A Glossary: Translating Tech-Speak into English
Ever feel like you’re drowning in acronyms and terms you’ve never heard of – that suddenly, one day, seem like they’re everywhere?
Here’s a guide that translates key parts of that tech-talk so that you can familiarize yourself with some of the more common terms that are being thrown around as you venture into your integration project. If the term you’re looking for isn’t here, ask the CEDIA pro you’ve hired to define it for you – part of their gig is educating their clients, after all.
1080p: That’s a common resolution currently available for high-definition televisions. It’s one aspect of the amount of pixels that give a hi-def image: 1,920 wide by 1,080 high. CEDIA’s David Meyer adds: “The ‘p’ is for progressive scan, where a whole frame is presented in a single pass, as opposed to interlaced where only every second line is presented per pass.”
3D Audio (or “immersive audio”): A step above surround-sound, 3D audio adds either overhead speakers or speakers pointed at the ceiling to reflect sound and make it seem as if audio is coming from overhead. These formats, which include Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D, can give an incredibly lifelike effect when, say, a spaceship or jet passes over the viewer in a movie scene. These systems need at least 11 speakers to generate a quality experience, so aesthetic solutions abound: some speakers can be hidden, and a new generation of soundbars are tackling the problem, too. (See more on this in the “Surround Sound” entry.)
4K Ultra HD: The next step up from 1080p, it’s four times the number of pixels you’d get on a 1080 display. The terms “4K” and “Ultra HD,” when used together, are a little redundant: they’re essentially interchangeable. Even though there’s not much content out there in 4K yet, the library’s growing fast. Also, 4K TVs can “upconvert” a 1080 signal to make the picture a bit sharper (when the converter’s working properly).
Analog: A signal which is "analogous" to the original source – in other words, a signal or waveform that isn’t reduced to digits. In the consumer electronics world, analog technologies are those that use traditional methods of receiving, recording, and/or reproducing content or communications. Vinyl is a great example of an “analog” format; and some listeners insist that records are “warmer” and more accurate than even the best streaming services or compact discs.
Architectural Speakers: Loudspeakers designed to be installed in ceilings, walls, and floors as necessary to blend subtly with room décor or even disappear. Today's in-wall and in-ceiling speakers are capable of the kind of performance associated with free standing speakers, except that they can be flush-mounted or hidden almost anywhere. There are some speakers that are designed to be stashed behind layers of paper that blend right in with a home’s drywall, others can be stashed behind micro-perforated fabric wall coverings or even movie screens.
Aspect Ratio: The ratio of the width to the height of an image. Analog and Standard Definition digital television uses a 4:3 (1.33:1) ratio (slightly wider than it is tall), while High Definition television uses 16:9 or 1.78:1 (almost twice as wide as it is tall). Even wider aspect ratios are available in projection systems, such as 2.35:1 - similar to most widescreen motion pictures, like those shot in the format called “Cinemascope.”
Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL): A form of DSL broadband service, it is called "asymmetric" because it is faster in one direction than the other. In most cases the download speed is much greater, to enable more efficient access to photos, video, and music.
Bit: A bit is that most basic unit of digital info, either a 1 or a 0 – on or off.
Broadband: Broadband refers to telecommunication that has a wider bandwidth (extends into higher frequencies), allowing for more data to be carried. Typical examples of consumer broadband services are high-speed internet delivered via cable, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), or fiber-optic networks.
Byte: A unit of (usually) eight bits. (Without getting too wonky, this was historically the number of bits you’d need to create a single character of text in a computer.)
Cable Modem: A cable modem is a device that connects to the internet and sends/receives data via a local cable TV provider.
Category 5 Cable (Cat 5): Communication cabling that consists of four twisted pairs of copper wire, usually terminated with RJ45 connectors (the clip-in plug that carries ethernet into your home computer) and capable of up to 100 Mbps (megabits per second, see that entry) over distance of up to 100 meters. Yep, just like water in a pipeline, data can only get pushed so far so fast before its slows or overwhelms the line. Commonly used for data and telephone signals, it is now also used for distribution of audio and video signals.
Category 5 Enhanced Cable (Cat 5e): Supports short-run (as in, a short distance) 1000baseT (1,000 Mbps) networking.
Category 6 Cable (Cat 6): Supports 10 Gbps (gigabits per second, see the Gigabit entry) speeds up to 55 meters. Cat6 and Cat6a are constructed differently from Cat5 in order to enable higher speeds and less crosstalk (yep, we’ll get to crosstalk in a minute, too).
Category 6 Augmented Cable (Cat 6a): Supports 10 Gbps signals up to 100 meters. Meyer tells us: “A whole lot of extra shielding protects the signal, enabling the much longer lengths at higher speeds.”
Coaxial Cable: A communication cable type which has a center conductor in a layer of insulation, then an a braided shield – you’ve seen it if you’ve ever had cable TV. There are several varieties of coax cable used in homes such as RG59 (audio, video, cameras, etc.) and RG6 (cable, satellite, and antenna).
Color Gamut: The range of color a screen or display presents to your eyeballs.
Color Saturation: A term to describe how vivid and intense colors in the display appear, independent of brightness. If the color saturation is too low, colors appear washed out, but if the color saturation is too high, colors may appear too vivid.
Communication Cabling: The catch-all term for coaxial, twisted pair and fiber optic cabling.
Contrast: The relationship between the lightest and the darkest areas on a display device or picture. A small difference means low contrast and a large difference means high contrast.
Crosstalk: Nope, this is not about arguing politics at the Thanksgiving table. Crosstalk is the term for what happens when one signal interferes with another signal. This obnoxious phenomenon often occurs when two cables delivering data to different devices are installed improperly. David Meyer tells us, “Crosstalk can also happen between wires in the same cable, such as unshielded CAT5e or CAT6. That’s why those cables use different twist rates between each pair as that can also avoid the crosstalk.”
Digital: Technology that generates, stores, or processes data in two states: positive and non-positive (on/off). Positive is expressed or represented by the number 1 and non-positive by the number 0. (You may have learned about this as “the binary system.”) Each 1 or 0 is a digital bit (see “bit”). A 1 carries some level of voltage, where a zero is literally zero. Data transmitted or stored using digital technology is expressed as a string of 0's and 1's. In the case of audio and video this method can provide a variety of advantages, including more channels, more information, higher resolution, and lower noise (as in, no scratchy noises from a vinyl record).
Digital Video Recorder (DVR): A video component with an integrated hard drive for recording and “time-shifting” television programming, the thing that allows you to pause live TV so you don’t miss the game-winning kick because … well, you know. DVRs may contain an integrated tuner for receiving cable, over-the-air, satellite and/or HDTV broadcasts. DVR functionality can also be integrated into other devices such as a home computer, television, or cable/satellite set-top box.
Electronic Systems Technician (EST): A person who installs, upgrades, and services low-voltage electronic systems in the field.
Ethernet: Ethernet is the most widely-installed local area network (LAN) technology, taking signals from the internet and distributing them to devices.
Fiber-optic cable: This cable carries pulses of light through fine fibers of glass or plastic, and that light is what’s transmitting the data through the line. It’s fast – but can be pricey and tough to work with.
Firewall: A security measure (hardware and/or software) that blocks unauthorized users from gaining access to a computer or network.
Gateway: A device that allows your home’s equipment which is connected to in-home networks to access and use services from any external network regardless of media.
Gigabit (Gb): One billion bits.
Graphic User Interface (GUI): A technology for interfacing with computer software by pointing (with a mouse or on a touch-screen) to graphic images (windows, app icons, menus) instead of typing text. A properly designed GUI is easy for the end user (that’s you) to learn and use.
HDBaseT: Stay with us, here – this is essentially a standard way to deliver a signal. According to the HDBaseT Alliance (no, it’s not something from “Star Wars,” it’s a real .org): HDBaseT is the global standard for the transmission of ultra-high-definition video & audio, Ethernet, controls, USB and up to 100W of power over a single, long-distance, cable. For audiovisual, consumer electronics, and even industrial PCs, this can be a simple category cable (Cat6 or above), for up to 100m/328ft.
HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection. This “digital protocol” is designed to prevent piracy. When your TV and your Blu-ray player both have the right licenses, your HDMI cable will send signals like it’s supposed to. If any device in a chain isn’t compliant, you’ll see an error message.
HDR: High dynamic range. Simply put, this is a screen that can deliver many, MANY more colors and deeper blacks and brighter whites.
HDMI: High Definition Multimedia Interface. It’s more than a specific kind of cable. “HDMI” is an interface standard which utilizes a single high-bandwidth cable that can carry both digital audio and video signals between HDMI compliant devices – it’s how your TV gets all that info from, say, a Blu-ray player.
Home Network: A home network interconnects electronic products and systems, enabling remote access to, and control of, those products and systems, as well as any other available content such as music, video, or data.
IoT: This is the common abbreviation for the “Internet of Things” – it’s the connected universe of all the devices that have become “smart,” whether it’s a TV, a refrigerator, a thermostat, or even a leak-detector in your plumbing system.
IP: Hello, dictionary.com: Internet Protocol: a communications protocol for computers connected to a network, especially the Internet, specifying the format for addresses and units of transmitted data.
LCD television: A video display technology that uses a liquid crystal display – generally, when you see a TV that’s denoted “LCD,” the crystals are being lit with fluorescent lighting.
LCR: The three speaker channels at the front of a surround system, Left, Center, and Right.
LED television: For these TVs, light-emitting diodes are providing the illumination of the liquid crystals, usually from behind. They’re clearer and thinner than LCD TVs, and as a result, are now pretty much the dominant format when it comes to flat-panel televisions. (There are new versions of LED becoming available, OLED and QLED. See below.)
Local Area Network (LAN): A network of personal computers and peripheral devices configured to share information over a short distance, usually within a home or building.
Lossless and Lossy Formats: As Neil Young will tell you, mp3s will never sound as good as the recording artist intended – it’s a “lossy” format; literally meaning that some parts of the signal are lost as a result of an mp3’s sampling rate. The upside? Mp3s use much less storage in an iPhone than a better-sounding format like a “wav” file – allowing the user to store more songs in a device. Lossless formats are becoming so advanced that they rival the best vinyl experience (although some purists insist that will never happen). More and more precise lossless streaming services are coming online, especially for music – but nearly all will require a subscription fee.
Media Server: A device that stores, organizes, and distributes digital content (audio, video, etc.) to other electronic devices.
Megabit (Mb): One million bits.
Mesh Network/Mesh Wi-Fi: Mesh networks use devices that connect to a home’s router to strengthen internet signals and connections. These are not to be confused with “signal extenders” or “boosters” as these devices use shifting algorithms to provide full signals to devices anywhere in a structure. Mesh Wi-Fi does a great job cleaning up “dead spots” in a home and helping when many devices are in use.
Modem: Not to be confused with a “router,” the word “modem” is short for modulate/demodulate. A modem modulates outgoing digital signals from a computer or other digital device to analog signals for a conventional copper twisted pair telephone line and demodulates the incoming analog signal and converts it to a digital signal for the digital device.
Multi-Room Audio: An audio system that distributes sound to speakers in multiple listening areas. In its most basic form, a multi-room audio setup contains a source component, like a receiver, and is connected to speakers in at least two different rooms.
Network Security: The prevention and monitoring of unauthorized access, misuse, modification, or denial of a computer network and its resources. More and more integration firms offer constant monitoring services on a contract basis.
OLED TV: Organic light-emitting diode TV. This version of the LED technology allows displays to become super-thin and, at times, flexible. David Meyer goes deeper: “OLEDs are the only type of TV currently available that actually uses the LEDs to produce the image. Every individual pixel is a separate LED cluster, and each can be turned off to achieve true black. That’s why OLED blacks are so much better than edge-lit or even “local dimming” LED backlit LCD TVs.” The downside? They’re pricey, and there are still concerns about these sets longevity.
Phantom Load: Refers to the electric power consumed by electronic appliances while they are switched off or in a standby mode. That little red light that tells you the flat screen is off? Yep, it’s drawing a tiny bit of power.
Plasma TV: A type of flat-panel video display that uses a special gas sandwiched between layers of glass. When the gas is electrically charged, the gas moves into a "plasma" state and illuminates phosphors, which produce a picture. Plasma displays provide a very cinematic image and produce extremely accurate black levels, but are heavier than LCD and LED TVs and run hotter. Because of these issues – and the fact that the screens fail at altitudes above around 5,000 feet – plasma TVs aren’t being manufactured any longer.
QLED TV: Quantum-dot light-emitting diode TV. A quantum dot is a kind of “nanocrystal” (which means it’s really, REALLY small), and some manufacturers are touting QLEDs as superior to OLEDs. Meyer adds: “The quantum dots augment the LED backlighting to give more brightness but also much better colors, as the nanocrystals literally light up in different colors. Still uses LCD as the imager.”
Radio Frequency (RF): RF waves can be transmitted and received through walls and other physical barriers and differs from IR (infrared) technology, which requires a clear line-of-sight between transmitter and receiver.
Router: A device used to connect two networks, and most commonly used in residential applications to connect a home network to the internet. Many homes with internet connections provided by a cable company are outfitted with modem/router combo boxes that contain both devices in one unit.
Standby Mode: Refers to a low power mode for electronic devices such as computers, televisions, and remote controlled devices. These modes save significant electrical consumption compared to leaving a device fully on and idle and allow the user to avoid having to reset programming codes or wait for a machine to reboot.
Sub-System: Any system in a whole-house system that accepts commands from another system and/or gives feedback to that system.
Streaming Media: Any content that is continuously received by and presented to a user while being delivered by a content provider through an IP network. With streaming media, content can be displayed before the entire file is transmitted. Some examples of streaming media are Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify.
Structured Wiring: A system of low-voltage wires (not power lines!) designed to carry electronic signals throughout the home.
System Integration: Providing easy control over multiple subsystems in the home via a single control system. Home automation systems allow for convenient control of such subsystems as lighting, HVAC, locks, media systems, blinds, security, and outdoor systems.
Surround Sound: A multichannel audio system which provides a minimum of 6 channels of audio: Left, Center, Right, Surround Left, Surround Right, and LFE (Low Frequency Effect - AKA Subwoofer). You’ll see it expressed as a number such as “5.1.” The “1” represents that subwoofer channel. In 3D audio, the number expands: You’ll see, for example, “7.2.4.” The 7 denotes the “surround speakers,” including left/right/center and sides, the 2 represents the number of subwoofers you can run off your receiver, and the 4 stands for the number of overhead channels available.
Technology Integrator: Any company which specializes in the sales, design, installation, programming, and service of low-voltage electronic systems and equipment. An integrator may be one or two people or a large firm with many employees.
Twisted Pair Cabling: A little-known ‘80s hair-metal band. OK, we’re kidding. Seriously: Cable constructed of twisted wire pairs, each conductor having its own insulation. Most twisted pair cables used in the home, such as Cat 5 and Cat6, include four pairs of wires within an outer insulating sheathing. There are two basic types of twisted pair cables: shielded and unshielded. Most applications in the home use unshielded four-pair cable.
User Interface: Devices such as volume controls, keypads, and LCD touchscreens that allow control (to varying degrees) of a home's electronic systems. There are a wide variety of user interfaces available and most can be mounted in the wall or are designed for the table-top or counter. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets can also serve as the user interface in some cases.
VLAN: A virtual LAN, essentially, a subset of that “network of personal computers and peripheral devices configured to share information over a short distance, usually within a home or building,” to quote ourselves.
Voice Control/VUI: An interface that allows the user to literally tell a machine what to do via a user’s human voice. (VUI is a buzzy riff on GUI, and stands for Voice User Interface.)
Voice Over IP (VoIP): Voice telephone service delivered via the internet.
Widescreen: Any video software or hardware with an aspect ratio wider than 4:3; usually 16:9, which is the optimum ratio for viewing high definition content.