Plug-fest

Chris Fitzsimmons reports on the development of AVB standards and the growing momentum that the fledgling AVnu alliance appears to be gaining in the market. Are we really seeing the birth of a new unifying standard for networked A/V?

Something strange is in the air in the pro audio industry at the moment. Reports are reaching us of meetings between rival manufacturers held in an air of co-operation and common interest. These so-called Plug-fests are aimed at establishing interoperability between products and systems making sure that the equipment of various vendors communicates correctly and transparently.
So just what is going on? Is peace and love really breaking out in what has always been a highly competitive market, or is something more sinister afoot?
The answer of course is not all that sinister, unless you are opposed to open standards, it’s the rise and rise of AVB.
First, a little history: A year ago at Prolight + Sound 2009, Harman Pro made a fairly low key announcement about its membership of the AVnu alliance and plans to develop compliant products.
Up until that time, development of the standards had been largely out of the public eye, restricted to the corridors of the IEEE and various technical discussion groups. Then, with the formation of the AVnu alliance, the umbrella body for companies promoting and adopting the standard, things started to take off.
InfoComm 2010 saw a number of other firms, including Meyer Sound, begin to talk more about AVB and by ISE this year things were really moving. A panel discussion and a further seminar both saw full audiences. This was in part helped by the publication and ratification in January 2010 of the first of the four core AVB standards.
It’s probably worth recapping at this point what exactly AVB is. IEEE 802.1 Audio Video Bridging, AVB for short, is a collection of standards for the reliable transmission of A/V signals over standard Ethernet infrastructures and network link layers. The AVnu Alliance itself is concerned with creating compliance test procedures and processes that help ensure AVB interoperability of networked A/V devices, helping to provide high quality streaming A/V experience.
It’s the growth in membership of the Avnu alliance that’s particularly exciting. At InfoComm last year, the founder membership numbered six and included Harman International, Intel Corporation, Samsung Electronics, Xilinx, Cisco and Broadcom. By the end of Prolight & Sound 2010, that number has tripled, with the addition of the likes of Sennheiser, Shure, Lab X, Meyer Sound and Barco.
At Frankfurt, I caught up with one of the newer members, Sennheiser, and asked the company’s head of professional products, Claus Menke, what AVB means for Sennheiser.
“For us it’s very important to be able to connect our wireless receivers to everything that’s out on the market. We don’t want to be dictating any proprietary standards, we want to be as open as possible to make it as easy as possible for our customers to use our systems.
“We are very happy that the companies now in the alliance are all working in the same direction. I think the last time we saw this in the audio industry was MIDI and that was twenty or thirty years ago.”
Another company that’s not yet a member, but still keen to be in on the AVB act is Alcons Audio. Launching a new line array at the show, managing director, Tom Back explained the attraction of AVB for his firm.
“I think that this Frankfurt show has proved that all of the developers of various audio over network standards will go in the AVB direction. It addresses the fact that what we need is a standard supported by different industries, not just our own. We’re seeing integration of other communication standards like control, and video, why should we not have the same with audio. I’m not saying it’s the one for the next thirty years, but at the moment it’s the best news we’ve had in a decade.”
In the face of such enthusiasm, I asked one of the AVnu Alliance’s prime movers, Rick Kreifeldt, who is also VP of the System Architect at Harman International, how he felt things were developing.
“I think things are going really well now, what a difference a year makes! In terms of our standards development, I see no reason why the core won’t be completed by the end of 2010, and it terms of membership we’ve tripled it, and we have maintained a great diversity of members.
Kreifeldt stresses the critical role that the silicon manufacturers have had to play in the group’s success. “They are the key to developing the technology. With them on board, the economies of scale of manufacturing are there. They are attracted to the fact that the AVB standards have reach not just in Pro AV, but in the consumer and automotive markets as well.”
“Currently, the pro AV guys are taking the lead, but the others will overtake later on. Just as an example it’s estimated that replacing traditional wiring with network cabling in car could save 200 pounds  (about 90kg) in weight.”
Kreifeldt also expressed optimism for the continued growth of the AVnu alliance. Particularly in video. “We’ve recently announced the joining of Barco, and we expect to have more announcements on that front by InfoComm this year.”
Another of the Pro Audio fraternity that was quick to get involved is Meyer Sound. John McMahon executive director of digital products, explained what he felt the drivers had been for AVB’s growth in popularity.
“The real issue is that over the last decade or so, the audio networking market has become very fractured and fragmented. At a time when everything else is going on to the network – control, video and lighting, the audio situation has still been very unstandardised.
“Everyone has been making endpoints, with no thought to compatibility or to the middle-ware. What is going to link all of it together?”
So why has one or other of the existing standards, such as CobraNet or Ethersound failed to kill off the competition and become a de-facto standard?
“I think there are multiple different reasons. Our market has limited reach, but proprietary technologies cost a lot to develop and maintain. The economics just don’t stand up. The appetite in the market has also waned due to confusion and complexity. Finally, the growth of AVB has been vastly helped by the IEEE coming in and taking the lead as an independent body.”
What’s the future for the standard then? Whilst there’s a lot of buzz, there are very few actual products available right now. The next step is the complete ratification of the core standards, which should be completed by the end of the year. At that point, vendors should be heading full steam ahead on production.
Even before that we’ll see some so-called pre-certified products. “Pre-certified products will be available this summer,” estimates Rick Kreifeldt. “And actual certified ones should emerge in Q1 2011.” That should tie in nicely with some announcements for both ISE and Prolight & Sound, I can’t wait!

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