There's a new Cat5-based audio solution in town, and its backers hope to make it an industry-wide standard.
The technology, Digi5, is a product of five companies within Nortek's Linear Home Technology Group: Elan (and sub-brand Aton), Linear, Niles, SpeakerCraft and Xantech.
Digi5 marks the most ambitious collaborative effort among the Linear companies, which generally have recognized synergies through more conventional measures, such as cross-marketing products and sharing manufacturing facilities.
All five companies have plans to develop products based on the platform, and it matters little that the products may compete with each other.
“If you look at who our competition is, it's not Elan or Niles,” says Steve Hayes, director of sales for SpeakerCraft.
“It's all the discretionary-fund sucks [for example, hot tubs and granite countertops]. If we as tiny players don't figure out how to play together, we will be consumed.”
Like other Cat5-based multiroom audio systems on the market, Digi5 delivers audio and power from a central hub to amplified keypads via Cat5 Cable (with a return path for control).
The amplified keypads power speakers are connected via traditional speaker wire.
The big difference between Digi5 and some of the other Cat5 technologies is the digital architecture of Digi5.
“The technology's digital end-to-end capability ensures the audio signal is accurate regardless of wire run length with no analog frequency response issues, drive limitations or noise pickup,” says Bob Farinelli, CEO of Elan and a key technology driver for Digi5.
Farinelli boasts that the product sounds better because of the digital signal processor (DSP) built into the amplifier chip, enabling bass, treble, loudness and balance controls.
“These adjustments are available on a room-by-room basis that allows the sound to be individually tailored to the type of speakers, room acoustics and listening preferences,” Farinelli says.
In addition, according to Farinelli, Digi5 offers more power — 30 watts per channel RMS at 8 Ohms — than conventional keypad amplifiers for two reasons:
- Digi5 uses digital amps, which boast 85 percent efficiency, as opposed to Class A/B analog amps that are on average only 45 percent efficient, and
- Digi5 uses four wires for power and ground to achieve more power than either analog or digital amplified keypad systems that only use two wires for power and ground.
“When installed on an equal length of Cat5, Digi5 provides nearly four times the power of a conventional Class A/B product with more total SPL, tighter sounding bass and more headroom before clipping,” Farinelli says.
It was a tall order, he adds, saying that one challenge was “stuffing five pounds of electronics into a single-gang keypad. We successfully achieved a balance between audio performance, single-gang package size, heat dissipation, installer-friendly connector options and a full-featured, user-friendly keypad.”
Digi5 accommodates four zones (expandable to 28) and four sources.
Digi5 is not a product, but a platform. Each Linear company is developing its own products based on the technology, and will tap its own channels to bring product to market. All products across brands, however, will be interoperable.
There are three basic product formats: a rack master hub, source input plate and three types of keypads.
For its part, Elan will differentiate its Digi5 products “by the Elan brand ability to plug and play with Elan products and our feature set,” says Farinelli, who declined to offer more details until 2008.
SpeakerCraft president Jeremy Burkhardt was a little more forthcoming. “I think that without spilling the beans, it will have digital amplification keypad control and it will be different than what's out there now,” he says.
“We've come up with some things that will eliminate distortion as well as speaker connections, for example, that are different than what's typically been accepted in the marketplace. … Our dealers have requested us to make shorter speaker cable runs and for us to make the delivery of content easier.”
Digi5 products from SpeakerCraft should be available second quarter 2008.
Niles will ship Digi5 products in the middle of 2008, says CEO Frank Sterns. They will be targeted at construction in both the residential and light commercial markets.
Sterns notes that the products will not be compatible with Niles' ICS control platform.
The first Digi5 solution is expected to come from Aton, a brand of Elan. The company's new DH44 Digital Audio Router, DHTP1 Digital Amplified Touchpads and Digi5 accessories (zone expander and source input wallplate) will leverage the technology.
Expected to ship fourth quarter, the Aton products will start at about $1,500 for a four-room DH44 system.
In general, Digi5 systems are expected to retail for about six percent more than other popular Cat5 systems in the market, according to Robert Holland, the new program manager for Digi5.
The Impact of Digi5
The proprietors of Digi5 are not looking for a monopoly. The group plans to license Digi5 to third parties in order to make the technology the dominant platform for Cat5 multiroom audio.
When it comes to that category, there is no denying the market strength of the Linear group.
“The fact that Elan, SpeakerCraft, Niles, Xantech and Linear are all working together, I guarantee that every … manufacturer is going to want to use this technology,” says SpeakerCraft's Burkhardt.
“If I wasn't part of this group, I'd be scared.”
Burkhardt says he was approached by “a number of companies” at the CEDIA Expo, where Digi5 debuted, but provided no firm details on licensing prospects.