The Custom Installer: Garden Party

One highlight of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association's annual Expo is the Garden of High Definition Delights. Flagship HDTVs from nearly every manufacturer are lined up in this large, darkened space, all displaying pristine high-def images. You can call up programming on any set to compare performance with identical source material.

Maybe you haven't considered distributing high-def signals around your house. But with HDTV prices dropping below $1,000, you might find yourself with more than one high-def set on your hands in just a few years. So it's never too soon to think about how you're going to shuttle those pristine images from room to room.

There are a number of things to consider. If you receive your HDTV feed via cable, satellite, or the airwaves, then inhouse distribution might be closer than you think. Most houses built within the last decade or so have RG- 6 coaxial cabling, which can carry high-def signals. In this case, getting signals to other rooms can be as simple as using an additional HDTV receiver. Since the Telecommunications Industry Association standard stipulating RG-6 cable use dates to 1999, depending on when your home was built and who did the work, it might have been wired with RG-59 cabling, which isn't recommended for high-def. In that case, you'll want to run RG-6 cables to each room from your cable service, satellite dish, or HDTV antenna - which can be a huge undertaking.

This connection lets people in different rooms watch their own high-def shows, but you have to buy or rent extra receivers. And you'll need a component-video distribution amplifier to distribute signals from your DVD player or high-def D-VHS recorder. Systems are available for less than $200 from companies like Audio Authority, CD Labs, Extron, and Key Digital Systems.

If your A/V receiver has componentvideo switching - or, even better, if it upconverts composite- and S-video signals to component video - you can more easily distribute all of your video sources to any TV in the house that's connected to the distribution system. Add an IR (infrared) or RF (radio- frequency) remote-control system, and you'll be able to operate the source components in your distribution system from any room as well. Two leading manufacturers of IR systems are Niles and SpeakerCraft, with complete setups - IR receiver, connecting block, power supply, and emitters - costing around $200.

But running component-video cables to multiple rooms can be expensive. In an older house, it can also be labor intensive. Several companies make wire bundles for distributing these signals. Liberty Wire & Cable's RGB6C/22-2P contains six coax cables and two pairs of line-level audio cables - enough for carrying component and composite video as well as digital and analog audio. But expect to pay around $3 a foot, not to mention the cost of the connectors to terminate the cabling.

It's cheaper to run multiple RG-6 cables to each room. But pulling individual cables is more time consuming, doesn't provide the wire-pulling protection of bundled cabling, and likely won't result in identical cable lengths (delivering all three parts of the component-video signal simultaneously). But it costs less than $1 a foot.

The most cost-effective way to distribute component video is to use Cat-5 cable, which usually costs less than 25¢ a foot. Cat-5 can distribute component-video signals up to 450 feet with no loss in picture quality using a transformer called a balun. But baluns can handle only 480p signals, not high-def. Muxlab of Canada hopes to have a high-def-capable system out by the end of the year.

For a more advanced system that can distribute different high-def sources to a number of rooms, companies like ADA, AMX, Crestron, and Elan offer video switchers that distribute multiple composite-, component-, or S-video signals. While Elan's Z880 switcher ($930; three required for component- video distribution) can be used on its own, the other switchers function as part of a larger housewide system. (Crestron's proprietary system can deliver high-def signals over Cat-5 cabling, but the switcher itself costs five grand.)

Sending digital video around the house will become easier as the idea of the connected home catches on. Already, devices like Roku's HD1000 let you stream highdef video from a networked PC with or without wires. And Kaleidescape claims that its high-end movie server will be ready to stream high-def movies when the first highdef discs become available (see the review of the Kaleidescape Movie Server).

As wireless technologies continue to push the bandwidth boundaries, it won't be long before digital signals are zooming around your home and you find yourself living in your own Garden of High Definition Delights!

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