“A Good Media Center PC should not be As Expensive as An Automobile”

Need to know how to properly set up a Media center PC, home theater PC or home theater computer?

The hardware that you need -to get the absolute highest resolution HTPC system your money can buy.407xNxzalmanHTPCcase.jpg.pagespeed.ic.ZmAhASvvOq

At the same time the performance will be as high as or higher than any other media center computer offering on the market.

The advantage that DIY holds over just buying an off the shelf media storage system or HTPC is that you will tailor your specific build with the exact components that you need. The performance will be higher, and you will save a boatload of money at the same time. Have questions about thedigital music server? We have answers here.

What to look for when choosing Media Server, Media Center PC or HTPC components:

1. Digital inputs and outputs on the motherboard of the media center pc; these will make hooking your digital gear easier in some situations. The digital in/outs are not always necessary but they are nice to have if you ever need them.

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2. A high quality built in graphics card; you may choose to go with an external graphics card for gaming. That is fine but it may be a good idea to have the built in graphics to get you by in the interim if you don’t plan to start out with the PCIe graphics card option. Also make sure you have an HDMI out either on the motherboard or on your PCIe graphics card.

3. Hard drive space; this can always be upgraded at any time but a major problem that may arise is not having enough SATA inputs on the motherboard. Yet another reason to build your own HTPC system or media server so that you know exactly how many SATA headers is on the motherboard.

4. The DAC or digital to analog converter; this little item is given little thought but is really critical if you want to realize the full potential from your digital theater system or music system.

5. Your main operating system hard drive; this disc will determine your computers boot up and read and write times. It is often a good idea to use a solid state drive for your OS hard drive and programs and also some disc drives to store all your movies, music, and data.

6. The fastest RAM your computer motherboard and CPU can handle; RAM will really help your HTPC to run smoother and faster making your HTPC experience that much better.

7. A fast CPU; this article will not go into detail on the brand of CPU you should use. But you should be concerned that the CPU is the best you can afford. Having a fast CPU will also make a difference in the overall enjoyment of your home theater computer system.

8. Cooling fans are responsible for creating noise; I don’t advise consumers to try to go ‘fan less’. The performance gains offered by using cooling fans are too great for me to ignore. What we are after is a quiet PC. There are several practical ways to achieve a very quiet HTPC. Making the HTPC silent is not really necessary, getting it ‘quiet enough’ is necessary.

Keeping your PC below the level of your room’s ambient noise should be the goal. If your room is extremely quiet then you may just need to place the PC in a ‘dirty’ room. This is a room with other home theater equipment that is kept out of the way for noise and traffic. In businesses this is known as the server room.

A quiet Media center PC will usually have several large diameter fans running at slower speeds than its smaller, higher RPM counterparts.

Let’s get started:htpc-2

If you are buying your HTPC from a retailer you will need to make sure that it has the inputs and outputs that you have in your system.

HDMI can provide a lot of the connections for the HTPC. The HDMI outputs can run straight into your home theater and offer both audio and video capabilities over one cable. But this often is not enough.

For the high end consumer the HTPC may be used as a music server or media center pc. This is where far more attention is paid to the quality of the audio exiting from the computer. More about this below;

Music Servers, Media Center PC and the HTPC; what’s the difference?

I gave music servers their own section. First of all, there is much contrary information in the market today on music servers.

Let’s just dispel one common myth that is misunderstood.

A music center pc is nothing more than a computer.

An HTPC is nothing more than a computer.

They are the same thing but with slightly different equipment depending on what the customers’ needs are and trying to achieve, and the knowledge of the computer builder.

Both of these media center pc systems or HTPCs can easily be built by the consumer.

And while also being less expensive; getting results that are as good as or better than any media center pc or HTPC on the retail market.

The music server may use a company’s purpose built software.

Because of this the retail media center PC may not have the typical operating system that a PC uses. It doesn’t need the extra abilities of the operating system.

The HTPC usually has a typical operating system but uses some specialized software to perform its ‘home theater functions’.

I would say that in general a music server exists because the clients that want them wish to have something uniquely theirs.

They may also demand a very simple user interface. Or they may be frightened about having a computer in their high end audio system.

But, a media server is nothing if not a computer.

Why don’t you need a Digital Media Player purchased Retail?

If price is not a concern for you than get the media server that you like the best; I am not saying it’s not a good way to store your music.

What I am saying is that there are better ways to spend your money. The best place to spend your money in regards to a music server is the DAC.

The point I am making is that a digital media player is nothing more than a PC, and one that you can build better than anything that is on the market. The reason this is true is because each customer’s needs are a little bit different. You need a product that is tailor made for your needs.

Most of us don’t need the cookie cutter media servers that are available to us retail. Our options are better, if ‘we build our own’ or at least commission to have one built based on our home theater systems or music system and needs.

Okay, how can the media center computer be made better? Media Center PC help:

If you download high resolution files from an online service you have at your disposal higher than CD quality recordings of your favorite music. All you need is a really good DAC to get this high resolution stored data out of your music server, HTPC or whatever you want to call it.

Use a digital DAC made to play back high resolution media files that have been stored on a computer. See more about this below – Or;

Use a firewire DAC; firewire offers the most robust platform for interfacing a DAC with a PC. The firewire platform is better than a digital cable, better than the analog interconnect, and better than USB. Firewire is basically the standard to beat; and the best part is?

You can get excellent firewire DAC’s for the use with your HTPC or music server. And you can get them without paying exorbitant prices to a media center builder.

My advice is if you were going to spend the money anyway, step up and build an even better media center or htpc than you had originally planned.

Build Your own for less, and get a better system;

You can pay up to $20,000 (or more) USD for a high quality music server.

And even at that price it will come packaged with a DAC that is merely ‘good’ or maybe great…

…but you can get better.

Retail units have weak processors

It’s likely that it will have a weak processor (CPU) and RAM.

It will basically be a pathetic excuse for a computer with some fancy software that makes you think that it is not a PC.

But it’s still a computer.

What I’m saying is; you can get this done better by planning this out a little more carefully, you will get a better and higher quality product for less money.

And if you still want to spend that cash –put it toward some ridiculous amplifier, preamplifier, speaker system or something else.

As soon as you understand that the high priced media server/HTPC is still a computer you can get to work building one that is of higher quality than retail.

And building a computer is NOT hard.

As I already hinted; the DAC is the determining factor to you getting awesome sounds out of your media center or HTPC.

So to let you know that I am not crazy, do some research on the DAC possibilities below;

Some DAC solutions for the Media Center PC that offer Extremely Impressive Playback Performance:

Budget and midrange DAC for the Media Center PCs:

Echo Audiofire 2 DAC; around $200.00

Echo Audiofire 4 DAC; around $300.00

Echo Audiofire 8 DAC; around $500.00

Echo Audiofire 12 DAC; around $600.00

All of these above products use the same digital chipsets. The differences here are in the number of input and output channels. The Audiofire 8 has 8 inputs and 8 outputs. I personally use the Audiofire 8. It is an excellent product regardless of its low price.

High End DACs for the Media Center PC:

Weiss DAC 202 24bit/192kHz FireWire DAC; around $6800.00

Dave Lavry blue DAC; between $3000.00 to $4000.00 (depending on options)

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC; around $5000.00

You may have noticed that I did not include any midline DAC solutions. That is because the Echo DACs are so good in their price range you are unlikely to find something better without stepping up to the more expensive DAC solutions listed in the high end.

It honestly is not worth the difference unless you are going to spend significantly more.

When I find a product that fits in this gap and is worth the price, I’ll report on it. Until then, save your cash or step up to the really good stuff mentioned in the “High End DACs”.

Both the Dave Lavry DAC and the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC are not firewire DAC’s. They use balanced digital inputs to bring in the digital signal.

The Dave Lavry blue DAC can be configured with up to 8 channels of input and output. So it may be a better bargain than it at first seems. But I also don’t think it is up to the level of quality of the other two high end DACs either.

Dave Lavry also has a higher end model that is priced around $8500.00, but I have not heard it personally, so I cannot comment on its performance against the Weiss and Berkeley models.

I think the Weiss DAC202 is probably the best of the three of the high end DACs, probably to do with the fact that it uses a firewire connection. I’m not sure if this is the reason or not; but the firewire connection is the main difference between these three high quality DAC solutions in the physical sense, so I can only assume it is making some difference.

So where does this leave you?

I don’t think you can beat the quality of these higher level DACs with anything on the market even if you connect them to the best high end CD transport you can get your hands on. They are that good.

And all three of them are designed to be used with a PC. They are designed to be used with an HTPC or a media center –remember they are all computers.

I’m honestly not demonstrating these specific models because I believe you should buy them.

I am just proving the point that, arguably the best DAC’s on the market are ones created to get your audio data off of the computer.

Don’t buy the ‘bull’ of needing a specific media center product or solution. Don’t buy their propaganda that you are missing out on some fidelity or special technology that they use to build the media server; It’s a computer.

You can get usually the same parts that they use, probably better; if you put your mind to it and search hard enough.

You can create this thing yourself or add the high quality components that are necessary to a PC you may already own.

I can tell you that having a fast PC is a huge advantage as the faster computers are able to ‘lock’ onto the signal better than slower models –in my experience. (I may use more resource intensive software than some users, as I also use the PC for room correction and digital speaker crossovers)

But the advantages of a purpose built HTPC or media center pc are absolutely huge for home theater and music playback –it’s just that simple.

Playing back your media via stored on a hard disc is better. Jitter is kept lower if an optical disc is never entered into the equation.

By using high bit rate downloads you can store the data directly to disc without ever introducing jitter prone optical distortions.

There has been much debate over this, but the advantage of the stored data has been heard, documented, tested, and proven; so why wouldn’t you do it this way?

Of course we have to be talking about a high resolution download. I’m not speaking of I-tunes here. This is not MP3 country. Far from it!

I also use my HTPC digital media server to store my music CD’s. Once these tunes are stored on my hard drive the music just sounds better than heard through my CD player. I have read that the reasons for this have to do with jitter distortion. I don’t really know for sure why this is; I can only theorize, but when I compare the two; there’s just no contest.

I prefer hard drive playback over CD player playback without a doubt. Try it yourself; I think you’ll agree with me.

There are some considerations to make with an HTPC or a high end media server:

I personally believe that both the CPU speed and the RAM speed make a difference with how well your digital media server or home theater PC will work for you. The computer’s ability to lock onto the digital feed from wherever you are streaming it from during playback will make a difference.

It may not be considered as distortion in the absolute sense; but I want a computer able to not lose its grip on the signal while performing its processing functions.

Depending on the load you put the media center PC under this can be a problem with slower computers.

I can tell you that this is not a problem with mine. I built one fast enough to easily handle anything a media center pc or home theater PC could demand.

If there is one thing that is different about a HTPC from a media server it is the noise from the unit itself. This noise is caused by the cooling fans.

Attention must be given to keep CPU fans and case fan noise to an absolute minimum.

But building a near silent powerful PC also is not difficult.

Keep reading articles about the HTPC to find out how.

In fact, my HTPC-digital-media-server is fast enough to play any PC game on the market as well. The kids certainly like that! Every now and then; I’ll let my girls rip on Dad’s HTPC-media server-and-occasional-gaming-computer system.

Do you have questions about digital music server? We have answers here.

To Learn More about Building the HTPC or Media center PC, Check out these Articles:

HTPC Build how to build your computer

HTPC Learn more about the HTPC and parts you may need

Build a Home Theater PC

Speaker Crossover

Home Theater Computer -optimize audio and video performance

Best CPU Fan

Best Home Theater System

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