It’s all too common that you arrive to your installation or gig, setup your computer, and realize the video signal drop is 50 meters away. This usually becomes a bit of an annoying sticking point where you have to pack everything up and move it to a usually inconvenient spot, setup your rig again, and then finally connect to the video output. In this post, we’ll look at different ways you can extend video signals so you won’t have those issues again!
Why do we need to extend video signals?
This is a fair question! Why do we even need to extend them? Can’t they run forever? Sadly no. Without diving too much into the science of it, there’s two general rules of thumb:
- You can run analog signals long distances, they just need amplifiers along the way. It’s nice to know that analog signals (because they’re just electricity) will run over long cables (it’s not uncommon to buy a 100′ VGA cable!), their signal starts to degrade over those long distances, and usually you can drop an amplification unit down to pump the signal back up for another run. Even if you were over the safe limits of distance, you might get artifacts and distortion in the signal, technically it would still work. This kind of workflow used to be common before HD video and digital signals took over. Likely you won’t need to worry about this.
- Digital signals have much more firm “cutoff” points. They don’t degrade gracefully and after a certain distance, you won’t see anything come out the other end. The run works until it stops working. If you’ve heard of the magic HDMI run of 50′, that’s what is considered the maximum reliable length you can run a single HDMI cable. DisplayPort specification is about the same. And since we use these protocols, after 50′ we need to use different tech to extend those signals.
So with that said, digital and HD signals will often need some kind of extension if we’re working at medium/large venues or if we have computers in a closet somewhere while the art piece is in the lobby somewhere else.
How does it work?
The operation of extenders is usually pretty straight forward. You’ll have a transmitter and a receiver unit. The signal will come out of your computer and plug into the transmitter via HDMI/DisplayPort. Coming out of that transmitter will be the extension medium, so either CAT or fiber, and that will run all the way to a receiver box. The receiver does the opposite of the transmitter, so it receives the extension medium, and then out the other side you get a normal HDMI/DisplayPort you can plug into your screen.
I highly recommend that whatever products you are looking to buy, make sure to read their manual to figure out exactly what kind of extension cable you need. I can’t stress enough that these cables aren’t exactly intuitively named and there’s a big difference between CAT5, CAT5e, CAT6, CAT6e, CAT7, and even within those cables there are often variations of cable builds within them. The manuals of the products will specify what exactly you’ll need.
The two tried and true ways that video signals get extended if either over CAT cables (network cables) or over fiber optic cables. The first is usually cheaper than the second and much less sensitive (we’ll talk about that shortly) but also has its own limitations.
When it comes to extending over CAT cables you’ll likely see most units hovering between 150′-300′ of extension over CAT5e or CAT6 cables for HD video (1920×1080 @ 60hz). When you step up to 4K you’ll either need more specific CAT cables and you’ll usually see that number drop to be closer to 100′-150′ because it takes much more bandwidth to transmit 4K than it does 1080p.
There is a huge variety of price points you can get CAT extenders for. The names you’ll likely see on larger pro projects are names like Kramer, Gefen, and Extron. These are going to usually be a bit more costly but have been battle-tested in professional environments running 24/7. You can see the individual products that each of these companies provides here:
If you’re working with AV integrators, these are likely the solutions they’ll be leaning into. If you’re working solo or on a budget, there are alternatives that could work well. One being the Monoprice brand of extenders. While I haven’t used these personally, I’ve heard great things about them and the price is hard to beat at 50$ for a set of both transmitter and receiver:
Another option in between the high-end integrator gear and the Monoprice gear was recommended in The HQ PRO, which is a brand called Muxlab. They make high quality extenders that are feature packed and at a great price, like the one below that can extend both 1080p and 4k signals a decent amount of length for under $150 USD.
Any of these should give you solid performance, a lot of the time what you’ll find on higher-end pro units are more configuration options, better housings to dissipate heat for 24/7 operation, and more longevity out of the units. The best part about all these CAT extenders is that CAT cables are very affordable and can be stepped on and easily run without much concern.
If you need to run something more than 100 meters, you’re likely going to want a fiber solution. Fiber extenders will usually be used for extremely long distances. It’s not uncommon to see generic fiber extenders that advertise extending signals 500 meters (~1600′) which is a LONG way to run a cable. The only times I’ve seen these become useful are on things like stadium shows where the front/back of house is on the other side of an arena compared to the screens, or permanent installations in office buildings where there is usually a dedicated server room somewhere and your screens are elsewhere in the building. Fiber optic cables are essentially a glass cable that has a high bandwidth, and being made of glass makes them more costly and sensitive. I can’t tell you how many times on a gig I’ve heard “this line right here is a fibre line, anyone who steps on it and breaks it has to buy a new one.” While cables have come a long way in quality and production, there’s still just a piece of glass inside, so someone stepping on it or rolling a case over it could easily break the whole cable.
The same companies I listed above are the ones you’ll see with fiber extenders. Most of the time, I see Extron fiber extenders out in the real world on projects, but Gefen and Kramer also have fiber extenders that would be reliable. But in most cases, you probably won’t be dealing with your own fiber extensions, if you’ve got the budget for fiber, it’s always a good idea to tag in an AV integrator who has tons of experience running those lines and signals.
When we were discussing this topic in The HQ PRO’s Facebook group, there was a new option that seems really promising. These are HDMI cables BUT the actual cable is fiber optic. It’s essentially a long cable with HDMI ports on the end, converters built in, and the run of the cable is fiber. The best part? Very affordable! The cable linked below is just an example of one that can run 4K signals for 300′ for under $150 USD. That’s pretty incredible! You can tell it’s becoming a regular commodity (and thus generally more reliable when you buy cheaper stuff) when there’s an AmazonBasics brand version of it:
The only thing to remember with these cables is that they will likely only work in 1 direction, so make sure you plug the display and source connectors into the right place, and they’re fiber. So although they look like HDMI cables, you’ll want to be more gentle with them, even wrapping them too tightly or bending them too much could snap the fiber cable inside.
Dealing with video signals are never fun. Especially when you have to extend them it can become confusing and problematic. Hopefully this blog post gives you a few options and trusted names you can dive deeper into when looking for solutions for extending video signals!