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Old 26th December 2012, 12:01 PM   #1
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Default Looking for advice: HT amplifier + XBMC embedded PC

Hi all,

First post here, and word of warning: Im an audio analphabet!

The reason I registered here, is because Im looking for information and advice for a project thats forming in my head. The short version of my concept is a hifi grade multichannel AV amplifier (possibly tuner) with an embedded computer (raspberry pi style) running openelec and xbmc. Please note, I have no real interest in building one device to satisfy my own needs, rather Im trying to gauge feasibility for a small startup (possibly via kickstarter) to develop such a product for small scale commercial distribution. Before you think Im nuts, allow me to explain the rationale behind this idea.

Ive been building home theater Pcs on and off for over 10 years now. Ive used everything from windows media center, mythtv, boxee to XBMC. Over this time, much has changed, but there are a few constants; such boxes are a lot of work to setup and configure and notoriously hard to integrate seamlessly in to a home theater setup. Typically you end up with something only you yourself can really use, needing half a dozen remotes or a universal remote only you understand (and no, even logitech harmony remotes dont solve all that). Even getting that far is often a challenge, Ive bumped my head on issues like HDMI CEC incompatibilities, lack of support for certain codecs on the AVR (AAC 5.1 anyone?), struggling with horrible cable clutter and all the other issues most HTPC users will probably be familiar with.

In more recent years, AV appliance providers have started integrating some of the functionalities of a HTPC in to their devices; AVR receivers often have ethernet ports and allow you to access streaming audio via DLNA, Airplay, internet radio and the like. Smart TVs are offering similar functionality and sometimes even limited video streaming, either for DVD rips and/or streaming media like hulu, netflix, youtube and the like. The idea is good, as no one really likes to have to buy, setup, maintain and use a HTPC. But we continue to do so, because these appliances fall very, VERY short of the functionality eg XBMC provides. The GUI's look more like DOS file browsers from the 1980s and even then, they are sluggish and buggy. Codec support is woefully inadequate, particularly for video. Updates to support new codecs or media providers just doesnt happen. Customization just isnt there and what is in there more often than not works rather poorly. This article I stumbled up on recently does a decent job laying out the reasons I can not ditch my XBMC box yet Six reasons receivers shouldn't be media streamers | Crave - CNET

I dont like having to use a HTPC, but Ill be damned if I settle for the caricature of a UI and total lack of functionality that even a $2000 Denon AVR offers. So it got me thinking; why not merge them?

Recently XBMC was ported to ARM processors. The same processors that power your smartphone, tablet and the Raspberry Pi. The latter is a $35 “computer” barely larger than a box of matches, but using openelec embedded linux, it fully supports XBMC, allows full 1080p video with just about any codec. It can do audio decoding too from just about any format, it has HDMI out, analog and digital audio out, USB, ethernet. Basically everything you need, except storage. And obviously, no amp. Why doesnt Denon (pioneer, philips, whoever) integrate something similar in their AVRs? It would take care off all the issues outlined in the aforementioned article; you would suddenly get access to an enormous array of applications for hulu, netflix, youtube, a gazillion audio plugins, library functions, streaming, even fancy visualisations or home automation. The sky is the limit, and all the software is already done, and opensource and free.You would get a gorgeous, fluid and flexible UI. You would have almost infinite upgradability, thereby future proofing your investment.

There are many reasons I believe the big industry names will be rather slow to implement something like this. They arent sofware companies, they are specialists in audio hardware. Its a very different world. It therefore took them forever to implement even “simple” things like MP3 or USB storage. We saw the same on the video side of the story. It wasnt phillips who was first to support DivX or network streaming in their DVD players, it took a new startup to prove the market was there (for those who remember: KiSS Divx players. Later bought by Cisco). Only years later did the established vendors slowly move to implement these features, or sell dedicated boxes offering the functionality, and even then they usually botched it because they suck at doing software/firmware.

My point is; its not going to be Pioneer or Denon who will do this first. It will either be a small (startup) company not scared of being on the technological cutting edge, or an outsider more familiar with the IT side of the issue. Think amazon, apple or even google (nexusQ came close to what Im suggesting here, except with a focus on net videos and offering only a basic stereo amp).

Anyway, Id rather not sit and wait for 5 years for this to happen, I prefer exploring the possibilities to make this happen. I have a good idea of the complexity and difficulties on the IT/software side, but Im a neophyte when it comes to the audio side. Thats where Id like to tap in to your collective knowledge.

How would you suggest I approach this? Is it feasible for one or two engineers to design in a reasonable amount of time an integrated multichannel amplifier that competes favorably with mainstream products, knowing you can rely on the embedded PC to do much of the hard digital work ? Would it be realistic to be able to implement (via software) many of the bells and whistles customers have come to expect; thinks like automatic speaker calibration, DSP functions and the like? From an accoustic POV, would it be easier to go for a very highend product (tube amplifier?) or for something much cheaper thats only good enough to compete with lowerend and mainstream audio devices? I read some things about class T amps (tripath), is that a possible way to go? Are there companies that could provide a pretty much off the shelve solution for this?

I will also need some information HDMI switchboards, but this forum is for audio, so Im hoping to get some responses concerning that primarily. Any suggestions, tips, ideas would be appreciated.

Cheers,

Vertigo
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Old 27th December 2012, 10:38 PM   #2
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Hmm, not exactly a flood of responses so far. Too long post? Stupid idea?
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Old 29th December 2012, 10:17 AM   #3
dangus is offline dangus  Canada
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I suspect AVRs and other things like TVs and Blu-ray players will start using Android-based media players before too long.

Last edited by dangus; 29th December 2012 at 10:19 AM.
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Old 29th December 2012, 12:12 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dangus View Post
I suspect AVRs and other things like TVs and Blu-ray players will start using Android-based media players before too long.
Some day, probably.

Although I doubt it will be an opensource and community-extensible firmware. OEMs seem to hate that and prefer reinventing the wheel (and making it square in the process). I might see them integrate a ready to run platform from some ISV, like some GoogleTV platform, or perhaps Microsoft will see an opportunity for an embedded windows media center, but even that will take quite a while for established brands.

My guess is that it will take at the very least 5, if not 10 years before we get something which is the functional and eye candy equivalent of XBMC (/mythtv) integrated in to a consumer AV product. Id rather not wait that long, since all the ingredients exist today.

Anyway, Im mostly wondering how difficult it is to design and build a consumer AV receiver level amplifier.
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Old 31st December 2012, 02:40 PM   #5
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I suspect the lack of comments is because you are ahead of the curve here. I have built a few HTPCs but they have used a tiny Intel pc motherboard a Xonar sound card and Windows Media Center. I never knew about XBMC. I may have to try it.
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Old 16th August 2013, 09:24 PM   #6
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Have you got any further with this? To me it's the most sensible idea ever and its odd how this doesnt exist already. A complete home theatre system, hi-end ampand xbmc all in one. Even dvb capabilities.

Ive tried one of the xbmc media boxes available but they are to basic....

Your idea is great and id be if first to buy one if you get up and running with it...
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Old 19th August 2013, 02:55 AM   #7
dangus is offline dangus  Canada
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Various AVRs already include media players. Like I said, it's only a matter of time before those media players end up less proprietary.

Developing an AVR from scratch is not a minor task. You'll have to shovel buckets of money just to license necessary tech like Dolby Digital, and HDMI. Emotiva produced what appeared to be an attractively priced HDMI pre/processor and owners complain of bugs, so evidently they didn't invest enough. Notice also that it costs more than many complete AVRs that have more features. Notice that even AVRs produced by big companies have a significant number of bugs and failures.

So, in rather a lot of ways, it makes more sense to just develop a great little XBMC box that could either run standalone or that you could license to existing AVR and pre/pro manufacturers.
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Old 19th August 2013, 04:19 AM   #8
rif is offline rif  United States
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I had a similar idea awhile back but integrating Roku technology into the denon AVRs.
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