Friday, October 15, 2010

Remote Extenders and RFI

The topic of remote extenders is more "home theater" than "audiophile" according to audio stereotype.  The purist audiophile does not use remote controls, but prefers to get up and clean records before putting them on the 'table.  I've known some audiophiles who even eschewed volume and balance controls.  Their system was set up for the one correct volume that makes everything sound best, they said.  The only control is the power switch on the main amplifier.

I have a record cleaner and occasionally use it, but generally I AM the kind of guy who does like to use remote controls, especially with digital sources.  I have lots and lots of remote controls.  I like to use the factory remote for each gizmo, and I have mountains of gizmos that have remotes.  It always seems to me that "Universal" remotes leave out some of the obscure functionality that makes each unit special.  So I have big wood boxes for remote controls in every room.  And I have a whole house audio system called Sonos which lets me play music from my hard drive and internet services like Rhapsody and Pandora in any room in the house.  Sonos also lets me listen to non-digital sources.  Every Sonos box has an analog input as well digital and analog outputs.  In every room there is a preamp or other source selector which feeds the Sonos input in that room.  So I can listen to any source from any room in any other room or in all the rooms in my house at once.  My Sonos system is set not to use any form of audio compression, so it digitizes all analog inputs in 16 bit 44.1Khz digital ("CD Quality").  And Sonos has its own remote controls, but thankfully they're radio frequency wireless and in my experience provide 100% reliable transmission unless they lose their memories from power failure and need rebooting.

Contra audio stereotype, I like this kind of audio distribution system for automation and convenience.  Sometimes I set my system just to play music selections randomly.  That has actually allowed me to listen much more to the obscure pieces in my collection than I would otherwise do.  In fact, mainly it allows me simply to listen much more than I would otherwise do.  Not that I am always listening to audio, in fact it's less than half of the time.  I like silence some of the time also.  But if I didn't have an automated music system, I'd be getting more silence than I'd like, since it's actually quite a hassle to select music from your record collection, clean the record, clean the stylus, and put it on the turntable, etc.  Not much better with a CD.  Much easier to press a button and load songs from your hard drive (as it seems everyone but purist audiophiles has discovered).

Anyway, I started using remote control extenders long long ago.  Back when I had both Super Beta and VHS vcr's (hey, I still do!).  I had the Sony 900 Super Beta vcr in the living room, and the Panasonic VHS vcr in the bedroom.  But it always seemed I wanted to watch beta videos in the bedroom, and VHS videos in the living room.  Both video systems were wired on the same RF line from the cable company.  (Things were so simple back then, there weren't 10 different kinds of video interconnection to hassle with.  But then the quality wasn't as good either.)  With a remote extender, I could control the Super Beta box from the living room, etc., just as I wanted to.

Now as time has advanced, I got more and more remote extenders to bridge more and more needs for functional control across the house.  Now I have 4 video systems which interchange digital HDMI video through OWLink fiber optic cables.  I have 3 remote control extender "transmitters" in strategic locations, and I've forgotten how many receivers, they're all over.  I aim my remotes at one of the "transmitters" and the infrared remote signal gets transmitted to everything, so I have total control, everywhere, BWAHAHA.

But there is a fundamental problem with this approach to home entertainment.  The problem is that these wireless remote extenders use radio frequencies, and our home space is getting more and more saturated with radio frequencies.  So I'm finding that the range of wireless remote extenders is getting less and less as they are forced to compete against this background.  They advertise 50 or 100 foot range, but if you search online you can find people complaining that they don't go as far as 8 feet.  I've learned a lot from these postings how the units work and can be modified.

But for me, it seemed like all my remote control extenders were working perfectly until I needed to add just one new one for the modified Sony XDR-F1HD tuner which is now my "whole house tuner" that I listen to everywhere in the house through Sonos.  I like having it always available, but I can't listen to FM without having the ability to change the station at whim, otherwise, before too long, I simply have to turn the radio off.  The tuner is actually located in the living room where I have my best indoor FM antenna.  But it was hard, hard, hard to get the remote control extender working to there from the farthest location, the bedroom.  I struggled with this for months.  I even bought an RF Spectrum Analyzer to see if I could determine the nature of the problems (and for other reasons, mainly I just wanted it).  Wierdly, the remote extender tended to work in the night, but not during the daytime.  I figure that is because there is far more background radio frequency "noise" (that's someone else's signals) during the daytime.

This week I made one more upgrade to the remote control extender system which I hope will finally fix this problem,  so I can control the FM radio from the bedroom any time of the day.  I'll describe this upgrade and how I got there in a future post.

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