Monday, January 08, 2007

My home theater setup

I have become increasingly fond of studying motion pictures in the last year. Avant garde cinema, cinema verite, the work of "film auteurs" (or art films), documentaries, technically superlative motion pictures, and so on.

This article details my home theater setup. It is not easy to duplicate a full-fledged cinema theater in one's home but I think I have managed to better it in many ways. :-)


Projection system: I use a Sharp Notevision XR-10X DLP front projection system, it can natively display 1024x768 pixels (more than enough for a DVD source). I use a very smooth light wall for projection but might go in for a tripod mounted projection screen in future. The projector is very bright (2000 lumens) and the contrast ratio is a rich 2000:1, so even in daytime, with curtains drawn, the visuals are rich.

Media source: I use standard PC hardware (a Compaq R4000 laptop) as a media source, especially since I keep most movies in MPEG-4 format (my DVD player, Philips DV642P supports MPEG-4 but is not as flexible as a general purpose computer) and also since I like to watch movies with subtitles. The PC has a standard video card, VGA/component out and a region free DVD ROM drive. I don't use the PC's inbuilt sound card since that only has 2 channel output.

Sound output system: I use Creative's Audigy 2 ZS laptop cardbus sound card. It is THX certified, has built-in decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS, supports 7.1 channels, and has 6-channel analog out as well as optical out.

Audio Receiver/Speaker system:
I use Logitech's Z5450 digital 5.1 speaker system, with 2 front satellites, 1 center and 2 rear satellites and a sub-woofer. The speakers are again, THX, can produce more than 300watts RMS, and best of all, the rear satellites are wireless for audio connectivity to the main receiver/amplifier. The receiver also has in-built decoding for Dolby Digital and DTS, and has multiple optical inputs, digital co-ax inputs and the standard 6-channel analog inputs.

Software: I greatly prefer Media Player Classic (MPC) on Windows XP Professional with ffdshow codecs for decoding MPEG4 streams (DivX, XviD, mp4, etc.)

I use the K Lite codec pack, which includes MPC and a wide variety of codecs (including ffdshow).

Watching a movie is therefore as simple (sic) as:

- Making sure I have a high quality audio/visual media (preferably MPEG4 or H.264), Dolby Digital audio (if available) and synchronized English subtitles in Subrip format (so that MPC can display them as per my specifications). The combination of these three things is very hard to get right, especially for movies which are out of circulation, but it is possible with lots of resources available on the internet.

- Running Media player classic with the media files

- Selecting the audio settings to pass through any Dolby audio un-decoded to the sound card (Audigy 2 ZS), which performs hardware decoding of the audio stream. Software decoding of Dolby Digital and DTS streams is still in its infancy. One of the best software decoders, ac3filter, which works with MPC, still has a way to go (it suffers from channel amplitude distortion, unnoticeable till somebody tells you about it).

- Choose the subtitles to be displayed

- Connect the projector via the VGA cable

- Connect the Z-5450 receiver with the 6-channel cables from the Audigy 2 ZS sound card. I might use an optical cable someday to decode the audio stream in the receiver instead of the sound card.

- Set the sub-woofer volume and surround volume on the receiver

- Start the movie, sit back and enjoy.

The set-up is very high quality, as far as I am concerned, but is still not very expensive.

Some of the things which can make it top of the line (but suffer from a bad cost-benefit ratio) are HDMI/DVI video (doesn't help much because very few sources are sold in HD format), an optical audio pass-through from the media direct to the audio receiver, and a better speaker system with higher dynamic range (Z-5450 has a dynamic range of around 95db which is actually better than native CD audio dynamic range of 90db), and a lower Total Harmonic Distortion (Z-5450 has a high THD of 10%, but there is no other rear wireless speaker system in the market which offers as much as this system at this price). I am actually very pleased with both the projector and the speaker system.

The projector cost me around $750, bought from a discount retailer on the internet.
The speakers cost around $230, bought from
The Audigy 2 ZS notebook sound card costs around $100, bought from
I already had a laptop.

So, for around $1100, much much less than the cost of a big-screen television, I have a home theater system, with a very big screen and awesome audio which provides me, my wife and my friends, many hours of pleasure.

(well, you also need a big empty room). :-)