Good audio setup for a Home Theater PC?
April 12, 2006 11:57 PM   Subscribe

What's the best combination of soundcard, speaker bundle and/or receiver I can get to work with a standard PC running MediaPortal that I'm using as a HTPC?

I'm by no means an audiophile, and all I'm really concerned about is nice, loud 5.1 that'll sound good to someone who listened to a lot of really loud music in high school and college.

Ideally I'd like the computer to be able to send whatever type digital audio you might find on a DVD to the speaker set up, but all the hype put out by companies like Creative Labs has me confused. Do I need a soundcard and a set of 5.1 computer speakers, or a soundcard and a receiver and a set of home theater speakers, or what? I'd love to hear specific product recommendations if anything has built setups similar to this, and, again, I'm looking for functional and affordable rather than, you know, German and shiny.
posted by mmcg to Technology (8 answers total)
What's your budget range?
posted by Malor at 12:16 AM on April 13, 2006

I'd say $500 as an upper limit, but that'd be pretty upper for me. I know that's low balling it for audio equipment usually, so feel free to tell me that it's not possible without a more signficant investment.
posted by mmcg at 12:21 AM on April 13, 2006

Ok, one more question...would the primary focus be CD and DVD playback, or multichannel computer-sound playback (like gaming?) If you want both, which is more important?

(and yes, $500 is pretty low end, but let's see what we can do.)
posted by Malor at 12:28 AM on April 13, 2006

Primarily DVD playback. It's a fully dedicated PVR at this point, and I do some emulation, but I doubt I would ever do any serious PC gaming on it.
posted by mmcg at 12:30 AM on April 13, 2006

OK, probably your best bet then is going to be a very cheap soundcard, the Chaintech-AV710, combined with some kind of HTIB system. The Onkyo HTIBs are supposed to be pretty good.

The reason to use the Chaintech is because, with the right drivers, it will support true lossless audio if you want to use the machine for music playback. (either MP3/FLAC or just playing CDs). It will also pass through the signal from DVDs if you use a software player. And the card is only about $25, so the great majority of the money will go into your audio gear, which is particularly important on the low end like this. You'll run either coax or fiber from the Chaintech to the receiver, and let it do all your D/A conversion. It will only send the analog left and right channels from normal computer sound, but that's fine for what you say you're doing with it. (cards that will encode and send the full 5.1 or 7.1 stream are expensive and buggy ATM.)

Definitely read on forums like the to get some more opinions. The human brain doesn't use that many neurons to hear, and it appears that every brain learns to hear a bit differently. Music reproduction by speaker is an illusion, and all speakers (especially on the low end) involve tradeoffs. What you're looking for is a set of speakers that made tradeoffs that fit your ears well. And you can't know which ones will suit you without doing some listening. You can only do the beginning shopping on paper... if you want to buy the RIGHT speakers, you have to use your ears.

Just off the cuff, you might listen to the Onkyo HT-780 at $500. If you truly don't want the 7.1 in that system, the 580 (link on the same page) is only $300. Onkyos have a pretty good reputation in the HTIB market, from what I've read, though I haven't heard them myself. I have higher-end Onkyo gear and like it a lot, but that's just receivers. I have no personal experience with their speakers.

It'll cost more than $500, but you might check out; they have a nice little computer-oriented system called Rocket Tykes. Hmm, then again, maybe they don't anymore... it looks like they may have discontinued that line. They were supposed to be pretty good, that's a shame. (they have classifieds, you could always look for used.) It looks like they're going to the x-ls speakers in the low end, and only the L/Rs are ready now... $200/pair, which isn't too bad. But there's no center and no sub yet, so if you want to buy soon (av123 is terribly slow about getting products out the door), you'll likely want to find something else.

I've also heard good things about Fluance and Athena speakers in the low end. And be sure to collect other ideas from the avsforum folks. They will undoubtedly mention Ascend Acoustics and Axiom Audio, the other two of the Big Three internet speaker retailers. Like av123, both these guys are going to be a little out of your price range, but if you can get up into the $800-$850 range, you can probably do a system that would cost you $1500 if you bought it retail.

I've heard particularly good things about the Ascends, btw.
posted by Malor at 1:01 AM on April 13, 2006

Nothing inpsires fresh thoughts like hitting Submit. Keep in mind that lossless audio will involve some tinkering on your part. Windows doesn't do lossless natively, so you have to work around it by using particular players with special output modes. The Chaintech supports them pretty well, which is why I'm suggesting that particular card.

Once you're set up, if you're interested in doing lossless, drop me an email. I'll send you some links on how to get it going.
posted by Malor at 1:05 AM on April 13, 2006

You went silent... hope this wasn't too intimidating?
posted by Malor at 2:11 PM on April 13, 2006

My experience is that you can bypass all of the soundcard/receiver/speaker angst by using your existing system but getting the digital-to-analog (“d-to-a”) audio conversion by getting it out of the computer.

Problem: Computer audio typically sounds like an old tape deck in comparison to other sources because computer manufacturers use cheap d-to-a converters. Even if you buy some top of the line sound card, it will be located inside the box and subject to boatloads of interference from the computer’s other hardware (which will show up in the form of hisses, hums and other noises, all before the signal even leaves your computer).

On my PC, they threw in the towel altogether, providing a fiber optic line that runs a digital signal directly to the receiver, which then could (presumably) do the d-to a conversion better. Which wasn’t much of a solution for me and my digital-input-less receiver.

Solution: Relocate the digital-to-analog conversion process outside your computer with an external adaptor/amplifier. These products are all the size of a deck of cards or smaller and will run off power from the USB port.

I went high-end and got the Total BitHead from Headroom, which is a portable headphone amp but which will run off USB port. Not necessarily cheap at $199, but with it you can use your existing computer, soundcard, and receiver. The Total AirHead is a little step down and goes for $149. You can’t go wrong with either. The difference in terms of being able to hear the nuances you have forgotten in your favorite songs or dialog in DVDs is truly amazing.

Alternatives include (i) the M-Audio Transit – less expensive at $99, and probably more aesthetically pleasing than the BitHead, but not really plug-n-play and requires your receiver to have a digital input, which mine did not; and (ii) Griffin’s second generation iMic – even less expensive at $39, but less dynamic range and susceptible to interference from wi-fi, cell phones, and crackberries).

You will want to run the USB power cord from the computer to close to the receiver and connect it to your receiver with a short analog cord to cut down on any residual interference or signal degradation.

Good luck and try not to wake up the neighbors.
posted by mr_felix_t_cat at 9:32 AM on April 14, 2006

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