Build a Home Theater PC? Some of the Challenges You May Face

Using your computer to playback audio and video – Dealing with some of the challenges of computer audio/video playback

You can build a home theater PC quite eassilverstone-crown-series-htpc-software-case

I get asked all the time if using the computer is a good way to play audio files and movies in a home theater environment. Absolutely! But lets look at some of the challenges…

      • You will need a high quality DAC (digital to analog converter): I don’t feel that the built in graphics and audio processors built into a typical PC motherboard are of high enough caliber for state of the art playback. It’s true that these systems can get you by in a pinch, but they are not a high end solution to build a home theater PC around.

If you are curious about the quality though, built in cards can give you a beginning idea of what’s’ in store. Even though, built in audio and video is not ideal it often isn’t ‘bad’ if you build a home theater pc on the cheap.

• High quality graphics card: there are arguments against this but I believe that a CPU that is relieved of the strain of the graphics processing function can better operate its function for the audio needs in a computer. By using a GPU or graphics processing unit in one of the PCIe slots you can get far higher performance for video rendering of images. The GPU is critical to realizing a clear and grain free picture.

I advise using a GPU that is around $150.00 retail to satisfy these needs. Your movies will look better and performance will be higher both in frame rate and stability of the images. HD content can be quite demanding but is no match for these graphics cards. I like the ATI 5770 models right now as they are about the best deal going and can be found for right around $100.00 USD. When first introduced, these units were around $200.

• A high power CPU: because of the demands that low latency audio processing can demand on a system you may need a powerful CPU.

I run digital speaker crossovers, digital room correction, and digital phase filtering all from the PC. It also does this while playing back the music file or DVD. Video then ads to the demands already placed on the CPU. This takes a powerful CPU to complete without audio dropouts, clicks, and freezing. A high powered four core processor is almost a must when you build a home theater PC correctly.

Setting up the computer system can be a bit daunting. Even if you did not build your own speakers you may be trying to use room correction and playing back movies at the same time.

Challenges of using a PC for music and movie playback:

Noise: this is probably the most common issue. I powerful computer system will generate heat. There’s really no way around it.

To keep the heat down you need to use fans and sometimes lots of them. I have five 120mm fans on one of my machines plus one 140mm fan. Its’ a loud computer… But it is very powerful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything that was slower in speed. The best way I have found to alleviate the noise is to place the computer in another room or in a closet and let it ‘buzz away’.

Setting up the programs: You may need to install Windows 7 or a newer operating system as part of your computer build. This is really pretty simple and most of it can be done just by following the instructions as the installation disc takes you through.

Sometimes if you are upgrading a component like the motherboard (to accommodate you’re home theater hookup) you may run into significant frustrations.

There are a myriad of problems you may face with a motherboard upgrade. My best advice is to get very comfortable with troubleshooting by searching in Google. I’ve had this come up multiple times and was always able to find a solution even for pretty complex problems. I’m not saying don’t upgrade your hardware. I do it all the time. But just know that you may have to figure out a solution to an issue you won’t have if doing a fresh install of the operating system.

digital PC Speaker crossovers: There may be some reading to do when setting up the speaker crossover software. Again, nothing too difficult here, you just have to read and work with the program a bit to understand what is going on.

Not all hardware plays nice together. I have to toggle some software buttons occasionally to get the program to recognize and send the audio feed properly. Sometimes digital signals aren’t recognized correctly when changing sampling rates or digital inputs. I’m not sure why this occurs, but it’s a minor issue and almost only happens with a digital input/output. Usually I just toggle the input I plan to use and the signal is recognized fine.

Measuring the speakers: Here you will need some additional equipment. A measurement microphone and mic input (on the PC) for getting the readings in to your HTPC. Here is where you can analyze the data and make adjustments for your speakers and crossover and build a home theater PC implementing digital correction filters.

A music playback and movie playback program: I like to use J River Media Center as this program offers almost any combination of playback options you will ever need including ASIO capability too. Understanding all the settings available on J River can be a bit scary as well. Again, nothing you can’t learn fairly easily though.

Introducing Norton 360 Version 5.0

Keeping everything working and playing nice: There are many ways to keep your machine in tip top shape. One thing to do is always keep your desktop clean with as few shortcuts, files, and icons as necessary. I usually have only 3 shortcuts on my desktop and no files are kept there long term. Don’t use a ton of programs in the start menu, I limit mine to less than 6 programs.

Virus protection and system organization: The easiest way to stay on top of the important items is to use a Virus and computer protection system such as Norton 360 or the better Kaspersky products. These will keep your hard drives de-fragmented and other duties up to date as well, including backups. It will save you time and hassle in my experience and you won’t have to worry about viruses as much either.

Summary – build a Home Theater PC right the first time

That’s the low down on some of the problems you may have when using a computer in a home theater environment. The use of a computer in the home theater is often referred to as an HTPC or home theater personal computer.

That’s essentially what it is.

There’s really nothing special about them other than the hardware that they use specifically for a home theater such as a better audio card and video card. I like to use external audio cards such as fire-wire interfaces for audio and dedicated video cards.

You can take virtually any newer computer and even some older ones and build a home theater PC for use in your theater.
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