Lifespan of an AV System Installment 2: Hardware vs. Software Lifespan

“How long should my AV system last? The last system was put in when the building was built 20 or 30 years ago. Should I expect this new system to last me another 20 or 30 years?” The precedence of former audio and video hardware and their longevity leads to misguided expectations on how long these systems are really designed to last. The hardware centric systems we installed back then are very different than they are today. There were separate electronic components that served their own purpose and if you wanted the system to do something it wasn’t designed to do, you would have to change out or add more hardware. It potentially became a hodgepodge of a bunch of adapters, converters, relays, and diodes to accomplish additional tasks. If the system went down, it was a matter of finding the one bad component then replacing or repairing or even bypassing it to get things back up and running. What often happens is a component within the component fails and audio still passes through the device. It sounds terrible but it still works. “Just turn up the volume. It’s working, isn’t it?” The lifespan of the system was really skewed by smaller, less expensive components that were replaced over time or not replaced at all thus making it seem like the system had a longer lifespan than it really had or was intended or designed to have.

There are hardware components that are designed and capable of providing several years or even decades of trouble-free performance when deployed in a proper environment and are not subjected to overload and power issues. Audio power amplifiers are in this category of hardware. They are devices that are generally designed to take a beating. They have heat tolerant components and protection circuitry to prevent complete meltdown if they are overloaded. Typical manufacturer’s warranty on power amplifiers will extend past a typical one year, it is usually 3 to 5 years and have they a strong tendency to last a lot longer. Commercial type speakers were also designed to last this long without needing to be replaced if they are in an acceptable environment and operated within their limits. Eventually, however, even simple paging speakers will begin to deteriorate and fail.

Modern day AV systems are capable of a lot more and performing much better than their predecessors. They utilize digital audio and video processing and transport that makes both audio and video much cleaner resulting in a better looking and better sounding system. These software centric devices also replace dozens of smaller components with one digital signal processor (DSP) taking up much less space and in-rack wiring than they used to. These devices offer way more flexibility and expandability without adding more components. One drawback is that when there is a hardware failure, the device doesn’t kind of work, it doesn’t work at all. Instead of needing to replace or repair one inexpensive gadget or limp by on something that sounds bad, it needs to be dealt with immediately and it is an expensive all-in-one box.

DSPs have some type of operating system to make them run. In other words, there is basically a computer in every box. With software-based products, there is also a reliance on the manufacturer to support the product software and firmware updates. Because of the nature and operation of DSPs, AV product manufacturers have become very similar to manufacturers that make computer and network related products. They use the same integrated chip sets to accomplish specialized tasks. Because of this, the life expectancy of most audio DSPs has become similar to computer servers and other network products. Most professional IT service companies will do network hardware refreshes every 3 to 5 years. This should be considered for the DSP and network related devices in AV systems as well.