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Setting up an awesome home media system

20 April, 2013 (09:17) | Uncategorized

I used to spend a lot of time playing with various home theater toys. It was one of my main hobbies before I owned a house. Once I bought a house, my priorities changed a bit out of necessity. When we got the house, I did replace my diy video screen with an electric drop down screen. Then I sold my old projector and replaced it with a 720p Mitsubishi. I’m a bit on the cheap side when it comes to HT gear. I’m far too used to Moore’s Law in computing. I thought I’d post a bit about the state of my cheap geek home theater.

Let me talk about my goals for the project: Enjoyment! I want good sound! I don’t want to cringe if things get broken! (I have kids after all.) My kids are allowed to use everything. My wife needs to be able to use it without turning into the incredible hulk. Oh, and it’s got to be awesome.

0) Just a bit regarding layout. See the doorway above? It meant that I was limited to a 16:9 for maximum screen size. The setup needed to be centered on the wall for ascetics. I also built in a cabinet that goes into my garage. That provides inset shelving for my audio gear. It also has a door on the back. I can walk into the garage, open the door and access all my wiring without bending over – and there’s good lighting in my shop! This has saved my sanity for years now. I love it every time I need to access stuff. I recently pulled the TV feeds through the wall, so now I just need to get the controller for the screen tucked away and the only wires will be the speaker lines. I’m OK with seeing the wires – wife not so much. I also added the can lights to the room. All of them are on dimmers and light the room in three sections. The room used to be all brown paneling. Now it’s all textured drywall. The Ceiling is a dark Matte color in the palette with the walls to reduce reflection from the screen. Finally, the drop down screen is mounted to a pair of wood spacers that place it in front of the plasma for clearance.

1) Plasma screen” I have a commercial grade Panasonic plasma that weighs something like 80 lbs. It’s pretty hard core. Cost: infinite (Hand me down from father in law) Ok, it was free but I did have to fetch it from Texas. Advantage? Saves projector life, it’s usable during the day with the windows uncovered. Actual cost: $0.

2) Projector: Mitsubishi HC-1500. This unit has served me well. It’s 720p and uses bulbs that clock in at around $100. It’s hard to replace it with a newer unit based on TCO. Cost: $800 new. $600 was offset by my old projector. Actual cost: $200

3) Now semi retired Onkyo 7.1 home theater system. This was a refurb that has since keeled over. It was around $300. It was a great deal with speakers, subwoofer and receiver. The speakers are still in use.

3.1) New receiver: Pioneer Elite SC-25. This was a total ebay score. New retail in 2009 was $1800. 140 watts per channel, 1080p video scaling, multiple zone support, very good sound. The seller couldn’t get it to work with hdmi. The manual is 150 pages long. I guessed that it was user error and appear to have been correct! Total cost with shipping: $100.

4) Electric screen – 104″  16:9 Flexio electric screen. (Links to the 103″ version)This is a Chinese made, but good quality screen. The drop down provides the ability to use the plasma or the screen and keeps the screen safe from kids who may be throwing things (balls, snot, etc). The kids are getting older, but it’s nice not to worry about it. It was my treat to myself when we closed on the house: Total Cost: $230.

5) Blu-ray player – Sony BDP-S570. This player does netflix, hulu, is made by the king of blu-ray (it’s a Sony Format) and does a great job. Cost $130. The user interface could be better, but even the 6 year old has managed to use it.

6) XBox 360 – used for nefarious purposes. Rock band, odd video playback, etc. It was hijacked by my wife from my office, I spent $100 to replace my office unit later on. Cost $100.

7) 2010 Mac Mini – This Mac had issues with ram over 2Gb. It appears to be the controller rather than a particular stick of ram. This was my old home machine forever, so cost for the HT was $0. I added an old apple remote that was getting tossed out at work. It runs Mac OS 10.8 and the Plex media player client. It provides HDMI out for the projector and VGA to the plasma (which doesn’t have an HDMI port). It’s also great for playing emulated games like NES, etc. New cost for the Mac was $600. Actual cost for the theater since it long paid for itself in consulting work: $0.

8) Cables. Over the years, I’ve spent about $100-150 at on various cables. Those include 50ft HDMI and Component video cables (projector), short HDMI, Audio and TOSlink.

That’s it for the home theater proper. Now we need to add some nerd stuff.

My media storage system is based on the Plex media server. I store my videos on a mac and Plex provides access to systems via the internet, to mobile phones, iPads and my plex player Mac Mini. I have a few other tricks to make it even sweeter. The Plex server is acutally a virtual machine that lives on a VMware ESXi host. Why? I do alot of consulting work with VMware and running the system as a virtual machine means that I can replace the physical host as needed. I can add more ram, storage, processor – all without making major changes to the virtual Mac. The server I use cost about $300 and has totally paid for itself in consulting earnings. Cost: $0. (not including power to keep it running)

A bit of info on the server itself. It’s got four SATA drive bays, 8Gb of ram, and a quad core server grade Xeon CPU. It’s running ESXi 5.1 and sits quietly in a corner of my house. It’s pretty sweet!

So, what’s coming in the future? At some point I’ll get a 1080p projector. Before that, I’m thinking of building some custom speakers. This depends on getting my new gantry CNC mill up and running, but it’ll happen! I’ll be doing a MTM (Mid, Tweeter, Mid design) but am still researching options for design. I’d really like to come up with something unique that really takes advantage of my manufacturing process rather than just a plain box design. The audio from the new Pioneer is great! I feel like the sub is coming up a little short, so I may have a sonotube in my future.