Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Extron

Here we are, continuing along the alphabet. Thus far I've alternated AV technology with writing and literature, and today we'll continue that theme with a shout-out to one of the major commercial tech manufacturers. Last month I had the pleasure of leaving sunny and warm New York to visit their headquarters in chilly Anaheim, CA for Extron's two-day School of AV Technologies for System Designers. Extron has been around for three decades now and has cultivated a reputation for high-quality, reliable audiovideo switching, transport, and signal processing equipment. Yes, it was two-days round-trip travel for two days on-site, but it's an official requirement for my new  job title so I packed my bags, waved good-bye to the family, and headed westward.
A good training session for me is one in which I walk away with at least one thing I didn't know at the start, and Extron didn't disappoint. Because I started in the industry when HDMI was something a  consumer might want on his TV, I'd never learned about performance specifications for digital video, including how to read an eye pattern on an oscilloscope - or even what an eye-pattern is, for that matter. They gave us the whole powerpoint presentation on a USB Key (I seem to be starting a collection of  USB keys given away to me by manufacturers), but it's more fun and better reinforcement to sketch the slides on my tablet with a fingertip.

Day two lessons covered streaming video (although not in quite as much depth as I would have liked) and what, to me, was fairly familiar ground in analog video, single- and multi-mode fiber. Here you can see some of my notes on streaming. As is the case with many things, there's a triple-constraint of quality, time (latency in thiase) and cost (bit-rate, or the "cost" in bandwidth)

The best thing about vendor training is getting so see their facility and play with their new toys. They've recently finished construction on a new building, and proudly showed us the crown-jewel: a bar/live performance space simply but unimaginatively called The Saloon. We couldn't get up and personal with the stage (it was set up for a band later that evening), but got a very good sense about how much thoughtful design and high-quality equipment went into creating the experience, from the pair of Meyer line arrays flanking the stage to subwoofers in multiple locations (so they can use the dance floor for seating without vibrating everyone's fillings out of their teeth) to mundane details like coatrooms and storage between the saloon and adjacent restaurant to keep unwanted sound from spilling over. The system is controlled, of course, with Extron's own touchlink system.

Which brings us to the next part; getting to play with new toys. Demos included:

Streaming Video
Both the a H.264 / MPEG4 encoding SME100 and the Pure3 were on display. The latter, using a proprietary system, was acquired when Extron purchased Electrosonic. It was interesting to see how artifacts appear on both devices if one pushes for too low  bit rate to accomodate a low-bandwidth connection. The Pure3 was impressive in its almost total absence of latency (at an admittedly fairly high bit-rate) and compression could be adjusted to either minimize latency or maximize quality, depending on the application.

Nothing earthshakingly cutting edge here, but Extron was clearly working to have us see them more as an audio company in addition to transport, switching, and control. They had a nice demo of their various speaker offerings an highlighted the very wide coverage angle of the "flat-field" speaker line (those are the ones that look like ceiling tiles). Two interesting tidbits: First, their amps are now all energy-star rated meaning, among other things, that they'll drop into a standbye mode and consome less than one watt. Second, the class-D XPA amps are convection cooled, meaning that they have no vents or fans. Extron has a conduit adapter kit available for their power which would make them completely plenum-rated, so you can put your amp above the ceiling without violating any fire codes. They also showed off their DSPs, which are physically pretty small, have a reasonable number of processig blocks (these blocks are fixed, like a Polycom or ClearOne DSP, not open like Biamp or BSS),

This is where I was a touch disappointed; I really wanted to see the new XTA system as Crestron's alternative to digital media and AMX's Enova. The new trend, started by Crestron, is to have all audio, video, and control signals on a single shielded twisted pair cable (CAT5e or better). The bigger units are also modular, allowing users to choose which input and output cards work with a system. The nice thing about XTP is that the output cards are the same size and configuration as the input cards, which might appear a bit neater than DM. Unfortunately, the STP input cards aren't available yet, so their mock-up had standalong XTP transmitters and receivers back-to-back with HDMI input cards. It works, but requires more hardware and more connections than one really wants and doesn't allow transmission of control via the switch. We did get to see the software, which looked easy enough to use. The one quirk was that the XTP frame, which takes about 8 rack units, had a USB mini for the configuration port. I always have micros for my phone and full-size a-b USB cables for everythign else; the mini has become the oddball size that I can usually never find. Oh well.

Before we left Extron owner Andrew Edwards dropped in to thank us for making the trip, ask if we had any questions, and defend Extron's decision to pull out of the Infocom trade show. His take was that the Extron Bash was costing upwards of five million dollars, which is money better spent in other ways - including their planned new demonstration facilities in Dallas, Toronto, and my own home town of New York.
So, that's the story of my two days with Extron. Another training requirement crossed off the list (next month - Crestron Essentials and then DMC-E) and another letter off the alphabet.

I'll leave you with one more shot of the salloon, including their crazy telecaster-shaped mirror-ball.

See you all tomorrow, for 'F'.

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