Are you installing operational AV?
Installing products is one thing while ensuring they work is another. Anthony Grimani looks at the importance of operational AV.
I thought I’d keep things simple this month and talk about a practical step that you can employ to keep your clients happy and elevate your performance as an integrator.
One of the main reasons people hire you is for the value you add above and beyond selling gear and setting it up. Let’s face it; that’s not hard to do and really doesn’t justify hiring someone else to do for you (unless you have the money and just want to, which is a perfectly acceptable reason).
What is perhaps the most simple and ‘valuable’ value you can add? Make sure the gear works.
Wait, what? That’s it? Yep.
Lots of gear doesn’t work these days. I don’t know if it’s just too complicated to make or people are cutting corners. I try to look on the bright side and assume they’re genuinely doing their best and it’s just really complicated, as opposed to some other underlying reason – but I have my doubts….
At any rate, I don’t mean to literally flip the power switch and see that stuff comes on – make a picture or sound or does something else to let you know it lives. Hopefully everyone is proficient enough to do that. What I mean is to spend a few minutes with each product to make sure it’s been made and shipped with no obvious performance defects.
Now, obviously, some products are more prone to defects and damage than others. For example, a streaming stick that weighs nothing and has no ‘moving parts’ is probably going to work as intended, if it comes on at all. Which some don’t, because they’re made cheaply to be sold cheaply. Comes with the territory. All good.
No, I’m talking about something like a TV. It may look OK on the outside, but these things are so thin and so complex (and, again, made as cheaply as possible due to the fierce competition and nigh/non-existent margin) that you come across a lot of them that have some pretty noticeable performance defects if you look at them for more than two minutes.
So what’s a specific thing to look for? Well, I’ve come across more than a few TVs recently from the big manufacturers like LG, Sony and Samsung that have extremely uneven panel illumination – especially at low APL/near black. OLED in particular is supposed to have good blacks, but that doesn’t do you much good if one side of the panel is noticeably brighter than the other. Manufacturers try to argue this away as being ‘within tolerance’ – which it may be according to their self-imposed guidelines, but it’s just not good enough for you and your clients, if we’re being honest.
Look at your TVs in a dark or dim room with a relatively uniform dark (not black) image – preferably one without fast motion. A dark scene from a movie works great. Do you see areas that are inexplicably brighter? Does it look like the backlight is turned up too high, but only in one or two spots? What about vertical or horizontal bands that stand out as the camera pans/tilts slowly? Do any areas appear to have a different colour temperature (bluer, for instance). If you see anything like this, you probably don’t have a very good sample and you should probably return it and definitely complain to the manufacturer. Otherwise, they’ll just keep churning out sub-par products.
You can use a grey field test pattern to confirm what you see on program if you like, but some things show up on test patterns that you can’t actually see on program. If you try to find production sample TVs that pass panel uniformity tests with test patterns, I’d put your success rate somewhere below 50% – again, being honest. I may just have really bad luck, but that’s about where I’d put the success rate based on my own experience. There are lots of bad samples hanging around out there that people accept because they don’t know any better. You do.
What about something on the audio side? Speakers are a great place for hidden issues to exist because you can’t see them, and most people identify problems more easily by sight than sound. If a speaker looks good, it sounds good, right? (This may actually be more true than you’d imagine.) There are a lot of tiny parts inside a speaker that have to move perfectly within a microscopic margin or else the speaker makes all sorts of noises it’s not supposed to make. It is actually quite remarkable that mass-produced speakers work as consistently as they do. Marvel of modern manufacturing.
At any rate, here you need to dig a little deeper and do something other than listen to program. Keep two audio files handy: pink noise and single tone sweep. With these two, you can quickly identify most problems a speaker might have.
Listen to the pink noise to verify all drivers are producing sound and the spectral balance is reasonable. (After you’ve heard it enough, you can basically tell by the timbre of pink noise if something is off.) Second, listen to a 20Hz-20kHz tone sweep (if you want to get fancy, do it at different levels and speeds assuming your tone generator source supports that). At every frequency, you should hear a single tone – not multiple tones (harmonic distortion), buzzes, rattles, scrapings, zings, or anything else but that one tone. Admittedly, this a torture test that many speakers will fail in some respect. Distortion is actually common with cheap and even some expensive drivers and not necessarily audible on program even if you can hear it with tone. In such cases, your job is not (necessarily) to fault the design, just to make sure the speaker is working as designed. If you hear harmonic distortion, and it sounds louder than you think it should, repeat the test on more samples of the same speaker. If they all sound pretty much the same, it’s just a byproduct of the parts being used and doesn’t indicate a manufacturing issue. Let your common sense rule here.
OK, so hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about when it comes to value adds and giving your clients a level of performance that justifies what they’re paying you (or that they’re paying you). Maybe you’ve come up with some tricks yourself that you use to test products for common issues with video, audio, etc. Feel free to share them with me, and if we get a lot of good ideas maybe I will do a follow-up to this featuring the best submissions.