Constant Voltage Speaker Systems

November 3, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics

overhead-speakerWhile this might be a great reminder of how much technology has changed, I’m not sure why when I searched for an interesting image of overhead speakers this image came up. Can I assume that in Google’s eyes this instructor is teaching something that is way over the heads of the students?
Or, perhaps even, that should something catastrophic happen and we had to revert back to "old tech" people would be completely lost? But this has nothing to do with furthering today’s topic, Constant Voltage Speaker Systems.

Electrical power companies figure out a long time ago that the best, most efficient way to distribute power was to step up the voltage at the power station and then to step down at your house. The audio industry took this model for distributing audio to large numbers of speakers or speakers no where close to the amplifier which gives us the constant voltage system we currently use or over use but I’ll probably discuss that at some later date.

The term “constant-voltage” is somewhat misleading causing some confusion. In electronics, two terms exist to describe two very different power sources: “constant-current” and “constant-voltage.” Constant-current is a power source that supplies a fixed amount of current regardless of the load; so the output voltage varies, but the current remains constant.

Constant-voltage is just the opposite: the voltage stays constant regardless of the load; so the output current varies but not the voltage. Applied to distributed sound systems, the term is used to describe the action of the system at full power only, an important point in understanding. At full power the voltage on the system is constant and does not vary as a function of the number of loudspeakers driven. As long as you do not exceed the maximum power limit of the amplifier you may add any number of speakers and the voltage will remain constant.

The other thing that is “constant” is the amplifier’s output voltage at rated power – and it is the same voltage for all power ratings. Several voltages are used, but the most common in the U.S. is 70.7 volts rms (100 volts is common outside the US). The standard specifies that all power amplifiers put out 70.7 volts at their rated power. So, whether it is a 100 watt, or 500 watt or 10 watt power amplifier, the maximum output voltage of each must be the same 70.7 volts.

Advantages of 70V Systems

A 70V line reduces power loss due to cable heating. That’s because the loudspeaker cable carries the audio signal as a low current. Consequently you can use smaller-gauge loudspeaker cable, or very long cable runs, without losing excessive power.

Another advantage of 70V operation is that you can easily provide the amplifier with a matching load if you’re connecting hundred of loudspeakers. With a single 8-ohm amplifier output it can be difficult to wire the loudspeakers in a series-parallel combination having a total impedance of 8 ohms and if one loudspeaker fails, all of the loudspeakers in series are lost. This changes the load impedance as seen by the power amplifier.

Conversely, with a 70V system you can hang hundreds of loudspeakers in parallel on a single amplifier output. In addition, a 70V distributed system is relatively easy to design and allows flexibility in power settings meaning different speakers can be set to have differing volume settings.

Disadvantages

Simply, your audio quality suffers, especially in the low frequency range, transformers can degrade the frequency response and add distortion. Also, designers have gotten lazy. Ceiling speakers are thought of only in a 70V configuration and used to fill a room with noise rather than doing a proper LCR (left, center right) 8 ohm sound system with 8 ohm ceiling speakers for speech reinforcement.

Yes it may be cheaper but isn’t the goal natural sound.

Opinion

This is my strictly my opinion. Constant voltage systems are great when used as intended, as a means of connecting a large number of speakers where needed or in remoting speakers a long way from the amplifier.

But this technology is being over used because of simplicity. A design engineer doesn’t need to understand how to fill a room with sound. Clients and the industry suffers because of this.

I’ll leave you with this little chart on cable requirements I borrowed from Belden Cable’s article on this 70V systems:
Speaker Cable Distance Chart

Nominal & Load Impedance

October 26, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics

Why we love speakers

AKA Impedance Part II

Ok, before I jump into this I’ll apologize to anyone who is offended by the cartoon. It’s a bit of an inside joke with a good friend of mine and I couldn’t resist the urge

Nominal impedance in electrical and audio engineering refers to the approximate designed impedance of an electrical circuit or device.

Actual impedance varies with frequency changes. It is possible for that variance to be quite large. Despite that, it is normal to speak of nominal impedance as if it were a constant resistance with no reactive components. Which is often far from the truth. Nominal impedance is referring to a specific point on the frequency response of the circuit being considered.

Loudspeaker impedance’s are kept relatively low so that the required audio power can be transmitted without the use of high voltages. The most common nominal impedance for loudspeakers is 8 Ω. Also used are 4 Ω and 16 Ω.

The once common 16 Ω is now mostly reserved for high frequency compression drivers since the high frequency end of the audio spectrum does not usually require much power to reproduce the sound.

Diagram showing the variation in impedance of a typical mid-range loudspeaker. Nominal impedance is determined at the lowest point after resonance.

Diagram showing the variation in impedance of a typical mid-range loudspeaker. Nominal impedance is determined at the lowest point after resonance.

The impedance of a loudspeaker is not constant across all frequencies. In a typical loudspeaker the impedance will rise with increasing frequency from its dc value (see diagram) until it reaches a point of mechanical resonance. Following resonance, the impedance falls to a minimum and then begins to rise again. Speakers are usually designed to operate at frequencies above their resonance, and for this reason it is the usual practice to define nominal impedance at this minimum.

The ratio of the peak resonant frequency to the nominal impedance can be as much as 4:1. It is, however, possible for the low frequency impedance to actually be lower than the nominal impedance. A given audio amplifier may not be capable of driving this low frequency impedance even though it is capable of driving the nominal impedance, a problem that can be solved with the use of crossover filters.

Note that is also may be possible to solve the problem above by underrating the amplifier. This is not a solution I would recommend but it is a possibility

Speaker Basics

Getting very basic here, our use of the word SPEAKER is the shortened form of the word LOUDSPEAKER and it refers to a device that converts electrical signals into sound waves that we can hear. A loudspeaker has several parts:

  • Cabinet – It should be noted that the cabinet performs a much greater function than to simply house the components that make up the loudspeaker. The discussion of which is well beyond the scope of this post. But if you truly want to understand loudspeakers and how they function to produce audiophile quality sound it is a subject worth delving into.
  • Driver (aka speaker) – Converts electrical energy into sound waves (more on this to come)
  • Crossover Network – As we will discuss, speakers are designed to reproduce specific ranges of frequencies. The crossover network filters the frequencies sending only the frequencies that can be used to a specific driver. Passive crossovers will typically be installed inside of the cabinet. Speakers meant for high end audio use will either have switches allowing for the passive network to be bypassed or have the passive crossover removed altogether. In these instances an external crossover, typically built within the systems digital signal processor (DSP), will be used.

Speakers (drivers) are constructed much in the same manner as a musical instrument in the fine tolerances and attention to detail make all the difference to the sound quality. Large speakers are suited for low frequencies, small speakers – high frequencies. Each speaker can only function efficiently and with linearity within 3 octaves of it’s design. Theoretically a single speaker would have to change diameter from 1" – 24′ to maintain a similar level and dispersion over the complete frequency spectrum.

Speaker cross section

The majority of drivers consist of paper or plastic molded into a cone shape, loosely suspended in a frame so as to easily move back and forth to vibrate the air. Glued to the back of the cone is a coil of wire aka voice coil suspended within a strong magnetic field. Passing electricity through the wire causes a magnetic field around the wire which attracts or repels which in turn causes the cone to move back and forth. The larger the magnet and voice coil the greater the power and efficiency of the driver. Because of the tight tolerances no two speakers are truly identical.

Load Impedance

For the load impedance discussion I’ll use the Ω symbol for resistance. Z is the symbol for impedance. As we have discussed impedance could be stated as resistance that varies with frequency.

Load impedance is the load speakers represent to the amplifier. The maximum power rating of an amp is always in reference to the load impedance. For example if the amplifier is rated for 100W (watts) of power into a 4Ω load it is only capable of producing 100 watts with a 4Ω load. If you connect an 8Ω load, the amplifier will only be capable of producing 50W of power. The higher the load impedance the cooler and more reliable the amplifier will be, and the lower the internal distortion. But it will produce less power.

Conversely, if you present a 2Ω load the amplifier will attempt to deliver 200W of power which could quite possibly damage the amplifier. If you don’t see smoke and flames the amplifier will run much hotter and less reliably.

Calculating Speaker Impedance with Multiple Speakers

Parallel, Series and Series Parallel Speakers

Calculating speaker impedance follows the same laws of electronics as for purely resistive circuits. For speakers in parallel divide the speakers nominal impedance by the number of speakers. Therefore, 2 8Ω speakers have a nominal impedance of 4Ω and 4 8Ω speakers have a nominal impedance of 2Ω.

For speakers connected in series, add the nominal impedance’s of the speakers. Therefore 2 8Ω speakers nominal impedance is 16Ω.

You should only connect speakers in a series-parallel configuration with an even number of speakers. First calculate the nominal impedance for the series speakers. Then calculate the 2 series pairs in parallel. In other words, 2 8Ω speakers in series is 16Ω. The 2 sets of series speakers in parallel would then represent a nominal impedance of 8Ω

Connecting speakers in series and series parallel may be essential in certain applications where many speakers are required to be connected to one amplifier. However connecting speakers in series causes the distortion of each speaker to be reflected into the others. But connecting speakers in series does not effect the reliability of the speakers or amplifier.

Amplifier Classes

October 20, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics

6v6_top_sideAmplifier Classes

When I first started this article I fully intended to finish up Impedance by discussing amplifiers, speakers and the effects of impedance on audio quality. That plan changed. I think amplifier classes deserve to be a post of their own and need to be discussed before any meaningful continuation of the impedance discussion. Besides, thinking about all this along with trying to research to find out exactly what a Class G and Class H amplifier was has given me a splitting headache. 😉

This picture looks eerily like one of my early Heath Kit assemblies and if I remember correctly it taught me the value of keeping a fire extinguisher nearby when working with electronic components you were not familiar with. For those who may not know about Heath Kit, they were the originator of DIY electronic projects. You could by a box of parts and instructions from them to build just about any electronic device of the time.

Amplifier Classes

There are complete books on amplifiers and the differing classes of amplifiers. Im not going into that depth here this is the basics after all. Also, don’t expect a discussion of every class of amplifier in existence. Classes C, E and F are more typically found in RF applications than audio applications.

Class A
In a Class A amplifier, the output devices are continuously conducting for the entire cycle, or in other words there is always bias current flowing in the output devices. This topology has the least distortion and is the most linear, but at the same time is the least efficient at about 20%

Class B
This type of amplifier operates in the opposite way to Class A amplifiers. The output devices only conduct for half the sinusoidal cycle (one conducts in the positive region, and one conducts in the negative region), or in other words, if there is no input signal then there is no current flow in the output devices. This class of amplifier is obviously more efficient than Class A, at about 50%, but has some issue with linearity at the crossover point, due to the time it takes to turn one device off and turn the other device on. In other words, it is not distortion free.

Class AB
This type of amplifier is a combination of the above two types, and is the most common type of power amplifier in use. Here both devices are allowed to conduct at the same time, but just a small amount near the crossover point. Hence each device is conducting for more than half a cycle
but less than the whole cycle, so the inherent non-linearity of Class B designs is overcome, without the inefficiencies of a Class A design. Efficiencies for Class AB amplifiers is about 50%. This amplifier remains the amplifier of choice for the true audiophile.

The above amplifiers are known as linear amplifiers.

Class D
This class of amplifier is a switching or PWM amplifier. In this type of amplifier, the switches are either fully on or fully off, significantly reducing the power losses in the output devices. Efficiencies of 90-95% are possible. The audio signal is used to modulate a PWM carrier signal which drives the output devices, with the last stage being a low pass filter to remove the high frequency PWM carrier frequency.

The primary differences between linear (Class A and Class AB) amplifiers and switching (Class D) digital amplifiers is the efficiency. This is the whole reason for the invention of Class D amplifiers. Linear amplifiers are inherently very linear in terms of performance (therefore very distortion free), but are also very inefficient when it comes to power, whereas a Class D amplifier is much more efficient from a power standpoint but suffer from added noise and distortions due to the switching nature and additional filters.

Classes G & H
Honestly, before I started writing this I had heard of these classes and understood they were "improvements" to the Class AB amp in that they are supposed to provide distortion free audio with much greater power efficiencies. In doing the research for this article I found that I probably had about as clear of an understanding as anyone else.

The general consensus seems to be that Class-G runs from a low voltage rail until the signal goes beyond a certain voltage, and then a higher rail (or rails) is switched in. Class-H refines this to use a variable higher voltage rail (or rails), also known as a modulated rail or use a ‘bootstrap’ capacitor that lifts the rails as needed, but cannot maintain them at the full voltage for more than a few cycles.

Multiple rail amplifiers usually allow significantly higher efficiency than single-rail Class-AB design. The more rail levels are used, the higher the efficiency, assuming they’re spaced properly. While in all reality it is impossible, efficiencies can reach 100 percent with an infinite number of voltage rails.

Multiple rail amplifiers typically use only two voltage rails, which amounts to more than 80 percent theoretical efficiency at maximum power. Using more rails becomes impractical due to added power supply complexity, but with four rail voltages, efficiency at maximum power can reach 90 percent theoretically.

 

Constant Voltage Speaker Systems

November 3, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics by Sam Davisson

overhead-speakerWhile this might be a great reminder of how much technology has changed, I’m not sure why when I searched for an interesting image of overhead speakers this image came up. Can I assume that in Google’s eyes this instructor is teaching something that is way over the heads of the students?
Or, perhaps even, that should something catastrophic happen and we had to revert back to "old tech" people would be completely lost? But this has nothing to do with furthering today’s topic, Constant Voltage Speaker Systems.

Electrical power companies figure out a long time ago that the best, most efficient way to distribute power was to step up the voltage at the power station and then to step down at your house. The audio industry took this model for distributing audio to large numbers of speakers or speakers no where close to the amplifier which gives us the constant voltage system we currently use or over use but I’ll probably discuss that at some later date.

The term “constant-voltage” is somewhat misleading causing some confusion. In electronics, two terms exist to describe two very different power sources: “constant-current” and “constant-voltage.” Constant-current is a power source that supplies a fixed amount of current regardless of the load; so the output voltage varies, but the current remains constant.

Constant-voltage is just the opposite: the voltage stays constant regardless of the load; so the output current varies but not the voltage. Applied to distributed sound systems, the term is used to describe the action of the system at full power only, an important point in understanding. At full power the voltage on the system is constant and does not vary as a function of the number of loudspeakers driven. As long as you do not exceed the maximum power limit of the amplifier you may add any number of speakers and the voltage will remain constant.

The other thing that is “constant” is the amplifier’s output voltage at rated power – and it is the same voltage for all power ratings. Several voltages are used, but the most common in the U.S. is 70.7 volts rms (100 volts is common outside the US). The standard specifies that all power amplifiers put out 70.7 volts at their rated power. So, whether it is a 100 watt, or 500 watt or 10 watt power amplifier, the maximum output voltage of each must be the same 70.7 volts.

Advantages of 70V Systems

A 70V line reduces power loss due to cable heating. That’s because the loudspeaker cable carries the audio signal as a low current. Consequently you can use smaller-gauge loudspeaker cable, or very long cable runs, without losing excessive power.

Another advantage of 70V operation is that you can easily provide the amplifier with a matching load if you’re connecting hundred of loudspeakers. With a single 8-ohm amplifier output it can be difficult to wire the loudspeakers in a series-parallel combination having a total impedance of 8 ohms and if one loudspeaker fails, all of the loudspeakers in series are lost. This changes the load impedance as seen by the power amplifier.

Conversely, with a 70V system you can hang hundreds of loudspeakers in parallel on a single amplifier output. In addition, a 70V distributed system is relatively easy to design and allows flexibility in power settings meaning different speakers can be set to have differing volume settings.

Disadvantages

Simply, your audio quality suffers, especially in the low frequency range, transformers can degrade the frequency response and add distortion. Also, designers have gotten lazy. Ceiling speakers are thought of only in a 70V configuration and used to fill a room with noise rather than doing a proper LCR (left, center right) 8 ohm sound system with 8 ohm ceiling speakers for speech reinforcement.

Yes it may be cheaper but isn’t the goal natural sound.

Opinion

This is my strictly my opinion. Constant voltage systems are great when used as intended, as a means of connecting a large number of speakers where needed or in remoting speakers a long way from the amplifier.

But this technology is being over used because of simplicity. A design engineer doesn’t need to understand how to fill a room with sound. Clients and the industry suffers because of this.

I’ll leave you with this little chart on cable requirements I borrowed from Belden Cable’s article on this 70V systems:
Speaker Cable Distance Chart

Nominal & Load Impedance

October 26, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics by Sam Davisson

Why we love speakers

AKA Impedance Part II

Ok, before I jump into this I’ll apologize to anyone who is offended by the cartoon. It’s a bit of an inside joke with a good friend of mine and I couldn’t resist the urge

Nominal impedance in electrical and audio engineering refers to the approximate designed impedance of an electrical circuit or device.

Actual impedance varies with frequency changes. It is possible for that variance to be quite large. Despite that, it is normal to speak of nominal impedance as if it were a constant resistance with no reactive components. Which is often far from the truth. Nominal impedance is referring to a specific point on the frequency response of the circuit being considered.

Loudspeaker impedance’s are kept relatively low so that the required audio power can be transmitted without the use of high voltages. The most common nominal impedance for loudspeakers is 8 Ω. Also used are 4 Ω and 16 Ω.

The once common 16 Ω is now mostly reserved for high frequency compression drivers since the high frequency end of the audio spectrum does not usually require much power to reproduce the sound.

Diagram showing the variation in impedance of a typical mid-range loudspeaker. Nominal impedance is determined at the lowest point after resonance.

Diagram showing the variation in impedance of a typical mid-range loudspeaker. Nominal impedance is determined at the lowest point after resonance.

The impedance of a loudspeaker is not constant across all frequencies. In a typical loudspeaker the impedance will rise with increasing frequency from its dc value (see diagram) until it reaches a point of mechanical resonance. Following resonance, the impedance falls to a minimum and then begins to rise again. Speakers are usually designed to operate at frequencies above their resonance, and for this reason it is the usual practice to define nominal impedance at this minimum.

The ratio of the peak resonant frequency to the nominal impedance can be as much as 4:1. It is, however, possible for the low frequency impedance to actually be lower than the nominal impedance. A given audio amplifier may not be capable of driving this low frequency impedance even though it is capable of driving the nominal impedance, a problem that can be solved with the use of crossover filters.

Note that is also may be possible to solve the problem above by underrating the amplifier. This is not a solution I would recommend but it is a possibility

Speaker Basics

Getting very basic here, our use of the word SPEAKER is the shortened form of the word LOUDSPEAKER and it refers to a device that converts electrical signals into sound waves that we can hear. A loudspeaker has several parts:

  • Cabinet – It should be noted that the cabinet performs a much greater function than to simply house the components that make up the loudspeaker. The discussion of which is well beyond the scope of this post. But if you truly want to understand loudspeakers and how they function to produce audiophile quality sound it is a subject worth delving into.
  • Driver (aka speaker) – Converts electrical energy into sound waves (more on this to come)
  • Crossover Network – As we will discuss, speakers are designed to reproduce specific ranges of frequencies. The crossover network filters the frequencies sending only the frequencies that can be used to a specific driver. Passive crossovers will typically be installed inside of the cabinet. Speakers meant for high end audio use will either have switches allowing for the passive network to be bypassed or have the passive crossover removed altogether. In these instances an external crossover, typically built within the systems digital signal processor (DSP), will be used.

Speakers (drivers) are constructed much in the same manner as a musical instrument in the fine tolerances and attention to detail make all the difference to the sound quality. Large speakers are suited for low frequencies, small speakers – high frequencies. Each speaker can only function efficiently and with linearity within 3 octaves of it’s design. Theoretically a single speaker would have to change diameter from 1" – 24′ to maintain a similar level and dispersion over the complete frequency spectrum.

Speaker cross section

The majority of drivers consist of paper or plastic molded into a cone shape, loosely suspended in a frame so as to easily move back and forth to vibrate the air. Glued to the back of the cone is a coil of wire aka voice coil suspended within a strong magnetic field. Passing electricity through the wire causes a magnetic field around the wire which attracts or repels which in turn causes the cone to move back and forth. The larger the magnet and voice coil the greater the power and efficiency of the driver. Because of the tight tolerances no two speakers are truly identical.

Load Impedance

For the load impedance discussion I’ll use the Ω symbol for resistance. Z is the symbol for impedance. As we have discussed impedance could be stated as resistance that varies with frequency.

Load impedance is the load speakers represent to the amplifier. The maximum power rating of an amp is always in reference to the load impedance. For example if the amplifier is rated for 100W (watts) of power into a 4Ω load it is only capable of producing 100 watts with a 4Ω load. If you connect an 8Ω load, the amplifier will only be capable of producing 50W of power. The higher the load impedance the cooler and more reliable the amplifier will be, and the lower the internal distortion. But it will produce less power.

Conversely, if you present a 2Ω load the amplifier will attempt to deliver 200W of power which could quite possibly damage the amplifier. If you don’t see smoke and flames the amplifier will run much hotter and less reliably.

Calculating Speaker Impedance with Multiple Speakers

Parallel, Series and Series Parallel Speakers

Calculating speaker impedance follows the same laws of electronics as for purely resistive circuits. For speakers in parallel divide the speakers nominal impedance by the number of speakers. Therefore, 2 8Ω speakers have a nominal impedance of 4Ω and 4 8Ω speakers have a nominal impedance of 2Ω.

For speakers connected in series, add the nominal impedance’s of the speakers. Therefore 2 8Ω speakers nominal impedance is 16Ω.

You should only connect speakers in a series-parallel configuration with an even number of speakers. First calculate the nominal impedance for the series speakers. Then calculate the 2 series pairs in parallel. In other words, 2 8Ω speakers in series is 16Ω. The 2 sets of series speakers in parallel would then represent a nominal impedance of 8Ω

Connecting speakers in series and series parallel may be essential in certain applications where many speakers are required to be connected to one amplifier. However connecting speakers in series causes the distortion of each speaker to be reflected into the others. But connecting speakers in series does not effect the reliability of the speakers or amplifier.

Amplifier Classes

October 20, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics by Sam Davisson

6v6_top_sideAmplifier Classes

When I first started this article I fully intended to finish up Impedance by discussing amplifiers, speakers and the effects of impedance on audio quality. That plan changed. I think amplifier classes deserve to be a post of their own and need to be discussed before any meaningful continuation of the impedance discussion. Besides, thinking about all this along with trying to research to find out exactly what a Class G and Class H amplifier was has given me a splitting headache. 😉

This picture looks eerily like one of my early Heath Kit assemblies and if I remember correctly it taught me the value of keeping a fire extinguisher nearby when working with electronic components you were not familiar with. For those who may not know about Heath Kit, they were the originator of DIY electronic projects. You could by a box of parts and instructions from them to build just about any electronic device of the time.

Amplifier Classes

There are complete books on amplifiers and the differing classes of amplifiers. Im not going into that depth here this is the basics after all. Also, don’t expect a discussion of every class of amplifier in existence. Classes C, E and F are more typically found in RF applications than audio applications.

Class A
In a Class A amplifier, the output devices are continuously conducting for the entire cycle, or in other words there is always bias current flowing in the output devices. This topology has the least distortion and is the most linear, but at the same time is the least efficient at about 20%

Class B
This type of amplifier operates in the opposite way to Class A amplifiers. The output devices only conduct for half the sinusoidal cycle (one conducts in the positive region, and one conducts in the negative region), or in other words, if there is no input signal then there is no current flow in the output devices. This class of amplifier is obviously more efficient than Class A, at about 50%, but has some issue with linearity at the crossover point, due to the time it takes to turn one device off and turn the other device on. In other words, it is not distortion free.

Class AB
This type of amplifier is a combination of the above two types, and is the most common type of power amplifier in use. Here both devices are allowed to conduct at the same time, but just a small amount near the crossover point. Hence each device is conducting for more than half a cycle
but less than the whole cycle, so the inherent non-linearity of Class B designs is overcome, without the inefficiencies of a Class A design. Efficiencies for Class AB amplifiers is about 50%. This amplifier remains the amplifier of choice for the true audiophile.

The above amplifiers are known as linear amplifiers.

Class D
This class of amplifier is a switching or PWM amplifier. In this type of amplifier, the switches are either fully on or fully off, significantly reducing the power losses in the output devices. Efficiencies of 90-95% are possible. The audio signal is used to modulate a PWM carrier signal which drives the output devices, with the last stage being a low pass filter to remove the high frequency PWM carrier frequency.

The primary differences between linear (Class A and Class AB) amplifiers and switching (Class D) digital amplifiers is the efficiency. This is the whole reason for the invention of Class D amplifiers. Linear amplifiers are inherently very linear in terms of performance (therefore very distortion free), but are also very inefficient when it comes to power, whereas a Class D amplifier is much more efficient from a power standpoint but suffer from added noise and distortions due to the switching nature and additional filters.

Classes G & H
Honestly, before I started writing this I had heard of these classes and understood they were "improvements" to the Class AB amp in that they are supposed to provide distortion free audio with much greater power efficiencies. In doing the research for this article I found that I probably had about as clear of an understanding as anyone else.

The general consensus seems to be that Class-G runs from a low voltage rail until the signal goes beyond a certain voltage, and then a higher rail (or rails) is switched in. Class-H refines this to use a variable higher voltage rail (or rails), also known as a modulated rail or use a ‘bootstrap’ capacitor that lifts the rails as needed, but cannot maintain them at the full voltage for more than a few cycles.

Multiple rail amplifiers usually allow significantly higher efficiency than single-rail Class-AB design. The more rail levels are used, the higher the efficiency, assuming they’re spaced properly. While in all reality it is impossible, efficiencies can reach 100 percent with an infinite number of voltage rails.

Multiple rail amplifiers typically use only two voltage rails, which amounts to more than 80 percent theoretical efficiency at maximum power. Using more rails becomes impractical due to added power supply complexity, but with four rail voltages, efficiency at maximum power can reach 90 percent theoretically.

Impedance, Part 1

October 5, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics by Sam Davisson

Resistance / ImpedancePart 1: Transmission Line (Characteristic) Impedance

Impedance has been the most requested subject since I started the “Basic’s” series. So I thought it about time to address it. Problem is, no one actually mentioned what area of impedance they were confused about and was looking for clarification on. Perhaps some are wondering why when you measure across the center conductor and braid of a 75ohm coax cable you don’t read 75ohms. Or how in the world you would ever know if a connector was a 75ohm connector or one of the 50ohm variety? Does all that mumbo jumbo have anything to do with audio amplifiers and the speaker connected to it.

Every signal input, and every output, has an impedance, this "impedance" represents the relationship between voltage and current which a device is capable of accepting or delivering. Electricity is all about the flow of electrons in wire. "Voltage" is a measure of how hard the electrons are pressing to get through, it’s like water pressure in a pipe. "Current," measured in amps, is a measure of the rate at which the electrons are flowing. It’s like the gallons-per-minute flow in a pipe. Total power delivery, in an electrical circuit, is measured in watts, which are simply the volts multiplied by the amps. A number of watts may represent a very high voltage with relatively low current (such as we see in high-tension power lines) or a low voltage with very high current (such as we see when a 12-volt car battery delivers hundreds of amps into a starter).

An output circuit can’t supply just any combination of voltage and current we want. Instead, it’s designed to deliver a signal into a specific kind of load ("load," here, simply meaning the device, such as the TV input that the signal is being delivered to). The "impedance" of the load represents the opposition to current flow which the load presents.

The impedance of the load is expressed in ohms, and the relationship between the current and the voltage in the circuit is controlled by the impedance in the circuit. When a signal source sees a very low-impedance circuit, it produces a larger than intended current; when it sees a very high-impedance circuit, it produces a smaller current than intended. These mismatched impedance’s redistribute the power in the circuit so that less of it is delivered to the load than the circuit was designed for, because the nature of the circuit is that it can’t simply readjust the voltage to deliver the same power regardless of the rate of current flow. What happens in an impedance mismatch between a source and load; power isn’t being transferred properly because the source circuit wasn’t designed to drive the kind of load it’s connected to. In some electronic applications, this will burn out equipment. A radio transmitter must be able to deliver its power into an antenna load that presents the proper impedance or it will self-destruct, and an audio amplifier can possibly be destroyed by attaching it to speakers of the wrong impedance.

Hopefully that is a rare occurrence. So why do we really care about impedance mismatches? The reason is that when impedances are mismatched, the mismatch causes portions of the signal to reflect. This can happen at the source, at the connectors, at any point along the cable, or at the load and when a portion of the signal bounces backward down the line, it combines with and interferes with the portions of the signal that follow it. This is why, in the case of a impedance mismatch your audio quality suffers. With digital video these reflections can cause a "sparkle" effect in your picture or a complete loss of picture.

So, when I say that the input impedance of HD SDI input jack is 75 ohms, that’s what I mean. But what does it mean to say that the impedance of the cable between the source and display is 75 ohms?

Well, first, it doesn’t mean that the cable itself presents a 75 ohm load. If it did, the total load would now be 150 ohms, and you’d have an impedance mismatch. Furthermore, if the cable itself constituted a 75 ohm load, that load would be dependent on length. So a cable twice as long would be 150 ohms, a cable half as long would be 37.5 ohms, and so on. In case it’s not obvious by now, another thing that it doesn’t mean is that the resistance of the cable will be 75 ohms. Resistance, which also confusingly happens to be measured in ohms, has nothing to do with characteristic impedance, which can’t be measured by using a VOM.

When I say that the characteristic impedance of a cable is 75ohms, or 50, 110, 300, or what-have-you, what I mean is that if we attach a load of the specified impedance to the other end of the cable, it will look like a load of that impedance regardless of the length of the cable. The object of a 75 ohm cable is simply to "carry" that 75 ohm impedance from point A to point B, so that as far as the devices are concerned, they’re right next to one another. If we take a hundred feet of 300-ohm television twin-lead cable, solder it to RCA connectors, and stick that in between the display and an an analog device, the load, as "seen" by the analog device, will not be 75 ohms. How bad the mismatch is, and what the consequences of it are, will depend on a variety of factors, but it’s fair to say that this sort of mismatch needs to be avoided.

Transmission line impedance is critical in some applications, and not so critical in others. In analog (line level) audio, impedance has become a non-factor as designers of these circuits dispensed with the idea of matched impedance’s completely and use what is called voltage matching instead.

The idea here is to engineer the equipment to have the lowest possible output impedance and a relatively high input impedance. The difference between them must be at least a factor of ten, and is often much more. Modern equipment typically employs output impedance’s of around 150ohms or below, with input impedance’s of at least 10kohms or above. With the minuscule output impedance and relatively high input impedance, the full output voltage should be developed across the input impedance.

Relatively high-impedance inputs such as these are called bridging inputs. They have the advantage that several devices can be connected in parallel without decreasing the impedance to any significant degree. The voltage developed across each input remains high and the source does not need to supply a high current. As an example, a mixing console output is feeding two tape machines. Each machine now has an input impedance of 30kohms. Connecting two in parallel will only reduce the combined input impedance to 15kohms, which is still substantially higher than the 150ohm output impedance of the console. Therefore the input voltage will be virtually unaffected. I calculate a loss of 0.04dB. Even connecting a third device to the output, the impedance would only fall to 10kohms and the level would fall by a further 0.05dB, which would not be audible. Because bridging inputs make studio work much easier, the idea of voltage matching is now employed universally in line-level audio equipment, irrespective of the actual reference signal levels used.

Back on topic now, the behavior of cables changes as signal frequencies increase. This is so because as frequency increases, the electrical "wavelength" of a signal becomes shorter and shorter. As the length of a cable becomes closer to a large fraction of the electrical wavelength of the signal it carries, the likelihood of significant reflections from impedance mismatch increases. The whole cable can resonate at the wavelength of the signal, or of a portion of the signal, and the impact on signal quality will be anything but good. Many signals are complex, occupying not a single frequency, but a whole range of frequencies. This is why we so often speak of the "bandwidth" of a signal, and so a mismatch will affect different parts of the signal differently.

Because the effects of impedance mismatch are dependent upon frequency, the issue has particular relevance for digital signals. Where analog audio or video signals consist of electrical waves which rise or fall continuously through a range, digital signals are very different. They switch rapidly between two states representing bits, 1 and 0. This switching creates something close to what we call a "square wave,", a waveform which, instead of being sloped like a sine wave, has sharp, sudden transitions. Although a digital signal can be said to have a "frequency" at the rate at which it switches, electrically, a square wave of a given frequency is equivalent to a sine wave at that frequency accompanied by an infinite series of harmonics, that is, multiples of the frequency. If all of these harmonics aren’t faithfully carried through the cable and, in fact, it’s physically impossible to carry all of them faithfully, then the "shoulders" of the digital square wave begin to round off. The more the wave becomes rounded, the higher the possibility of bit errors becomes. The device at the load end will, of course, reconstitute the digital information from this somewhat rounded wave, but as the rounding becomes worse and worse, eventually there comes a point where the errors are too severe to be corrected, and the signal can no longer be reconstituted. The best defense against the problem is, of course, a cable of the right impedance: for digital video or SPDIF digital audio, this means a 75 ohm cable like Belden 1694A; for AES/EBU balanced digital audio, this means a 110 ohm cable like Belden 1800F.

Fortunately, for most applications, it’s very easy to choose the right impedance cable. All common analog video standards and HD SDI use 75ohm cable, as do coaxial (unbalanced) digital audio connections. If you have balanced AES/EBU type digital audio lines, you’ll want 110 ohm AES/EBU cable. There are a few others you may bump into, however, and it’s good to be aware of them. RG-58 coax, such as is often used for CB or ham radio antenna lines and CATV, is 50 ohms, not suitable for video use. Twin-lead cable, the two wires separated by a band of insulation that used to be the most common way to hook up a TV antenna is a 300 ohm balanced line.

Connectors have impedance, too, and should be matched to the cable and equipment. Many BNC connectors, especially on older cables, are 50ohm types, and so it’s important to be sure that you’re using 75 ohm BNCs when connecting video lines. RCA connectors can’t quite meet the 75 ohm impedance standard because their physical dimensions just aren’t fully compatible with it, but there are RCA plugs which are designed for the best possible impedance match with 75 ohm cable and equipment.

Coming Impedance Part II, Speakers, Amplifiers and Nominal Impedance

Balanced / Unbalanced

September 28, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics by Sam Davisson

UnbalancedWhen I did the first grounding post people seemed to think I was setting the groundworkk for talking about audio. I was actually setting the foundation for all AV. Although its true that any audio problems are related to grounding issues. Balanced and unbalanced interconnect systems, while mostly related to audio, are prevalent in all AV cabling.

RS-232 is an unbalanced interconnect system. RS-422 or RS-485 are balanced. Analog video and SDI are unbalanced. Analog audio, the pro format is balanced. The consumer format, unbalanced. Digital audio employs both types of signal interconnects as well.

Definition: Impedance –
A measure of the opposition to the flow of alternating current through a circuit. Impedance is measured in ohms. The resistance of a circuit to direct current (also measured in ohms) is generally not the same as its impedance, due to the effects of capacitance and induction in and among the components of the circuit.

Balance is defined in terms of the impedance of the two signal conductors with respect to a reference, which is usually ground. If these impedances are equal and non-zero, the system is balanced. If the impedances are unequal the system is unbalanced. A signal conductor with a grounded return conductor is, therefore, an unbalanced.

A small, common-mode, 60 Hz noise, voltage can exist between the chassis of two AC powered devices regardless of whether they are safety grounded (use a three-wire plug) or not. An isolated ground system is designed to minimize this.

Unbalanced Interconnections

An unbalanced interface uses only two conductors to carry the signal from one device to another, one conductor carries the signal and the other is the grounded return. In consumer audio systems this usually consists of a cable with a center conductor and a shield terminated in an RCA Phono plug.

The “RCA Phono” plug was developed by RCA many years ago to be used for short interconnects between a turntable and amplifier inside a phonograph. This unbalanced
interconnect system is simple and inexpensive, but as with many other connector systems has been adopted for uses other than originally intended. It has become the de-facto connector for consumer audio/video equipment. Note, however, that the design was original intended only for short cable runs within the same piece of equipment. Being an unbalanced system it is susceptible to common-mode noise voltages.

A problem occurs when there is a ground voltage (common-mode voltage) between the two interconnected devices. Because of this voltage, a small current will flow down the cable shield between the devices (sometimes referred to as common-mode current, or most commony as a ground loop current). If the cable shield were ideal (zero impedance) this current would not cause a problem. However, since the shield has a finite resistance, a small noise voltage will appear across the length of the cable shield. The magnitude of this voltage will equal the common-mode current times the shield resistance. This voltage is in series with the signal voltage and will add directly to it at the receiver. In other words, an unbalanced interconnect system has no ability to reject common-mode noise voltages.

This coupling can be referred to as common-impedance coupling, and is the result of the fact
that in an unbalanced two-wire system the shield is performing two functions. It is a shield carrying the common-mode noise current, but it is also one of the signal conductors carrying the return signal current

Consider a typical case of the interface between two grounded (3-prong AC plug) pieces of audio equipment. This example is typical some cases would be better and some worse. Also, note that calculating signal to noise is a future discussion.

The shield resistance of a fifteen-foot cable typically will be 0.25 ohms, depending on cable type used. If the 60-Hertz shield current is 250 uA, the voltage developed across the shield will be 62.5 uV. For consumer audio products the reference signal level is 300 mV (-10 dBV). The signal to noise ratio will therefore be 74 dB. In a high end consumer audio sysem, we would most likely be able to hear some 60-Hertz hum in quiet passages of the program material.

You could conclude, at this point, that ungrounded equipment, those using a 2-prong AC plug, might solve this problem by eliminating the ground connections. This sometimes helps, but it does not necessarily eliminate the problem.

For ungrounded equipment, the common-mode ground current can still flow through the inter-winding capacitance of the power transformer. The impedance of this capacitance will normally reduce the current to 100 uA, or less. However audible noise may still be present.

The impedance of the inter-winding capacitance is frequency dependent, more current will flow at higher frequencies (harmonics of 60 Hz) than at the fundamental frequency (60 Hertz). Therefore, the interference will consist of a high frequency buzz which is more audible by the human ear than the 60 Hz hum.

Despite its shortcomings, this unbalanced system works well. Especially in cases with short cable runs, and the equipment within the same rack so there is very little, or no, 60 Hz voltage between the chassis of the interconnected devices.

Trouble shooting and eliminating audio issues will come in future posts but understanding the issue at hand should help you develop techniques of eliminating problems before they occur making troubleshooting unnecessary.

Advantages of Twisted Pair Wire

Twisted pair wiring, even when unshielded, is very effective in reducing magnetic field coupling to and from the wire pair. There are only two conditions necessary for this to be true. First, the signal must flow equally, and in opposite directions, on the two conductors.

Secondly, the length of the twist must be less than one twentieth of a wavelength at the frequencies of concern. (One twist per inch will be effective up to about 500 MHz).

The above is true whether the terminations are balanced or not. In addition, if the terminations are balanced, twisted pair wiring will also be effective in reducing electric field coupling to and from the wire pair. Even though field coupling is not the primary noise coupling mechanism in audio systems, it is still a good practice to always twist the signal and return conductors in a cable. (Twisting is especially important in the case of microphone cables.)

Balanced Interconnections

For a balanced interconnect system both of the signal conductors have an equal, and non-zero, impedance to ground. Therefore, three conductors are required, signal+, signal-, and ground or shield.

Professional audio installations require long cable runs of 500 feet or more and have to be able to operate at microphone signal levels of 3 mV (-50 dBV) as opposed to a line level of 300 mV for consumer audio. As a result he maority of professional audio equipment is designed using a three-conductor balanced interface (two signal conductors,signal and signal return, and a grounded shield), using XLR connectors, or in some cases 1/4 inch phone plugs.

This three conductor balanced interconnect system avoids the problem of the shield having to serve two purposes. The signal is now carried on the two internal conductors (usually twisted together) and the shield only acts as a shield and not also as a signal return line. The penalty for this improvement in performance is a more complicated and hence more expensive system.

A 60Hz shield current flowing between two interconnected devices will still produces a voltage drop in the shield, but this noise voltage is not in series with the signal. Rather it will be coupled equally (as a common-mode noise voltage) into both signal conductors.

Since the receiver looks at the difference between the two signal conductors (not the voltage between one of them and ground), the common-mode noise voltage cancels out and is not seen by the receiver.

A balanced interface theoretically would be completely immune to noise and interference. But, in the real world, nothing is perfect. Even if you attempt to make the impedance of the two signal conductors to ground the same there will be some difference, if only a fraction of a percent, and this will limit the degree of common-mode voltage rejection and therefore the maximum noise suppression possible.

For this example I’ll assume that the impedance balance is such that the circuit can provide
60 dB of common-mode noise rejection, a very conservative assumption, and that the other
parameters are the same as in the unbalanced system above. A well designed balanced interface can have as much as 80 to 100 dB of common-mode noise rejection.

Conclusions

When using unbalanced interconnects between audio equipment the primary noise-coupling mechanism is due to common-impedance coupling. The cable shield resistance
is the common-impedance, and any small 60 Hz AC potential between the equipment chassis is the noise source producing a common-mode noise current on the cable shield (ground loop
current).

This problem can be minimized, or eliminated, by any one of the following approaches:

  • Minimize the AC voltage between the two pieces of equipment.
  • Minimize the cable shield resistance.
  • Block the common-mode noise current by using a signal isolation transformer.
  • Use a balanced interconnection system.

Rack Elevations and Math

September 21, 2013 in Tech Talk, The Basics by Sam Davisson

Math_0b935f_1351529

I got sidetracked a little bit with the last post on The Decibel. But now, since we’ve covered Power and Grounding, lets go back to the equipment rack. Before we get into the calculations you need to make and share with the electrical and mechanical contractors lets discuss effective equipment rack layout techniques.

What’s the best way to elevate an equipment rack?

I really wish there was a correct answer to that question. The truth is it’s a very fine balancing act. There are a few rules of thumb but all of them are somewhat situational. But I’ll list as many as I know:

  • Install heavy equipment toward the bottom of the rack.
  • Separate equipment by signal type and/or function
  • Evenly distribute the power/heat load
  • Consider cable lengths
  • Ease if install, in other words keep it simple for the the installers to cable
  • Equipment cooling

Taking these one at a time, I’ll try to explain the logic (or at least my logic) behind them:

Install heavy equipment toward the bottom of the rack
A best practice is to build and test systems in your shop prior to delivering on site. This will help decrease the overall install time. It’s much easier to troubleshoot problems off-site and out of the view of the client. But that means you have to transport the racks. Having the heavy equipment at the top of the rack makes the racks top heavy and increases the possibility of an accident during transport. If your lucky it’s only equipment that gets damaged if something happens and not an employee.

Separate equipment by signal type and/or function
There are a number of things you can do to eliminate the possibility of cross talk and signal noise. This is one of those things. Your much less likely to have problems if you bundle cables by signal type. I practice and suggest bundling your cables in this manner. I also suggest that bundles of different types are kept separate by a minimum of 1/2" except for speaker level cables which should be treated like AC power cables and kept a minimum of 2" from any other signal type. Here are my suggestions for cable type bundles:

  1. Analog, line level, balanced audio
  2. Analog, line level, unbalanced audio
  3. Analog, microphone level audio
  4. Digital audio
  5. Analog Video
  6. Digital Video (HD/SDI)
  7. Digital Video (HDMI)
  8. Digital Video (HDBaseT)
  9. Control Cabling and DC voltages
  10. Network Cabling
  11. Speaker level audio
  12. Other – There always seems to be something that fits in this category. Such as how would you classify a cable with Cobranet information. While it is a CAT5e cable it is neither network or control.

As far as separation by function, I like to keep my video processing equipment separate from my audio processing equipment and source equipment. But here is where exceptions tend to creep in. In order to keep the noise level to a minimum you need to keep any unbalanced audio cables as short as possible, preferably under 15′. This will often dictate that some if not all of the audio processing equipment will need to be in the same rack as the sources.

Evenly distribute the power/heat load
The most important aspect to this is rack cooling. By keeping the loads evenly distributed you keep the heat evenly distributed between the racks. This will simplify cooling requirements and make it less likely that equipment will suffer from heat.

Consider cable lengths
I already touched on one aspect of this. Unbalanced audio cabling needs to be kept as short as possible to maintain a low noise threshold. When we get deeper into things like signal and noise ratios (SNR or S/N) I’ll explain in greater depth as to why this is important.

But there are other cable lengths to consider. The majority of HDMI equipment has cable equalization built into it. That equalization is set for an average HDMI cable of 6′.

HDBaseT suffers when cables are bundled depending on the type of CAT cabling being used and the number of cables in the bundle. With CAT5e UTP cable, a bundle of 7 cables will begin to see catastrophic failures at about 35′. CAT6 UTP bundled in the same manner makes it about 50′. When bundling CAT cable carrying HDBaseT information the best method and the only one that allows for the full 330′ extension is CAT6A.

I know, what about STP cabling. If everything is done correctly, this will work. But a broken shield or a noisy ground floor can actually cause your problems to be greater.

Ease if install, in other words keep it simple for the the installers to cable
This one is pretty much self explanatory, I think. Racking equipment of similar signal types makes building the rack simpler because the installer isn’t jumping from cable type to cable type. It also makes for a cleaner installation.

Equipment cooling
Keeping the equipment cool prevents failure. More importantly it prevents intermittent errors that can be difficult to track down. Your overall rack plan should include looking at where the rack is being installed, how it is being cooled and the method of cooling.

Elevating the Racks
The first thing I do is download all of the equipment specifications for the equipment contained on the Bill of Material (BOM) or estimate. I usually separate them into two folders, field equipment and rack equipment. Then I’ll create a spreadsheet listing equipment, height (in RU’s (rack units = 1.75"), badged current draw, efficiency current, idle current and any other pertinant information I can think of at the time. Badged power is the maximum current draw when a piece of equipment is energized. Efficiency power is the amount of current draw after the equipment is energized and has settled. Idle current is used for some displays and amplifiers and indicates the amount of current drawn when the equipment is not in use.

I also have a couple rules of thumb I use when it comes to "head room" when elevating a rack and calculating the amount of current I’ll need to power the rack. I like to keep my "head room" at 20 – 25% of capacity. So, on a 44RU equipment rack, I try to maintain 9-10 blank spaces for future growth. With my power circuit, I’ll try to keep power at 15 – 16 amp draw on a 20 amp circuit.

Discounting amplifiers, electronic equipment uses power pretty efficiently. I calculate that efficiency at 2.5. So to calculate efficiency current, divide the badged current by 2.5. In other words a piece of equipment that has a 10a fuse will draw 4a after the initial power surge. This is an estimate and not an exact measurement. That’s where your headroom comes into play. It’s your safety factor. Using a power sequencer (a device that delays the initial power rush for equipment) you can effectively exceed the current draw of the equipment over the badged listings to about 20 amps and allow you to maximize the amount of equipment on a single circuit.

Rack Math

I guess it’s time to talk about that math I promised. Everyone who creates rack elevations should be familiar with Ohms Law and how to calculate power usage. Additionally they should be able to use these tools to calculate the heat load in BTU’s for a specific equipment rack. BTU stands for British Thermal unit. Our good friend Wikipedia can explain why it’s named what it’s named. I’m happy to not explain it

Ohms Law – V(voltage)=R(resistance)*I(current)
Power Calculation – W(power expressed in Watts)=V(voltage)*I(current)


Heat Load Calculation =
3.41214 x W(power expressed in Watts) BTU/hr

Once you’ve elevated your racks based on the criteria and exception already noted your ready to calculate power requirements required by the electrical engineer and the heat load needed by the mechanical engineer.

I wish I could give you some hard and fast rules as to when to use a power sequencer and when not. I try to use them whenever there are going to be extended times when the equipment is not going to be in use. This allows you to "power down" the rack until it is needed, saving energy. If you are using a power sequencer then for every 20 amps of power you will need one 20a circuit. If not, then for every 15 amps of power you’ll need one 20a circuit. In either case, with equipment energized and stable your rack should be drawing roughly 15 amps.

Calculate the power
Power Calculation – W(power expressed in Watts)=V(voltage)*I(current) or Power (w) = 110v (US) x 15a. Maximum power draw is 1650 watts.

Calculate the Heat Load.
One would think, looking at my my formula’s above that the heat load calculation would be 3.41214 x 1650w = 5630 BTU/hr. But that doesn’t take into account efficiency. Remember the equipment will only be drawing 1650w for a very short time. So divide the 5630 BTU/hr by equipment efficiency of 2.5 and your estimated heat load should be 2252 BTU/hr.

Please note amplifiers play by different rules and will be covered in their own discussion when we can discuss things like different amplifier classes.

The Decibel

September 14, 2013 in Tech Talk, The Basics by Sam Davisson

Singal to Noise Ratio
Honestly, I wasn’t sure what direction this was going to go when I started writing and I’ve spent most of the last week trying to decide what should be next. I was thinking linearly, like a book. But in reviewing and responding to comments on the Power and Grounding post, I realized that perhaps the best approach would be to tackle misconceptions as they arose and then precede from there.

In order to do that, I found that I needed to set the definition of what is probably the most confusing or perhaps better expressed as confused term in the industry.

The Decibel

The decibel (dB) is a logarithmic unit used to express the ratio between two values of a physical quantity (usually measured in units of power or intensity). In AV the decibel is commonly used as a measure of gain or attenuation, the ratio of input and output powers of a system, or of individual factors that contribute to such ratios. The number of decibels is ten times the logarithm to base 10 of the ratio of the two power quantities.

The decibel is used for a wide variety of measurements in science and engineering. In AV we use it for the gains of amplifiers, attenuation of signals, signal-to-noise ratios and sound pressure levels. The decibel offers a number of advantages, such as the ability to conveniently represent very large or small numbers, and the ability to carry out multiplication of ratios by simple addition and subtraction. On the other hand the decibel confusing and cumbersome.

A change in power by a factor of 10 represents a 10dB change in level. Whereas a change in power by a factor of 2 represents a 3dB change (remember the relationship is logrithmic and not linear). To keep things even more confusing a change in voltage by 10 is equivalent to a change in power by a factor of 100 or a 20dB change. Therefore a change in voltage by a fator of 2 represents a 6dB change.

Confused yet? The thing to remember is that the decibel is usually qualified with a suffix to indicate which reference quantity or frequency weighting function has been used. Common suffixes in the AV world are:

Volages

  • dBV – RMS voltage relative to 1 volt, regardless of impedance (the apparent ac resistance of a circuit containing capacitance and/or inductance in addition to pure resistance)
  • dBu or dBv – Originally this was always expressed dBv but changed to dBu to avoid confusion with dBV. The v comes from volt whereas the u comes from unloaded. dBu can be used regardless of impedance, but is derived from a 600 Ω load dissipating 1mW (0dBm)
  • dBmV – voltage relative to 1 millivolt across 75 Ω. Obviously this is typically used in analog video systems
  • dBuV – voltage relative to 1 microvolt. Widely used in television and aerial amplifier specifications. 60 dBμV = 0 dBmV.

Accoustics

  • dB (SPL) – sound pressure level referenced to the nominal threshold of human hearing (0dB SPL)
  • dB(A), dB(B) and dB(C) – These symbols are often used to indicate the use of different weighting filters, used to approximate the human ear’s response to sound. The measurement is still in dB(SPL). These measurements usually refer to noise and the effects on humans and animals. They are in widespread use with regard to noise control issues, regulations and environmental standards. According to ANSI standards, the preferred usage is to write LA = x dB. Nevertheless, the units dBA and dB(A) are still commonly used as a shorthand for A-weighted measurements.

Audio Electroncis

  • dBm – power relative to 1 milliwatt. In audio, dBm is typically referenced relative to a 600 ohm impedance. This measurement has pretty much been retired in line level audio as the typical impedance of a an input on a piece of equipment is greater than 10 kΩ aka Hi Z.
  • dBFS – the amplitude of a signal compared with the maximum which a device can handle before clipping occurs. Full-scale may be defined as the power level of a full-scale sinusoid or alternatively a full-scale square wave. A signal measured with reference to a full-scale sine-wave will appear 3dB weaker when referenced to a full-scale square wave, thus: 0 dBFS(ref=fullscale sine wave) = -3 dBFS(ref=fullscale square wave).

The point behind this is that simply stating that something is 74dB is pointless without the suffix referencing what that measurement is relative to. 74dB is not the same as 74dB SPL or 74dBV.

Power and Grounding

September 7, 2013 in AV Design Tips, The Basics by Sam Davisson

Isolation, the key to a good grounding structure

This is the first of an upcoming series on “The Basics” of designing the AV systems that high end clients expect and the average client will respect.

Quality AV systems don’t happen by accident. They happen by design. Just like building a house, you’ll never reach that true quality threshold without a proper and strong foundation. With all electronic systems, especially AV, that foundation is the grounding structure.

Most designers and installers of AV systems think of grounding as black magic. How often have you or someone you know said that a cable is “picking up” noise or that the solution is “better” shielding or floating the shielding? (Note: In very high end audio systems floating the shield can be essential but in the typical AV installation, if grounding is done properly, should not be required.) Equipment manufacturers are typically of no help as they don’t have a clue as to what’s going on because they design and test their equipment in a defined, never changing environment.

The basic rules of physics are overlooked, ignored, and / or forgotten. Electrical engineering courses rarely even mention practical issues of grounding. As a result, myth and misinformation have become the normal

The preferred grounding technique for AV equipment, which contributes to this sense of mystery, is isolated grounding. The reason for this is noise interference and particularly what is known as common mode noise. In AC power systems, the difference in potential between neutral and ground is one form of common mode noise, since any change in neutral potential relative to ground also affects all of the other power circuit conductor potentials to ground. A more troublesome form of common mode noise is the differences in ground potentials throughout an electrical system. When AV devices are interconnected byway of audio, video or control cables, any difference in ground potentials between the interconnected pieces of equipment is common mode noise to the audio, video or control circuits.

Properly Conceived Isolated Grounding System

Properly Conceived Isolated Grounding System Through a 3 Phase Transformer

There is much confusion over what an “isolated ground” (IG) is, how an isolated ground technique is implemented, and why it is used. Isolated ground is allowed in the U.S. by the National Electrical Code (NEC) and in Canada by the Canadian Electrical Code (CEC). But it should be noted that in both cases, isolated ground is an exception to the standard grounding requirements. NEC 250-74 and 250-75 allow IG wiring only where required for the reduction of electrical noise on the grounding circuit. In practical terms, what this means is that not all electrical contractors or electricians are versed in building isolated ground systems.

Common Myths About Earth Ground and Wires

Unfortunately, as electronic equipment developed the term “ground” became sort of a generic term. In AC power systems ground refers to a common connection point, typically earth ground. In a DC power system, such as what is powering my laptop, ground also refers to a common connection point for power return. Thus, the very meaning of the term ground has become vague, ambiguous, and often quite fanciful but make no mistake these grounds should never have thier common connection point in common.

Some electricians have a strong urge to reduce unwanted AC voltage differences by “shorting them out” with massive conductors, the results are most often disappointing. Other electricians think that system noise can be
improved experimentally by simply finding a “better” or “quieter” earth ground. Many indulge in wishful thinking that noise currents can somehow be skillfully directed to an earth ground, where they will disappear forever!

Here are some common myths about grounding:

  • Earth grounds are zero volts – presumably with respect to some “mystical absolute” reference point. This leads to fanciful ideas about lots of ground rods making system noise disappear. The fact is soil resistance between ground rods is much higher, often significantly than a wire between them.
  • Wires have zero impedance (is the apparent ac resistance of a circuit containing capacitance and/or inductance in addition to pure resistance) – therefore they can extend a zero-voltage reference to many locations in a system, eliminating voltage differences. In fact, wires are quite limited:
    • The DC resistance of a wire applies only at very low frequencies and is directly proportional to its length.
    • The inductance of a wire is nearly independent of its diameter (gauge) but is directly proportional to its length and increases at bends or loops.
    • A wire resonates (becomes an antenna) when its physical length is a quarter wavelength

Something to consider, are earth grounds even necessary for low noise system operation?

Equipment Rack Treatment for Isolated Ground SystemUpdate 9/11
To answer the above question: no earth grounds are required for safety, not for low noise system operation!

But what I really wanted to update here today, something I left out of my post, was the equipment rack treatment an AV integrator needs to do in order to maintain a nice clean isolated ground system.

Unless your are installing the equipment rack on a wood floor, the rack must be isolated from the floor. There are a number of ways to successfully accomplish this. While not called out, the drawing above used wooden 2×4’s underneath the rack but many equipment rack manufactures also sell ground isolation kits made from polycarbonate strips that work perfectly fine.

If your bolting the rack down you’ll need to use a nylon washer to keep the bolt itself from making the electrical path. If your simply setting the rack on the floor with no requirement to bolt it down be sure to include leveling feet with rubber covers to provide your isolation. Finally, if the rack is portable, the rubber wheels should do a good job of providing the required isolation.

Install a copper bus bar in each rack. This bus bar is connected to the isolated ground system (at the isolated ground sub panel) and then connected to the equipment rack via a 12 gauge stranded wire. The bus bar must be isolated from the equipment rack at all other points. Additionally most AV equipment provides a grounding lug on the back of the equipment. Again use a 12 gauge stranded wire to connect equipment chassis to the copper bus bar. Note: some older equipment may strap signal ground to chassis ground. If this is the case be sure and remove the strapping mechanism.

All AV conduits coming into the rack must be isolated from the rack. Most electrical supply outlets provide isolation bushings for this. In addition your equipment rack vendor may be able to provide isolation knockout panels. Finally, be sure and use an approved IG power strip.

Following these guidelines will ensure that your IG system remains so.

As I discuss future AV basic design topics grounds and dealing with grounding issues will be a constant theme. As I said, we are simply setting the foundation at this point, not only of your AV system but for future posts as well.

The Future, Ultra High Definition Television

August 31, 2013 in Tech Talk by Sam Davisson

84" UHD TV

84″ UHD TV

Ultra High Definition (Ultra HD) television isn’t just about an increased resolution. While that will usher in larger display devices and an enhanced home cinema experience, it’s just the beginning of a whole new television experience. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, in an interview with NBC said “When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years” and that’s true. The way people watch TV really hasn’t changed since TV’s inception. That’s all about to change in the coming years. But first lets discuss Ultra HD.

The Technical Stuff:


What we know as HD (high definition), most commonly thought of as1080p (16:9 aspect ratio, 1920×1080 pixels), is known in the professional digital cinema world as 2K (1.85 aspect ratio, 1998×1080 pixels or 2.35:1 aspect ration, 2048×858 pixels).

4K, known as Quad HD in digital cinema, is four times the resolution of 2K or 4096×2160 pixels at 1.85 film aspect ratio. For the home television HD aspect ratio (16:9), 4K represents 3840×2160 pixels. The commercial term for 4K for the home is Ultra High Definition or Ultra HD or even UHD

To put this in perspective that might be more understandable, let’s compare these video resolutions to the pixel resolution of a digital still camera. UHD translates to approximately a 8.5 megapixel picture for each frame. Conversely, HD (1080p) only translates to an image of 2.1 megapixels per frame.

What makes Ultra HD significant?

Ultra HD enables displays, 65" diagonal and above, to look fantastic. It provides for a much more detailed and less pixel visible images than 1080p. For 3D video projectors which currently employ the passive polarized glasses method of viewing 3D movies the resultant 3D image is cut to 540p (960×540 pixels) for each eye, which is 1/2 1080p resolution. However, by employing a 4K resolution projector, 3D images viewed in this manner are displayed with 1080p (1920×1080) resolution for each eye.

Where’s the content?
Good question and most of the naysayers of UHD technology point to this as if it is some insurmountable problem.
The truth of the matter is that film studio’s have been transferring film to 4k resolution for about 15 years. The odds are that the video you just watched was mastered to 4k and then scaled down to HD for distribution on blu ray. So, as always, the content is owned by the film studios in abundance. The real issue is a method for delivery.

Sony and Panasonic are jointly working on a disc technology that would allow for 300GB of storage to a blu ray type device. But it’s doubtful that this technology will be used for UHD distribution. It seems most likely that UHD video’s will be delivered via the internet.

Sony is selling a 4K Ultra HD Media Player. It comes pre-loaded with 10 bonus feature films as well as a variety of Indie films, shorts and 4K gallery videos. But they know you’ll want more so Sony will be launching Video Unlimited 4K. They claim that it is the only network video service that gives you access to a regularly updated library of full-length 4K Ultra HD feature films and TV shows. The catch… the 4K Ultra HD Media Player is available exclusively for use with Sony 55" and 65" 4K UHD TVs. It comes standard with their larger UHD TV’s.

At this time, I have yet to find any press releases from Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, and Lionsgate detailing their strategy. I would assume that they have, instead, developed a "wait and see" strategy. First waiting to see if 4K even takes off and second to see what other streaming options present themselves.

That doesn’t mean Sony is the only game in town. RED, the digital cinema company has introduces the REDRAY. A 4K playback system that supports 3D capabilities, offers 802.11N wireless connectivity/playback, is DCI-compliant (Digital Cinema Initiative), and debuts with new security and file formats. Using the advanced RED codec technology 4K video files will be capable of being stored on a 64GB USB flash drive.

Odemax, while still in beta, is currently streaming limited independent films to the REDRAY player.

But how is all this changing the way we TV?

This fall, possible as early as September, the ATSC, Advanced Television Systems Committee, is set to release the ATSC 2.0 standard. This standard will enable over-the-air video-on-demand, online interactivity, push alerts to sleeping TVs, and the ability to watch two channels simultaneously on a single screen, among other functions. Adopting this standard is a “fairly low bar” for broadcasters and TV manufacturers to reach. Authoring tools need to be developed for broadcasters, but are not particularly daunting in terms of complexity and cost, and many of the needed changes in TV sets are software-based, at least for smart TVs that are by definition Internet-enabled, so manufacturers won’t have to deal with a large bill of material increases in the sets and the sets being sold today should be capable of updating.

In the future, broadcast TV signals will accommodate 4KTV, immersive audio, interactivity, multiscreen viewing, mobile devices and hybrid services. This is the underlying goal of ATSC 3.0, the TV transmission methodology now in development. The goal is to produce a candidate standard by 2016. Which means over the air broadcast of UHD material is still 5 years away.

What the Apple iTelevision could look like

What the Apple iTelevision could look like

But that’s not the real game changer, this is. The rumored Apple iTelevision or if not an actual television some device that will forever change the way people interact with their television set. Whatever it is the consesus seems to be that it will be different than anything we’ve seen so far and that it will be as evolutionary to the TV industry as the iPhone was to cell phones.

But, you ask, what does that have to do with Ultra High Definition. As the UHD’s market expands many cable providers are looking for a strategy away from the delivery of television content to the home. Streaming services have already made a dent in their market share and with the most viable delivery of UHD content being streaming, I believe many will simply become internet service providers. Others may look to provide streaming services of their own along with internet services. Apple seems to be positioning itself well to pick up the slack with a new television device and iTunes integration.

So while things are slow to sort themselves out there is a lot of positioning going on with manufactures and service providers. I think it’s safe to say that the broadcast industry is going to be late to the party and that the way we watch TV is about to evolve dramatically. I also think it is safe to say that the real push behind these developments is the evolution of Ultra High Definition.

Mixed Signals, What is the AV Future – Part II

July 15, 2013 in Tech Talk by Sam Davisson

confusionTo start, I don’t know what this picture had to do with confusion but I liked it so lets just say it represents total confusion because that seems to be the state of the industry when it comes to the convergence of AV and IT.

The question arose again on one of the tech boards I hang out on. The question was posed this way: “Everyone with their eyes open can see the convergence of AV and IT. What are you doing to keep pace and change with the industry? Or is this not a big deal, and just business as usual?”

I guess the first thing I have to question is where. My eyes are open, where is the convergence. That is unless your talking about AV control and then I would still bet that over 75% of that is done via a serial connection and not a network connection but I will concede that more and more control is being extended to devices.

But is that it? Is this great convergence we’ve all been waiting for nothing more than device control?

The majority of audio and video still have point to point connections and require dedicated hardware. The only thing they have in common with IT is the cable being used. The digital transport for audio, video and control currently being widely accepted and adopted by the industry is a point to point technology (HDBaseT) that is not IT network friendly

AVB *audio video bridge) is the IEEE attempt at AV/IT convergence that will really reside in an IT environment. That is as long as your IT switches support AVB. But at least you do have an IT topology. Of course, it’s not really made any headway and I don’t think there are many, if any, video equipment manufactures who support it natively. Some audio manufactures have jumped into the fray but since they also support Cobranet and DANTE it probably isn’t much of a jump and it’s mostly just a digital audio snake.

Since I mentioned it, DANTE is also a competing networked media technology. It also has made strides in audio and unlike AVB seems to work without specialized network equipment. But there is no real media other than audio so it’s not going anywhere fast.

Which leaves us with HDBaseT. It is not networkable but it is the technology that is being accepted by the equipment manufactures. It is expanding from just being a digital signal expansion technology and becoming a digital signal distribution technology The commercial AV industry may not need to put up with HDMI cables much longer

But I don’t care how much people want to talk about the industry and it’s convergence with IT, the industry doesn’t appear to be really doing anything more than paying that convergence lip service and patting itself on the back because device control is finally moving away from IR or RS232 and using a network transport. The change for the AV technician is he sets up IP addresses instead of baud rates.