TGHTOASP (The Great Home Theater On A Shoestring Project)

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I decided the thime has come to update my TV/AV system.

Up till now I have been running a rarely used VCR, a DVD player (heavily modded audio section, also often doubles as audio player), a Cable TV Set Top Box and a standard wide screen Sony 32" CRT TV.

As all this changing of the system might interest others, I thought I'll sorta blog it here. Not that much DIY involved really, but such is life. I looked long and hard at the various solutions, I was clear what I want:

1) Big Picture, Good Picture, fitting to my room, which suggests a 40-46" Set.

2) PVR functionality, DVD replay and burn, slick please, good audio transport if possible, ideally with HD juke box functionality, I'll retain a high quality audio only player for critical listening, but for my wife the jukebox thing would be great.

What have I done so far?

I decided to go for a really oldfashioned and traditional CRT Rear Projection Set. The affordable direct view Plasma and LCD Screens have a picture quality which I can as best describe as artificial, usually with poor contrast and resolution, on even pretty decent material. DLP & LCD Rear Projection shares some of these. I can afford the space for the big RPV set, so that's fine.

The one I choose costs in the UK £ 900 and has 3 Scarts (2RGB), S-Video X 2 and composite inputs, no PC or the like, but it is an analogue 100Hz set.

It has yet to be delivered, I could have had a Plasma the same day, I can understand that dealers do not like to stock these RPV monsters, even if the picture is great. They can stack two dozend Plasma Panels in the same space as two RPV's and they make a lot more money on the Plasma Panels, the sales man tried to steer me again and again to the lowest priced Plasma, did he think I ate all my school fees?

Next stop, PVR, DVD Player etc.....

After looking at the alternatives I decided to open myself to all sorts of abuse, hardware incompatibility and software glitches by consider a PC with XP Media Center Edition 2005 the best choice.

I originally wanted to re-build an existing PC which is being replaced by a laptop as MCE Box. But while looking up the various gizmo's needed I came across a nice factory repack under the Advent Brand (home brand of a big PC resale chain in the UK) sold through a "surplus" dealer called Morgan Computers that seemed as good a starting point as my box and included quite a few of the more expensive bits. It works out at a little under £ 450.

I suspect I'll add a second tuner card soon and a second cable Set Top Box and I equally suspect that serious work will be needed to get the box quieted down, so DIY remains.

More crucial is however interfacing between the PC and the other AV gubbins. The PC of course has only got S-Video and aerial in and VGA + S-Video out. So, adapters will be needed for best quality. I'm still looking for the neatest solutions, so far I have come up with this:


The next fun bit is that aparently the Pace Cable STP's my Cable company uses have problems being controlled by XP MCE. And it seems MCE cannot control two STP's at the same time. So, I guess I'll have to find a workaround, maybe WinLIRC via serial port (DIY) adapters, I have found the protocols for the Box I use....

Next to that sorting the sound out looks almost HARMLESS!

Well, so much for now. Let's wait for the kit to arrive and for the fit to hit the shan!


Okay, my first descition on the conversion of picture format fronts, after looking at the circuits needed for RGB-SCART 2 SVHS and toteling up the main parts I figured I might as well buy a ready made gizmo from Maplin in the UK, at £ 35 each right now.


Otherwise it's too much hassle, I'll probably still make a VGA 2 RGB-SCART adapter cable though.

Good news is it seems the cable box I have does wokr okay with XPMCE, with a bit of trickery:

Getting Dual tuners to work on MCE is also documented over at the M$ website:

Additions needed so far for making my £ 450 XP MCE PC fully capable of dual tuner recording:

£ 30 for AverMedia or other 1/2 High TV Tuner (Maplin lists the Aver TV Go 007 Plus for that)
£ 70 for a pair of RGB-Scart 2 SVHS Adapters

I guess I'll also need to buy some 75 Ohm Mini Coax, Scard Plugs and S-Video Plugs.... Oh well.

So a cool £ 100 extra plus cableing to make the whole shooting match work with dual Digital TV STB's and £ 15 extra monthly subscription I can finally have decent TV recording.

What I find interesting is that you can use voice commands on XP MCE....

Just Imagine, walking in the room and going:

"Good Morniong Hal, Media, Video Play Title 2001"

No matter how this little experiment turns out, 100 Points for style.


The "Morgan Blue Light Special" MCE PC arrived yesterday.

I'm still just bringing XP itself up to scratch, install the latest drivers etc, but the news are MOSTLY good.

The Advent Chassis is pretty quiet, except for the HDD on bootup. It looks smart enough to sit in the living room.

The latest Nvidia graphics driver gives full control over the image, so sending PAL exactly to the VGA port and from there via a good VGA cable (got one) to the SCART Adapter circuit will be a trifle.

Sound, I'll have to see, I'll probably for now will use my "spare" external USB sound thingey and then Optical to a modded Behringer DEQ2496 opertaing as EQ and DAC, the onboard Realtek AC97 audio is pretty bad, I'll probably keep that simply as derived center channel and for TV only sound feeds.

Okay, pleny of work this weekend.

Ciao T

After much wrestling with the darn thing it now does what it is supposed to.

First, in the end the PC was noisiser than I like.

Placing rubber gromets between HD and HD cage reduce the noise emitted here, now only the heavy trashing of the HDD when booting up is audible.

Placing the PSU Fan on similar rubber monts helped, but not enough. THe CPU Fan is als noisier than I'd like. So, I'll now be looking to quieten these two fans down more.

I added a small 960mm fan with a 100R resistor in series merely to stir the air in the expansion card area, which seemed to kill the tendency of the wireless network card to loose the connection.

It took ages to get live TV not to crash (aparently later versions of the Nvidia Forceware Driver, despite being certified for XPMCE are buggy), I needed to get WinDVD instead of Nvidia's DVD Decoder as well (how comes all Nvidia stuff is buggy?) and finally getting the Set Top box to work was real fun (not).

For sound I use S/P-DIF to a Behringer DEQ2496 used mainly as DAC, there will be more interesting stuff soon, but for TV/DVD Sound it is okay.

When all is said and done, not bad at all though.

Give me a few more weeks and this whole thing will be real neato.

Looks-wise, the Wife is happy having it in the living room, which is a plus.


A few days on....

Even with the original fan rubber mounted in the PSU remaind noisy, so I decided to risk it and fitted one of a pair of nice sleeve bearing brushless motor Pabst Fans, 24V Types, whisper quiet when run on 12V. This killed the noise for good.

I added the second fan of these I had pulling air from the front via the harddrive past the TV/Output Cards, literally stuck into the chassis on rubber bumpers between parts on the Motherboard as well as I could. Good thing all parts of the fans are now plastic, so no shorts possible, I kept an eye on mechanical strains.

The result - the PC is now WHISPER QUIET, I have to strain to hear the noise from the PC late at night from the sofa. Baiscally quiet enough for critical audio.

The downside is that internal temperatures have gone up up a bit. The Hard Drive and general internals of the PC are around 50 Centigrade with around 26 - 27 Centigrade ambient, streaming/recording TV, the CPU reaches 60 Centigrade, but with a very quiet and slow running fan, so there is some thermal headroom left for Hot days I think. I might seek out even quieter 12V fans to lower temeratures a bit, but it's not a priority right now.

Now the noise limits are dictated by the DVD drive which is noisy on spin-up. I might switch it for the drive from my external Freecom single layer burner which seems much quieter into this, the DVD drive is manly for playing/ripping DVD's & CD's, so no dual layer burn I can live with. Finally, on boot up and when heavy seeking happens the hard disk trashing remains audible and annoying, but apart from bootup is rather infrequent.

The big RPV TV arrived, brilliant piece of gear, I love it. Watching DVD on this even via the low grade integrated (Nvidia MX Chipset) S-Video TV Encoder is stunning, at least as good as any dedicated DVD Player I had in my place (non of the High End ones I'm afraid). I rolled the system back to Nvidia DVD Decoder as it gives me more picture and sound control, especially over lipsyncing, which is extremely notable on the large schreen.

Keeping fingers crossed, no Live TV crash so far, so it appears the duff piece of code was in the Release 70 Forceware Driver for the Graphics card.

Okay, now the downside. The Nvidia TV Tuner board's capture has by far overdone brightness and contrast settings and I have not yet found any way of acessing these items in Windows or Media center. So, recorded TV from my set-top box looks a little washed out. Quality is still pretty good, but right next to a RGB feed directly to the TV the loss of quality is notable. I'll have to find a solution.

The NVTV card appears at least in theory to have RGB capture inputs (there undocumented and unlabelled connectors for sound & video on the card and MCE does offer RGB input as an option on the card), so I may be able to make an adapter and capture natively RGB, which would be cool.

Otherwise the programming guide and PVR functions in XP MCE are absolutely great. If I can get the picture quality in line with the RGB connection to the TV (at least broadly) and when I have the second capture card I shall be as happy a bunny as they come for now! Except I'd prefer a direct input dual tuner Digital Cable or Sky Satellite card over set top boxes, IR Blaster cables and all the other gubbins needed.

Time for M$ and Sky to wise up. Sky will have my business in an instant if they offer me a Sat TV Card that can decode Sky in MCE. If this does not happen I may have to see what one can do with Linux PVR and software to crack Sky's encryption, not because I want to watch Sky for free, but because I want to loose all that set-top box junk.

Let me finish on the video issues and next round will be to sort out the audio side of things well, plus to build a large box into which to hid the Cable Modem, Wireless router, an old PC and 1TB worth of hard disks as external disk pack.


Kuei Yang Wang said:
Now the noise limits are dictated by the DVD drive which is noisy on spin-up. I might switch it for the drive from my external Freecom single layer burner which seems much quieter into this, the DVD drive is manly for playing/ripping DVD's & CD's, so no dual layer burn I can live with.

Just done that.





This now works actually as I want it. A good replacement for a lot of different hardware. Only video capture and really higth quality audio to fix.

Ciao T
For soudn issues, get a sound card. There's SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS and M-Audio Revolution 7.1.

It depends on your needs. Do you need DD and or DTS decoding, do you need multichannel, etc. Also, the Sound Blaster has a remote control, it's better supported and has tons of ins and outs(Digital and Analog). Decoding, etc. is hardware.

M-Audio has few inputs, software decoding, and maybe DD decoding, but sounds better.

If you need Analog and have software decoders, go with M-Audio, for Digital, Creative has a great package.

As for video capture, put a resistor in the signal path if using something else than RF. I have a composite to RF converter coming from an old VCR and picture looks bleached. This might be a design problem or too high gamma somewhere.

DragonMaster said:
For soudn issues, get a sound card.

I don't think so, if you want to know why, below.....

DragonMaster said:
It depends on your needs. Do you need DD and or DTS decoding, do you need multichannel, etc.

I need low jitter, bit-accurate, non-sample rate converted 2-Channel Audio digital signals, preferably syncronisable to an external clock and ideally I2S. The actual DAC part and analogue I will definitly do myself!

DragonMaster said:
As for video capture, put a resistor in the signal path if using something else than RF. I have a composite to RF converter coming from an old VCR and picture looks bleached. This might be a design problem or too high gamma somewhere.

I have been considering that, maybe this evening....

Then building a DIY PCI card or USB to SPDIF or I2S converter is the only way.

I'm not sure but I think Audigy 2 has I2S output on the platinum drive connector. (pinout here: ) All I know is that the EMU10k2(sound processor) supports I2S output.

What I'm sure of is that it has SPDIF passthrough and bit-accurate options(In the AudioHQ panel, devices settings).

BUT, I don't think it's low-jitter. The only way to solve this would be to replace the oscillator with a DIY clock and to have a good filter on the mainboard(Or maybe by replacing the small electrolytic on the sound card).

Creative sell refurb. units for 40USD.

Also, there are the kX drivers available, that let you play into the EMU10K2 DSP.

For the bleached picture of my RF modulator, I forgot to tell it was not like this when it was in the VCR, it was only when I connected the signal directly to the video pin.

Well, time for an update.

The Media Center got so much into mainstream use in our house that I had decided to upgrade the whole shooting match and make some fundamental changes.

Most important was a change of case. I started with this:

An externally hosted image should be here but it was not working when we last tested it.

While okayish and non too "PC" looking, the whole thing was really too cramped, running too hot when quieted down enough and in general was a bit of a annoyance. Not too bad, but not great either.

So I got a Silverstone LC11M Case, with a nice display and much more "HiFi" looks. It's much better on expandability for drives and has enough card slots for the essentials. The Display is cute.

An externally hosted image should be here but it was not working when we last tested it.

The second change is that I ditched Pay-TV with external boxes completely and just went for the UK Digital Freeview Service, with dual Hauppauge Tuner Cards, no more messing with Set Top boxes et al.

What ended up being HUGELY annoying to me was that when I attempted to secure from my Cable TV Provider ( Set Top Boxes with S-Video output and easy MCE compatibility I was told that was impossible and and was told to wait for their own PVR product and all, while being a paying customer putting nearly 100 Bucks their way every month.

Now as I was canceling my services I was suddenly told I could have S-Video Output Set-top Boxes, no problem, I could have a big discount on my package for 6 Month and all, they where suddenly leaning over backwards. I told them to stuff it on principle anyway. Maybe a message for Telewest and others like them, if you want to keep your customers don't wait till they cancel their services to be helpful.

Thirdly, after a few unsucessful attempts on getting a VGA Direct Drive from the NVIDIA Geforce Card I went the timehonoured and tested & tried methode of an ATI Radeon Card plus a simple cable, as detailed here:

Finally, I fitted a lot bigger hard drive for recroded TV and a seperate one for the system, both Seagate Barracuda SATA and upped the RAM to 1GB.

Most items worked just fine, ATI Radeon & VGA2SCART is great, Hauppauge cards work fine, I did need a signal splitter/booster but that was all. The Hard drives are great and pretty quiet next to the old Maxtor 160GB Diamondplus Drive.

The great disappointment was the Silverstone case. Considering it's market position as super premium article upstaged really only by Hush and Niveus it gave a ****-poor showing.

All Fans where VERY NOISY.

The mounting kit for the display was ridiculous with a huge ATX PSU Cable adapter to tap off the supply for the display. Then there was a full USB connector with a hugely long adapter cable to a USB MB Header.

I eventually took the voltages directly of the ATX Plug and added a +/-12V "leech" cable to be used to power an internal DAC (PCM56 non OS with CS8412 receiver to be driven of the MB S/P-DIF header untill another current project, a commercial one at that gives me a better solution). I also re-fitted a motherboard dual USB Header plug to the cable from the display, making the whole cabeling miles tidier.

I also lost the useless sidepanel I/O section and fitted the innards of a microsoft media center remote so that I have an internal MCE remote and the supplied I-mon remote, build in. The MCE Remote sits on the same motherboard USB Header as the I-Mon Display.

To kill the noise I mounted the case fans on rubber mounts, which was fine with the front fan but caused major problems with the side exhaust fan and which meant I had to physically modify the case, which the thin steel made a little easier, but non too much. Together with a quick DIY thermally controlled fan speed adjuster (LM317, 4K7 NTC Bead thermistor between "out" and "adj", 22K Pot & 4k7 in series from "adj" to ground) this quieted the case fans down to reasonable levels.

The PSU Fan made such a huge racket that I went for a radical solution. The internal fan is low profile, nothing decent was forthcomming as replacement, so I used a standard 80mm X 25mm low noise case fan (Akasa, rated 18dbA, cost 10 Bucks appx.) mounted on the OUTSIDE of the PSU, with one of these silicone rubber mounting kits. This Fan now keeps the PSU cool enough (exhausted air with 27 Centigrade surrounding air is around 55 Centigrade) and works fine with the PSU's own speed controller.

For the PSU I ended up with an all copper cooler from CoolerMaster and a suitable PWM controlled fan which spins as slow as 800RPM, the copper cooler dropped idle CPU temperatures by around 5 Degrees.

I also added two small 40mm Fans run on 5V, one to blow a little air towards the Harddrives and another to blow some towards the Video & Tuner Cards. That took nearly 10 centigrade of HD and GPU Heatsink temperatures, suggesting poor airflow to these devices.

The final noisemaker was the noise conducted from the harddrives into the case, I reduced that enough by securing the drive-cage only one one side, so that it sits more or less on a spring lever with the other side using some soft rubber bumpers to support the free side of the drive-cage from the bottom plate. That took noise levels way down.

I must say that the degree of work needed to make the case both quiet and to clean up the daiplsy installation was a LOT (worth it, no doubt) but completely unacceptable for a product at the price level Silverstone charges. On a positive note, external fit & finish is fine and the result looks great, it just was a big nightmare to get there.

Overall I now have a Media PC system that is quiet enough to drown in the general room noise in my living room completely, except very late at night, where there is still enough quiet that watching movies or listening quietly to music is undisturbed.

The Picture using the VGA2SCART with the ATI Card is superb, the TV Picture from freeview depends on broadcast quality.

Some essential notes on the software(s) used is on order as well.

In order to kill region coding you want "Anydvd" from Slysoft, worth the money.

Secondly, avoid the NVIDIA DVD-Decoder software in it's various versions, it is potentially the best available, but buggy as heck. Intervideo or Cyberlink are recommended.

If you happen to occasionally download Films or TV Series Episodes from the Net in DIVX format, make sure to install the Cole2K Media Codec Pack ( It gives all codecs you need, allows the use of Subtitle files for DIVX/XVID Movies AND includes the MPEG Decoder software MCE needs.

I also tried the much vounted TheaterTek DVD Player Software. Quite frankly, I prefer the XP Media Center interface, if you want a player that works without MCE the VLC Player is free and excellent. On top of that it just refused to work with the I-mon remote. So TheaterTek got nixed in no time flat.

Powerstrip is needed to get the Radeon VGA2SCART link working well, again worth paying for.

There are plenty of great plugins for Media Center, I strongly recommend "DCut", which allows you to cut the commercials out of recorded TV REAL easylike and for the UK "MyUK" for the news, cinemalistings and weather. Others exist (goole them for links to downloads).

For Music I use Winamp (I hear no difference to foobar2k, but the foobar interface sucks big time) with skins that bring it close to the so-called 10' Interface. I use the directsound output and the mpg123 decoder for MP3's, still LPAC for losslessly compressed waves.

There is a commonly circulating FAQ on Computer Audio Setup with Winamp and Foobar that is worth seeking out:

Anyway, the results are pretty good and I', still well within a sensible budget.

Next is to build my little internal DAC and to hook it up to the two already fitted RCA Jacks, I'll use a pair of 1:1 insulation transformers to make sure the Audio Output from Media PC is earth free, otherwise dual PCM56 in standard Non-Os configuration.

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