Sound vs. picture: What’s a better investment?

hometheater It has been a long while since I have updated my blog here. With the birth of my second daughter, and my new foray into a salt water reef tank I guess I just lost track of free time and neglected my blog. Today I was going through my RSS feeds and found an article from Steve Guttenberg on Cnet so I figured this would be as good of time as any to start posting again on my blog.

Steve’s article, Sound vs Picture: What’s a better investment? hits on a pretty good topic and one that I feel very strongly about. Over the years I’ve been known as the “HDTV Nerd” or “home theater nerd” you name it, if it has to do with hdtv, home theater, or anything along those lines I delve into it. Reading Steve’s article it goes talks about the original early adopters spending $10,000.00 on their first plasma tv, and probably have upgraded several times since then. When it comes to HDTV’s I am a late bloomer, I didn’t buy my first HDTV until 2005, and even then hdtv’s were still relatively new and still slightly on the expensive side.

Along with my first HDTV purchase I upgraded my surround sound system, new speakers and new AV Receiver/Amplifier. When I purchased my first HDTV it was $2400.00, a 42” Sony Vega rear projection LCD tv. Even in 2005 that tv was still a little expensive for me.  At the same time I purchased the tv I splurged quite a bit and picked up a new 7.1 AV receiver a Yamaha RX-V1700, and Klipch Reference Series RF-35 Floor Standing tower speakers, RC-35 Center Channel, RS-35 surround sound (two pair, one for side surrounds and one for rear surrounds to get 7 channels).  Between the AV receiver/amplifier and the new speakers I nearly spent triple what I did on the tv alone.

Coming from an audio background in car audio, as that was my passion before getting into home theater and surround sound setups, I have always been a fan of good sounding audio as well as good, deep, clean bass. I knew that I wanted a good solid foundation to build my home theater on, so the money I spent on my surround sound setup I knew was going to last me years to come as well as give me the enjoyment as well as an enveloping experience only a good speaker setup can give you.

I now however, find myself in a predicament, I have an older AV receiver, that I spent a pretty penny on 4 years ago, that is no longer up with the current times. My AV receiver doesn’t support HDMI switching, doesn’t support HDMI inputs at all, so I can not get a blu ray player and use my current AV receiver and input lossless audio via hdmi into my receiver and experience the next gen audio formats (Dolby Digital True HD and DTS Master Audio).

Now going back to audio vs. video, I currently have a Panny PT AE900-U 720p projector. After I completed my basement home theater build I sold my Sony HDTV and put the funds towards the projector and screen. I went from a 42” rear projection HDTV to a 106” front projection setup. I was more frugal when it came to my video, I didn’t want to spend the money for 1080p as it was still several thousands of dollars to get 1080p and even more money to get a 1080p projector and at the time all I was watching was over the air hd, and upscaled dvd’s with my HTPC setup. I figured I would rather get “ok” to “good looking” video quality in the HD world and get the wow factor from the shear size of the screen than get a smaller screen and 1080p.

So between video and audio, I still would rather have the audio first and foremost and then video second. Granted video is the whole reason I am down in my home theater in the first place, but I enjoy the video more when I have a good sounding surround sound setup to accompany the video, and know that it’ll be that way for years to come.

How I use my HTPC

How i use my HTPC

As Brent I didn’t start using my HTPC for TV, but instead for movies and music. I first got into HTPC’s for DVD upscaling, and post processing. When I bought my first HDTV and realized how crappy DVD’s looked on the tv, I started looking into what it would cost to upscale and post process dvd’s to give me a near HD video quality. I looked at what it cost for higher end upscaling dvd players, which at that time (fall of 2004) weren’t highly available. The players that were around were upwards of $500 and didn’t offer that great of an improvement. There were also high end video processors but those cost more than the tv itself, so that was also out. At that time I had hooked up one of my hold PC’s to the TV and I was using that to play back downloaded tv shows and downloaded movies but I had never thought of playing back DVD’s through the pc. I then discovered AVS Forum and saw what others were doing with PC’s and how they were using direct show filters like FFDshow and using that to upscale and post process dvd’s to drastically improve the video quality of dvd playback. I was soon hooked. Some people would say, and some times still do, say that PC’s with FFdshow and other filters were as good if not better at upscaling and de-interlacing dvd’s than what you could find in higher end video processors.

 

While playing around with FFdshow settings, I stumbled upon people also using their PC’s as DVR’s by adding tuner cards and recording cable tv and OTA ATSC HDTV. I then found myself looking for software that would allow me to turn my HTPC into a DVR. I started using BeyondTV, then SageTV, also tried GB PVR but at the time (again fall of 2004) nothing caught my eye, nothing was easy to use, or easy to setup. I soon found out about Media Center 2005 and from then on I was hooked. I ended up buying a new pc from Dell which came with a tuner card and Media Center 2005 which got me to the point where I am today. Since that PC I have built damn near 4 more HTPC’s or upgraded hardware to the point where I am today. Once I started getting really into Media Center and tuner cards I have never looked back and have never stopped. I went from having a single ATSC and a single NTSC tuner in my first HTPC to now having 6 ATSC and 4 NTSC tuners in my main HTPC and having 2 NTSC, 2 ATSC and 2 QAM tuners in my “test” HTPC that I am currently using to test out Windows 7. Right now I just re-installed my test pc with 7068 release of Windows 7 which so far has been running great for me and is slowly looking more and more like I will definitely be upgrading to windows 7 full time on my “production” HTPC once it goes RTM.

 

Most of the time my wife still refuses to use Media Center full time. The only time she’ll use it, is if I am sitting down to watch tv and she is there with me, basically if I am there to man the controls, or if I am on my computer in our room and she’s watching tv at the same time she’ll ask me to set it up and start playing a tv show. My goal once I get the home automation system up and running fully is that she’ll be able to fully use media center and control everything without me being there. That is one of the main driving forces for me looking into home automation is so that she can use it without having to worry she’ll break something. However even though she refuses to use it by her self in most cases, she’ll bitch and complain if it isn’t working correctly. If she can’t consume her media when she wants that is when the HTPC takes the brunt of it and she wants it out of the house. As of lately though, other than my guide data issues, we’ve been living a trouble free life with media center and the extenders and with Windows 7 it keeps looking like it’ll only get better.

 

My HTPC setup in my home is a Client/Server configuration. The main HTPC which is located in my comm closet which is adjacent to my Home Theater room is where the central hub of everything “connected” in my home is located. Main cable tv feed, cable modem, router, switches, patch panel, AV distribution, you name it, it is located in the comm closet. The comm closet also serves as an AV rack for my home theater, where I located my AV receiver, my xbox 360, hd dvd player, 5 disk dvd changer, cable box, monster power center and more. The closet allows me to access the AV rack from the rear so I can easily disconnect, add or change equipment with ease and not have to worry about wires all over the place. My HTPC is the same way, I have it located in this closet as I have 10 tuner cards, so that mean I have 10 RG6 coax feeds that go into this PC. Having 10 RG6 coax feeds at times can make a real mess. But having a closet of this nature allows me to have everything connected, and hidden out of plain sight, which keeps the WAF high, and keeps the system out of reach and means that it can be up and running with no potential of some one turning it off or messing with it.

 

With the HTPC located in the Home Theater and directly connected to my projector, the HTPC feeds my home theater movies, music, tv (Live and Recorded), and any other media content from pictures, and other home videos. From there I use media center extenders located in my family room which consists of a 32” plasma 720p HDTV. The second media center extender is located in my bedroom where I have it connected to a 32” LCD 720p HDTV. Also in my bedroom I have my “test” HTPC in a small form factor desktop HTPC case that I use in conjunction with the media center extender to consume movies and other content I can’t get with an extender. With Windows 7 on the test pc I have it setup to load all recorded tv from my main “production” HTPC so that I can watch recorded tv on the test pc just like I would if I were using the pc if it had tuner cards doing the DVRing. With windows 7 and the advent of home groups that were added it now makes it much easier to share recorded tv from pc to pc and have it show up in the recorded tv section of media center, it just adds that additional ease of use to the whole setup.

 

Over all the way I use my HTPC is to tie in all my digital entertainment needs into a single, easy to use, great looking interface, and without Windows Media Center I would not be able to accomplish this the way I do now. Yes I could use other solutions like SageTV but we all know what I think of SageTV, and I will just leave it at that.

 

- Josh