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Home Theater Upgrade Diary Part 3: Source Components and Accessories

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In the previous two installments of his Home Theater Diary, Michael Miller told you how he selected the components for his new home theater system and described purchasing the main system components: the television, amplifier, preamplifier, and speakers. Dip into his diary to learn about his choices on the source equipment that provide the picture and sound, as well as his system's key accessories.

The best big-screen TV is just a blank screen until you feed some programming to it. To that end, the source components of a home theater system are every bit as important as the main components. You want to feed the best possible picture and sound to your system, which means choosing the best possible sources. For me, that means a high-end DVD player, some sort of HDTV feed (satellite? cable? over-the-air?), and, perhaps most uniquely, a Media Center PC, to hold my entire CD collection in digital format.

The Media Center PC: NiveusMedia Denali Edition

Now we come to the truly unique part of my new home theater system—although I predict it will eventually become a standard component in the home theater setup. I'm talking about the Media Center PC—that's right, a personal computer in my living room.

First, I should answer the question of why I wanted a home theater PC. While there are many uses for such a device (including digital video recording), I wanted the PC primarily as a digital audio jukebox. With my focus on high-end audio, I wanted to store my entire CD collection digitally, and be able to play back any album with the press of a button. (You also get the ability to create playlists and "shuffle" the music, which turns any home theater system into a giant iPod!)

The key to storing digital music for home theater use is choosing the right digital audio file format. If you rip your CDs in MP3, WMA, or AAC format, you compress the music and sacrifice sound quality—substantially, in most cases, and extremely noticeable when played through a quality audio system. Instead, you want to either store the music in uncompressed WAV format files (which take up a lot of hard disk space—600MB or more per CD) or in a format that uses lossless compression. This type of compression works like a ZIP file, removing unnecessary and redundant bits of data without compromising sound quality. The result is a digital audio file that sounds identical to the original CD, but at about half the file size. (That means between 250GB–300GB per CD.)

I chose the WMA Lossless format because it's fully compatible with Windows Media Player and the Windows XP Media Center Edition interface. It took me close to two months (and about 300GB of hard disk space) to rip my thousand or so discs, but now they're all stored digitally. I've done side-by-side comparisons with the original CDs, and there is no discernable difference. It's an ideal solution.

Fortunately, the Media Center PC I purchased has more than enough hard disk space for my current needs. I looked at models from several different manufacturers, but had to rule out most models for a couple of key reasons. First, most of the low-cost Media Center PCs (such as all the HP models) simply didn't have big enough hard disks. Second, many of the PCs that ran Windows Media Center looked like desktop PCs; I wanted a unit that looked like a traditional audio component, to better fit within my equipment rack. Third, most PCs on the market, Media Center or otherwise, make a lot of noise due to their internal fans. When you put a PC in your living room, you want it to be quiet enough not to interfere with your movie viewing and music listening; in other words, you want a PC that does away with the fans and uses some other form of cooling instead.

The one Media Center PC that met all my requirements was an expensive one. The Denali Edition Media Center PC from NiveusMedia cost a whopping $4,700, but it does everything I wanted—and more. First off, it has a total of 800GB of storage via two internal 400GB hard disks. Second, it looks like an audio component—actually, it's the same size, shape, and color as my B&K power amplifier. Third, it's completely silent. The Denali Edition is housed inside a case that functions as a big heat sink. While the case gets rather warm to the touch, that's just how it dissipates the internally generated heat. There are no fans and nothing else inside (other than the DVD drive) that generates any noise whatsoever.

By the way, the external heat that this puppy generates requires some special consideration when you're placing it in a rack. In my case, I have about 4 inches of space above the unit, and the front, sides, and rear of the rack are all open, so there is plenty of airflow. You would not want to place this PC in an enclosed cabinet. (The same goes for my B&K power amp, which generates a similar amount of heat.)

The back panel of the PC looks like the back panel from any other audio/video component. It has four coaxial tuner inputs, a variety of composite and S-Video inputs, and component video and DVI video outputs. Audio outputs are a mix of line audio, digital optical, and digital coaxial. I use the component video and optical digital outputs for my system.

Now, about those four coaxial inputs. The Denali Edition comes with three, count 'em, three television tuners—two NTSC tuners and one ATSC tuner for over-the-air HDTV broadcasts. (The ATSC tuner has two separate inputs, so you can record one high-definition program while you watch another.) Television operation is via the Windows Media Center interface, which has its own free electronic program guide.

As I mentioned, my primary use for this unit is to store my massive CD collection. I've devoted a single hard disk to digital audio files, and I use the other hard disk for the operating system, programs, and other media storage. I've also attached a Seagate 400GB external drive to back up all my digital audio files; it's a low-priced insurance policy.

Operation is via the standard Media Center remote control—or, in my case, through my programmable Home Theater Master remote. To do anything beyond simple menu-based activities, I have to use the supplied Gyration wireless keyboard and air mouse. The wireless keyboard works fine and has a good range; the Gyration mouse, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is operation less than intuitive, requiring a lot of wrist twisting, but also the range of the mouse is only about 3–4 feet. Less than ideal, but then again you don't have to use the mouse all that much—primarily when you have to exit Media Center to work within standard Windows.

Windows Media Center ends up being a pretty good interface to do what I want to do. It downloaded the correct album art and information about 98% of the time; fixing album and track info is easy enough from within Media Center, while fixing the album art required exiting Media Center to use the third-party Album Art Fixer program from the standard Windows interface.

With upward of a thousand CDs loaded, Media Center can get a little sluggish at times, especially when you're searching for a particular song or artist. I also wish there was a quicker way to select albums and artists than scrolling through the complete list, which can be a tad time-consuming—especially if you're looking for a Warren Zevon album. In addition, creating playlists is horribly awkward from within Media Center; it's far easier to exit Media Center and do playlist creation from the standard Windows Media Player, which is less than ideal.

Those quibbles aside, I like Windows Media Center—for audio, anyway. I've run into some major glitches trying to watch and record HDTV programming. My over-the-air HDTV signals aren't the strongest, and the Denali Edition has a definite problem handling marginal TV signals. Whether I'm playing back live or recorded programming, I often get a rapid audio stutter and accompanying flashing video.

This video playback problem, it turns out, is caused by some sort of incompatibility with the default Nvidia video driver. The Niveus folks recommended that I download and install the WinDVD video driver instead, and this pretty much fixed the problem. There are still some problems with video freezing during weak HDTV broadcasts, but the stutter and flashing are now gone. (Unfortunately, this is the sort of computer-related problem and uber-techie fix that can scare average consumers away from using a PC in their living rooms.)

All in all, I'm very happy with the Media Center PC solution for storing all my digital music. As you can probably tell by now, music is a big part of my life, and the Media Center PC helped me successfully create a music-oriented home theater system.

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