service the bandwidth it needs, is not an easy task, requiring some more advanced knowledge and traffic management techniques. As an example, you have control and automation, VoIP, streaming audio/video, and security cameras, to name but a few of the services all competing for bandwidth. If not managed correctly, this could lead to disruption of any one of these critical services within the home.”

There is also the issue of initial outlay of cost, something homeowners are often reluctant to spend. “High-quality AV over IP solutions can currently be slightly more expensive than matrix solutions,” adds Clancy. “But the prices for this type of equipment generally come down over time. However, the benefits far outweigh the marginally higher cost.”

“Where this technology is widely adopted is marine where all the requirements above are critical due to the high specification and requirement to utilise existing infrastructure.”

Integrators should also consider the fact it is on the network and the downfalls that can sometimes bring. “AoIP is in essence an IT technology and therefore comes with the good and bad of networking technology,” says Gailleton. “This includes the need to have some knowledge in networking and ideally Internet Protocol technologies to understand what lies underneath. You move from the hardware to the software side of the integration. Nevertheless, in most residential systems, the network involved is simple enough to keep us away from deep technical matters such as managing priorities in the network.”

Looking ahead

It will be interesting to watch how AoIP develops in the residential market in the coming months and years. Will adoption continue as integrators and homeowners alike realise the benefits of this technology, or will the sector revert back to using legacy methods?

“At Lithe Audio, we forecast this segment of the market to grow, especially in the CI channel,” predicts Ravat. “Our mission statement is to make ceiling speakers easy to implement and this technology offers installers an easy to install product which offers maximum control and reliability, which is only a good thing. For larger and more complex projects, and as more and more people build media rooms and studios in their homes, and as the awareness of the multiple benefits this technology offers over a traditional wired system is realised, the market will undoubtedly see growth in the residential sector.”

Agreeing with Ravat, Clancy adds: “AV over IP offers almost an infinite level of scalability and flexibility so it will absolutely grow. It also gives homeowners the ability to watch, listen and play whatever they want, wherever they want. There are no more wires and boxes lying around the TVs and there is only one remote to control everything. This interoperability simplifies designs and brings down the cost to deploy a video distribution system, removing the cost of ownership as a potential argument.”

Image: Crestron

Price goes as far as saying it is the only technology that should be used for home entertainment and that legacy solutions should be scrapped. “It is the logical next step for the technology,” he says. “AoIP provides an easy to install, cost-effective, and incredibly manageable solution. Solutions that come with management platforms, such as Audinate’s Dante Controller, will also help ease this transition. Audinate also makes AVIO adapters that allow legacy gear to be plugged into the network. There’s no need to throw out beloved gear and completely overhaul a system; you can incrementally upgrade. These two enabling factors will help the residential space quickly and effectively make AoIP the best practice for AV systems in the home.”

Gailleton believes there’s still a way to go for full adoption in the home. “The market will grow in residential applications, but as with any technology shift, there will be a ‘grey’ period that will be complicated to manage in terms of product definition and development. People will understand the need to add AoIP but still require old interfaces compatibility, slowing down the migration to the possible simple product architecture the technology allows, being network centric.”

However, Meyerowitz believes there is still a strong place for traditional methods to be used in the home entertainment sector. “I expect AoIP in the home to grow but I do not believe it will become the de facto choice for home cinema. My belief is the traditional wiring method between AV processors, amplifiers and speakers will be preferred to maintain audio quality and reliability and reduce complexity. However, in installations where rack space is tight or DCI integration is required you may see some adoption to add flexibility to the installation. Where this technology is widely adopted is marine where all the requirements above are critical due to the high specification and requirement to utilise existing infrastructure.”

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