By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
With cable television steadily moving toward all-digital media, connecting high-definition set-top boxes to the newest HDTVs — as well as hooking up a myriad of other digital devices designed for home theater — falls upon digital cabling.
Yet, even though an assortment of digital connectivity already is available at retail — including both digital audio coaxial and fiber optic, IEEE 1394, DVI, S-Video and video component — a majority of retailers and consumers alike remain in the dark about which connector works best for what device.
To deal with the burgeoning market for digital cables, broad-line manufacturers, such as Jasco Products, are working to widen user choices, keeping these as simple as possible. The Oklahoma City-based maker of GE-brand Ultra Prograde digital connectivity accessories claims its products maximize the visual and audio performance of HDTV, DTV, digital converter and digital tuner boxes.
"Jasco continues to expand its GE-brand Ultra Prograde digital connectivity line in response to the rapid growth taking place in the digital and home theater equipment market," said Kent Shiplet, executive VP/marketing and sales.
These cables — S-Video, video component, digital audio coax and fiber optic — are perfect for use with digital tuners, decoders, set-top boxes and any other audio/video equipment that demand a high-quality signal transfer, said Jasco.
Another broad-line accessories maker, Gemini Industries, is looking closely at which digital connectors will develop momentum in the retail mainstream. "For now, we are delivering component video cables, but stand ready to deliver whichever looks like the one(s) that will be most popular — whether this is IEEE 1394, DVI, HDMI, or whatever group of numbers and letters the industry comes up with," said Ken Furst, director of product development.
The Clifton, N.J.-based Gemini offers component video cables under the Philips brand of Gold Series cable products. Gemini said the products are priced "affordably," but are also meeting a certain expectation consumers have for the brand's high-level performance. "[We] strongly feel the consumer will not be disappointed, because the performance, look and features all would be right at home on far more costly cables," Furst said.
Product development falls not only with traditional accessories manufacturers, but also with cable specialists, who market more pointedly toward early adopters.
"As the CE industry slowly makes it way to a digital line-level audio/video/control-connected environment, the discussion of interconnect cabling takes on a heightened level of importance," said Joe Perfito, president of cable maker Tributaries, headquartered in Orlando, Fla.
However, Perfito said interoperability among these various interconnect formats comes with "a tremendous amount of confusion for manufacturers and retailers." He traces the source of this to the reluctance of Hollywood studios to permit the broadcast of digital movies unless they specify the copy protection standards.
As a result, to cover all possibilities, makers must provide multiple connection facilities — analog video, DVI and 1394 — to their components. Which connection setup is used depends on the connection capabilities on a system's components, as well as the distance between components, Perfito said.
"The digital signals transmitted via DVI or 1394 are severely limited by timing constraints of the carried signals. The longest usable lengths for these signals is still a matter of debate," he said.
Yet, future sales of both 1394 and DVI is virtually assured because the Consumer Electronics Association and National Cable Television Association both agreed that 1394 and DVI cabling would be the two digital interfaces of choice between digital TVs and digital cable set-top boxes.
With the world of digital television changing so dramatically and quickly, Darren Hovsepian, founder of Jupiter, Fla.-based DH Labs, finds it is almost hard to keep up.
"The challenges we face are not only manufacturing a viable digital video cable, whether it be DV-I, DV-A, FireWire or others, but also sourcing the necessary materials from the United States, in order to ensure the product meets the same standard of quality as our other products," said Hovsepian.
Maintaining that analog vs. digital remains a most controversial topic, Brian Casagrande, product manager for IXOS, a premier brand of cable connections, sees strengths and weaknesses in both. IXOS is owned by Wixom, Mich.-based Path Group.
"Is one better than the other?" he asks. "It all depends on the end users and what they are trying to achieve, along with the application. The video industry is trying to achieve a higher technology with simplicity by coming up with these digital formats, and in reality they are confusing people. DVI [digital video interface] has six different connectors and many types of configurations. Is that simple? No."
He continued, "Now, we have a digital format that has surfaced called HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface). It has all the same problems as all the other digital formats and it lies with a very important factor — length. You can only go so far with a digital cable without suffering signal loss (generally around 16.4 feet)."
Attributing this loss to the limited bandwidth of a digital cable vs. an analog cable, Casagrande said some companies are claiming 60 feet to 75 feet without any loss, but these lengths don't seem to be available at retail, he said. "This will always be a problem, as houses are not getting any smaller, but instead they are getting bigger. To say that digital will replace analog is not a true statement. It is just another option.
"The best thing for the retailer to do is to educate their customers before they choose," continued Casagrande. "Remember, this is about what the customer wants and needs, not [manufacturers] or us. But, in order for that to happen, the retailers have to know the differences as well."
In addition to education, a full product line is critical to the category's progress. One company that is in the forefront of digital cabling is Monster Cable, which has a full line successfully selling at retail.
"Digital audio cables improve sound and performance," said Noel Lee of Monster Cable. The Brisbane, Calif.-based company, a leading maker of higher-end cabling for the mass market, currently offers FireWire, 1394 Firelink A/V cables, several lines of DVI cable, and HD bundles with DB15 and RCA terminations.
"Recording engineers and audiophiles love the sound of our latest technology cables," said Lee. "We'll apply those same technological advances to all the new 1394, DVI, HDMI or any other digital format that asserts itself in the market."
As HDTV and digital set-top boxes continue to evolve, the hardware, supporting transmission equipment and even content are undergoing radical transformation, summed up Gavin Downey, business unit manager at Compton, Calif.-based Belkin.
"We believe it's important for our retail partners to recognize that, while the technology is revolutionary, the connectivity is far more evolutionary," said Downey. "In terms of connectivity, there are few reasons to be intimidated as the audio/video industry increasingly looks to traditional data interfaces to manage formerly analog signals in a digital way.
"Enabling end users to take full advantage of new technologies with standards-based connectivity options widely available in the [retail] channel is critical to driving growth," said Downey, who uses IEEE 1394 as a point of reference. Noting this standard has existed for many years, and most retailers stock 1394 cables and accessories, he said the second generation of 1394, or "b" standard, supports 800 megabits/second, making it ideal for the high bandwidth audio and video digital applications.
Repositioning 1394 "requires a strategic vision, bolstered by strong manufacturer-channel partner relationships," continued Downey. "The vision must account for emerging technology, component manufacturer roadmaps, probabilities of competing standards being adopted and even status of pending regulatory actions."
"Without readily and widely available connectivity and accessories options, the adoption of new technologies such as HDTV and [the] digital set-top box will not be as rapid. The retailer's ability to concisely articulate the value of these new technologies, and provide accessories for end users to easily access and use emerging technology, is critical."
This TWICE webinar, hosted by senior editor Alan Wolf, will take a look at what may be the hottest CE products at retail that will be sold during the all-important fourth quarter. Top technologies, market strategies and industry trends will be discussed with industry analysts and executives.