Wednesday Sep 10, 2008

Home Theater Architecture

At the computer history museum in Mountain view, piles of old machines are displayed row by row chronologically, as if each row represents a decade of design. Computers made in 60's look like washing machines or dishwashers, while those made in 70's look like Technicolor typewriters. The machines designed in 80s are black rectangular plastic boxes that look like VHS video cassette players or audio receivers today. Or is the vice versa?

Majority of home theater equipment today seems to be stuck in the VHS era - they measure like 2 feet in length and breadth, and half a feet in height weighing at least 10 kilograms. If you are in the market for home entertainment electronics, there are hundreds and thousands of gadgets in the market. However finding something that meets my few requirements was challenging. My requirements were:

  • Small size, fewer components - home theater should not make living room like an electronic junkyard - should blend with home decor
  • Support best of technology - HD video and audio from multiple sources such blu-ray disks, cable and over the air HDTV, FM, streaming video and news from Internet.

In terms of inputs and output connections it must have the following:

Home Theater Box requirements

  1. WiFi or Ethernet for streaming Internet media
  2. USB and Firewire for connecting peripherals such as memory cards, external disks, mp3 players, keyboard, camera etc.,
  3. ATSC, DVB tuner with CableCard support to get HDTV from cable or antenna or any PAL/NTSC sources
  4. FM/AM/SW HD-radio tuner and analog audio input from mic, stereo and may be digital audio inputs like optical toslink or s/pdif
  5. Infrared remote control
  6. Should play Blu-ray, DVD and audio CDs
  7. output to HD screen
  8. output to 5.1 surround sound speakers

Surprisingly, there aren't many (or any) boxes out there in the market that do all the above. Wast majority of the systems you may find at a local electronics store meet only couple of the requirements above. You would need to stack a bunch of them in order to setup a home theater. it seems like the manufactures making these devices copy each other, even to the price tag, and yet no one ever built a modern system.

One option is called an HTPC (Home theater PC). There are a couple of systems which currently available, some made by Sony (VAIO TP series) are priced at $3000. Another recent one which caught my attention is Dell Studio Hybrid. Mac Mini could have been considered if only it came with a bluray drive and optical audio. One problem is finding a good software for these systems. Last time I evaluated opensource home theater software (such as MythTV), nothing matched the Apple's frontrow or Sony's media bar interface.

My current home theater setup (built more than a year ago) looks like this:

Home theater setup

  • Playstation3 caters for requirements 1, 2, and 6.
  • Pioneer HTS surround sound system does 4.
  • Samsung HDTV tuner does some of 3, Cable settop box does others.
  • A Sony programmable remote control takes care of 5
  • 

PS3 is a good and fast blu-ray player, has great potential as an Internet media device. I am eager to see PS3 Life software. Beware of players which take more than a couple of minutes to load a blu-ray disk, players which cant be upgraded.

Pioneer HTS series audio system when I bought it was the only few its kind in the US, where a compact audio receiver is built into the subwoofer and hardly noticeable compared to 2ftx2ft beasts. The speakers are off white and blend with my wall and floor and aren't conspicuous. These days Sony also makes such compact audio systems. Beware of or avoid systems often called as HTIB which are DVD players with 5 speakers, but cant receive surround sound audio from other devices such as Cable TV STB.

A Sony programmable universal remote switches devices/functions can learn signals from various remotes. You can packup all the original remotes to reduce clutter. It operates all the devices transparently except Playstation. Beware of or avoid remotes that don't have "programmable" or "learning" feature.

All the devices and a Mitsubishi HD projector are hidden in a ventilated side table next to sofa in the living room. The projector projects a screen 9ft in diagonal on the opposite wall. A subscription to netflix provides a supply of high quality blu-ray movies to watch in the evenings. We see life size news anchors and weather experts walking across our living room. This setup caters to most of the requirements, however getting streaming video from Internet like Reuters news or Hulu or youtube requires a DLNA server. Watch this space for future posts discussing HTPC architecture.

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