Help me design an awesome multi-node home theater for my house
November 29, 2011 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Help me build the bitchin'-est home theater multi-node network for my house. Let your imagination fly!

So about a year and a half ago I moved into a nice 4-story townhome from a one bedroom apartment. One of the things I swore I'd do was really go to town on the media watching experience. Well, it's been long enough, so I'd like guidance/advice on building a multi-node PVR/media center (that integrates as well as can be with Comcast/Xfinity in the Seattle area). Price is (relatively) no option here, within reason. Here are the details

My house is 4 stories, but basically on the 2nd (main) floor is my TV, xbox, stereo, and cable box. 3rd floor has the master bedroom/home office where the main computer/internet connection along with a wireless router. 4th floor is the loft of the master bedroom suite where the bed is upstairs and the computer is below.

What I'd like:
Principally, to ditch my slow, clunky, this-interface-was-clearly-written-in-VB6-by-an-escaped-lunatic Comcast cable box, and to have a really nice all-in-one box for the main floor and for my bedroom. These nodes would be capable of watching TV almost identically to how I do so now on the comcast box (including with a remote control to navigate), but with additional features like streaming media from a variety of sources, playing music off the drive or things like Pandora/Spotify, etc.

This means I'll need to buy either a new TV for the bedroom, or buy a swank-ass new TV for downstairs (and what are good options there in terms of 3D/size/OLED?) and move the current one upstairs. The small nodes would ideally be inexpensive SFF PCs from some place newegg, little more than a chassis and good video card and sound card, and with an IR for navigating via remote. I also need to replace my current 5.1 stereo receiver, since it doesn't support HDMI and is a crappy years-old number from Best Buy.

What I'm imagining:
Floor 3, stuck in a closet is the main media center PC as a headless workstation with two tuner cards for Comcast and scads of diskspace. This is the heart and brains of the system, and record shows in HD (but with a good balance between compression and quality), and would stream saved music/media to other nodes in the house. There could even be an option for my mobile devices to securely connect back home to watch media/stream music wherever I am. If I could also offer this to a select few friends using their own logins to watch shows etc, that'd be even cooler, so they don't have to come over to watch Game of Thrones or Dexter… but that's the least important part.

Along with that, inside the house I'd have two nodes, one upstairs in the bedroom, and one on the main floor, to offer a seamless experience of MythTV or whatever the best-in-class is these days. Again, the nodes would be SFF and low power/inexpensive, with HD capable video playback and 5.1 (or better) sound for at least the downstairs node. The upstairs or downstairs node (wherever I put the xbox) should also be able to support audio input from the xbox so I use that on the same TV with the same sound setup.

In addition, the big loss when you use cablecards versus the cable box is OnDemand... except now the xfinity OnDemand is vastly better using their website than the cable box: more choices, faster response time, with only the hit of lower video quality over the OnDemand 1080p HD. So the nodes should be able to also use web-based video such as Xfinity, Netflix, et al., and streaming music as well. A full web browser is a nice-to-have, but hard to navigate with TV unless the remote had a keyboard on it. And reinventing WebTV is not really what I'm after.

Anyway, your tips, techniques, technologies and wish-I-hads are welcome. I'm basically starting from stratch but will be integrating the existing TV, the xbox360, and the comcast/xfinity cable package. My basic presumption is MythTV nodes for the three devices, but what should I look for in hardware (or software if MythTV is old-and-busted)?

How should I design the whole thing?
posted by hincandenza to Technology (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not an A/V expert by any means, but I'll relate my experience with just this type of thing -- in a house I moved into in seattle no less. I'll be watching this thread with interest, since I sort of burned myself out on AV stuff after several failed attempts and I'm interested in what people have come up with.

What I've found is that unless you enjoy the process of putting it all together and maintaining it perpetually (because it will break in odd ways at precisely the wrong time), it's better to pull together solutions someone else has made.

Don't cache movie and TV shows, use netflix, xfinity, apple and amazon. Don't write your own mobile software to phone home, just use iTunes, iCloud and an iPhone (probably the best integrated solution). And most certainly don't attempt to wire a multi-room stereo/tv system -- just use an airport express and airplay. This sounds very apple-centric, but isn't meant to be, I'm sure there are other equivalent non-apple alternatives that I'm not familiar with. The point being don't roll your own, you probably don't have time to do it in a satisfactory way.

But even more important, be very careful about how you would actually use the system you're building. What I ended up doing is constructing a passable 5.1 a/v, video game system in the living room that sits mostly idle while we watch/listen either on the computers in the office(s), on the ipad using headphones just about every chair in the house, and on the phone/media player everywhere else. And video games? Well, I plug those in to my computer monitor a lot of the time. :-)

My suggestion, and what I'm slowly putting into practice, is that you plan for consuming media where you actually do it, rather than where you'd like to do it. In practice, this means use "dockable" mobilish solutions. Do it incrementally, like put an ipod dock in each room or carry the xbox about to the place you want to use it. As you find where you tend to sit around the most, improve your "dock" (ipod dock thingy to 5.1 system, 42" tv and an appletv or whatever the non-apple solution is). Just don't end up with the media room turning into cardboard box storage&guest bedroom. I realize the comcast box is harder to do this with -- but try to make it as flexible as possible.

Doing this will give you more of the "living in the future" feeling than any 7.2 stereo system with a 56" TV and a cache of 200 DVDs on a hard drive will ever do. That shit is old technology. :-)

Oh, and if I have AV advice, it's: 42" 1080p is enough for anyone (ignore all the refresh rate crap -- you don't really notice it in practice unless you're a fighter pilot or you have a *huge* room and most of the things that output signal hardly do 1080p to begin with), and really good front speakers (don't rely on a subwoofer to make up the difference).
posted by smidgen at 3:45 PM on November 29, 2011

Oh, and if I was going to go hog wild -- voice control. :-)
posted by smidgen at 3:50 PM on November 29, 2011

Response by poster: Well, the first and foremost goal is to be able to watch TV either downstairs or in the bedroom. Granted, i could get a second cable box upstairs and do that, but the Comcast cablebox is horrible, and for the $12 or whatever a month I pay for it, plus remote, I might as well just grow my own. That's where I think mythtv has the most promise; I don't really want to save a bunch of DVDs, but I do want to save plenty of shows (more than the box currently allows). For the rest, I'd want these nodes to be able to use things like Netflix or Xfinity seamlessly, so that I can watch the saved programs on mythTV (from the cablecard recordings) or Netflix as easily as the other.

The node upstairs and downstairs is meant to be more like what you describe: a simple dummy box that can do anything because it's just streaming it from elsewhere.
posted by hincandenza at 3:56 PM on November 29, 2011

Best answer: I've been using MythTV on GNU/Linux for five or so years now, it's great! There are a number of canned distros that ease the installation process. Mythbuntu is fine. I have a HDHomeRun box (it's a network attached tuner), the new HDHomeRun Prime has a CableCARD slot so you can record most of the cable channels. Good products.

You can't really do Netflix w/ Linux yet. You could look into setting up a MythTV backend to do all the recording of your cable shows. MythTV incorporates a UpNP server so your recordings would be watchable from a variety of UpNP clients (I know a lot of new TVs and DVD players are also UpNP clients and do Netflix). You do miss out on the more polished interface of the MythTV frontend.

I would recommend starting out slow, get it working on one TV then buy more hardware that works for you. Do a lot of research. Hopefully you like tinkering because you can do a lot getting a MythTV system just how you want it.
posted by jackmakrl at 8:00 PM on November 29, 2011

Check and make sure that you are able to record digital channels on comcast using a TV tuner on a PC. I was using a custom built PVR (with GBPVR) when I had analog channels. But if I'm correct the new digital channels are encrypted, so cannot be recorded/time-shifted on anything else except the boxes (which contains the card with the decryption key) that were given by the cable provider.
posted by WizKid at 2:24 PM on November 30, 2011

Instead of attempting to have "smart" stuff at each location, why not have each location just have a single audio/video input from a central location? There are baluns that can send HDMI + audio over Cat5 wire. There are IR distribution systems that have a simple IR receiver that can send it over Cat5 back the central location. There are matrix switches that take multiple inputs and outputs and can direct any input to any output.
posted by fief at 10:44 AM on December 1, 2011

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