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CAT 5 Litters Custom Landscape With New A/V Distribution Options

NEW YORK -Some companies can’t wait for the IEEE to finalize its 1394B digital network standard, which will let custom installers distribute digital audio, video and data throughout the house at blinding speeds up to 150 feet over CAT 5 or fiber.

So, instead of waiting, Leviton and Crestron have developed proprietary technologies that deliver audio and baseband video in analog form over 5 cents per foot CAT 5. Leviton’s solution is available, and Crestron plans March or April shipments of its devices.

Both companies are tapping different niches.

Leviton’s Decora Media System is the less expensive solution, intended to distribute audio and video from a single source. It’s capable of distributing composite video, preamp-level stereo music and Dolby Pro Logic soundtracks up to 1,000 feet via inexpensive CAT 5 cables with what the company claims is no discernible audio or video distortion. The system can handle VCR, DVD, cable TV, satellite and security-camera signals.

Leviton’s system consists of a $250-dealer-cost Media Hub capable of distributing audio and video to up to six receive plates (at $80 each), which fit in standard electrical wallboxes and Decora wallplates. The active receive plates, which receive low-voltage power via the CAT 5 cable, incorporate three RCA outputs (video, left audio, right audio).

Media Hubs can be cascaded to distribute audio/video signals to more than 20 locations. Current techniques involving shielded cables or audio/video transformers usually result in some signal degradation, Leviton said. Active circuitry in the hub and receive plates includes automatic equalization to deliver analog audio and video signals over long distances with low distortion.

Primary applications include distributing audio and video from a PC and the Web, distributing music from a CD megachanger to connected minisystems or tabletop radios, and distributing movies from a DVD megachanger to multiple TVs. For point-to-point applications, Leviton also sells a $90 wallplate send unit.

Crestron is tapping a higher-end niche with its PVid-8, which adds source switching and ability to send S-video and component video over CAT 5. The system is due in March or April with active wallplates. A high-definition video option will be available around September.

Crestron positions the system as a transitional technology whose CAT 5 cabling “is ready for next-generation digital packets over 1394B,” said residential products marketing manager Mike Braithwaite. The technology “lets installers use what they’re pulling now, and because it has been pulled for the past five to six years, it’s in place in a lot of homes.”

Braithwaite claimed Crestron will “guarantee the picture to look as good up to 1,000 feet at the [remote] TV as it does at the TV at the source.”

The eight-zone P-Vid8, which incorporates video switching, starts at about a $2,000 dealer cost depending on the mix of card-based input. It distributes video from up to 48 NTSC composite-output sources or up to 16 S-video or component-output sources, or a mix of these sources. The planned HD card will have the bandwidth to distribute HD video (including 1080i and 720p) to up to eight zones.

The video terminates at wallplates that include four IR ports and an RS-232 port to control remote sources. The plates will cost dealers from $150 to $200.

An optional component-style Room Media Control Box will feature switching between remote sources and local in-room sources, hand off 5.1 to 7.1 surround audio to a local surround decoder, control screen relays, and control a plasma screen (through its RS-232), among other functions. The PVid-8 also switches a digital audio stream from CD changers.

The company already markets an audio version of the PVid-8, called a PAD8, to distribute preamp-level balanced and unbalanced audio around the house via CAT 5.

For commercial applications, some distributed-video systems already send digital video over CAT 5, but they’re still too high-priced even for the custom market, Braithwaite said.

Crestron’s CAT 5 solution is superior to analog, amplified RF distribution over coaxial cable, he said, because with the latter, “it’s hard to predict the end result at each TV.” Results “aren’t bad in small homes, but in 5,000-square-foot homes, performance drops.”