Percolating underneath the huge wave of optimism that filled the aisles of the CEDIA 2016 Expo in Dallas was the reality of implementing 4K in today’s evolving A/V marketplace.
Ultra HD and its groundswell of momentum could be seen throughout the show floor impressing almost 20,000 attendees, and its importance has never been more evident than the peaking interest in video technologies, which are represented by the surging sales of these new generations TVs.
Not all is well however. These formats are moving at an incredible rate and they could potentially race past current and future infrastructure methods that dealers utilize on a daily basis.
What this means in the simplest of terms is that cabling, A/V receivers, matrix switches and even displays may not support Ultra HD, high dynamic range (HDR), wide color gamuts (WCGs) and other provisions associated with 4K.
What’s the Problem?
As part of its educational initiatives, the Fla.-based connectivity and A/V manufacturer Metra Home Theater Group presents its “Lunch and Learn” sessions with HDMI expert and DPL Labs president Jeff Boccaccio during the CEDIA Expo each year.
This year’s “Lunch and Learn” sessions focused on the transition the market is in with the bandwidth appetite of 4K with HDR and WCGs.
Boccaccio emphasized to the sessions’ full attendance that the electronics industry is at an important juncture with video migrating into a new era of performance that exceeds the capabilities of current technologies.
“Personally, I believe it has always been critical to get system infrastructures to a high level that will support new features such as HDR and 4K at 60Hz applications. Many integrators and dealers were confused when Rev 2.0 [HDMI] rolled out because they were not aware that it was still 4K and 4:2:0 simply operating in a 10.2Gbps environment,” says Boccaccio.
“Increasing frame rate and lowering color quality set the stage for a transition to 18Gbps bandwidth over time. Finally, with the announcement of HDR and other supporting education, custom integrators discovered the necessity in designing infrastructures that could support the entire 18Gbps bandwidth. At the time, DPL Labs had to move the needle forward supporting a new 4K testing methodology for the new 18Gbps format.”
Noting how volatile the transition from current specifications to what dealers will be facing in the near future, Boccaccio says that it is imperative that whatever infrastructure dealers install, it must support today's formats and future formats.
Supporting Boccaccio’s comments is Joel Silver, president and founder of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF).
Silver says that he has discovered through testing that today’s first-generation of Ultra Blu-ray disc players from Samsung and Philips are outputting about 13.5Gbps. Once these signals hit an A/V receiver or switcher, they get squeezed down to about 9Gbps and the HDR is gone.
He also says that, in some cases, there is no picture at all. The important point, thought, is that whether clients receive a squeezed down image or have other image problems, they are not getting the full potential of their systems.
“The information that came out for years with HDMI is that it was proposing you would get the picture, but it’s not the picture you are paying for,” stresses Silver. “It’s not what you want. They promoted backwards compatibility with HDMI 1.4, but it is not backwards compatible.”
Silver’s solution to support 4K is an age-old idea that dealers have used for years in a variety of ways.
“My advice is to run conduit,” he says. “I am pretty confident on telling people what to do up to about 2020, but then my crystal ball goes dim. Even with fiber, I still tell people to pull conduit. I don’t know what’s coming down the pike, but I do know that it will require more bandwidth.”
Focusing on some of the other aspects of system infrastructure that Silver alludes to, Brent McCall, product manager for Metra Home Theater Group, says the biggest areas of concern his company sees relate to hardware setup. McCall says that when systems are initially set up, they do not typically output full 4K HDR.
“In addition to the setup issue, we also receive a lot of calls regarding signal infrastructure going past 10Gbps, which is not always supported,” explains McCall.
“The issue may not always be a cabling problem. It could be anything from an older device such as an A/V receiver, switcher, display or source. It could be firmware that could be the limiting factor. In other cases, the problem can actually be found within the cabling or signal carriage products such as Redmere Active Cables and HDBaseT devices that cannot handle any bandwidth above 10Gbps, and it will have to be replaced.”
Cabling and HDMI product manufacturer McCall admits the industry’s rapidly changing standards make it a challenge to keep up, but he says that it is a rewarding time to introduce new products as a cabling company.
McCall says that Metra spends a lot of time in the research and development stages forecasting emerging technologies in order to stay ahead of the market’s adoption curve, and Metra spends a lot of time developing products that could potentially fix anticipated problems in the field.
Another issue that Boccaccio mentioned during his CEDIA Expo presentations is the trend of television manufacturers utilizing equalization (EQ) chips and the problems this is causing with increased bandwidth.
McCall says this problem involves the HDMI’s 2.0 requirement to overcome any issues associated with cabling, and the fact that there is no written standard on how television manufacturers should implement these EQ chips.
“When we’re working on a new design for a new product, we must plan for the signal sweet spot to allow it to work with both fixed and adaptive display EQ types,” states McCall.
“This leads to our HDM-GA1 Gigabit Accelerator, which has been such a strong product for us because it does hit the dead center of the EQ sweet spot regardless of which display is being used. The HDM-GA1 will give the installer a safe and reliable way to go longer distances.”
McCall adds that internally, the company documents the various television products and their connectivity performance, but it has no plans to release the information for public consumption.
Could Fiber Cure High Bandwidth Woes?
In an attempt to assess the use of fiber to address the bandwidth needs of 4K with HDR and WCGs, Silver notes the technology offers some intriguing possibilities for dealers.
In his testing of fiber products, Silver comments the products easily pass 18Gbps, and multi-strand fiber solutions could provide a means of future proofing for dealers.
Seeing the transition from copper to fiber and other solutions is Cleerline Technology Group president and managing director Robert D’Addario. Not surprisingly, D’Addario says two of the trends that are currently driving Cleerline’s sales are 4K and the looming rollout of 8K.
D’Addario says that high-bandwidth video is pushing the limits of copper’s ability to deliver reliable, quality content. As the market evolves, dealers can guarantee that installed bulk fiber will have a longer lifespan than copper.
In addition to video, D’Addario also points out that outside of the A/V market, the Internet of Things (IoT) is also driving interest in fiber, and this is another category that could potentially occupy bandwidth as more devices add networking capabilities.
“What works today might not work tomorrow. Hybrid HDMI is a very good alternative to bulk fiber and we are working on incorporating SSF [a Cleerline line of fiber-based solutions] into products like that in the near future to replace our current active HDMI cables branded Planet Waves. But I’m a big advocate of putting in an infrastructure that you know you’ll be able to utilize regardless of the format of the future,” D’Addario explains. “Traditionally that was coax, then Cat-5e, then Cat-6, but now we’re saying emphatically fiber.”
Another important caveat with copper is how the signal is being transmitted. Cameron C. Smith, CEO, TechLogix, says that with 4K occupying so much of the bandwidth of copper, the signal is getting compressed to make it fit over copper-based cabling.
Smith says fiber allows for the transmission of uncompressed 4K signals with HDR, WCGs and advanced sub chroma sampling rates. Another benefit of fiber is that it is not subject to radio frequency (RF) and electromagnetic (EM) interference, according to Smith.
“Copper’s bandwidth is limited to 10Gbps unless compression is placed on the signal, whereas fiber supports UHD formats without compression. Another advantage is that fiber is immune to RF and EM interference, both of which trouble UHD signals on copper over long runs,” says Smith.
“AptoVision [a chipset manufacturer serving the commercial A/V industry] is doing a good job of developing solutions which will easily support copper and fiber cabling, however many higher-end applications frown upon compressing the signal. The catch with copper is that Cat-6a or Cat-7 cable is required and that can be more expensive than fiber and those cables are significantly harder to work with.”
Smith points out that new copper solutions such as Cat-8 can support current 4K/2K at 60Hz and 4:4:4, which equates to 18Gbps with bandwidth up to 40Gbps as far as 30 meters.
However, he emphasizes that fiber has come a long way. It offers performance traits in addition to speed and bandwidth that include short-term load pull strength of 225 pounds versus category cable’s 25 pounds, and a bend radius of 2.2mm for Cleerline’s SSF fiber compared to Cat-6a’s 87mm and Cat-8’s 90mm.
Networking Technologies Offer Another Alternative
One of the most interesting aspects of the evolving A/V market is that many commercial solutions exist that can support the residential market’s hunger for bandwidth.
Admitting that consumer preferences drive many technology trends in the commercial market, Steven Barlow, president of DVIGear, says that while the appetite for 4K with HDR and WCGs isn’t as big as the consumer market, commercial equipment manufacturers have been preparing for this type of scenario for years.
DVIGear recommends dealers prepare for 4K even if they aren’t installing 4K-based systems now.
He says the reason for this is simply the fact that every step up—1080p to 4K at 30Hz; 4K at 30Hz to 4K at 60Hz, etc. —essentially requires a jump of twice the bandwidth.
Barlow emphasizes that it is not realistic to go from 1080p to 4K at 60Hz with current cables because that requires a quadrupling of speed. He notes that dramatic performance increases like that is a lot to ask for with something even as mundane as cables.
Putting the numbers aside, Barlow boils down the situation succinctly by stating that dealers should specify systems with future formats in mind.
“What we are evangelizing is that if you buy or sell a system, that it be 4K ready. Ultra HD in general means 4K at 30Hz or 4K at 60Hz. There is a lot of gamesmanship out there. It is important when talking 30Hz vs. 60Hz what chroma subsampling is being used. In our case 4:4:4 is in our discussions,” he says.
“We are urging people to buy hardware that supports 4K at 60Hz. If a customer buys a system and it is 1080p then they come back to you and want 4K, you may have to explain to them they need a new system. That disturbs a lot of customers. Customers glance at these details unless they are astute. You need to plan ahead so you need to know what you are specifying.”
Pointing out a product line that solves the issues of high-bandwidth A/V signals, Barlow says DVIGear’s DisplayNet line of products is another option for dealers.
Elaborating on the DisplayNet line of products, Barlow says the components utilize a network approach to the transmission of A/V signals. Barlow explains the products employ 10Gbe-networking technologies to packetize and transmit uncompressed, audio and KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) signals.
According to Barlow, networking technologies are vastly ahead of formats such as HDMI, which were developed in the 1990s and they support the full, uncompressed transmission of HDMI 2.0 with HDR.
“HDMI was never designed for long distances or complex routing applications, and 10Gbe Ethernet is designed for long distances,” asserts Barlow. “The coding system for 10Gbe is extremely efficient and the genius of the AptoVision Division is to use the 10Gbe Ethernet system and use a chipset that takes advantage of it.”
“Valens’ is a closed system, and it is extremely popular because it does a similar thing; moving high-bandwidth signals over Cat-5. But it is a closed system. You have to have an HDBaseT transmitter and receiver. DisplayNet allows for any 10Gbe Ethernet switch, and if you look down the road at 8K for example—it is on our product roadmap—it’s using 40Gbe switches, which are already on the market and have been for years.”
InfoComm also reveals a number of other A/V and KVM over IP solutions from companies such as Adder Technologies, Black Box Design, ATEN, RGB Spectrum. In the residential market, Just Add Power has also innovated in the A/V over IP category.
Ultra HD Requires Pragmatic Approach Beyond Signal Transmission
Even high-performance video manufacturers are taking a cautious approach to 4K with HDR and WCGs.
Michael Bridwell, vice president of marketing and home entertainment, Digital Projection, warns that in addition to the signal transmission issues the market is currently experiencing, the problems of 4K implementation extend to hardware too.
Helping to better define some of the hardware differences, Bridwell cites PMA Research’s classification of 4K products as a starting point to define the various 4K projectors on the market. He also cites the Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA) definition of 4K Ultra HD, which is 3,840 x 2,160 as a minimum starting point of more than 8 million pixels.
Taking it beyond numbers, Bridwell recommends that dealers consider brightness, color and contrast as performance guides.
Expanding on some of the product differences, Bridwell says that today’s HDR specs, such as the ones defined by the UHD Alliance, refer to televisions and not projectors. He stresses that projectors are affected by environmental elements, the amount of light output projectors produce, and associated screen choices. These differences are also causing confusion.
“Regarding HDR, WCG, ultra-contrast imagery and other topics that pertain to performance standards, let’s dissect them. Today’s limited HDR standards such as those defined within the UHD Alliance Premium Certification refer to TVs, not projectors. The contrast ratios are direct view specs and don’t take environment into account,” Bridwell emphasizes.
“So based on the UHD Alliance standards, a projector marketed as ‘HDR capable’ is somewhat misleading if a true contrast performance metric is required. Then there is the Ultra HD Alliance’s brightness spec, which is also defined in terms that apply to TVs. Calling for a minimum of 1,000 nits is much brighter than pretty much every projector you have ever seen. It is like 13,000 lumens on a 120-inch diagonal screen with minimal gain brighter.”
The good news is that companies with bright projectors shouldn’t be concerned, according to Bridwell, but he warns that there are a lot of consumer-grade projectors that don’t deliver high brightness and contrast levels.
Optimistically, Bridwell says there are projectors capable of producing HDR images, including the color criteria, pixel count and color depth.
“If the methods surrounding HDR can deliver a more immersive viewing experience that emulates what our eyes truly see, we’ll all benefit. Digital Projection is working on that goal, but today select LED projectors produce a dazzling color gamut, far beyond the REC 709 standard and in the case of our INSIGHT LED, beyond the P3 color space,” says Bridwell.
“We think it is important to accentuate the benefits that most everyone can enjoy, and a pragmatically delivered wider color gamut experience creates that ‘wow’ factor for most.”
Keeping up with a Moving Target
Highlighted by its “Lunch and Learn” sessions, Metra has been proactive in trying to educate its dealers on the potential hazards that await them as bandwidth requirements escalate. McCall points out that Metra works extensively with Boccaccio to disseminate the latest information as quickly and as accurately as possible.
A good example of how Metra is working with Boccaccio currently can be found in Boccaccio’s advice in dealing with the information overload that is sweeping the industry.
Boccaccio is telling dealers to streamline their thinking to keep from being overwhelmed by all the numbers being thrown around right now. He emphasizes that dealers keep it simple by looking for products that are capable of delivering 18Gbps bandwidth.
“I have people ask me all the time why I say, ‘don’t be concerned with 4:4:4 and 4:2:0 because they’re just numbers,’” says Boccaccio.
“Not too long ago, a majority of folks had never even paid attention to these numbers, meaning sub-sampling and bit rate. Today, it seems that the numbers are all they’re talking about. If you have true 18Gbps transmission line, the systems will support any mix of numbers you want to throw at it whether it’s HDR, 4:4:4 or color depth.”
Boccaccio also reiterates that dealers need to future proof their clients’ systems.
“It is imperative that the transmission line actually covers current and future demands. Whether it is fiber or copper, the need for bandwidth is there,” emphasizes Boccaccio.
“Although, when operating under Rev 2.0a at full bandwidth, the rules change. In addition, we have discovered many anomalies that can affect product interoperability due to signal integrity issues, which had never surfaced before. It’s important to remember that quality products will always have supporting documentation verifying what it can and cannot support. This is where product claims can get you in trouble.”
Providing a level of protection for dealers are companies like AV ProStore, which offer system testers to A/V professionals.
The Sioux Falls, S.D.-based company positions itself as a, “technical resource of choice for installers and integrators serving the residential and commercial Audio Video markets,” and it provides a selection of distribution amplifiers, matrix switchers and testers designed for 18Gbps applications.
AV ProStore offers a number of dealer incentives to step into testing products from manufacturers such as Quantum Data and Murideo, including trade-ins and other sales specials.
These products are designed to test for 18Gbps bandwidth as well as other provisions such as 60Hz refresh rates and 4:4:4 chroma subsampling on formats such as HDMI and HDBaseT.
Silver sums up the current situation by pointing out the CEDIA 2016 Expo was a real turning point for the electronics industry. Silver theorizes the next big innovation to hit the market could be 120Hz frame rates, which he says will make the broadcast of sports on TV much better.
Silver says fast sports will benefit from this technology, and with 8K on the horizon, dealers need to find solutions to pass these high-bandwidth signals before it’s too late.
“I am hoping to see 120Hz demos by the next Olympics. It will look awesome on sports like hockey and football. Sports at 120Hz will be a revelation. It will look almost 3D. We have been watching 60Hz [content] for so long that we’ve accepted it. We’ve done 8-bit video since 1982, and now we’ve graduated to 4:2:0 and 10 bit. It provides a smoother, more natural looking picture, but it took more content and more speed for it to look that good. Years ago Noel Lee [CEO of Monster Inc.] talked about 18Gbps and he was right, but he got no credit. It shouldn’t be a surprise for people that did their homework. There are massive headaches for UHD players with older TVs,” says Silver.
“The obligation to the clients is to avoid the headaches. You need to be honest with the client and tell them the old cable doesn’t work. Don’t make the mistake again—run conduit. We learn as we go, and we have learned that bandwidth will only go up.”