Rebuilding an A/V System with House-Wide Networking

Introduction

I will start out by saying that this is a feature article primarily for fellow geeks interested in the process of building or rebuilding an A/V system. My home isn't exactly a showcase in design or high fashion, and the A/V system that's going back in is aiming for function, without a whole lot of a priority on style.

I'd like it to look nice, certainly, but I need to admit that I'm very much a slob on a daily basis. Aesthetics are good, and I try, but seldom have the time or motivation to apply a whole lot of effort. I don't even expect that most people will want to do things the way I end up doing them. If somebody comes away from this with anything interesting to try, or a useful insight, it's a success.

That said, I still think this series will be interesting. My A/V system has very much been the proverbial mechanics car, as of late. While I work on integrating primarily Audio/Video electronics, among other devices, on a daily basis, I've not had the time or motivation to take care of my own until just recently. We had previously, almost completely, moved out of our house for the purpose of selling it. We then had some remodeling done after we decided to, in fact, keep it. We'll have some further remodeling done later, I'm sure. But, the short of it is, I've been turning to headphones to get my fix of hi-fi when necessary, and have done without a real soundstage in my own home for way too long.

I am now determined that it is time to do what needs to be done. My kids and I have dealt with a really bad DVD player and a 27" standard definition CRT (which actually does contrast and gamma really well) for more time than I wish to admit. I've listened to music through an iPod docking station, my laptop speakers, and a car radio that, for some reason, doesn't drive the right side speaker in my pickup truck. These are perfectly valid ways to enjoy music (after all, you can enjoy music purely in the confines of your own head,) but for an audiophile, it just can't go on.

So, where do I start?

In general, the most sensible place to start would be wiring the room. I didn't do that. I started at the equipment rack. Why? Network equipment.

Modern media are data. Data storage and network communication are becoming the new backbone for our media experience. It's been years since I listened to a CD at home. I only touch them to rip them to a hard drive. As copyright issues get worked out, physical media may disappear altogether. DVD, HD DVD, Blu-ray, etc., in my opinion, are all transitory mediums. As Internet access becomes faster and more reliable, even local storage may diminish. Hard drives may soon give way to flash memory. I can already get a 16 GB compact flash card, larger than the 10 GB hard drive that ran my Windows 2000 Dell laptop from 2001.

So, why the network before the wiring? I have data storage needs for my main business, beyond the 700 GB of music, so doing the data portion of the rack gets me immediate gains in other areas, areas that financially support the more entertaining business of media playback. Plus, I enjoy racking and wiring gear more than pulling cables though walls and under houses, so I steered my process to serve my own procrastination.

Power

Feature RebuildThe foundation for media of the future may be data, but the foundation for data transfer (everything A/V) is power, particularly reliable power. For this application, reliable, regulated power is absolutely critical. I installed two APC Smart UPS 1,500VA units, splitting the critical devices (network drives, server, router, cable modem, AMX controller, and local monitor) between them for relatively even load distribution.) Not only do these units provide backup power when the power fails, but they also regulate the voltage with boost or trim if the AC coming from the pole is too high or low.

In case anybody's wondering, they seem to be tilting together, not because of barrel distortion in the camera lens, but because they're heavy, and I've got the wrong shelf. I plan to change that out later, perhaps when I do my cabling cleanup. I don't think anything's going to collapse, but if you rack these babies, use a heavy-duty shelf.

It's probably obvious that 3,000 VA of total capacity is excessive for the draw of the components, but the intention was to err on the side of caution, as well as buy myself some time if I was in the middle of something during a power failure, such as doing a data backup. These UPS units are nice in that they don't run any fans except during a power failure when they revert to battery power to provide AC.

There is some degree of background hum that sounds like mechanical transformer noise, so I wouldn't recommend putting these particular units in the listening room. I have all equipment racked in my office that are possible, adjacent to the listening room, so for my purpose, reasonably quiet is good enough, which these are. I'd be happier with silent, but they'll do. I can always put them in the basement, and run power cables up from there, but for now, they live in the rack. Eventually, I intend to have the AMX system monitor the power status, and initiate shutdown sequences as necessary, providing notification and opportunities to override, but that's for later.

Media (and data) Storage

Feature RebuildWorking our way up, is our network storage. I used to have a 200 disc CD changer. It's not coming back. I had also previously stored everything on a server, but opted to change over to Buffalo's Tera Station Live!, with 2 TB network drives instead. Not only do I gain more capacity, but I don't have to have an entire PC on to access data or media content. A Tera Station Live! takes about half the power of a typical desktop PC, and is far quieter. They're not so quiet that I'd recommend putting them in the listening room, but you could do okay with the noise level if they were inside of a well-ventilated cabinet or had an enclosed rack of some sort.

What's more, we've used other Buffalo network drives on other jobs, for the purpose of serving media files over the network, and they've proven themselves simple to set up and are reliable.

In a RAID 5 configuration (which offers some improved chance of data recovery if a drive unit fails), the units provide 1.5 TB of data storage each (we lose one drive's worth of storage for redundancy), accessible from any machine on my local network.

I get 1 gigabit connectivity (though I've only achieved 18% of that from any of my machines, which is still far greater than any media needs at the moment). These drives can also be formatted as Raid 0 or Raid 1. One drive will be for primary use, the other will most often remain off, serving as backup storage, or backup use if the main network drive fails and cannot be easily recovered. I did actually have two identical units before I installed these in the rack. Both of them went back for warranty repair after a brown out with inadequate UPS capacity. I like these drives so far, but I'd seriously recommend an over-gunned, high quality UPS.

The 'Server'

Feature RebuildI'm still going to keep the server PC around as additional backup storage, and as a playback client. It will undergo significant modifications in the future, but for most music playback, it's fine as is, with an M-Audio DIO audio card for S/PDIF output of PCM.

Eventually, probably in another case, we'll make it movie worthy, maybe even with an HD DVD and/or Blu-Ray Disc drive, and a good video card and a touch screen, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

If you're wondering what that pink cable is, I wired in parallel with the front panel power and reset buttons, to enable my AMX controller to easily control the power state of the PC down the road, allowing the unit to complete a shutdown, instead of just switching power.

One thing I did upgrade this time was the power supply. I got an Antec Phantom 500 watt 'silent' power supply. The previous 'standard' power supply was not only a lot noisier, but was slowly failing, emitting a very high frequency squeal, which could be very irritating to be around if you weren't wearing headphones.

I had to replace the power supply anyway, so why not go with a quiet one? The power supply was only $150, ordered directly online from Antec. It does have a fan, which kicks in if the draw and environmental variables require additional cooling, but I've yet to witness that. You can also configure the temperature at which the fan engages. I chose the middle of the road option. It'll let it get warm, but won't let it fry.

Feature RebuildWhat's more, ironically, I learned that the fan on top of the main CPU is actually far louder than I had previously known, actually louder than the dual whisper fans I had installed in front of the internal drive bays. The server, to be used as the main system's music client, isn't in the listening room, so it's not a huge deal, but it was kind of funny in that you remove one limiting factor, and another steps forward to take its place. So it goes.

The Antec Phantom power supply, like most power supplies, wasn't particularly difficult to install. I just made sure to carefully disconnect power cables from the old supply leads, and then reconnect them to the same type of connector for the new supply.

Feature RebuildThe Phantom isn't significantly more expensive than a more conventional PC power supply at the same rating, and in designing the power supply to minimize heat, they made the unit very efficient (claims 86% at a full load), so even if minimizing ambient noise isn't a priority, environmental motivations might provoke a purchase of this one over a slightly less expensive unit. Plus, it looks cool, all black and sleek, with a soft blue light coming out the back.

Network Switch & Control

Feature RebuildUp on the network switch, I went with a pretty standard Netgear 16 port gigabit Ethernet switch. It's not special, so far as I can tell, but it has 16 ports, and no cooling fans. I had previously bought a rack mountable 24 port switch, but discovered that the fan noise was loud enough to be irritating, and the switch stays on pretty much all of the time, assuming no extended power failures. It seems to work fine.

And, above it all (for now, at least among the components which have power connected) is the AMX controller. It's not currently doing anything yet, aside from lighting up a port on the Ethernet switch. It's running its program for the old system, wondering why an SSP isn't responding via its serial port. Long term, this unit will run the entire house. In the near future, it'll only be responsible for the operation of the listening room and maybe startup/shutdown of the network devices in the rack.

That's as far as I've gotten. I hope to have a report of further progress, SOON. My final choice for the SSP is supposedly in the works and on its way to being on its way. I'll soon be re-pulling necessary cables again from the office to various locations of the Theater/Music area. This time, I hope to do as little work as possible, pulling only the necessary cables, but better to have too much than too little. We'll see.