Starting From Scratch
I've been engaged in an interesting e-conversation with Steve Gutierrez, a builder/developer who won a Panasonic plasma at his workplace and wants to install a complete home-media system. Here's the gist of our dialog, but I welcome any comments from readers with suggestions I might have missed.
I am looking to spend less than $7500 for a multi-room home-theater system. I recently received a Panasonic TH-42PX75U plasma as an award from work, and I have a Dell E521 computer running Windows Vista Home Premium with an AMD 5200 2.6GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, Philips DVD drive, nVidia 7800 GTX PCI graphics card, and an ATI TVT2DT HDTV tuner card. I also recently added a Wii game system.
I would like to build a good-quality home-theater system incorporating the PC as a music, video, and photo server. We have several iPods for music, and a large VHS and DVD movie collection. The PC is mostly used for personal-finance and home-business accounting, but the TV turner, video card, and Windows Media Center are part of the package.
I am not trying to build the ultimate system, but I would like to take advantage of the technology we already own. I figure the next step is an A/V receiver and speakers for the family room and an HDMI interface to the PC.
Well, you're not starting entirely from scratch; you have a very nice plasma and media-center computer. I agree that the first step is an AVR and speakers for the main room. Is the PC in the same room as the plasma? Also, how many zones do you want to feed?
The PC is located across the house in the home office, a cable run of about 80 feet. But since I am a builder/developer, that is not an issue. I just want to ensure it is technically feasible.
There are three zones:
1) Family room (16' wide x 22' deep);
2) Kitchen (18' wide x14' deep) adjacent to family room via 8' arched opening;
3) Covered patio (42' wide x 14' deep) open to the family room via French doors.
I assume the family room is where you watch TV, and you want stereo audio to the other two zones, yes?
Yes, stereo music for parties/gatherings and, on occasion, TV sound for the three zones—say, for a Superbowl party.
Okay, this is eminently doable. Most AVRs in the $1000-and-above price range have 3-zone capabilities; in many cases, the receiver can send L/R analog audio (amplified or not) and composite video to the second zone. The third zone often gets only a digital audio signal via optical or coax cabling, which requires a digital audio processor, such as another AVR, in the remote zone. UAV has reviews several AVRs that would suit your needs, such as the Denon AVR-4308CI ($2500), Marantz SR8002 ($2000), Pioneer Elite VSX-94TXH ($1600), and Yamaha RX-V3800 ($1600).
As for your computer, there are a couple of options to connect it to the AVR. As you mention, you could add an HDMI output card, though with a cable length of 80 feet, you'll definitely need an HDMI extender, which is available from companies such as Gefen or DVIGear. One type of extender sends HDMI signals over CAT5 cable, which can be as long as 150 to 300 feet or more; these are available from companies such as Gefen and Key Digital.
Probably a better solution is to use the Media Center capabilities of Vista Home Premium. Assuming you have a home network, you put a Media Center Extender (MCE) near the receiver and connect its network port to your router via Ethernet and its HDMI output to your receiver.
Examples of standalone MCEs include the D-Link MediaLounge ($250-$350, depending on model) and Linksys DMA2100 ($250) and 2200 ($300). (The DMA2200 includes an upconverting DVD player in the same housing as the MCE.) These products can also connect to the network wirelessly via 802.11n and/or 802.11g, but I don't recommend that option, especially if you're going to stream high-def from the computer, because of bandwidth and interference concerns.
Once the MCE is installed, you will most likely have to configure the system. For example, make sure you're running the latest version of Windows Media Player (version 11 as of this writing), and configure it to recognize the MCE as a device with which it can share media files.
Most MCEs come with a remote, and they send the remote's commands back to the PC over the network, making control fairly simple. Still, I generally recommend a good universal remote to control the entire system. My current favorite is the Logitech Harmony One ($250), which I'm in the process of reviewing, so look for that shortly. Its only drawback is a lack of RF (radio-frequency) capabilities, so it must be used in the same room as the A/V system. The Harmony 1000 ($500) and 890 ($350) include RF capabilities, so they can be used elsewhere in the house, but I don't like their button layouts as well as the One's.
As far as a surround-speaker system for the family room is concerned, there are many choices that range in price from reasonable to outrageous. Of those reviewed by UAV, take a look at the B&W 683 system ($3450). Other good choices include the Klipsch RF-52 ($1900), Mirage Nanosat Prestige ($1400), and Quad L-ite ($2000).
Many people want in-ceiling speakers in the kitchen or other remote-zone areas, since they don't take up any floor or counter real estate. The Noble Fidelity L-85 ($550/pair) comes highly recommended, though we haven't reviewed it. I'm afraid I can't make a recommendation for outdoor speakers because I don't know that market at all. Perhaps one of our readers can make a suggestion...
If you get a receiver with amplification for the second zone and only digital audio for the third zone, I recommend designating the patio as the second zone and the kitchen as the third zone. It should be easier to install a second receiver—which can be the least expensive model you can find, probably in the $200 range—to decode the digital audio in the kitchen.
In this case, the main receiver's extra amplification can be used for the outdoor speakers, which means you must run wires from the receiver to the speakers. Alternatively, you can get wireless outdoor speakers that have their own amplifier built-in, but this means the speakers must be plugged into a power outlet. Also, wireless speaker systems do not normally sound all that great, and they are prone to interference, depending on the frequency they use to transmit the signal.
I hope this helps you get started. If any of our readers have other suggestions, please add a comment to this blog. In addition to helping Steve, I'm sure I'll learn something as well.