- we introduced the idea of replacing the pre-pro with a home theater PC (HTPC). This post provides the meaty details of how we did exactly that!
but uses a larger chassis with an optical drive to allow DVD and Blu-Ray ripping and playback from optical media. It is a silent PC using heat pipes to cool the processor and contains no fans. We are using a Lynx AES16e card with external DACs from DEQX (the
so please see that article for product links.
JRiver Media Center v.18
ArcSoft TotalMedia Theater
. All computers need an OS and a HTPC is no different. Windows rather than Linux is the way to go for a HTPC, mainly because we want to use cool applications like JRiver Media Center! I used Windows 8 Pro 64 bit for two reasons: firstly it can back up itself over a network, which lesser versions of the OS cannot and secondly that it includes remote desktop
. As a side note having an optical drive like we do in this build makes it much much easier to install Windows 8. Installing it from a USB drive is a royal PITA!
. Once the OS is installed two key pieces of software need to be installed. The first of these is JRiver Media Center v.18. This amazing library management and playback application is the only way that I know of to replace a pre-pro with a HTPC. The other two pieces of software needed are SlySoft's AnyDVDHD which allows you to playback and rip blu-ray discs and ArcSoft's TotalMedia Theater for the dtsdecoder.dll (a file that allows JRiver to decode DTS-HD audio - see here
for more details).
Once you've installed the software it's time to move onto configuration!
Windows 8 optimization
Very little optimization is needed to Windows 8 especially when you are using a SSD, 8GB of RAM and a kick ass processor! SweetWater have provided a nice guide
written for Windows 7 - but applicable to 8 - that I used to tweak a few settings.
Now we get to the meaty part! JRiver has SO many settings that it is all a bit daunting at first, even for a professional like me! Many of the settings are not that well documented either, which doesn't help the setup process either. I left most of the general settings untouched except as follows.
In the Tools>Options>Audio menu I changed the following:
- Audio Output: select ASIO as the "Output mode" and then in "Output mode settings"
change the buffer size to 0.1s and check "Device only uses most
significant 24bits". The Lynx only uses 24 bits even though it is presented in a 32 bit wrapper and that's why this setting should be checked.
- Volume: set "Volume Mode" to internal and turn on "Volume Protection". See this wiki article for more. Changing the volume mode lets you use JRiver's volume control to set playback level and is required for our system topology using external DACs.
- Settings: check "Play files from memory instead of disk". This is a setting to optimize audio file playback, as far as I can tell it does not affect blu-ray playback.
- Track Change: set "Switch tracks" to Standard (gapped) - 0.5s instead of the annoying cross-fade it is set to as default.
here for more information), check "Videoclock" (more
) and turn "Adaptive Volume" off (set to low by
default). Adaptive Volume seems to be a form of volume compression intended to be used for late night listening...quite why this is in video settings I am not sure about given
that it is an audio parameter!
Xilica XP3060 after the pre-pro with the resulting extra cost, cabling complexity and potential for sound quality reduction due to the additional analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions.
Most blu-rays only have two surround channels (i.e. they are 5.1) but we have four physical surround channels and so we need to somehow create these extra channels. On a normal pre-pro we would enable Dolby Pro Logic IIx to synthesize the extra surround channels. JRiver does not have Pro Logic IIx but it does have a proprietary upmix algorithm called JRSS. Unfortunately there is precious little information on how JRSS actually works but it does it's job nicely.
this article). JRiver let's you perfectly setup bass management every time.
Display > Color Enhancement > Enable "YCbCr". This forces video levels to 16-235 which is the consumer standard used in most displays. If your display supports 0-255 then you could leave this unchecked.
Media > Image Enhancement > Change "Noise Reduction" and "Sharpness" to application settings, turn off "Skin Tone Enhancement", "Film Mode Detection" and "Adaptive Contrast Enhancement".
Lynx mixer panel configuration
To get JRiver's software outputs to the right physical outputs on our Lynx card we have to do some tweaking to the routing in the Lynx mixer panel. The panel is confusing and mislabeled but eventually we got there!
Settings>Driver Options - disable "Topology Driver". This solved an issue where on computer restart the left and right channel volumes in the mixer would reset to -22dB.
Physical hookup of the HTPC to display and DAC
- Video - HDMI from the Intel Motherboard to the display or in our case a Lumagen XS video processor and then onto our SIM2 projector.
- Audio - the Lynx AES16e uses a DB26 connector which is something you don't see often but does have some advantages in terms of the amount of conductors it packs into a small form factor. To hook it up to our DEQX HDP-4 and Metric Halo LIO8 we had custom cables made up by Redco. The DEQX cable is a DB26 to XLR cable and the Metric Halo cable a DB26 to DB25 cable.
The HTPC in use
It was a lot of effort to determine the proper way to configure everything but I think it was worth it. The system plays back blu-rays flawlessly and the audio DSP works as intended. Sound quality is way better than with a basic pre-pro and the video quality is on par with a nice blu-ray player. There are no pops, clicks or any other nasties to give away the fact you are using a PC. CPU utilization is around 13% and memory utilization 18% when playing back a blu-ray. The system should have plenty of headroom to allow me to experiment with and run multi-channel room correction algorithms from Dirac Live
Zones. This allows you to setup multiple profiles, each of which can comprise a completely different JRiver configuration. The really cool part is that you can get JRiver to automatically switch between profiles using ZoneSwitch depending on what content is playing. In my case I have setup my system so that 2 channel music goes out of the PC into a USB/SPDIF converter and then into my DEQX. I found this to have better sound quality than the Lynx AES16e. When I pop in a blu-ray disc (or play back from a disc stored on my NAS) then JRiver switches back to the Lynx AES card. This means that the HTPC has also become our music server for playback of both redbook and hi-rez music. Bye-bye Mac Mini, iTunes and Pure Music (we won't miss you!).
What do you think about our HTPC experiment? Please gather your thoughts and add a comment below!
The HTPC as pre-pro replacement was an interesting project, but we found a number of issues with it:
- Limited to sources originating on the computer (can't switch external HDMI sources)
- High complexity (many JRiver settings to fiddle with)
- Average reliability (updates to JRiver or Windows stop the system from working, requiring manual interventions)
- Poor usability (don't expect other family members to be able to use it)
- No Atmos or DTS.X decoding
As a pure media server, a PC is a possibility, but with the fall in the cost of dedicated hardware (Kaleidescape) we are no longer recommending this as a solution to our clients.