Help your Wi-Fi – how to build a great wired home network

robust network equipment

It seems that everything we do these days from checking Instagram to streaming Netflix relies on good network connections within the home and to the Internet. We talked about how to build a great home Wi-Fi network, but there is a lot more to the story for a home network – its the wired network that does the heavy lifting. A great wired home network requires proper cabling in the walls, planning where to run the cabling, and the proper equipment.

The first part to get right is what cabling to put into your home’s walls to get all your data moving around with ease. Our go to is Cat 6 networking cable, as it offers good data rates, reasonable cost, and good workability for electricians to pull through a home. It offers 1 Gbps data rates (current top speed of consumer gear), and for lengths of up to around 30-50 meters, it should be able get up to 10 Gbps. The next step up in network cabling is Cat 6a. It allows up to 10 Gbps up to the max 100 meters. Cat 6a can run higher data bandwidths because its eight wires are twisted together with more careful spacing than Cat 6. But this makes Cat 6a more expensive, thicker and harder to install. These Category (“Cat”) cables can also be be shielded with aluminum foil to help keep electrical interference away. This ensures data rates can be as fast as possible. Cat 7 takes it to another level and cost. Its also worth looking atCleerline fibre optic cable fibre optic cable, as fibre can allow 10 Gbps, isn’t bothered by electrical interference, and costs are coming down. Fibre is also getting easier to work with as companies like Cleerline are making more rugged optical cable.

Next, you have to think about where to run cabling to. Run it to all the places that need data: AV media rooms, Wi-Fi access points, computers, printers, etc. Basically run to anywhere you would conceivably have home tech that can be plugged into the network. This way your Wi-Fi is left for devices like smart phones and tablets. Although running cables isn’t free, its way more cost effective and convenient to run wires during construction than after the fact. To mitigate costs and maximize future proofing, you can have a dual strategy: run Cat 6 as usual, and double up runs to places like AV media centres with something like shielded Cat 6 or optical cable. As devices like media streamers will likely be increasingly data hungry, especially with 4K UHDTV, this should help cover you for the future.

Finally there is the networking equipment like routers and IP switches that actually enable your home’s network. As mentioned earlier when focusing on the Wi-Fi part of your network, cheap gear is, well, cheap. If you and you family use and value your home network for activities like work, streaming media, and playing video games, then there is likely a lot of data pumping through your home. Even an average family home uses more data and Internet bandwidth than most people realize. Imagine what happens when you layer on even more home tech like 4K TV content, lighting automation and video surveillance, This is why your network gear needs to be well thought out for functionality, performance and reliability. You need to choose all network routers and switches to handle your home data load without bottlenecks. Fast equipment like 1 Gbps is common now, but gear must also be trustworthy. It may be tempting to try save money and buy equipment that is less expensive, but you need gear that is designed to be robust and run pain free for years. You end up paying for it one way or another. Some professional home tech equipment allows for remote fixes as well – a nice feature so you don’t have to wait for a scheduled service appointed if something does go wrong.

Planning a home network may be a lot to think about, but the reality is that technology in the home is only growing and needs the right foundation. It will be well worth the cost and effort to get it right when you’re building or renovating – use the right cable, to the right places, and with the right equipment. As with anything in your home, from painting to hot water tanks, some maintenance is expected, but its minor when your network infrastructure is solid. With a well designed network, you and your family can just focus on doing the things you enjoy.

Choosing a sound bar vs. a sound bar (that’s not a typo)

media room speaker barWe’ve talked about the different options for improving TV sound which includes a sound bar (or “soundbar”). Unfortunately the term can mean different things.

Usually when someone talks about a sound bar for a TV, they mean a device that has speakers and an amplifier built together in ‘bar’. The device is designed to mount below a wall-mounted TV or sit at the base of a TV. Either way, its meant to improve the sound experience without greatly impacting your living space. Sony soundbarSound bars like the ones from Sony or Samsung may also include a wired or wireless sub woofer to improve low frequency sounds. They can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to thousands depending on how good they are at emulating a full sounding, surround sound experience.

This probably makes sense to most people so far, but there is a curve ball. Brands like Triad and Episode use the same term to describe a bar that looks pretty much the same, but is just speakers. You need to use a separate amplifier or AV receiver with them. These types of speaker bars have one, two or three speakers built in depending on the model and need. You might think that these are inferior, but they are just another way of improving a media room’s sound. Often these are used as an alternative in higher-end solutions where larger front speakers would impact aesthetics. For example, a sound bar with three speakers can be used for the front left, centre and front right in a true Triad speaker barsurround-sound system. Then other speakers, such as ceiling speakers, can make up the side or back speakers to make a great surround-sound system. Its just too bad that they don’t use a different term – perhaps something like “speaker bar” – to at least help differentiate these.

Either type can be the right solution depending on goals and budgets. The first type may fit for lower budgets or limited space, but the trade off is not a true surround sound. The second type requires a bit more budget and space for other equipment (e.g. AV amplifier, speakers, etc.), and the benefit is improved sound. Hopefully this helps clear up some confusion and gives some ideas on what might work for your media room.

Case Study: Cozy and stylish home tech

Cozy media room

(Photo credit: Keith Henderson Photography – Exclusive Home Tours)

Since Alan is a realtor, he knows the value of great Vancouver views and location, location, location. He and his wife Pamela wanted a cozy and stylish place with all the amenities that is well suited to entertain guests. (And Simba their cat just wanted to ensure we didn’t encroach on his sun bathing spot.) In short, they wanted it all. And why shouldn’t they?

Once they chose the perfect Beach Ave space, they focused on the renovation. The folks at Synthesis Design created beautiful plans, Edgewood Construction took care of transforming the space, and we handled the home tech design and implementation.

The kitchen and living room forms the hub of the home. Here they wanted their favourite music in the air while they entertained guests in their gourmet kitchen. They also wanted an immersive media room when it was time to curl up to watch golf or Netflix. We worked closely with the team to create a custom fireplace design that incorporates a fantastic Panasonic plasma TV and tailored-to-match Triad speaker bar that is part of the 5.1 surround sound experience. The rest of the equipment is out of sight to keep the focus on the beautiful living space and stellar views of English Bay.

Media spaces were also integrated into the cosy den and luxury master bedroom to allow for flexibility. For these rooms, existing DenTVs were freshened up with new equipment. As a backbone of the system, we implemented a wired and Wi-Fi network that can keep up with everything from work tasks to Alan’s endless DJ’ing on Spotify. We focused on creating solutions that not only matched their needs and lifestyle but also didn’t detract from their style and living space.

Home technology is increasingly important in homes, but it doesn’t have to dominate rooms. This home is a great example of where you can have immersive home tech solutions while maintaining the feel of the living space. Alan and Pamela deserve to have it all, and we hope they enjoy it.

All about that bass

Room bass modesBass is a big part of the sound of a media room or home theatre. Not only does it provide the boom in movies, it fills in the low end of music. A home system must be correctly set up to get its full impact.

Many rooms may work with a single subwoofer. For the most part your ear and brain can’t tell where bass is coming from, so people often cram the subwoofer into a convenient corner. This doesn’t aways work though, as bass frequencies can be heard at different volumes in different places in the room. Yes, subwoofer placement can be very complicated.

Most of us don’t think of it, but sound reflects off of walls. (Think about echoes in an unfurnished room.) Since bass consists of low notes with long wavelengths, it can align with seating distances (feel free to catch up on your physics here). Bass sound waves interfere with their own reflections to make standing waves or room modes with nodes (low points) and anti-nodes (high points). The cool (or annoying) thing is that if you’re sitting where there is a node, you may not hear bass no matter how loud you turn up your system. In other spots its boomy. This depends on room dimensions (length, width and height). If your setup has seating in nodes, it can be very frustrating. One way to attack this is to sound wavelengthput the subwoofer on your chair or couch, and crawl to where you want to put your subwoofer. If you can hear bass at where you’ve crawled, then you’re OK to put the subwoofer there. Depending on the room and sub location, its possible that people hear much different levels of bass (here’s more info if interested).

home theatre or media room bassIn some rooms it may be easy to move the subwoofer if it doesn’t sound right, but when designing a sound system you should plan ahead to avoid issues. Run through some calculations (example calculator) to understand where the bass nodes and anti-nodes are located. You can make sure the bass nodes are not where people sit. If you have a large or strangely shaped room, or particular tastes in bass, then you may need to add more subwoofers. This will help smooth out the sound level throughout your room. Its extremely important if you’re using in-wall subwoofers to plan this out, as you can’t just move it when it doesn’t sound right.

People may not notice issues with their bass as they’re lucky that their room works well enough for them. Its great when everything works by default. But if you’re creating an entertainment space, then you want to think this through beforehand or get some help. This way you can get the bass pumping just right.

Video streaming and audio streaming vs. data usage caps

Netflix internet streaming service for home theatre and media roomsMany of us use streaming video and music to media rooms, home theatres and music systems. A lot of people have chosen to cut tradition services like cable TV because streaming covers their needs at a lower cost. If you stream content, watch your usage and be careful to not burn through your home and mobile internet plan data caps. It depends on the application (e.g. Netflix or Spotify) and the devices (e.g. HDTV, smartphone or tablet), but here are some guidelines.

First you should be aware of what your home and mobile internet plans offers for data usage caps. You should check with your provider (e.g. Shaw and Telus for home), but we can look at examples for a common home limit: 250GB / month and mobile limit: 1 GB / month.

Applications like Netflix and Spotify have settings to adjust bandwidth use vs. the quality. The table below shows approximate hours you can expect for one stream (e.g. one of your TVs). You can calculate similar numbers for your data usage cap and multiple streams depending on your use.

data usage for home theatre, media room and home audio internet streaming In short, for home streaming, light users should be fine and heavy users should watch their usage during the month to avoid bill shock. For your mobile data, be very careful, as you can use up your allotment fairly quickly. Be especially careful when traveling, as roaming charges can be extremely nasty. Also watch out if your provider decides to lower limits or if they don’t increase them over time based on natural data use growth.  Look at your monthly bill periodically, and consider changing companies if you find a better deal.

Streaming internet content is great for choice, convenience and price. With a little effort, you can ensure you have the right internet plan to match your needs and avoid overage charges.