Explained: Cables

Category Cable

The standard for data, every new version gets better at transmitting more of it with less interference. Manufacturers must abide by these standards so that everything works together.
  • Cat5e: The standard of the early 2000s, and the current cheapest way to get up to 1 Gbps of bandwidth (less after 55 meters.)
  • Cat6: 10x faster at 10 Gbps, but dwindles after only 37 meters.
  • Cat6a: Extends that 10 Gbps to a reliable 100 meters.
  • Cat7: 10x faster again at 100 Gbps, but bandwidth drops off after 15 meters and it has one glaring flaw: There is still no industry standard for it. Manufacturers aren’t using Cat7 and another standard might come along before they adopt.
Category cables are backward compatible and use the lowest common denominator of the devices they connect. Speed is limited by the weakest component in your system.

 


 

Fiber

The future of data uses pulses of light instead of waves. Benefits over category cable include immunity to electromagnetic interference, improved security, and the ability to travel much longer distances.

Downsides include price and its inability to carry power (category cable can run power along with data to minimize clutter around many of your devices.)

While fiber is the best choice for future proofing, it’s also the best for 4K video over 100 feet. Anything shy of fiber will compress the color sampling to a noticeable degree.

 


 

HDMI

The current standard for carrying video, audio and basic control short distances across a single wire. It’s not reliable beyond 15 feet (you can find 50 feet high end options with varying levels of reliability), which is why we find it in home theater setups where all components are right next to the TV.

A work-around here is to use a balun or network extender, which converts the HDMI signal to a category cable which you run at a longer distance. Then you convert it back to HDMI at the other end.

 


 

Coaxial (RG6 / RCA)

Mostly found between your wall and the cable box, RG6 connections are problematic but exist because your cable company needs to encrypt the content they deliver for copyright protection.

RG6 is not relevant for TV connections anymore unless you want to use the built-in over air antenna, but we still use RG6 for extending digital audio connections (S/PDIF) and sending line level analog audio to devices like subwoofers and powered speakers.

RCA cables are also technically coaxial cables, and still the standard for unbalanced analog audio sources, like turntables.

 


 

Optical / TOSLINK

TOSLINK is a specific type of fiber cable for audio only. Most songs are delivered digitally yet amplifiers are inherently analog, so the signal has to get converted somewhere. Unfortunately most devices do not convert it well. To keep your signal digital until it reaches a digital audio converter (usually called DAC for short) that knows what it’s doing, optical is a smart interconnect.

 


 

Speaker Cables

The connections between amp and speakers, their effect on sound has been the subject of great debate. We do know that thicker gauge cable will move power better over longer distances (we avoid going over 150 feet in general.) We also know that you need to have high quality components for the speaker cable to have any audible impact at all.

We use 14/4 speaker cable as a standard for all in-wall and in-ceiling speaker runs. 14 stands for the gauge and 4 is the amount of conductors.

 


 

Lighting & Shading

These systems require proprietary cables that run two conductors for power, as well as two conductors for communication. Explore more about Lighting & Shading, or get in touch with us with questions.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

New Hire: Michael Dye

This month we’re thrilled to announce the addition of Michael Dye to our team as our new Architect Specialist. Michael has racked up over a decade of experience with Magnolia as a Project Manager, System Designer and Consultation Agent for end users and trade professionals.

Our Architect Specialist role demands a tricky combination of technical prowess and relationship management; A resource who can add real tangible value to the Architects and Designers we interface with on our projects. After meeting Michael it was clear that his passion for the industry, sharpness and absence of ego made him a fit for our culture. However it was his mock AIA Presentation that affirmed Architect Specialist as the ideal role in which to apply his talents.

Michael is well-versed and formally trained in many of our key brand partners (Lutron, McIntosh Labs, Bowers & Wilkins, Control4.) More importantly, he shares Cloud9’s philosophy on technology: Excitement over it’s potential, balanced with a healthy dose of practicality; A bridge between the bleeding edge and everyday life.

Also, we can nerd out with him on speakers and control interfaces. He’ll fit right in.

Conversation: Reddymade

We had the pleasure of chatting with Suchi Reddy of Reddymade Architecture & Design recently. She’s a risk-taker in the A&D field, and of particular interest to us was her drive to push new materials and their properties on projects. Her team in SoHo has conceived of and executed a wide gamut of projects across continents. Take a look at the highlights of our interview in the below video.

Explained: Your Network

Both the most boring and most important part of the connected home. There are three ways to go:

  • Default: Whatever your Internet service provider gives you. All all-in-one box for wired and wireless Internet.
  • Mesh: A collection of small boxes that plug in around your home for stronger, more intelligent coverage.
  • Wired Mesh: A collection of small boxes each hard-wired to your Internet for even stronger more reliable coverage.

Default

least tailored, weakest performance

  • Benefits: Easiest to set up and a single point of troubleshooting.
  • Challenges: A single broadcast point means weaker Wi-Fi the farther away you are. They typically run on default bandwidths, causing competition between neighbors.
  • Conclusion: Adequate for small spaces with one or two devices and no interference (we’ll cover interference later.)

 


 

Mesh

medium tailored, medium performance

  • Benefits: Reasonably DIY, and most decisions happen seamlessly in the background (best frequencies to be on, hand-offs between nodes, etc.)
  • Challenges: Wireless repeaters only repeat the signal that makes it to them, so signal weakens with distance. Also, tech support tends to be very limited.
  • Conclusion: An impressively customizable solution for small to medium-sized homes with a modest number of connected devices.

 


 

Two of the most popular mesh network systems are Google Wifi and Eero. Both offer pretty advanced network settings, grant guest access without sharing your password, let you set bandwidth priority and parental controls. Both are easy to set up and use a really simple App. With a cheaper price and slightly more reliable performance, our preference goes to Google Wifi

 


 

Wired Mesh

  • Benefits: Wiring your access points gives each the strongest connection to broadcast, no matter location. More advanced controls handle large numbers of devices elegantly, as well as the ability to log into each device individually for troubleshooting.
  • Challenges: Wiring takes away the ability to tweak locations later, calling for heat mapping ahead of time to determine where to place access points.
  • Conclusion: The most powerful and reliable approach to home networking. Also the most expensive. Ideal for users with many connected devices or an intolerance for signal drops.

 


Frequency

The two standards for wireless are 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz:
  • 2.4 GHz: Longer distance but slower speeds.
  • 5 GHz: Faster speeds but shorter distances.

2.4 GHz has been a standard for longer. The benefit is backward compatibility. The downside is it tends to get crowded (only 11 channels vs 23 on the 5 GHz range.)

The flaw with 5 GHz is that the higher frequency has trouble going through solid objects like walls and flooring.

The ideal setup is to make sure there are enough access points and run 5 GHz on all of them, while running 2.4 GHz separately for older devices.

 


 

Interference

Microwaves, baby monitors and cordless phones all run on the 2.4 GHz spectrum and can cause interference. Concrete, metal and mirror can cause major interference as well. Finally, nearby Wi-Fi networks on the same spectrum will be competing for bandwidth.

The ideal setup is to test your space ahead of time for potential issues and spread your access points strategically. Once installed, the system should scan and use the least populated spectrum.

 


 

All-in-one Devices

Putting a router, repeater and wireless access point into the same chassis is convenient but flawed, as interference can occur within its own crowded internal components.

Think audio – Separate components (pre-amp, amplifier, turntable) can isolate vibrations and deliver cleaner sound than an all-in-one box. We find the all-in-one solution is sufficient for around 70% of homes.

 


 

Our Preferences

For residences, we like Pakedge for its ability to group and prioritize categories of devices, and remedy issues remotely before they are noticed.

For commercial, we like Cisco Meraki for its granular control packaged in a clean interface, and for Cisco’s extremely fast reaction time to the last Wi-Fi breach.

We also prefer wireless access points that are powered over Ethernet, as running both power and Ethernet to each device can end up looking cluttered.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.

Conversation: Gary Gordon Architectural Lighting

Gary Gordon initially worked for a lighting designer expecting to take his knowledge back to his role as Architect. Instead he found his calling, initially launching his own firm, and literally writing the book on interior lighting. Gary agreed to sit down with us and share his knowledge on the lighting philosophy, his methods for lighting spaces, and common pitfalls any space can fall into.

Explained: Smarthome Control

Smarthome control breaks down into three tiers:

  • Partitioned: Individual Apps for individual brands in your home.
  • Mini Ecosystem: Popular brands dropped into a single App.
  • Platform: Any brand woven into a single customizable platform.

Partitioned

lowest cost, highest maintenance

  • Benefits: Many manufactures offer intuitive Apps, with customization deep enough for the average consumer.
  • Challenges: The minor annoyance of juggling Apps tends to grow over time, and the ability to link multiple actions across devices is almost non-existent. Also some manufacturers don’t offer support.
  • Conclusion: An adequate solution that tends to become inadequate after two Apps, as the conveniences of each get overshadowed by the burden of switching between them.

 


 

Mini Ecosystem

medium cost, medium maintenance

  • Benefits: Platforms like HomeKit, SmartThings and Alexa offer a clean central location from which to control several popular brands, eliminating the need for multiple Apps. Opens the (albeit limited) opportunity for one-touch scenes.
  • Challenges: The simplicity comes at the cost of features, as homogenization strips your devices from some of their custom features. If manufacturer and ecosystem evolve their software out of sync issues will arise, which not all players are inclined to fix.
  • Conclusion: An elegant solution (if kept simple) when compared to partitioning control. Expectations should fit inside a smaller range of capability (On and off, dim and volume) for a positive experience.

There are a lot of entry level eco-systems on the market. Let’s look at two of the most popular: Apple’s HomeKit and Samsung’s SmartThings…

 


 

HomeKit

  • Benefits: Clean control for on/off toggling and level adjustment that works almost all (at least above 80%) of the time. Compatible with around 20 brands, some of which (Philips, Lutron, Honeywell) have proven reliability. Also, events can be triggered (or limited) based on motion, time of day or proximity to home.
  • Challenges: Doesn’t play nice yet with any non-Apple speaker brands, and Siri’s lack of syntax recognition requires stilted speech to use voice (which makes controlling individual lights and devices almost unusable.)
  • Conclusion: An intuitive and capable controller within its considerable brand and feature limits. For a fuller look check out our visit to HomeKit Occulus.

 


 

SmartThings

  • Benefits: Hundreds of compatible devices thanks to Samsung’s open-source approach, and deep customization available for power users.
  • Challenges: Confusing interface with a long learning curve, and the need for a plugged in hub adds to your tech clutter.
  • Conclusion: For those outside of the Apple ecosystem, SmartThings is a capable approach to wrangling multiple entry-level devices onto a single platform… but troubleshooting should be expected.

 


 

Alexa

Same category? Not really. Alexa is less of an eco-system and more of an add-on, though technically you could control several devices exclusively via voice. 

  • Benefits: Amazon allows third party hardware to integrate Alexa, so it doesn’t always require additional hardware. As an add-on to SmartThings Alexa can order up pre-determined scenes.
  • Challenges: Performance with most devices is spotty at best, and weak syntax recognition requires you to state the exact device, room or scene. Alexa won’t understand even a close variation, so the convenience of voice is often overshadowed by the unnatural phrasing it forces.
  • Conclusion: A useful feature for simple single room control, but not yet reliable enough to serve as the main mode of communication with your home.

Alexa is aiming at being the way into a system rather than the system itself, which is why it’s now integrating with all the major players in our next category…

 


 

Platform

highest cost, lowest maintenance

  • Benefits: Little to no limit on device compatibility, fully customizable interface, and a central way to control multiple features of your home across multiple rooms with minimal effort.
  • Challenges: Higher cost as it must be done by a professional, and success largely depends on an intelligent system design.
  • Conclusion: The only elegant way to control technology across multiple rooms of the home without limiting features or burdening the process with too many steps. Platforms also offer granular control over levels of access for guests.

A common misconception is that platforms require you to go all in. Many now offer lower entry levels, for example single room home theater control that can expand as needs and budget increase.

 


 

Comparing Platforms

We don’t want to compare individual platforms because (a) we have partnerships with some and not with others, and (b) platform choice is largely based on personal preference. Instead we’ll share the two biggest questions you should ask:

  1. How does it feel to navigate the App? Look and feel is paramount, and both vary substantially across platforms.
  2. How long has the company been in business? Future compatibility depends on the continued development of drivers. If your devices evolve but your platform doesn’t, your system will face end of life sooner than expected.

Major Players:

Savant  |  Control4  |  Crestron

 


 

Types of Control

Buttons: Best for video channels and volume. You can navigate them without looking, and with the right remote you don’t even have to point it anywhere.

Touch Screen: Great for anything that needs to be customized: Channel icons, scene names, etc. Ideal for controlling multiple features across multiple rooms.

Voice: Through Alexa, Google or Siri it’s a great for very simple functions like turning on a light or raising a shade. Not good for complex requests.

Gesture: A potentially revolutionary way to control devices with natural hand movements, gesture has yet to arrive in any practical application. Hoping for market adoption in 2019.

 


 

Other Questions?

Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to help.