Software Defined Ho...
 

Software Defined Home Theatre  

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Douglas Blake
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22/07/2019 12:40 am  

This is part 1 of a series of topics I will post over the next few days...

Software Defined?

Yes, a home cinema system with all it's brains residing in a Home Theatre PC. This means, no AV receiver, no DACs, no Streamers, no BlueRay player... it's all done   inside the HTPC and mostly in software.

Is this truly workable?

Beginning with the High Definition Audio specification published by Intel in 2004 and the High Definition Video proposal from Sony in the mid-1980s,  computer sound and video have moved forward by leaps and bounds. Today we can build relatively economical HTPC computers with HDMI outputs that are capable of 8K video and onboard audio processing that rivals the best AV receivers on the market, without sacrificing the computer's ability to still do all the things a regular computer does.

From time to time you will see videophiles and audiophiles dump on the HTPC concept claiming that onboard video is somehow inferior and onboard audio sounds like crap. In 2005 this might have been true but motherboard manufacturers have taken up the challenge and roundly improved both motion and sound to the point where some relatively inexpensive motherboards are better specified than high end DACs for sound and AV Processors for video. 

So yes, we can do this... and very nicely it won't be all that expensive.

What do I need?

You need only 5 basic things, plus a few cables...

First you need a purpose-built HTPC. To get the best from this, the typical trick of retasking an older computer isn't your best route. You can, of course do this experimentally, but I'm sure you will want to step up to the latest configurations once you see what this can do. (See part 3)

You will need a HD Television with HDMI inputs.  You can use a front screen projector if you wish but big screen television sets can offer better contrast and brightness, often for a lower price. Plus the big TV means one less complication in setting up the projector for it all to work.

You will need a bag full of amplifiers. For a 5.1 system, you will need 6 channels. You can configure this any way you like. On the low end a couple of Chinese companies have started offering DIY amplifiers specifically made for this purpose but these tend to be limited to 20 and 50 watts per channel. A better plan would be to consider 3 good quality stereo amps or 6 monoblocks if you really want to build a "killer" system. With the new generation Class D amplifiers becoming more common prices are coming down rapidly so you can use something like the Stereo Amplifier that Nick describes in his video or the Crown XLS series amps, both of which are excellent choices.

Then you need speakers. Knowing where I am, Nick and a couple of others may wish to get in on this, but I've personally used the Fluance Signature Series in a system I recently deployed and they do an excellent job.

The subwoofer can be powered, in which case you have several excellent choices, or since you will have an amplifier channel available you can also use a passive subwoofer.  The Fluance Subwoofer is a good choice as are those made by SVS and others.

With some careful shopping and sales, you can easily set this all up for around $3000.

In Part 2: System setup.


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Douglas Blake
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22/07/2019 12:34 pm  

I'm about to make every audiophile reading this cross their legs and look at the floor...

One of the long standing myths in the so called high end audio world is that computer audio really sucks.  Granted, it used to... but for the most part that has been fixed, a decade ago.  The onboard audio on some motherboards now specifies out better than some of the high end DACs  and many of the more expensive AV receivers.  It's just sitting there... all we have to do is use it.

The First Step...

To begin with, lets try an experiment... Get one of these Adaptor Cables ...

TRS Adaptor

... which will allow you to plug your computer's audio directly into an RCA input. No this won't harm your delicate equipment.

Next, try to engage an open mind. I realize the stigma against what we are about to do is very strong in many people. Lord knows it's sold a ton of DACs over the years. So, please try to give this a fair chance...

Disconnect your DAC.  Now connect the TRS->RCA adaptor cable to the line out connector on the back of your computer (It's usually the green one).  Plug the RCAs into your amplifier. You may need to select the line out in your sound control panel applet... it's usually called "speakers" in Windows.

Now set your amplifier at about 1/2  to 3/4 volume and use the windows built in volume slider to adjust the actual listening level. 

Go ahead, play a number of songs, maybe watch a movie... The odds are that as long as your computer and OS version support the HD Audio Buss, once the trepidation wears off you won't hear a significant difference between what you're used to on your DAC and the TRS output on your computer. In fact, sometimes the onboard audio will even be better than the external DAC. On my HTPC the onboard TRS output runs 3hz to 30khz, +- 2 db, at about .03% harmonic distortion with a noise floor of -96db which is more than good enough.

Yeah ... what a surprise that was. I've been running my stereo home theatre this way for just over 3 years now, with no urge to tamper with it.

If you are a Stereo lover, like I am and you are satisfied with the sound quality. Guess what... you're done.  You've got the rudiments of a good quality stereo home theatre setup.  All that remains is to run an HDMI cable from the computer to the big TV or Projector and you're in business. 

Here's a snap of my system... 

system

... Don't look for a lot of hardware. What you're seeing is a pair of Cambridge Audio sx-60 speakers, a Senucn a502 mini amp, an HTPC I built and a 40 inch television set. Once again... all the magic is in the software.

But we are after just a bit more, so let's push on to the "killer" system.

Just Like Computer Speakers ... but with no plastic

In the next section I will go into hardware choices for a reasonably priced HTPC. Of course there are no end of permutations so it will be confined to "how I did it".

In the mean time you can begin setting up the rest of the system with your current computer (provided it has 5.1 outputs on the back).

The first decision is amplifiers. You are going to need 6 channels to set up a 5.1 system, 8 channels for 7.1 or lord knows how many for Atmos. You can divide this up any way you need to, as I described above. For the system I recently deployed we settled on 3 Crown XLS1002 amplifiers...

These are a particularly attractive deal. First the price is jaw dropping ... $350US.  Second the specs tell the story... 375watts per channel with less than 1% distortion and frequency response well beyond the audible ranges. But the big selling point is that these amps can be set to full range, high pass or low pass for each channel, giving them the flexibility to handle the speakers and crossovers internally.

My friend assembled the three amps into a small rack enclosure that sits under the television set, at front and centre of the room. 

Connecting to the computer is just like hooking up a set of those horrible plastic computer speakers... without the plastic, of course.  Unfortunately not all onboard audio connectors are the same. Some are single purpose, others are configurable in software... you may need to check your computer's manuals to find the proper connections. 

This is the most common arrangement when jacks reconfigure...

GREEN ... front/stereo left and right output

BLUE ... rear left and right surround out (line in)

PINK ... sub and centre output (microphone)

An alternative arrangement has separate jacks for everything...

GREEN ... front/stereo left and right output

GRAY ... rear left and right surround out

BLACK ... sub and centre output

We decided to run the top amplifier in the stack for the front channels, the middle one does the centre and sub, the bottom one does the surrounds. This of course is arbitrary but we thought that keeping the front channels on the same amp would allow us to shut the others down when they're not in use.

There might be some setup to do in your computer. Hook up to the amps then open Control Panel-> Sound->Speakers and double check your setup. Be sure 5.1 surround is selected. Click on Configure, then set up your speakers. As a bonus, when done, this will show you the right colours for your computer's audio jacks. Also go into the advanced tab and set the bit depth and bit rate to the highest your computer supports.

So now that we have about 1800 watts at our disposal, what about speakers?

After a ton of online research, a bunch of phone calls and about a month of head scratching we brought our choices down to two systems... Elac or Fluance. Fluance won on price and availability, as it turns out my friend lives a 10 minute drive from their Canadian warehouse... So we went with the Fluance Signature Series 5.0 setup...

... and a passive 10" Pyle Subwoofer built into a custom enclosure next to the equipment rack under the television. We may regret the subwoofer decision, it's not a perfect match for the Fluance mains... but time will tell.

You connect all your speakers in the usual way, using decent wire (16ga recommended) and banana plugs at both the amp and speakers. 

So there it is ... 5.1 sound, 1800 watts, with decent speakers ... one Killer system built on a budget of just over $3,000.

In Part 3 I will climb into the HTPC Hardware.


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Douglas Blake
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23/07/2019 1:22 pm  

The heart of the Software Defined Home Theatre is the Home Theatre PC.

Here you have multiple choices: you can re-task an older computer, you can buy a brand new computer or, my way, you can custom build a computer from selected parts.  The latter route is far more likely to give you a good outcome since you are not making production or cost compromises that will almost certainly affect the outcome.

For those who've never gone into computers for audio or video, this may seem a bit intimidating. But, fear not, all but the most ham handed of us can actually build a computer. It's like solving a jigsaw puzzle, most parts only fit one spot, they also only fit one way... so as long as you are patient and gentle, anyone can build a computer.

Before I show you the pictures and talk about the parts, lets take a look at some of the special goals for HTPC builds. First, it has to be quiet, nobody wants to listen to the cooling fans ramping up during low level parts of music or movies. Second, it should be a low power setup, which will be relatively unaffected by slight variations in load. Third, it should be relatively small, again nobody except the die hard gamer wants a giant gaming rig stuck in the middle of a nicely decorated home theatre. Fourth, it should have a full complement of I/O ports rather than the limited connectivity of many "TV Boxes".

After a lot of head scratching and searching, I finally resolved all 4 of these requirements with the AMD Athlon line of processors, which have built in video hardware (called an APU for Advanced Processing Unit), use only 35 watts of power and run cool enough with low fan speeds. Currently there are  three models in this lineup available from Amazon... The Athlon 200ge, the Athlon 220ge and the Athlon 240ge ... all of which sell for under $70 US.  

All three of these processors use the AM4 CPU socket so now we need to sort out a motherboard. As we've already noticed, the big bugaboo is poor audio quality, so we are looking for a motherboard manufacturer who actually pays attention to that. The good news is that ASRock does and I've had very good success with their boards over the years. Also we have to consider "form factor".  We are looking for small here, so the best bet to get a small board with a full I/O panel is the Mini-ITX platform. ASRock currently has several motherboards that will fit the bill, 2 of which is available from Amazon:  The X370 Gaming ITX AC (specs) and the B450 Gaming ITX AC (specs).  Both sell for under $130 (US).

Next we need some memory. The motherboards both support dual channel DDR4 memory, so we need to buy 2 sticks.  I've always had really good luck with Kingston memory and Amazon offers a 4gb DDR4 2666 stick for just over $20 ... Two of these will give you 8gb of ram, which is enough for HTPC duties. If you also game with this machine you may want to search out a couple of 8gb sticks.

Now, we need a box to put all this stuff in. There are plenty of "small form factor" cases you can use. But cooling is a serious issue when you start jamming a lot of stuff into a really small space so we have to think about this when deciding. My favourite case for this type of computer build is the IN-Win BQ656 case. It is intended to cool through a mesh screen on it's top which both gives the CPU cooler lots of air and allows heat from other components to vent quite nicely. A version of this case with a 150 watt power supply (more than we need) is available from Amazon as the BQ656T.AD150TB3 for just under $80.00 (Why they always photograph these things sitting on their sides is beyond me)

Our case supports a couple of Drive options and the motherboard has an optional M2 SSD port.  So now it's time to think about storage. I'm a bit old school with this in that I prefer SATA drives for my storage.  An SSD (Solid State Drive) serves well on a SATA cable tucked into the bottom compartment of the case.  A good size range for HTPC use is 150 to 300 gigabytes. Kingston offers a good value for the money and they are very reliable.  Amazon has several models that will suit.  The Kingston SA400S37/240gis a very good value at less than $30.00  If you want to add the M2 startup disk on the bottom of the motherboard the Kingston SA400M8/120g is a good choice.

If you are into playing BluRay movies and/or listening to CDs you can add a BlueRay drive to this case, in the lower compartment.  Amazon offers a limited selection in this case but the Buson BluRay drive seems a good choice for around $75.oo 

Being something of a downloader, my choice would be to add a nice big harddrive instead. A 2 terabyte drive will store tens of thousands of songs or about a thousand movies.  In these builds I've always opted for the Seagate 2.5" 2tb hard disks which sell for just under $80.00

Ok, lots of talk about the guts... So how do I build this thing?  As I said above it's mostly like solving a jigswaw puzzle. Work with the Motherboard instructions that will come with it. Don't pry or force, insert connectors carefully and I promise you that you can do it.

This is what the result looks like...

htpc1

The InWin case measures 9 x 9 x 3 inches.

The back panel will look something like this (depending which motherboard you use)...

htpc2

Note that everything you need ... HDMI, Network, USB, etc. is all there.

The inside top will look something like this...

htpc3

And the bottom will look like this...

htpc4

 

In the next instalment ... The HTPC basic software.


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TVOR-Ceasar
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23/07/2019 7:54 pm  
Posted by: @douglas-blake

...In 2005 this might have been true...

Does this mean I can't use my Win98SE E-Machine for audio anymore? 😎 Lol 

It's actually a damn good machine for it's age. The Crystal Sound chip is more quiet than a mouse. The only bugaboos are the VGA video and the max HDD size 98 can access. It's only for legacy stuff anyway.

-Charlie


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Douglas Blake
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23/07/2019 10:05 pm  
Posted by: @tvor-ceasar
Posted by: @douglas-blake

...In 2005 this might have been true...

Does this mean I can't use my Win98SE E-Machine for audio anymore? 😎 Lol 

ROFL ... That's why I said "might" ... even back then there were some pretty good sound implementations. But I'm sure that even you would have to admit that with new RealTek chips topping off at 32/196, it's likely to be a bit better than your current one.   


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TVOR-Ceasar
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24/07/2019 9:57 am  
Posted by: @douglas-blake
Posted by: @tvor-ceasar
Posted by: @douglas-blake

...In 2005 this might have been true...

Does this mean I can't use my Win98SE E-Machine for audio anymore? 😎 Lol 

ROFL ... That's why I said "might" ... even back then there were some pretty good sound implementations. But I'm sure that even you would have to admit that with new RealTek chips topping off at 32/196, it's likely to be a bit better than your current one.   

I'd tell you the specs, but I'd have to set it up again. It's sentimental, as it's what my oldest first recorded on. Oouf! So long ago and it was with an headset mic. It was good enough for a 14 year old. I designed and built a Dynamic Mic preamp for him and that machine, but by  that time he wanted a USB input box which wouldn't work with 98.

-Charlie


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Douglas Blake
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24/07/2019 10:35 am  
Posted by: @tvor-ceasar

I'd tell you the specs, but I'd have to set it up again. It's sentimental, as it's what my oldest first recorded on. Oouf! So long ago and it was with an headset mic. It was good enough for a 14 year old. I designed and built a Dynamic Mic preamp for him and that machine, but by  that time he wanted a USB input box which wouldn't work with 98.

Darned kids are never satisfied... 🤨 

Audio specs for computers have been notoriously hard to find and most of them are a year or more behind current releases. For example the two boards I mentioned both use the RealTek ALC1220 chip, which remains something of a mystery.  On the previous iteration of the HTPC I build, it took nearly a year to find the specs.

There is a somewhat omissive repository here...

https://www.hardwaresecrets.com/datasheets/

... if you want to try looking stuff up.

Also this ....

Audio Codec Comparison Table


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Douglas Blake
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24/07/2019 4:42 pm  

Now, I'm about to make every computer nerd in the audience cringe and gulp their Jolt Colas ....

Fair Warning: I am going to assume from here on that you are at least a little bit familiar with Windows and Windows Software. The full details of a lot of this stuff would take up pages and pages, so I'm going to point you in the right direction and let you work out the small details on your own.

Hook up your computer to a keyboard and monitor...

The Operating System

I went through a lot of back and forth in deciding which operating system to use in this HTPC build. About half of my "advisors" said Linux, the other half came up with a series of suggestions which included various versions of BSD, Hackintosh and Windows. Well, everywhere I went there were issues and problems, always some killer detail I didn't want to delve into. Linux does a terrible job of supporting the AMD APUs. BSD couldn't find the network adaptor. Windows 10 is a nightmare of spying, phone home and forced updates, so that isn't happening.

Finally I settled on Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit. Yes... a 10 year old Operating System.  But it's not quite that simple. Microsoft doesn't support this anymore and there are concerns about stability and security. Common sense should tell us that once it's up and running, it will stay that way, in that computer, and there should be no big concern about updates or security fixes... In fact, the old adage that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" definitely applies here.

There are several reasons why I went with Windows 7. First it supports both the HD Audio Buss and hardware acceleration of the APU video, through Direct X, without a lot of settings and tweaks.  Second, the audio stream is handled with almost no delays, as verified in the DPC Latency tool, only Windows XP 32 bit scored better. Third, the 3D window accents and flexible panel layouts in Windows Explorer make for a very attractive looking display on the great big television set.

Organization

Before you start installing anything, there are some decisions you have to make, before you end up re-doing everything. 

First you need to think about how you are going to use the system: Are you going to be strictly streaming or are you going to store files in your system?

If you are steaming there's no big deal about doing everything in the "root partition" like usual. But if you are going to be storing multimedia files in your system, you will want to make a proper place to put them.

 For file storage you will want to set aside space for the operating system in one partition and your files in another. Generally without the M2 startup drive installed this will mean partitioning your SSD, which you can do during the install. Generally I recommend 25gb for Windows and programs and the rest can be used as a separate partition for your multimedia files. With the M2 drive, the system will set it self up this way by default.

If you have a really large collection you may want to think about the hard disk option I mentioned in the last section. The entire hard disk can be set up for data files.  Alternatively if you want the BlueRay drive, you can use an external USB drive up to 10 terabytes with Windows 7.

In my personal system I have it set up as C: 25gb for Windows, D: 120gb for temporary files and downloads then E: 2tb for movies and music.

Doing the installation

If you have an old Windows 7 disk, you're in business. If you have a valid Windows 7 license key , you can download Win7 for free from Microsoft. If not, well there's always this and this ... Read the instructions carefully before downloading. 

Once you have Windows 7 installed, you will also need Service Pack 1 for Windows 7,  and the DirectX Update.

Complete instructions on how to do a clean install of Windows 7 etc. are here. You may need a USB based DVD drive to complete this step, if you didn't install or don't have a BlueRay drive.

Please note that you may need to go into the motherboard's BIOS and disable the UEFI functions on some boards. The motherboard manual will tell you how to get into the BIOS (usually by pressing Delete repeatedly during startup)... Bioses are all slightly different so from there just look around till you find it.

Now the Drivers...

One of the biggest misunderstandings in Windows is the way it uses drivers for everything.  While there were incidents of "Driver Hell" in some early versions, this was mostly sorted out in Windows 2000 and gone in Windows 7.

The benefit of using drivers is pretty simple. No matter which application wants to access hardware, it always gets the full benefit of the installed drivers.  So, for our purposes, this means that everything from notepad to BlueRay gets the full benefit of the video subsystem and everything from KeyClick to AAC 5.1 audio gets the full fidelity of the audio subsystem.  

However, since we are on a "legacy" operating system, there will be a couple of driver isues to sort out.  On ASRock boards, Windows 7 rarely finds the network or USB3 ports. It also installs a default audio driver that takes that beautiful new RealTek chip all the way back to 2009.  So we need to do something about this.

When your OS install completes open Control Panel->Device Manager and look for question marks or things with default drivers installed. In particular make sure you have the full driver install for your Audio and Video chipsets.

In many cases you will be able to install and use the Windows 10 drivers in Windows 7 and they should work just fine.  For example, on my setup, the USB3 drivers came from a windows 10 installer file and the ports work just fine.

In the instances where a driver doesn't want to install you have two choices. You can explore the Motherboard CD and often you will find sub-folders for legacy drivers or you can go to the chip manufacturer's website and most often they will have a Windows 7 version you can download. It's not an unsolvable problem but some patience and a few Google searches may be needed to get everything working as it should. 

A few tweaks

There are a few things you can do in Windows to make this go a lot smoother...

First, go into the Control Panel->Administrative Tools->Task Scheduler and shut down everything you don't need to keep your system running... You can safely kill all the background diagnostics, defrag, user expereince, etc. and your computer will actually run cooler and faster for it.

Second, go into the Control Panel  and turn off Automatic Updates, System Restore and any other services you won't need after Win7 is abandoned.

Third, in Control Panel go to Programs and Features ... shut down Internet Explorer and the Windows Media Centre... neither are helpful in this setup.

Finally, go into Control Panel->System->Advanced and shut down all the silly on-screen animations, turn off your swap file and disable remote access.

 

In the next instalment... Sound management and media player.


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Douglas Blake
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26/07/2019 4:46 pm  

In an article I saw a few months ago I found mention that something like 4 out of 5 Windows computers are being operated entirely on default settings, because people just don't bother or don't know how to do even the simplest adjustments on their systems. In many cases this is fine, but it's not going to work here and especially not if you want the best sound it can give you.

So now we are going to do the final hookup with the computer connected to the big screen via HDMI and the amps connected to the TRS jacks on the back, as I've already explained, with TRS to RCA adaptor cords.  My friend positioned his HTPC on top of the amplifier rack, right under the big display.

Since this is an "across the room" kind of thing, you're going to want a wireless keyboard and USB dongle.  I recommend the Logitech K-400 Plus  for this task because of it's familiar layout and long battery life.  Setup takes only a couple of minutes.

The Magic is All in the Drivers

In a setup like this, the magic is all in the Windows sound drivers. Most people don't realize it, but Windows sound drivers come with a full DSP setup that lets you taylor your system to the room. What it lacks is the automated sweeps with the microphone, you have to do it manually. There are a few steps, but it's not that hard to do...

Please note: Most of the newer sound chip drivers include this feature but, because I've been recommending Realtek, I'm going to stay with their drivers to illustrate the procedures, here. 

Go into Control Panel, and look for Realtek HD Audio Manager.  When you click on it you should get a screen like this... 

Realtek 1

Move the volume slider on the top almost all the way to the left... this is going to be LOUD!

Select the 5.1 Speaker layout from the drop-down list and press the test button. You should hear a short series of tones from each speaker.  The display highlights the speaker being tested so you can be sure you have everything connected correctly.

Check the boxes that match your speakers Center, Subwoofer, Rear Pair and set the front speakers to be Full Range.  Now tap the test button one more time, you should hear the test tones again.

Next move to the Default Format tab and select the highest bit depth/data rate your motherboard supports. (Typically 24 bit, 192khz) Windows will select the actual bit rate, up to this, on a song by song basis.

Next switch to the Room Correction tab...

Realtek 2

Now orient your speakers in the classic Home Theatre positions... Left and Right front on either side of your big screen, centre channel underneath (but not on the floor) and  sub-woofer also under the big screen. Position your rear speakers on either side of your listening position and slightly behind you.

For each speaker you have the chance to correct for it's relative position.  Get out a measuring tape and measure from your favourite listening position to each speaker... you should be equidistant from your fronts and also equidistant from the surrounds.  Enter the measurements into the Room Correction dialog.

You also have the chance to adjust the relative volumes of each speaker, up and down as needed. This isn't something you should do right away. It is a finer setting that you would work out over time while listening to your music or movie sound.

Now, finally switch to the Sound Effects tab....

Realtek 3

Make sure the "Environment" pull down shows "None" ... screwball echos are for kids, not serious listening. 

At the bottom of this dialog you will find an Equalizer.  If you tap the small square to the right of the pulldown you will find a 10 band graphic equalizer that you can use to adjust the tonality of your speakers. When you make adjustments you can also save them in a file and as a new preset, which you should do in case the settings get disturbed for some reason.  Like the relative balances in the previous dialog the equalizer should also be set over time as you refine your setup. Make small changes and listen with them for a couple of sessions, with patience the results can be amazing.

Realtek drivers include a Karaoke function... make sure it's disabled (no red circle on the microphone)

If you are really intent on perfection here, you can download a copy of the Room Equalizer Wizard which uses a microphone and spectrum analysis to help you set the equalizer to it's very best settings. The program comes with a very comprehensive help file and there are a number of online support sites, so I will leave that part up to you.  

CA Frequency

Ok now, close the Sound Manager, restart your computer and you should be good to go.

There is now one final step to complete ... If you went with the Crown (or similar) amplifiers, your system has a huge bag of power, more than most will ever use so common sense would dictate that some time with a Sound Pressure Level meter is a good idea. You want to limit the volume to protect both your family's hearing and your speakers.

Turn the gain controls on your amplifiers below the 9:00 position (1/4 volume). Open the HD Audio manager at the Speaker Configuration dialog, set the volume slider to maximum. Now click on the left front speaker in the image and it will play it's test tones. Adjust the amplifier's gain setting so that speaker will give you 90 to 100db at your favourite listening position. Then progressively work through each speaker and amplifier to limit the maximum levels to be the same as the first one... Remember hearing damage begins at 80db, so in real playback where the signal levels are somewhat lower,  and the volume control is not all the way up, you should be safe.

In normal playback you would use the windows volume slider on the desktop, which should commonly sit someplace about 1/2 way up for ample, but not damaging sound levels.

In the next instalment: Media Players

 


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Douglas Blake
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28/07/2019 12:08 pm  

Part of the fun in Windows systems is that all software gets full access to the drivers. In the HTPC case this means that no matter what software you use to play music or watch a movie, you will get essentially the same sound and video quality throughout. 

That, however, hasn't stopped the ongoing battle of the players that flares up every so often. In my experience there are only two or three top-flight choices.

For Streaming

If you are going to be primarily streaming music and video from the internet, with little or no local storage, the obvious choice is KODI.  This is a well supported all in one media centre that runs on plug-ins to modify and expand it's behaviour.  There is a ton of information available about KODI online, so I will leave you to it.

A second method of streaming --called: Browser Streaming-- is also helpful for those hard to find resources and the rare few that Kodi does not support.  For this I recommend you install the Chrome Browser from Google and be sure Internet Explorer is disabled in Control Panel->Programs and Features.

Please let me add a note of caution here... the Chrome browser has a lot of settings, some of which alter it's behaviour profoundly. The defaults are rarely what you need. I strongly suggest you spend a bit of time in the settings panel and get it set up to your needs.

For Local File Storage

Here things get just a bit more complicated to set up, but ultimately easier to use. In my personal system I simply use a series of desktop shortcuts that open folders for Movies, Music, Playlists and New Media.  The rest is handled natively by Windows Explorer where I manually add and remove content.

Desktop

As an example, clicking on the Movies link produces:

movies 1

Which is done by setting the explorer panel to display "Large Icons"

Clicking on the Drama link produces:

Movies 2

Which is done by setting this panel to display "Content".

Then, through the magic of Windows File Associations, all I have to do to play any file in any folder, anywhere on my network is click on it in the Content window.

The best overall media player for this type of operation is Media Player Classic - Home Cinema Edition This is a very well developed media player that plays everything and can be tailored to your needs very easily in it's options panel. 

A second choice that is favoured by some for music playback is Foobar 2000  Like MPC-HC Fubar plays most music formats and can be bent to your needs very easily through its settings and a series of plug-ins that enhance its features.

In my opinion MPC-HC wins because it pretty much stays out of the way and enables you to run your machine entirely from Windows Explorer. I think Foobar tries to do too much... but that's why some people like it.

The settings in these programs are mostly personal choice, so, no matter which you choose (or both) spend some time in the settings panels making sure you have these programs operating as you wish.

Some Extras To Make Things Nicer

There are a few things you can add to your HTPC to make things a bit more enjoyable...

Volume 2 is an enhanced audio volume management program for windows. It gives you an On Screen Display (OSD) for your keyboard's volume controls and allows you to reconfigure some aspects of the keyboard and mouse to control volume, balance, brightness, contrast etc. One if it's tricks that I really like is that you can schedule volume events... My system automatically turns itself down at 10:30 each night, which keeps me in good graces with the neighbours.

VU Meter gives you a nice big on-screen stereo VU meter to keep an eye on line levels during playback.  Plus it's somehow just fun to watch.

Winding up...

Well that's about it. You now have a fully Software Defined Home Theatre System without all the extra paraphenalia normally associated with this kind of thing.  A computer, some amplifers and some decent speakers. All the rest is done in software.

There are some advanced topics that I will post in other threads in the near future... so keep an eye open for them.

Enjoy!

 


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TVOR-Ceasar
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28/07/2019 6:45 pm  

I have an audio player that I have favored since my Win98 days. It's called Chime TrayPlay. This is a No-Frills player that is extremely lightweight, 36k. Yes, 36 kilobytes (on my 1TB HDD, it reads 38.5, but the bigger you go, the bigger the allocation block), and it does not need to be installed, it is stand-alone. 

Since the Chime Software website is gone, I'll be stating this from memory. "Lightweight, only 36K, needs no install, plays any audio file on your computer as long as you have the codec installed." There are no options for anything except volume, continuous play, minimize on click and minimize when you click off program. The rationale is that since Windows has other audio controls that affect the output, why include them when they are already present. Less processing means faster and better playback with less chance for errors to occur.

Now, as I have stated above, the website is gone, and Nonags, the place I found it, is also gone. I, however, have it squirreled away in many spots. Also, it works well on machines from Win98 all the way up to Win7 Pro 64 bit. I do not know about Win10, as I have not used it yet. So, if you want to try it, yell at me.

-Charlie


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Douglas Blake
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28/07/2019 8:48 pm  

@tvor-ceasar

Odd as it may sound, I actually used the Chime player in my own Win98 system over 20 years ago.  Nice piece of software in it's day.  However; it is still codec dependent which means that if you want to play a file for which Windows does not have a discrete codec, it will fail. 

The problem is that it's a bit too "legacy" to be very useful anymore.

Properly set up you should be able to run an HTPC system entirely out of Windows File Explorer, as I showed you above. You should never have to open a program to open a file. (That is also generally true of all files in Windows)

With MPC-HC installed, you can simply click on the file itself, right in the content window... MPC-HC will load, start playing the file and (optionally) exit when finished.  Playback can be mouse managed by a toolbar or, even more simply, from the keyboard. For a fullscreen movie, you would never see the program itself.

In a few days I plan posting some advanced setup instructions for HTPCs and will show you step by step how to get the best from MPC-HC as part of that.

 


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Douglas Blake
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01/08/2019 7:37 pm  

I thought it might be instructive to show what can be done with the Windows built in DSP and Room Eq Wizard.

This is the front towers, live in the room with no equalization...

before

Note the nasty room node at 120hz.  So now we set the EQ in Windows taking scans with REW as we go.  This is the final result...

After

Note that it is within 5db from 35hz to just over 10k.  With response right down to 20hz ... with no subwoofer!  (My microphone rolls off starting at about 8k)

I'm not the least bit disappointed 😉 

 


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123Toid
(@123toid)
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05/08/2019 11:08 pm  

If I could add another great program that one could use for an HTPC is MakeMKV.  With this you can take your Bluray collection and turn it into a readable file on your computer.  Use a program like Plex or Kodi and you can now have your entire collection on your HTPC.  The best part, when you make your MKV, you can make it the movie only and select the audio you want to keep, so no more having to skip through trailers and menus or multi language options.  It also saves HDD space.  


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bjaurelio
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Posts: 35
12/08/2019 4:04 pm  

Thanks for the thorough interesting write-up. I've looked at this option in the past before. Unfortunately, the lack of support for HDR and object oriented audio formats mean I will continue to use an AVR until these can be supported by an HTPC.


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