Designing an entertainment center from scratch can be a daunting tasks, especially if you care about quality and aren’t looking to spend more than 5K. Here are some of the considerations that I’ve made when designing the media center in my new home.
The TV is the heart of the entertainment center. There are many specifications that you can consider when choosing the display but the most important one is whether you like the image quality. At this point, most LCD’s look very similar on paper (1080p HDTV, HDMI, 120Hz etc…) and posted specifications such as contrast ratios can be questionable at best (especially when comparing different manufacturers). New technologies such as OLED displays exist but I don’t think they have matured yet for mass market consumption. Besides, being on the cutting edge can quickly put you over budget. I went with a Sharp Aquos LCD TV. Getting a projector was another consideration but the image quality just isn’t the same.
Mounting a flat screen on the wall is nice convenience. When choosing a wall mount, make sure that it can support the size/weight of your TV and that it has a solid construction (especially if it pivots). The mounts with dual-arm constructions tend to feel much more rigid so I think they are worth the extra price.
You may be tempted to try to get away without a receiver for a simple entertainment setup. That isn’t a good idea (quality wise) for several reasons. First of all, each component in the setup has a specific function that it needs to do well. The television that you choose should be good at producing image quality. Sure you can find televisions that support several inputs, play CD/DVDs, and even connect to the Internet. However, you are compromising on quality, reliability, and scalability with this kind of setup. Also, televisions, especially high end models, don’t tend to produce quality sound output so the receiver is needed to drive the fancy speakers that you are going to get. Using a sound-bar instead of a receiver is another considerations but it limits your scalability choices in the future. High quality sound-bars are available but I think you get more value out of a traditional setup using a receiver.
The main features that I looked for in a receiver included having at least 4 HDMI inputs, 100 watts/audio channel, and decent video processing. Unless you are an audiophile, you probably wont care about most of the other features that manufacturers list in the specifications. A network connection is a convenient feature but we can get around that by plugging in a media streaming device (and for much less that receiver manufacturers charge for this convenience). Most manufacturers quote their TXH ratings which is basically a measure of the sound volume. The main video processing chipsets included in receivers are made by Faroudja and HQV (with HQV being notably better). Why do you need the receiver to process the video input? Well depending on the source of the video, it may need to be unscaled to look pretty on your fancy new television (e.g. DVDs have to be unscaled to 1080p and you don’t want your TV to end up having to do the heavy lifting). Ultimately, I went with a middle of the line Onkyo receiver which I thought was the most cost effective for my setup.
You don’t want to skimp on the speakers because they represent a major part of the audio-visual experience. I was looking for a pair of high quality bookshelf speakers with enough power to fill a large room and decent frequency response that sounded natural (the smaller the speaker driver the harder it is for the manufacturer to produce a good frequency response range so the quality of bookshelf speakers is particularly important because of their size). Bowers & Wilkins is well known for their high-end speakers so I chose their entry level B&W 600 Series for the left and right channel. The speakers used for the other channels don’t have to be particularly special.
Selecting speaker cable is another challenge. Audiophiles claim that you need high quality cables to make the most of their high end speakers and end up spending well over $5/ft of cable in their setups. Independent experiments don’t tend to agree. Sure cable manufacturers can measure improvements in sound quality when using their products but most of the improvement is lost on the human ears. I decided to split the difference since I only needed a few feet of cable for the left/right channel speakers and went with the entry-level Audioquest Type 4 cables (which run at about $6/ft new). The added benefit was that the cables come professionally terminated as I specified for my setup (spades connectors for the speakers and banana plugs at the receiver end). Note that your receiver may only support one type of cable connection so verify the details prior to ordering the cables. Also, I don’t feel the same way about the digital signal cables as I do for the analog ones (e.g. I find that the $3 HDMI cables work just fine in every application that I’ve tried).
Now that we have all the components for playing and displaying content we need some media to display. Depending on your neighborhood, you may not have much choice in terms of what cable/satellite box you get. Either way, that takes up one of the input ports on the receiver. We still need a way to play CDs, DVDs, Blue-ray Discs, and streaming media. For me, the new PlayStation 3 is the ideal solution and is well worth the price even though I am not a gamer. Besides playing content from CDs, DVDs, BD-DVDs, and external USB disks the PS3 has built-in WiFi and can act as a UPnP-AV client. This worked out great for me because I have a Linux server at home which I configured with MediaTomb to stream all my music, pictures and video to the media center in another room without any wiring (Windows and Mac users can do the same just as easily).
With all these components, controlling the media center can get somewhat involved (and note that these are just the bare-bones necessities). For example, to watch television, you need the TV remote, receiver remote, and the cable box remote with several clicks on each just to get started. Watching a DVD is even more awkward because you also need to control the PS3 using the game controller. Because of this, I though it was justified to spend a little more on a universal remote control that can simplify the process to the click of one button. Logitech is just about the only game in town that can control these components so I choice the Harmony One remote with an additional PS3 adepter. Configuring the device was as simple as specifying the model numbers for each component and the configuration was downloaded from Logitech’s server. Now, everything just works.
Here are some additional tips for setting up the components mentioned above:
1. When I connected the Sharp Aquos TV to the Onkyo receiver, the TV would display an error message stating the “an incompatible audio signal was found” each time it was turned on. This error was caused because the receiver sends the audio signal directly to the external speakers and the television’s HDMI input did not have any sound. There is no way to disable the TV speakers on my model and I didn’t want to use component cables instead of the HDMI connection. The way to get rid of the error message is to set the television’s volume to zero (the volume on the receiver is the one that matters for sound output).
2. The Harmony One remote can feel sluggish at times and takes several seconds to turn on/off all the components. This is due to the default settings on the remote (not a slow remote processor). The remote has set delays to ensure all the instructions were carried out in a specific order. The default delay values can be lowered for each component as long as the component can process the signal and respond fast enough.
3. If you are in the market for high end speaker cables, you may want to consider specialized auction sites like Audiogon. The cable is not a likely component to fail so buying used can save a bit of money.