An Ethernet Jack On Everything

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The theme of the recent 125th Audio Engineering Society (AES) show was “Making Connections”,

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and increasingly those connections are made with a piece of Cat-5 cable and a RJ-45 jack via ethernet. Digital audio networking played a prevalent role at the San Francisco show October 2-5, with its heavily attended technical presentations three out of four days.

The technical portion of the show started with a bang with the “Shot heard ‘round the world” from industry heavy weights Apple, Harman, and Broadcom discussing AVB (Audio Video Bridging) on October 2. The technical tutorial entitled “Standards Based Audio Networking UsingIEEE 802.1 AVB” was the first time many in the industry had heardof AVB. Matt Moria of Apple demonstrated a proof of concept linking of audio routed among three Mac laptops over an ethernet networkusing AVB principles.

In a nutshell, AVB are extensions to the existing ethernet standard (aptly called “legacy ethernet” in the AVB community), to “fix” what has prevented widespread ethernet distribution of real-time audio and video with deterministic latency and guaranteed delivery. The standards are in the final stages of ratification.

Audio networking’s ever increasing role was further explored by a panel discussion on Friday entitled “Audio Networking for the Pros”, which featured representatives from CobraNet, Dante, EtherSound, and LiveWire network technologies. All of these protocols utilize Ethernettechnology, and thus can leverage off of the existing IT infrastructure.

The panel presented an interesting spectrum of technology ranging from Cirrus Logic’s CobraNet—the incumbent technology (commercially introduced in 1997) and having the largest install base—contrasted to the new kid on the digital audio networking block, Audinate’s Dante, which utilizes more recent ethernet standards and protocols (such as QoS, IEEE- 1588 precision time protocols, Zero configuration) and available virtual sound card drivers for PC and Mac platforms.

Saturday featured “Digital

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and Networked Audio in Sound Reinforcement”, where industry panelists discussed the planning and factors to consider in the deployment of networked audio in sound reinforcement applications. From audience participation, it was apparent that discussion and education about system-level considerations is the primary focus for manufacturers, installers, andtechnicians as networking becomes ubiquitous.

Clearly, audio (and video) applications are increasingly leveraging offof widespread availability and cost effectiveness of ethernet network infrastructures.Michael Johas Teener of Broadcom stated at AES that last year his company shipped one billion (yes, that’s billion with a “B”) ethernet ports last year. “Ethernet is free,” Teener said. “It’s cheaper for us to put ethernet on every part than to have a version with and without it.”

Given that Broadcom is only one of many chip manufacturers in the world, the number of potentially ethernet- enabled devices sold annually issimply staggering. Concurrently, the size of the pipe is increasing, 1GBswitches are inexpensive (I recently bought an unmanaged 1GB switch for $39), 10GB ethernet over wire and fiber is being commercially rolled out now, and the industry is actively working on ratification of the 40GB ethernet standard.

I’ve seen a rapid evolution over the past few years among equipment manufacturers. Discussions used to center around education defining digital audio networking and its advantages and applications. Today networking is a given, and the focus ison which protocols, training for users and installers, and system-level considerations. It is clear that technology is continuing to march forward at an ever accelerating pace, and with it will come lower price points and easier deployment and integration. And sooner than later everything will have an ethernet jack on it.

Lee Minich (lee.minich@labxtechnologies.com) is the president of the engineering design firm Lab X Technologies, LLC. Lab X works with manufacturers integrating digital networking technology into their products—putting those Ethernet jacks everywhere—and the magic behind it that makes it all work. 

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