Making the decision to invest in a home theater computer is a great idea.
Give yourself a pat on the back for even thinking of it.
Why HTPC? (home theater personal computer)
Several years ago the only signal from a PC that could stream into an audio or video system was a pretty terrible one. Coming from a built in sound card, or low quality PCI card, the audio was nothing to get excited about.
The main reason for this was the D to A converters of the computer system were sad and pathetic.
Not anymore! Pro oriented cards are quickly catching the audiophile community and beating them at their own game.
What are the pro recording studios using today for recording audio?
This is changing how the PC home theater system is being used and viewed by audiophiles. More data for deciding to build a home theater PC, what you need to know first.
This is a very happy accident that gives us the ability to use the very accurate and musical devices that were used for audio mastering.
Stream digital music to your external DAC by several ways:
Lets talk about the Digital Stream using the Toslink or SPDIF digital cable first: These are common digital inputs on most DAC’s.
Because of this, installing a quality digital output card in your HTPC allows the streaming of digital media directly to your DAC.
Just get a digital output card for the PC and use any DAC that you want. These DIG output cards are not very expensive. A few hundred dollars or less will get you a very nice one.
Firewire digital output:
This is one of the best ways to output a digital audio signal from your computer. It does NOT boast a faster peak data transfer rate as USB 2.
Firewire transfer rate is 400mbps while USB 2 is 480mbps but Firewire is more stable and usually faster overall than USB 2 even though it looks to have lower numbers. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here but mainly it is still considered to be superior to USB.
The picture above is the Echo Audiofire 12, this is a great medium priced DAC option for the home theater PCS builder. It’s one of my favorite multi-channel computer DACs. Very hard to beat for the budget. Echo also carries the Echo Audiofire 8, this is also a great DAC if you need only 8 output channels instead of 12.
Firewire Interfaces get my vote of confidence and my recommendation as the standard to beat. I would encourage you to use a Firewire interface over a USB DAC solution. There are other jitter problems as well with USB. Although, I have seen and heard some successful USB DAC options that sounded very good. But, Home Theater PCS are a good place to use the firewire standard instead of USB.
Problems to overcome with a PC when using in a Home Theater:
Power supply noise: How to fix it!
Home Theater PC. (computers) generate power supply noise. They inject this noise into the A/C signal via the power strip right into your other components.
Put the Home Theater Computer on its own electrical circuit or better yet send a dedicated line to your electrical panel and isolate the audio/video system from the rest of the house.
Then run the PC off a house outlet plugged into a line conditioner system. Or at least a power strip.
Send the digital signal out of the computer to a firewire device or from a fiber optic cable for further isolation.
The Home Theater Computer and D to A converter Quality:
These can be found for literally any budget. Most of the fire-wire interfaces or cards -are pro oriented cards. Don’t let that scare you off.
If it is good enough for recording the music it is probably good enough to play it back. Keep in mind there can be a large difference between the sound of DAC’s and the budgets will vary wildly as well.
Getting the Best Video from the Home Theater Computer:
If you plan to stream video out of your PC you will need a very good video card.
Good news! They make some incredible video cards that output HD material at full resolution. In fact some of these cards are capable of much higher resolution than 1080p.
1080p is the max resolution of (most) HDTV’s these days. Some computer monitors are capable of higher resolutions to accommodate the increased output from these advanced video cards.
The Bad News is that they aren’t cheap. A good HD video card will start around 200.00 USD for your Home Theater Computer.
Some extremely expensive options are also available. Some of these are capable of displaying onto multiple monitors as well for a three screen wide front landscape.
Although, this three monitor display option is currently only available for gaming solutions at this time.
I imagine that at some point Home theaters playing DVD’s will be able to do this as well. Literally putting you into the action with wrap around you sound and video from your Home-Theater-Computer.