Comparing analog and network audio: Which option is right for you?

Magnus Zederfeldt

There’s a common assumption that digital is always better than analog. As the world around us changes and becomes more connected, the possibilities for network devices and their uses is continuing to expand. One area that is growing rapidly is network audio, but just because you can connect something, do you really need to?

Knowing whether to replace an old analog system can be difficult, especially if you have invested a lot in the equipment. Things are further complicated by the fact that it is now possible to combine existing analog systems with new technology so they can perform the functionality of network audio devices.

So, before you rip and replace your old system and invest in a new commercial audio system, let’s look at the differences, pros and cons of analog and network audio – and how you can decide which is the best solution for you.

How they work and what to look out for

Many of the use cases between analog and network audio are broadly the same. The differences between them can be seen in how the systems are built and designed, how they are administrated and how the system maintenance is planned and executed.

Analog speakers that are used for commercial audio are referred to as 70- or 100-volt speaker systems, constant-voltage systems or high-impedance speaker systems. In Canada and the US, they are most commonly referred to as 70-volt systems while in Europe, the 100-volt system is the most widespread. This kind of audio system distributes an analogue audio signal to a chain of passive speakers.

The basic components are an audio source, an amplifier, a tone controller, speaker wire and speakers that can receive a signal. Speakers are run off a single amplifier in a “daisy chain” formation, where the speaker wire is running from one speaker to the next.

Some of the considerations for analog audio systems are:

  • The functionality and features needed for different use cases are implemented in the central rack. Except for amplifiers, there is special equipment needed for tone control, storing of pre-recorded announcements, scheduling of announcements, music streaming and integration with other systems like, for example, a VoIP telephony system. This means, that a big part of the cost for an analogue system will be in the rack equipment and configuration. For more simple use cases it can be quite affordable, but more complex needs can lead to a rapid increase of the costs.
  • Analog passive speakers are often cheap and “daisy chain” wiring in a 70-volt system is considered as a cost-efficient way of installation. But since zoning different areas for specific content is based on the physical wiring of speakers (circuits), the initial installation design of the system is critical, quite complex and inflexible if any changes are required.
  • Monitoring potential issues with the speaker system can be difficult, e.g. a short on the line can be hard to isolate, let alone determining if a speaker is causing the problem. With long speaker wire runs the only solution is checking the whole speaker line.

A network audio system on the other hand works very differently. Every speaker is a complete advanced audio system that is controlled and monitored over an ethernet network. Instead of using a “daisy chain” wire method, this technology distributes a digital audio signal over the ethernet network to individual speakers, where each speaker’s inbuilt advanced signal processing produces high-quality audio. They also harness Power over Ethernet (PoE) as their energy source.

Some considerations for investing in a network audio system are:

  • A network audio system is built on IP based, smart edge devices with open APIs. This means, that the functionality is distributed in the system and each device is centrally managed over the network with a management software. Functionalities like scheduling and priorities of announcements or other content is done with a software. The integration with other IP based systems like access control, HVAC or security systems is easy. Since a network speaker is a complete high-quality audio system in itself, it is, of course, more expensive than an analog passive speaker. Therefore, the cost of a network audio system needs to be compared to the total analog system, including the complete rack with all the equipment needed for your use-case.
  • In network audio systems, you don’t have the limitation of physical speaker wiring, which means the zoning is logical and allows fast and easy system configurations with flexible zoning. Every speaker can be part of multiple zones and it is easy to add or remove speakers individually. Power over Ethernet (PoE) powers the speakers and edge devices via the same cable that connects them, eliminating the need to run electrical cables. Then, of course, each speaker needs an ethernet connection, but the consolidation of cables and equipment to just ethernet simplifies maintenance, ensures standardization and reduces the time and cost of installation and configuration.
  • In a network audio system, every individual speaker is addressable and monitored over the network. This means, you can use IP based health monitoring and configuration of the complete system. If there is a problem, you will instantly get a notification and have the tools to take immediate action.

Comparing analog and network audio systems all boils down to what your circumstances are and what will, in the long-term, provide the best value for money. If you value multiple and flexible zoning functionality, continuous system health monitoring and easy integration with other systems, a network audio solution will deliver great value for you. Looking at total cost of ownership (TCO), the flexibility of network audio will, in most cases, outweigh the initial spending outlay on the hardware.

However, if you have recently invested in analog audio devices, but require the flexibility of network audio there is still hope. It is possible to keep much of your existing analog audio investment and still get the benefits of network audio. In fact, AXIS C8033 Network Audio Bridge and AXIS C8210 Network Audio Amplifier both have the purpose to provide a smooth migration from analog to network audio.

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