Sometimes it takes time for a new direction or way of doing things to become a definite trend. Back in the early 1990s concern was raised in the commercial audio installation market about hi-fi equipment being used as the basis of sound systems in bars and restaurants. Digging back through the archives, an example of this is a fish restaurant on the south coast of England that, in 1991, had just put in a background music and performance system with a mixture of professional and consumer products. These included a Philips multi-disc CD player, Yamaha AM602 mixer, Audioplan Kontrapunkt and Revox Piccolo loudspeakers, Quad 606 power amplifiers, Audio-Technica ATW-1031 radio microphones and an Amstrad VCR.
Today, that kind of mix-and-match is more commonplace. While a high-end hi-fi loudspeaker would not always be the first choice for a commercial application, primarily on the grounds of power and durability, there is now less demarcation between many products in the two sectors. The lower cost and greater functionality of electronic components has played a part in this, particularly when it comes to processing and networking.
This crossover has led to the coining of the term ‘resimercial’, although this composite word is also used to describe forms of interior design and furniture that bring the sensibilities of the home into the workplace and vice versa. Installation will be looking at how this clunky but handy description reflects the increasingly symbiotic relationship between pro AV and residential technology. So, how did this new way of working develop and why it is potentially changing the nature of installations?
“Historically, home and consumer products have been used anywhere from your local pub and restaurants to large-scale office spaces, often when they are far from suitable,” comments Ben Spurgeon, a council member of the ISCVE (Institute of Sound, Communications and Visual Engineers) and chair of its training committee. “We’ve all been for meals where multiple hi-fi speakers have been wired up to an amplifier with a phone playing a streaming playlist on repeat. For many, that is a pro AV installation.”
Such a scenario is now more of a rarity, which Spurgeon attributes to higher expectations on the part of the bar owners and venue operators: “These days, the standards expected by end-users are much higher and [there is] awareness of how professional audio systems should perform. With a host of professional AV integrators serving the hospitality and retail sectors, the overall standard of audio in these spaces has dramatically improved.”
Sean Wargo, senior director of market intelligence at AVIXA, agrees that the crossover is now “more common”, particularly with the occurrence of consumer grade products in retail situations. Wargo explains that in many cases, this is happening because it is a quick solution to an installer’s or customer’s needs, aided by professional distribution channels for residential-style items.
“Consumer products are being used for professional applications for different reasons,” Wargo says. “These include scalability, portability, cost, as well as needing a quick and easy solution.” He also cites the growth in remote working, which inevitability leads to the impact Covid-19 has had on how people carry out their business. “The trend has accelerated during the pandemic as organisations have looked for both massive scale and plug-and-play systems. If you’ve got a corporate HQ with hundreds of conference rooms, sometimes consumer products offer a good go-to.”
A different explanation for the coming together of previously diverse disciplines is given by Michael Sherman, who sits on the CEDIA board of directors and is chief executive of French residential and pro integrator Henri. “It has to do with integrators more than technology,” he says.”You might have some residential integrators that are asked to do some commercial projects and they have the capacity to
get the products. As a residential integrator, you could get residential products and professional ones as well. That might [explain] why we see some residential technology in commercial integrations.”
On the commercial installation side, Henri works in the hotel market, which Sherman says prefers to treat the project “as a whole”. Although both consumer and pro kit is used, there is a clear distinction in where each is used. “In hotels, usually they would go with a commercial integrator, so they would have professional products in the common areas and it would be the other way round in the bedrooms,” he says.
“It’s less common to see professional products in residential. That may be the pricing. Another thing is you can have questions from clients because they might have seen some products in a restaurant or the mall and they ask for a brand or system. It’s the job of the integrator to advise them because, even though professional products have good sound or image quality, they are not meant to be used at home.”
The ongoing crossover between professional AV and residential is perhaps best illustrated by AVIXA and CEDIA forming a joint venture to organise and stage what was (at the time) a little known event called ISE, in 2004 – which was, initially, more of a residential-facing event. Mike Blackman, managing director of ISE organiser Integrated Systems Events, observes that market size and different approaches in different countries are also contributory factors in the meeting of pro and domestic.
“If you look at the residential AV business and compare Europe to the US, you’ll see that the US market is substantially larger,” he says. “So it’s clear that companies in the residential sector will start selling to the commercial sector where they can [because] they have to do business. There’s been this crossover, looking at premises like bars, restaurants and hotels, where [due to the size] it’s a commercial project. But a lot of what they want is residential products in there as well. And if you also look in some conference rooms, you may actually find some residential products sitting in cupboards.”
In Europe, Blackman points to the difference in approach between the UK and mainland European markets. “The UK is the only market in Europe where you really see a distinct separation between the companies who are doing commercial installations and those doing residential installations,” he says. “In the rest of Europe generally, you’ll find companies doing both. They will have specialists within their organisation who are doing the residential part but the commercial business is much larger in the rest of Europe. There is also a different attitude about what you spend in your home, particularly in Germany, where people spend more on their cars.”
Because of this, Blackman explains, the onus is on installers to diversify and cater for more than one market or speciality. The discussion about the crossover between professional and consumer usually centres on the AV and residential (home cinema/audio/automation) sectors. But there is increasingly
a connection between AV and broadcasting technologies. This is reflected by broadcast-specific manufacturers such as Trinnov Audio, Sonifex, Lawo and Blackmagic Design (BMD), all now regularly exhibiting at ISE.
Having good quality cameras and microphones – which could be described as being to broadcast standards – became a priority for many companies and organisations forced to rely on video conferencing to stay in touch with employees and clients during lockdowns. From the residential angle, many a YouTuber has a vision mixer, high-end camera and green screen, which were once the preserve of professional broadcasters.
“Who would have dreamt ten years ago that you would have a 1Gb internet connection to your home?” says Blackman. “That was just a commercial product. Now most people want it because of streaming and video conferencing. Bloggers are earning a lot of money from what they’re doing and they want the quality. That’s why you’re probably seeing companies like BMD crossing over between the broadcast and AV sectors.”
This is something that has also been identified by the IAMB, the International Trade Association for Broadcast and Media Technology. The body’s head of knowledge, Lorenzo Zanni, observes that the crossover between technologies and sectors is now more common “because non-professional technology is improving”. By offering more sophisticated features and capabilities, he adds, such devices are now close to professional quality and requirements.
“At the same time, professional technology is becoming more consumer-like, particularly in its ease of use and user interfaces, as well as capabilities,” Zanni says. “This had been accelerated by the pandemic, which has also caused professional/broadcaster users to look to non-broadcast designed solution. For example, the StudioCoast vMix software vision mixer was rapidly adopted for broadcast use, though it was arguably not originally designed for this market.”
A primary factor in this, Zanni explains, has been the shift towards digital and computer-based systems in all three sectors, pro AV, residential and broadcast. “Technology is becoming much more sophisticated. It is built on IT technology in the cloud rather than specialist applications. In general terms, there is a move away from discrete industry applications to IT/cloud-based solutions, which are just tuned for specific audio or video requirements.”
Manufacturers such as Crestron and Logitec have for some time been producing products for both pro AV and domestic applications. How close together these have become will be analysed in the second part of this investigation. On a general level, as Mike Blackman comments, it is the installer’s job to create the best possible solution for the user. “Whether they’re using a residential solution in a commercial environment or a commercial product in a residential environment, it doesn’t matter as long as it works for the customer,” he says.”
As Sean Wargo says, the closer integration of the various markets can be seen as a good thing if it provides new opportunities for the members of trade associations such as AVIXA. “It is all part of a healthy market,” he says. “It has been a catalyst for growth, providing selling opportunities and a path forward for the systems integrators and installers. For the future, the markets will continue to grow naturally. There is a need for more solutions and products that suit those [different] situations – everything from highly specialised items to more general products.”
Michael Sherman concludes that competition is “a really good thing and pushes the industry forward”. While that is an encouraging and optimistic assessment, there is still the thought that serious consideration should be given to any market expansion or diversification. This and other points will be examined from the manufacturing and systems integration point of view in part two of this feature.