Wiring up the House with Baluns – The Analog Part 1

(I wrote this a few years ago, but it never got posted.  I’m putting it up now, as it’s a precursor to the HDMI piece I just wrote, which will be up right after this)

HDTV is digital crack. Buy one set, and within a year you’ll have two or three. Or like me, in a frenzy of spending, I replaced all my tubes with flat screens.
But what to run on them? After buying the sets, and then spending another $800 on a high definition TiVo, I wasn’t about to buy even more high-def set top boxes. And since we really only watch one HD stream at a time (SpongeBob, Dr. Phil and Oprah are just fine in SD – although stretching Phil and Oprah 16:9 adds unneeded girth to each), it seemed fiscally prudent to figure out a way to distribute output from one HD TiVo to three flat screens simultaneously. And I needed to get it all running by the Super Bowl – an artificial deadline, but one that helped focus my choices.

The first problem was how to turn a single HD source into multiple copies. Unlike standard TiVos, which output two video signals simultaneously, the HD TiVo delivers either a single digital HDMI or an analog component stream at a time. That meant I needed a way to split either the DVI or HDMI signal into three separate streams – while preserving any HDCP copy protection that might be required. I picked up one of Gefen’s HDMI splitters, which start at close to $300 for a one into two version. That was marginally within the budget, but I ran into problems trying to extend that signal around the house (more on that later).

I ended up buying the “Vopex HAD-2” component video splitter from Video Products Inc (VPI) for just $90. I could have purchased a similar four port splitter for $160, but instead took advantage of a nifty TiVo loophole.

Although the TiVo only puts out one video stream at a time, it will switch automatically. Pull the HDMI cable, and the HD signal automatically gets routed to the component ports instead. With some sets – including my industrial-grade Panasonic plasma – you can simulate the cable pull simply by turning the set off – but not all sets work this way.

That let me watch HD video on either the plasma, or simultaneously on the two LCD TVs upstairs – which was fine – I could share the signal simply by turning the plasma off, but still be able to watch the same game upstairs and downstairs without missing a play.

My setup would have been finished right then, if all the sets were next to each other. But at my house I’ve stashed the TiVo in the garage and the 42” plasma sits six feet away, just inside the garage door. But the other two LCD TVs are upstairs, one in the playroom and another in the kitchen. Standard component or HDMI cables won’t reach – even if I wanted to open up walls and snake them through the studs.
I considered and rejected wireless transmission options – nothing was available when I began the project. Similarly, although power-line HDTV distribution schemes are on the way, none were available in time for the Pittsburgh/Seattle battle.

I could have used cable TV wire but that would have been tricky. And that’s when I stumbled on the video baluns from Intelix. These baluns convert an UNbalanced digital or analog signal into a BALanced one that will run over standard cat 5e or cat 6 wiring – the type used for standard ethernet – and then back again. I’d conveniently wired my home with Cat 5e two years ago, and it all terminated within spitting distance of the TiVo. These baluns were the way to go.

Intelix makes HDMI baluns that work great – they support HDMI, and operate up to 150 feet. Alas, they require two Cat 5 cable runs for each HDMI or DVI signal. And one of them needs to be a special shielded Cat 5 cable – unlike the unshielded variety commonly used.

That was one problem, but the second – price – killed the deal. Intelix charges almost $600 for their digital video baluns. Add the cost of the Gefen HDMI splitter and I was looking at almost a thousand dollars to send just one digital signal from point A to point B – more than I’d spent on the HD TiVo to begin with.

The component video story, luckily, was more sanguine. Intelix’ component video baluns – which also transmit digital audio – cost well under $200 for the pair. Even better, only a single unshielded Cat 5 cable was required. So for well under $300, I was in business. I know purists prefer the digital signal, but I’m cheap – and the LCD TVs were too. Clearly analog was the way to go. So I extended the component signal from the TiVo in the garage to the playroom upstairs via the baluns, and now I could watch the same TiVo upstairs or down, depending on whether the plasma was on or off.
But what about the splitter? My kitchen LCD TV sits just a few feet – and a wall – away from the playroom set. So I connected the VPI component splitter to the output of the Intelix Balun, and then routed one set of cables to the playroom LCD TV, and another to the one in the kitchen. That meant opening up the walls, sliding a five-headed component cable through the walls, and then adding a simple junction box on each end and some spackle and paint to patch things up. Since I was inside the walls anyway, I spliced a power cable through too, to clean up the wall-mounted kitchen LCD installation. Easier said than done, but when I was finished my garage-based TiVo was pushing video onto two LCD TVs simultaneously.

But not audio. Another problem reared its head. The TiVo pumps out digital audio via an optical SP/DIF connector. The Intelix baluns transmit digital audio, but the coax version. But neither of my LCD TVs support digital audio – they demanded analog audio via the old, two channel, standard Red and White RCA connectors.

I first needed an optical digital audio splitter, to run that digital audio both to the home-theater receiver in the garage (connected to speakers that straddled the Plasma) and to the Intelix balun for upstairs listening. I then needed an optical to coax digital audio converter. I picked up each for about $20 from a shop on Yahoo. That gave me coax-based digital audio upstairs, but no way to convert it to analog two channel – except by purchasing an expensive home-theater receiver.
And here’s where the entire project almost ground to a halt. I really didn’t want to invest in another bulky audio receiver simply to convert digital audio to two channel analog. And try as I might, I couldn’t find an inexpensive, simple converter online or at Radio Shack that would fill the bill.

But here’s where the ghost of technology purchases past saved me. Years ago, back when the baby had trouble sleeping, I’d picked up a home-theater grade headphone system from Sony. The base unit ingested digital audio, delivered it to great sounding headphones via infrared, but also included a quarter-inch headphone jack for old-style headphones. I’d stopped using it, but kept it around anyway. And that’s what saved me! I picked up a coax to optical converter (the reverse of what I used downstairs) to mate the Intelix Balun to the headphone jack. From there I ran a quarter inch to RCA cable from the headphone amp to the Component splitter – which conveniently splits digital and analog audio signals too.
That did the trick – I could now listen and watch the same HD TiVo upstairs and downstairs, and on two LCDs simultaneously as well.

But what about controlling the TiVo box? How would I extend the TiVo remote from room to room and into the garage? That part was easy. I’ve been using pyramid-shaped IR extenders from Radio Shack for years with good results. These convert IR into radio, and then back into IR, across long distances. Even better, they use the same frequency, which means I could mate three transmitters to one receiver. So I put one in the kitchen, one in the family room, and one above the plasma downstairs, and positioned the receiving unit a few feet from the TiVo. That let me use the same remote in any room to control the box. Voila, my project was done.

Was it worth it? Overall I spent close to the cost of another HD TiVo. But I’d need two more to support three sets, and then I’d run into the synchronization problem – the show I want to watch would be downstairs, and I’d be upstairs, and I’d be unable to watch one sporting event or movie as I moved from upstairs to down without considerable manual fast forwarding. So I think so, yes.

Is it legal? [[need some read here from someone, along with perhaps DirecTV]]

Want do it yourself? Here are a few things to consider. First, my setup will work with any device that pumps out component video – although don’t expect the HDMI / component switch trick to work. For two TVs it’s easy, as long as you have cat 5 cable running through your house. Want to push content to more than two? Get a one to four component splitter (for $160) and multiple pairs of component baluns at $160 for a set. Alternately if the sets are nearby, you may be able to daisy chain the 1:2 splitter I used – but I didn’t test that.

The biggest problem was digital audio – it’s unlikely you’ll have a spare headphone amp sitting around like I did. If you’re lucky, your set will ingest digital audio and convert it to analog – or you’ll already have a home theater receiver that inputs digital audio next to each HDTV. I could have transmitted analog audio from the TiVo using yet another set of Intelix baluns – and another dedicated Cat 5 cable. There are decent wireless audio transmission products on the market, including Oregon Scientific’s iBall, but those can get pricey quickly. Let me know if you’ve uncovered a cheap digital to analog converter, and we’ll print your letter, and update this story on our website.

If you don’t have Cat 5e or Cat 6 cable running around the house, the price can rise dramatically, as you open up walls and run cable. We’ll be adding some of the upcoming wireless and power-line HDTV distribution products into the mix, to see how they work – and we’ll bring you the results here.

Product List;


Intelix Component Baluns

VPI 1:2 component splitter

Optical SP/DIF splitter

Optical -> Coax audio adapter

Coax -> Optical audio adapter

Cat 5e cable

Sony Optical SP/DIF to analog audio converter headphone amp (check ebay pricing)

IR Extender Pair:

(2) Extra IR extender transmitters

Other products you can use

Gefen 1:2 HDMI splitter

1:4 Component splitter

Intelix HDMI Baluns


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