FirM Jr + KAT5 – Review

FirM Jr + KAT5 – A marriage made in Croydon 🙂 (Submission by Tony Butler).

Having made the decision many moons ago to move all my AV kit to node 0 (coincidentally, around the time my twin boys were born!), I have long sought the twin holy grails of quality distributed A/V and reliable distributed IR control.

My distributed needs are not that great at present (Thankfully, since there is no affordable A/V matrix doing S-video or better quality on the market yet), so I feed all my sources into:
– A Denon AVR3200 A/V amp for feeding component video + surround sound to the lounge
– A Linn Knekt system to provide audio only in three other zones
– A simple A/V switcher to feed composite (only because the TV does not support S-Video) to the bedroom

Linn aside, the other feeds reach their destinations via KAT5 over CAT5, which addresses the requirement to get quality A/V feeds to the various destinations. The hope is that eventually, all switching will be done via a Matrix switch, but that is some way off yet.  Now, what about IR control? The options, until recently have been as follows:

  • No IR control – simply not acceptable!
  • Fully wired dumb IR systems, eg Xantech – These are usually relatively expensive and either require new wiring to carry the IR, or utilising precious RJ45 sockets just for IR. We all know that you simply never put in enough CAT5 no matter how much you plan ahead, and in the bedroom especially, I do not have any spare sockets in the right place.
  • FirM – a fully wired, zoned IR system for ultimate flexibility & control.- This requires either a homevision (I don’t have one), or I believe there is a PC interface now which replaces the HV but nonetheless requires programming. If I went this route it would doubtless still be sitting on the shelf today as I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend hours configuring such a beast. Also, the need to use up RJ45 sockets applies equally here.
  • Wireless IR system, eg Powermid. – This I have been using for some time with reasonable success – though my TiVo refused to work with it and is the one A/V source which had to remain in the lounge and thus could not be controlled from the bedroom. Also, strong sunlight affects it’s reliability, which is rather frustrating.

Recently, I decided to purchase a plasma screen, which would mean that there was now nowhere for TiVo to live and thus it *had* to move to node 0. This in turn meant that my IR solution had to change, since Powermid simply would not control the TiVo reliably.

Following some discussion on the UKHA list, it seemed an answer to my problem was available at last. Frank Mc Alinden, inventor of the FirM, had come up with a more lightweight solution, FirM Jr , an IR repeater system, which (crucially for me) requires no external controller, and no programming (in this sense, it is comparable to a Xantech solution) and which, with a little bit of magic, could be connected to the recently released (and eagerly awaited) KAT5 IR upgrades. This meant that I could achieve reliable wired IR control without using any additional RJ45 sockets, since the existing ones used for KAT5 feeds would also carry the IR signals.

KAT5 IR and FirM Jr were developed completely independently, and not particularly intended to work together, so thinking caps on, and Keith (KAT5) and Frank (FirM Jr) came up with what, in theory, as a viable solution….. which began to arrive shortly after when I received a package from Australia containing pretty my everything I would need from a FirM Jr perspective, apart from IR emitters and a UK spec 12v regulated PSU, which I had “in stock”.

All the kit is in very high quality housings and does not in any way feel “home made”, so first impressions were very favourable indeed. The package comprised the following items:

  • 1 x FirM Jr – This is the heart of the system. It has a single IR input, (to receive signals from HomeVision/CBus/any other hard wired IR source you can think of.). a single output, and sockets on the back for 6 IR Receivers to plug into (which are the things that pick up the IR in your lounge or wherever and transmits it to the FirM Jr unit). Any incoming IR is also presented to the RX units, (which may seem a little confusing), which is a feature carried over from the FirM controller to allow some kit to be located in the various IR zones to be controlled by other IR controllers located in node 0 (connected to the IR in on FirM Jr) – but is also useful in this instance for another purpose as discussed below.
  • 1 x IR Combiner unit – This uses optoisolators to isolate the output from the KAT5 IR units from the FirM Jr input – in part no doubt to guard again Mr Doxey’s dodgy wiring (!) but also to allow for both 5v and 12v inputs should you wish to mix and match IR sources. In a purely KAT5 fed environment, this may not be strictly necessary, but you need some way to feed multiple IR signals into the FirM Jr, and the added layer of protection does no harm. One very minor niggle with this is that it does not have a power LED like the FirM Jr, so I initially had no idea if it was working or not.
  • 1 x IR Receiver These would normally be used in a FirM based solution, with one in each zone where you wish to have IR control, fed over CAT5 back to the FirM Jr. The RX unit has two LEDs on it – a blue LED to indicate it has received IR from your remote, and a red LED to indicate that the system is busy. In a FirM Jr environment, IR signals can only be transmitted from one location at a time and the red LED lets you know that some zone is transmitting IR. If it is not you doing it, then you need to wait until this LED goes off before you attempt any IR control yourself. It may be better if the red LED did not come on when it is you that is transmitting, though this is only a very minor point. In my environment, the FirM IR receivers are replaced with KAT5 IR, but nonetheless, it is useful to have this for testing/troubleshooting purposes, and indeed was pressed into service while I waited for the KAT5 IR upgrades to arrive.
  • 2 x 8 way IR Splitters – These take a single IR input and split it between up to eight IR emitters plugged into them to control the source equipment. Although I only had eight devices to control today, I wanted the flexibility to be able to control more in the future. For this reason, Frank supplied one standard splitter, which plugs into the IR out on the front of the FirM Jr, and other with an RJ45 plug on it to plug into one of the IR Receiver inputs (as mentioned earlier, the incoming IR is also presented to each of these sockets, allowing me to use one “input” socket as an IR output to this splitter).
  • 1 x Dummy IR emitter – This simple device plugs into the output of the splitters and lights up when IR received by the FirM Jr unit is being transmitted again, thus allowing a bench test to ensure I’d wired it all up correctly!
  • Various cables to connect all the kit together – Just showing Frank’s attention to detail, the cables were all nicely cable tied too – totally unnecessary, buts add to the impression of quality and care.

First steps were to connect it all up “on the bench” and make sure it worked in isolation. I did not have the KAT5 units yet anyway, so the first test was just using the FirM kit. I connected it all up as per Frank’s instructions, fired some IR at the receiver and…. The dummy emitter lit up – hurrah! You can see the evidence in photo 1 – the receiving and busy LEDs are lit on the IR Receiver, and the IR tester is lit to show the IR is being transmitted successfully.

Photo 2 shows the back of the same setup – not very exciting, but included for completeness.

I tried a variety of remote controls in the bench test, and all seemed to work fine, so the next step was to deploy it in the “real world”. I did not yet have the KAT5 IR units, but the plasma screen had arrived and the TiVo had to move to node 0, so I needed to deploy a temporary solution until they arrived….Luckily I had the FiRM IR Receiver, which I deployed to the lounge to control the TiVo and A/V amp, whilst my existing powermids continued to control everything else from both the lounge and the bedroom. Photo 3 shows the IR Receiver in place, just below the plasma screen. I do not know if the screen (a pioneer PDP-435XDE) does not emit much interference, or if the FirM kit is especially resistant to plasma interference, but either way, the proximity of the screen to the receiver caused no problems.

This solution worked well for several weeks until the KAT5 IR upgrades arrived and I could put my final (well, until the KAT5 switcher arrives!) solution into place. This is where it all wet horribly wrong and I thought the KAT5-FirM Jr marriage was off. This was, until now, only a theoretical solution since Frank did not have IR enabled KAT5 units and Keith did not have any FirM kit, and it looked like it was off.

Happily, the problems turned out to be down to a combination of ignoring Frank’s advice and user stupidity, both of which were eventually resolved. I have the following advice to offer those of you who may wish to attempt a similar solution yourselves:

  • Put fresh batteries in your remotes or ensure your Pronto is fully charged as appropriate
  • When testing, do not have two IR receivers close to each other (eg a FirM receiver and a KAT5 receiver – several receivers pick up your IR signals, none are likely to get through as FirM Jr can only handle one set of signals at a time.
  • Do not “overload” your splitters. I had plugged some dual emitters into one of the splitters, resulting in some devices working, some not, some intermittently. Stick to single emitters.
  • Test the Firm kit in isolation, and the KAT5 IR returns in isolation to ensure both are working before you attempt to bring them together.

Once these problems were overcome, the FirM IR Receiver in the lounge and the Powermid in the bedroom were replaced with IR receivers that comes with the KAT5 IR upgrades, and the Powermid emitters were al replaced with stick-on emitters – a mixture of Xantech and some unbranded ones from Let’s Automated.

Photo 4 shows the IR Receiver in the lounge – an altogether tidier solution than the FirM IR Receiver, though I must confess I miss having the feedback from the busy LED to let me know when SWMBO is using IR upstairs. “Luckily”, SWMBO is usually controlling the TiVo from upstairs so I can usually tell what she’s up to because I am trying to watch it downstairs too and she has just switched to one of her programs 🙂

I have had this solution working for about 2 months now controlling 8 different devices from 8 different manufacturers and in that time, it has proved utterly reliable. The only problem I have now is to do with learning remotes refusing to learn some codes, but that is independent of KAT5/FirM.

I would not hesitate to recommend FirM Jr to anyone wishing to implement a hardwired IR system, and especially if you want to use it in combination with KAT5 IR, since I know this combination works 😉 Aside from the actual “it works” element, I found the support from Frank to be superb, and he was willing to go that extra mile, building the IR combiner and a custom IR splitter for me – ideal for someone like me with no time and no skills in that area.

Since FirM Jr is an Australian product, exchange rates work in our favour too, and the FirM Jr kit is definitely comparable to, if not cheaper than, an equivalent Xantech setup – eg:

Xantech 6way ir block + 1 receiver, approx £98
FirM Jr + 8way splitter + 1 receiver, approx £96
Xantech 6way ir block + 3 receivers, approx £206
FirM Jr + 8way splitter+ 3 receivers, approx £145

Actual prices for FirM Jr kit (excluding Australian GST) are as follows:
FirM Jr AUD $135:00
Rx Unit AUD $60.00
8 way Splitter AUD $47:00

And I’m sure Frank would be happy to quote you for an IR Combiner, whether it is a full-on optoisolator jobbie, or a simple diode combiner.

Want More? – Follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, or subscribe to our RSS feed. You can even get these news stories delivered via email, straight to your inbox every day

Be the first to comment on "FirM Jr + KAT5 – Review"

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.