Home Theater

Friday, January 01, 2010

Streaming dominance?

I got a call from my father today who told me that he's using his PC to send movies to his plasma TV over a VGA cable and is quite satisfied.

I have been excited by Pandora, and Brian had predicted that streaming would take over the world and to start selling off my DVD collection.

But, though the future looks bright for streaming, there are some issues.  We'll start off with the good:

  • Blockbuster has unlimited Streaming with any plan but their basic plan
  • The Samsung player has the best quality streaming
  • Netflix offers streaming and the Samsung plays it.
And now the bad:
  • Blockbuster streaming is only 2.1.  No surround sound!
  • Blockbuster charges extra for Blu-ray movies
  • Netflix charges extra for streaming a movie ($3)?
Initially, I was thinking that I'd just drop Blockbuster and go to Netflix, but it looks like the corporate bean counters made sure one was about as good as the other.  Here's a chart:

Both Netflix and Blockbuster have Blu-Ray.  Netflix charges extra.  Winner: Blockbuster
Both have streaming.  Netflix has unlimited viewing.  Winner: Netflix

Here's the conundrum:  if I want high quality- I need to watch Blu-ray movies.  But the only service that offers it at a reasonable price is Blockbuster.   If I want to watch movies instantly (the promise of streaming), the Netflix is the only real choice.

So, right now, neither is superior, and I'm not going to sign up for both, so I'll stick with Blockbuster for now and have already changed my queue to include BR movies as first preference.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Steaming with the Samsung

The Samsung BR DVD player has some interesting features- such as in-the-box support for Netflix, Blockbuster Pandora and YouTube.

With a disk out (one of the limitations of Blu-Ray- I started doing some development on the BR standard for an IPTV project), you get to choose which of the services you want to stream. 

I loaded up Pandora and was very impressed.  I got a key code to sign in and navigation was relatively easy.  Youtube, however was lame.  Instead of a virtual keyboard, I had to use number keys on the remote as if I were sending text messages on my cellphone. 

I can really see using Pandora as background music for when we workout on the climbing wall.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Some upgrades

The need to watch A Christmas Story in High Def made me dust off the HTPC again.  Somehow in its dormancy it lost the ability to do 5.1 and it broke the bracket for the heat sink.  I have no idea how either one happened, but the heat sink issue shows how far good brands have fallen with their migration of components to China.   The mobo is an Asus M2NPV-VM, which had a good set of features, but something as simple as the plastic bracket the heatsink mounts to being of poor quality sidelined movie night.  We tried watching Ralphie and friends- and had just gotten past when Flick sticks his tongue to the flagpole when the screen went blue.  Not the BSOD, but the projector showing no image.  I restarted the PC and it happened again.    Whenever something wacky like this happens, I suspect heat, and when I popped open the case, the heatsink on the CPU was loose- because of cheap plastic.  I'm not sure what the proper repair is- probably finding a new CPU heatsink bracket and mounting it.  But the mobo would have to come out, and I"m not sure where you find just a bracket for an AM2 socket, so I got out my racing safety wire and pliers and that sucker is on there well now.

Speaking of heat- while poking around my EP2500 was hot- too hot to the touch.  That can't be good.  I had done a trick of putting in a very quiet fan, and reversing it- so it pulled in cool air from the room and vented it out the back.  What it seemed to do was clog the front filter with dust.  I assume the hot case for the amp was due to lack of airflow.  After cracking it open, I'm not so sure.  I went ahead and restored the direction of the fan flow (pulls behind the amp, and vents out front), but I didn't feel any flow.  I crack open the amp case again, and I suspect my 2 year old had been doing modifications as he is apt to do.  I found a twist-tie stuck in the fan shroud, preventing it from moving.  I thought for sure the fan would be burned out, but it spun right up when I cleared the obstruction.

When testing out the sound, I noticed some drops during speech of the movie.  I wasn't sure if it was the receiver or the PC that was not processing the signal correctly, but the receiver certainly did over the SPDIF port of the HD DVD player.  I started playing with the PC and got stumped.  I finally had to revert the PC to do 2-channel sound to get decent playback.  Tonight I found some updated drivers for the onboard soundcard and have 5.1 again.

I still have one more issue to chase down- that of the input to the sub.  My Behringer BFD shows the input as being maxxed out.   I assume as I was pulling and reinstalling the amp that something got knocked loose for the inputs.  I'm using balanced cables between the BFD and the EP2500, but the subwoofer output on the receiver is just mono and I need to chase down that cabling.  Should be easy enough to do.

But the big news of the day (Christmas) is that a buddy of mine bought me a Blu-Ray player.  He's a theatreophile as well (many of my ideas for my home theater came from his excellent setup). Having recently moved, he's without theater and we've had him over for movies all the time.  He decided to upgrade me to BR since I'm still angry from the loss of HD DVD, so this was going to be the only way he got to see high-def again.  I need to reprogram the remote to handle the new device, and need to figure out how to get additional component inputs, but we watched our first movie on it tonight. Very nice.  Thanks Brian!

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Friday, October 16, 2009

'NAT' Network-attached-tuner

The HDHomeRun is the coolest device in your high-tech home theater.

Imagine a dual-tuner card you'd stick in your PC that can tune both OTA and cable-company encoded-but-not-encrypted QAM. Dual tuners means you can watch one station and record on a different one (if you have the right software).

Imagine also that it came with great software (Arcsoft Total Media). And fast channel locking- and built-in EPG, and high-output bitstreams for the two channels.

For $150.

Great deal, right?

How about this- it doesn't go in your PC at all. So not you're thinking.. it's a component that goes in my rack. Well it can.. but it can also go anywhere. The picture fools you into thinking it is something bigger than it is.

It's the size of a paperback book. And it only has 2 input jacks, 1 ethernet port and a power plug.

Meaning, it is a fully networked device allowing any- and all PCs in your network to access the tuner itself. Please realize the distinction between this and a 'media center' where you stored your movies- this device actually outputs live video streams- two of them- that can be shared simultaneously by all the deviceces in your network (where upon you could do the traditional media center functions with a networked PC).

I am thrilled with it. It's not an easy setup- documentation is scarce- but it works wonderfully.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back to looking for HD DVD playback software

htI've been playing HD DVD movies with my Toshiba HD DVD player- which does a fantastic job. However, for mixed-media, I really want to get my HTPC going again. It should do everything, right? Playback software for HD DVD is not common- but oddly- there are probably more choices now than when HD DVD was still viable. Below are the software I have heard work:

  • Arcsoft Total Media Theater. Though the website doesn't mention it, I have it on good authority that it does work.
  • PowerDVD. I have an old version that actually works. The software is pretty clunky, but I have used it. The new version has dropped HD DVD.
  • Corel WinDVD. Supposedly even the latest version supports HD DVD
  • Nero 8 with BD plugin. The latest version of Nero (9) does not support it, but 8 may still be available.
I'm leaning towards Arcsoft's TMT3, as it was recommended by an HTPC person (who also share a fondness for AMD processors).


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How I miss thee popcorn

One of the treats for me and Stef has been to enjoy her excellent popcorn while watching a movie. We gave up popcorn (among other things) for Lent and it has been rough. It's funny how much the act of eating some corn adds to the movie experience. We aren't nearly going through as many movies I think, in part, because of no corn. Not too much longer until Easter!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Upcoming plans

Very little has changed in the last year. We've moved the furniture around. I've installed a remote thermostat for the HVAC (which is shared with the game room in a different part of the house).

The HT is basically done. The little 'replace light' bulb has been on for about a year, and is still going. I figure when the bulb finally goes, I'll just get a new projector. I want to re-do the screen. My neighbor got Sherwin Williams Screen paint and loves it. I want to put trim up around it- but I'm holding off on both these until I replace the aforementioned projector. The Home Theater PC is more useful- I'm using it to watch HD-DVD movies (yes, I know, Blu-Ray won).

But, the reason nothing is changing is that we use it so much- We watch a lot of movies.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wii Love it!

The kids (and their parents) got a Wii for Christmas. This is the way to play it!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Row Two

In the saga of this home theater, it went through several iteratations. Originally, this bonus room was to be a playroom for the kids. I had built a stage in the back of the room for 'performances'. It never got used. I then built a climbing wall in the unfinished space. That was a great project, but the stage got dragged to the center of the room to be used for a bench between routes. Then the brilliant idea of a home theater came in- along with "heat" and "air conditioning". That let to the project which has consumed much of the past year.

Just recently we added a dual-reclining sofa for overflow. One thing we found- that sofa is heavy. And we have to move it around to be able to climb safely behind it. Which brings us to this post. That would give a higher view from the back. We considered different alternatives- such as building a platform. I was wishing for that stage/platform again. But- that still doesn't let me move the sofa out of the way. Worse- I found that when I did slide the sofa around, it tore up the berber carpet! I needed to solve this problem. Andy suggested 'moving pucks', which would allow it to slide, but not easily. I want to kids to be able to move it. I also wanted it higher, so I kidnapped Steff and went to the big box store and looked at casters for 40 minutes. They weren't cheap, but they're nice rubber wheels, smooth bearings and lockable. I cut a piece of plywood that matched the steel frame. I also bought some U-Bolts, drilled the frame, did a little measuring, drilled the wood.. presto! Raised, moveable sofa.
(Steff is seated in the first row- motorized recliners, some kids are in the second- and Aidan is doing a little climbing between movies)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bipolar tendencies

I struggle with purchases because I am very careful with what I spend. I want it to be the right thing- both quality and price. This is the reason I held off so long on HD DVD- I was waiting for the right solution- it turned out to be the one that cost $98. I'm quite happy.

But, what of surround sound? I built the system with the future in mind- 7.1 system- even though my current receiver only does 6.1 (though it has 7 outputs, the two rears are the same channel). I got a beautiful Paradigm center channel, some gorgeous Yamahas as mains, and Polks for my surrounds. Looking back on older posts, I really struggled with those choices until the Polks fell into my lap.

But, maybe I wasn't on the right page to start with- surround sound is not supposed to be direction, but the Polks I bought are two-way speakers pointed right at my ear. After doing a lot of reading- that's plain old wrong. You shouldn't know where surround comes from other than 'over there'. Even worse, with direct surround, the experience will be different based on seating position L/R and front row, rear row. Only the guy right in the center (me!) gets the correct experience.

What's supposed to happen is that there's actually a null for the listening position for surround sound. It's supposed to be 'to my left', rather than 'right there!' as we expect with stereo imaging of the front/center combination.

To get this null, there are dipole/bipole speakers. They have drivers facing away from the listening position and out-of-phase so you can't pinpoint the sound, other than the desired 'to my left'.

I found a small pair locally and am trying them out by pulling out the Polks, but I really need some good material to decide if I'm going to go on and maybe go whole-hog with something like Speakercraft. The price people are charging for nice dipoles are very expensive. Try to Google them yourself to see what I mean.

As usual, this decision will take some time.


The peanut gallery

We bought a nice sofa to use as row two a while ago. It is leather and close to the color of our front row of seats. However, it was no higher, so you depended on the front row to recline- and the second row would not want to recline.

I considered revisiting the platform I had originally done for the home theater, but I'd want it carpeted, maybe lighted, etc. Then there was the second problem of the original purpose of the room. There's a climbing wall back there! A permanent platform with a sofa on it isn't conducive to climbing.

I needed a way to move the sofa. I considered some rails to move it back and forth, but it would still be semi- permanant. I really needed a way to move it out of the way completely. The wife suggested wheels, and that was it. I could get some height and mobility by putting it on wheels. I bought some nice big heavy-duty casters, cut a piece of ply the size of the frame under the sofa and attached the frame to the ply with some ubolts.

Steff suggested that for climbing, we spin the sofa around- a place to sit and observe as others work on boulder problems. Excellent!

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Apparently, I can bypass my antenna altogether and get HD local broadcasts using the cable. I read a blog about a local guy doing just that, but he doesn't seem too impressed. My Samsung HDTV tuner can do QAM as well as NTSC, so we'll see how it works for me.

On the antenna front, I hooked up a big antenna in the attic and still didn't get much for channels. I tried the amp Darrylo gave me and I don't think it made a difference either.

The reason for this recent activity is that I'm getting closer to revitalizing the HTPC to get HD DVD using (temporarily) an XBOX HD drive. Since I already have an HD A2 and an OTA HDTV tuner, I'm not getting anything new other than DVR for the HDTV stuff, and perhaps a simplified setup (and no BS 'won't upgrade your DVDs over component').

This week I'll give the Samsung a try.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

HD DVD has won the format war

At least in my household, my neighbor's and my extended family.

I actually woke up early to go to the land of AOL users (Walmart) and stood in the short line and bought a Toshiba HD A2. This is a fantastic High-Def player- and at $98, was stupid-cheap. It normally sells for $299, so this was a coup.

After buying an HD movie (Unforgiven), I'm sold on HD.

I really wanted both formats to lose and a common format to come out. Here's what I wrote on the subject at HTS:

This an old-and sensitive topic for me as I got into an online scuffle about this BR versus HDDVD.

As an engineer, I hate both formats. Most technologies that are to be released (at least in the software world) are based on standards. If they aren't- they end up being forced to (witness Microsoft and ODF).

If this industry had any morals, they'd have come up with a high-def format and released it publicly so that anyone could make a player.

For example- look at 802.11- that's Wifi- you can buy any wifi card and it'll work with any wifi hub. Products which don't write to a standard stagnate and die.

For both Toshiba/Microsoft and Sony/Coalition of the willing to pick a 'side' means that half will lose.

Sony upsets me with Memory-Stick- a useless format that was introduced to fill in a gap that didnt' exist. At least Betamax was arguably better than VHS. There are a zillion other Sony-proprietary formats too, from their minidisc to their walkmans, that eventually die. I avoid Sony products to the extreme- IMHO, the quality is long gone and they're living on a name- and bad marketing.

Don't even get me started on Microsoft- but Toshiba hasn't been a 'bad guy' in the past, so they must have gotten a Sony exec somewhere along the way.

I'm really torn because my HT rocks and I want high-def, but I'd rather both these technologies die and come out with a HD player that benefits neither manufacturer, but the industry at a whole.

My feelings aside, I think HD might win, even though I think BR is technically better.

Two reasons:

HD-DVD sounds like an extension to DVD and I think it is- didn't Toshiba manage the DVD spec? If you describe your High-Def player as a H-D DVD, they kind of win the name game.

Price. HD is consistently lower priced and that means a lot when someone is going to buy their new player.

As far as me? I'm still on the fence.
Needless to say, I'm not on the fence anymore. After hearing the podcast from Real HT, I'm even more convinced I made the right choice. The speaker gave a litany of bad Sony choices that echoed some of my comments above- but gave even more- such as Toshiba *did* make HD disks first and through the DVD Forum- and Sony came along and wanted their own version and started the war.

He concludes that unless Sony can ship $199 Blu-Ray players by Thanksgiving, HD wins.


Monday, October 29, 2007

Reviving the HTPC

I gave up on the HTPC because of lousy software for DVR and Over-the-Air High definition. I bought an over-the-air receiver for $40 and it is great (it still isn't a DVR, but I don't have the frustration of debugging ATI software releases).

However, there are two more reasons for HTPC
  • Network storage of DVD images
  • High-quality DVDs to my projector
I've discussed these on the forums of Home Theater Shack and when digging around for information on how I could hook up my Dreamcast (VGA), I stumbled back upon articles about upscaling.

I'm going to look in to RatDVD to store DVD images, since this format keeps the DVD menus and high quality sound, but in 1/4 the space by re-compressing the image stream in a newer format. This should be easier than swapping DVDs all the time.

The other reason has to do with upconversion. A little background: DVDs are a format stored at 480p. That means there are 480 lines of information available to be displayed. Most projectors are far higher than that, my own has 768 lines of resolution. These same projectors usually attempt to fill the full image by doing some amount of interpolation of images so you get the full size screen. This works well enough. However, when (my) projector gets this image, it is in analog format and with so much information it can only scan this signal so fast before it just gives up and punts, which means a soft image. But, DVDs are stored as a digital format- a series of scene descriptions which are converted into the analog signal. At the DVD player itself, if this interpolation was done before analog, knowing the output to 720p or other format, it would result in a much clearer picture (because it avoids 'generation loss').

Indeed, there are 'upconverting' DVD players which do just this. My Philips player does this. Except not over component- only HDMI. There must be some technical reason for this. Wait a minute, component can handle 1080p. Turns out there is no technical reason for this at all. It is a Hollywood restriction. For some inane reason, it was done to prevent piracy. Which means that the DVD that I own cannot be viewed on the equipment that I own using the better image processing of equipment that I own. Smells like a lawsuit, or a DMCA exception. Indeed, there are players outside of Hollywood's Iron Curtain which play upconverted content: Oppo, NeuNeo, etc. I don't see any reason to go buy yet another DVD player when the one I have does this same thing, but has component HD output disabled. It makes no sense at all- Hollywood doesn't benefit from me buying a new projector that accepts HDMI, and I cannot imagine a casual users (or even a hardcore one) bothering to upscale their DVD, output to analog, then somehow capture this (analog) and re-encode it to save it as high-def. They're probably targeting some fly-by-night shop in Singapore who might have this equipment, but inconveniencing millions of valid users of this technology. The MPAA sucks.

Update: some clever guys have made an HDMI converter! Sweet! In-line, and external.

Which brings me back to HTPC. It turns out that PCs can play DVDs. Out their VGA port. Oh- and by the way- the PC, with its wealth of horsepower, can upscale an improve images amazingly so. And, by the way- over VGA, which is superior to component! I can output images at 1600x1200, no problem. Oh- and if I had to, since VGA is an analog signal, I could make component cables.

I don't have to, since my projector accepts VGA (like many other do).

Therefore, the HTPC is getting revived. Stay tuned.

(BTW, Vista won't let you do this- it only allows protected content out an HDMI video port)


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sweeping up

I've learned a lot running this REW program and getting advice from the Home Theater Shack.

Here's what you want with a subwoofer: low frequencies with a 'ht' sound. This means that low bass is going to be louder than mid bass because how we hear depends on the frequency.

My 18" drivers have surprisingly good range- they seem to love the 100Hz range. Problem is- that frequency is directional. Everything over 80 is pretty much, so the subwoofer is confined to low frequencies- and you let your mains do the rest.

On advice, I set all my speakers to 'small'. This means the receiver should only send low frequencies to the subwoofer channel. I also set the crossover frequency to 100Hz- this is the point where the receiver tries to transition from the sub to the mains.

Here's what my mains only look like:

Here is what the sub by itself looks like (unfiltered):

And after a bit of fiddling, here's what the sub is by itself with several filters enabled.

I've saved my filters as 'FP6'. Heck, I'll store the file here: fp6.req

If you see, I had to really force the curve downward. This is even with the receiver allegedly trying to do its own crossover.

I try to match to a curve set for subwoofers- but with a 'house curve' thrown in. The intent is that sound at 30Hz should sound about the same as at 80. For that to happen, low frequencies needed boosting. If you look at the dark blue line above you can see that it isn't a perfect curve due to the house curve.

Now, let's see what happens when I add my mains back in.

Well, something weird has happened- with the mains added, the output is lower in some parts of the range. That's probably because of phase. Don't see it lower? Look here with all of them combined.

The black line is the combined signal. You can see it tracks the sub at low frequencies (<50) style="color: rgb(51, 102, 255); font-weight: bold;">mains at high (>100), but in that crossover region, it is lower than both.

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