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Product Review
 

The Universal Translator for Communication Between RS-232 Ports on A/V Components

Part I

February, 2006

Colin Miller

 

Specifications:

● Lets Your SSP Communicate with a Video Scaler
● 20 Input and Output Strings; Each 40 Bytes in Length
● Baud Rate: 1,200 - 115,200
● Communication Port: RS-232
● MSRP $195 USA

Switch Box

www.switch-box.com

Introduction

In putting together our electronic recreational systems, it sometimes comes to a point where convenience takes a back seat to performance, or vice versa. With separate components, often considered the most flexible and practical approach to audio/video performance, it seems that the ease of use declines exponentially with each additional component.

However, when looking for the best performers among current offerings in the marketplace, a single Home Theater In a Box box isn't even a good stab at a joke. Unfortunately, it seems that a collection of components putting us on the leading edge of audio/video playback tends to put us in a somewhat complicated position.

Back in the days of yore, when we may have previously just set the TV to channel 3 and pressed play on the VCR, those of us insistent on less compromise in our home media experience may now have to contend with turning on power amplifiers, turning on the surround sound processor (SSP), setting its input, perhaps choosing the correct default matrix-based decoding mode, turning on a video processor, configuring its parameters, getting the projector or monitor on and set to the correct input and aspect ratio, not to mention getting the source on and wrestling through navigation menus to get the movie to play. If any step is done incorrectly or missed, we can't see the picture or hear the sound as it was meant to be, if at all. Seem ridiculous? Sure it is. What can we do about it?

We can learn how all of these additional components work, and learn to set everything correctly as quickly as possible, either by remote control or by actually touching things. The audio/video electronics enthusiast, at least those who ooze delight at every opportunity to navigate a menu, roll a knob, or press buttons, might be just fine at this. While I can do this, I don't like to, and none of my family members appreciate the obstacle course either.

Given today's options, we can sacrifice our performance/functionality/flexibility by less components that do more. For instance, use a receiver and ditch the outboard video processor and power amplifier. This isn't that crazy. Some of the receivers are pretty good, and there's no reason we can't use video processing built into either the receiver (which is becoming more popular) or lo and behold, the display itself. But, the flexibility for future changes diminishes. What's more, the performance and functionality criteria becomes more difficult to achieve when we limit our options.

The third option is to invest in control products that perform the integration and automation for us.

Enter the Universal Translator

Custom installation in residential audio/video systems has come a long way, and with it, devices providing greater control and integration. I remember when the Marantz RC-2000 was referred to in a printed magazine as a "Remote of the Gods." Back then, it was pretty close to the best we could do to integrate a home theater on any kind of reasonable budget. Compared to any average customizable remote today, be it a current version of the Pronto, a Home Theater Master Universal Remote, or what not, that highly regarded RC-2000 of our ancestors belongs to the 20th century, not the 21st.

The Universal Translator (UT), sold on-line by Switch-Box.com, isn't an all in one remote with macro capability like a Phillips Pronto, a Home Theater Master, or pick your typical learning remote and insert its name. It can't unify all of our remotes into a single unit. It can't issue lengthy set-up command sequences with variable amounts of delay. The UT is primarily a control accessory, a useful little tool for the integrator or involved hobbyist. It can help in the task of unifying the operation of our components when we want more than what a 'dumb' remote issuing sequences of hopefully discrete IR codes can provide, or we don't have discrete IR codes for a device, but we do have discrete IR codes for another, and both have serial ports.

Specifically, the UT was designed to allow a video processor (VP) to follow and complement the power and input state of surround sound processor (SSP), allowing that both units have serial ports, and that the SSP can supply status information through that serial port.

Simply stated, the Universal Translator takes specific strings of bytes from the SSP, indicating an input or power state, and 'translates' them into specific commands to send to the VP. Benefit? Turn on your SSP, the VP follows. Set the SSP to a particular input, the VP also selects the appropriate input for that source. Nice, right?

Some might point out that many video processors have discrete IR commands for power and input, and as such can just be integrated with an IR macro. After all, if we're getting into any kind of automation, the first thing we get is something that can send multiple IR commands in a sequence anyway. That's true.

However, most of these relatively affordable remotes that perform IR macro sequences can only do one thing at a time, and as such need to lengthen the time required for set-up as steps are increased. Waiting longer can be annoying. While not necessary for fully automated operation in many cases, the Universal Translator can still be of value to complement the learning, macro-capable remote.

The potential uses of the UT aren't limited to the SSP/VP link. We can also use it to link anything with appropriate communication features.

We can use it to control a monitor from a video processor (say the monitor doesn't have discrete IR codes for power and input, but will perform these functions through the serial port, and the video processor does have the necessary discrete IR codes), an Extron RGBHV video switcher from an SSP, or a projector from an SSP. We can have it activate a lighting scene for watching a DVD that's different than lighting for watching plain boring television, as well as restore ambient lighting when we turn the system off.

We could even use it in an upper end control application, say, where it supports a baud rate that a dedicated control system doesn't. Say our old, antiquated Crestron ST-CP doesn't send commands at baud rates higher than 38,400. Let's also say that our new projector requires 57,600 and canít be convinced to operate otherwise. If we didnít want to blow the change to update the control system, or pay for an auxiliary serial communication device that supported 56,600, the UT might just be our product.

The UT isn't a do everything for everyone kind of deal, but it certainly could prove handy in the right instance.

When I was asked if I wanted to review this product, I was kind of ambivalent. I read the description of what it could do, and said to myself, "Yeah, so, I can do that with my AMX controller, if I wanted to, but I control the AVM-30 and DVDO HD+ via a serial port directly anyway, so why would I want to? Oh, yeah. I forgot. Journalist. Itís not just about me."

Fine, it comes programmed for my gear. I plug it in, it works. I write a few sentences, return it, and go on to something else. Review would conclude, right about . . . now! Nope.

Click Here to Go to Part II.

© Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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