ControlAV: The Story So Faraka how my Home Theater got to where is is now, over the last nine years...
In 1995 I moved to the US from England, so started with almost a clean slate, electronically speaking. I left my old gear behind, knowing it wouldn't work on 110V, but before leaving I did purchase a multi-standard 21" TV and VCR (21" seemed huge at the time, I had lived with a 14" TV for over ten years - my how things were going to change!). The TV was a Sony (can't remember the model number), the VCR was a Sony SLV-X821, both gray import models (as are all multi-standard Sony's for some reason). This let me watch my old PAL tapes, plus the NTSC tapes the 'locals' used, as well as the newly found delights(!) of American cable TV.
It didn't take long for me to want to play my CDs somewhere other than my car, so I started looking at CD players. I began to discover just how ridiculously cheap electronics gear was in the USA - at least half the UK price, sometimes more. To my amazement I discovered multi-CD players for less than $100, which was tempting, but I also noticed that Laserdisc players could also play CDs, and they started at around $200. I had never seen a Laserdisc in the UK, although they did barely exist I know, but they seemed pretty common in the USA, so I bought one. Of course I didn't buy the $200 model that got me started, I spend a lot more on a Pioneer CLD-D504 player. A new technology called DVDs was announced around this time, but I figured if I could get two years use of my LD player I would be happy. [I got over twice that in the end]. I bought a few LDs and found a couple of local stores that rented them, so started getting into home theater. I discovered an entire magazine on Home Theater (which blew my English mind at the time) and started reading much more about it all.
And So It Begins
I soon got fed up with listening to my LDs through my TV, so hunted around for a receiver. I read a great review of the JVC VSX-49 so went and picked up that Dolby Surround receiver, and a couple of KEF Q30 front speakers. I chose the KEFs based on what the salesman told me, plus a little listening, plus, to be honest, the fact they were British!
Watching a laserdisc movie with Dolby Stereo, well that was great, for a while. I read more and more about surround sound, so I caved and bought some KEF Q10 rear speakers, and a used Polk center speaker. Now I was getting 5.0 channel sound, and it was great. Well, for a while, then I caved again and bought a KEF 30B subwoofer to get me to the full 5.1 channels. I had to be careful as I was living in an apartment at that time, and although they were very soundproof, I didn't want to push my luck. In fact, in the two years I lived there, a neighbor only complained once, at about 2:30am the morning after a Terminator 2 party, when we were watching the film yet again. (A Terminator 2 party you say - huh? Well August 29, 1997 was the day that three billion human lives were lost to the machines, its Judgement Day...). To complete my audio experience I eventually replaced my center speaker with a KEF 100 to match the rest.
TV Too Small
This system stayed stable for a while, but now I had the sound pretty much fixed, I was needing a bigger picture. 21" seemed huge to me when I moved to the US, but like they said, everything really is bigger here, and TVs are much bigger and much cheaper. However multi-standard largish TVs were expensive, UK levels of expensive, a 29" was going to be around $2000: basically a doubling in price compared to a good NTSC-only TV. I decided that multi-standard TV was going to cost me a bunch now, and even more in the future, so I found a good PAL/NTSC converter (the TenLab TR-10 sp) which broke me from that requirement, and I eventually settled on a 32" Sony KV-32S35.
Go on then
I held out on a DVD player for a surprising amount of time, all things considered. I still loved my LDs, and the range of material on DVD was pretty poor at the time. Extras were nothing much back then, no more than the equivalent LD, so what was the point? Well eventually, again, I caved. I did my research and got a Sony DVP-S7700 , which was then (and still was until the end of 2000) state of the art. At this point I was running out of inputs on my JVC, so I had to resort to a cheap AV switcher from Radio Shack to re-use one of the inputs. That was the excuse I needed to upgrade my receiver: I wanted more inputs, plus the obligatory Dolby Digital, plus the new-to-DVD DTS. I got a Sony STR-DA50ES Receiver, and then discovered my LD AC/3 wouldn't plug in, so after much searching (they were really hard to find at the time) located a Yamaha APD-1 AC3 RF demodulator.
PVRs to the Rescue
Apart from LDs and DVDs, I watched a lot of TV, so had to invest in one of the early Replay TVs, connected to my AT&T Cable decoder. I was instantly hooked on the whole PVR concept, but there was a problem with the surround channels that no-one could fix, so I returned the Replay and bought a Philips TiVo. I wanted the 30 hour one, but there were none to be had, so I settled for the 15 hour model. It worked great, although controlling the cable box channel changing was unreliable via the IR blaster (a problem even now by all accounts with the low quality cable box in use in my area).
The end of the Millenium was fast approaching, and we were hosting a party of course. I used this as an excuse to buy a 300 CD changer, the Sony CDP-CX350, the idea being we could set up the whole evenings playlist on it and never bother having to change anything. Naturally that didn't pan out for a number of reasons (300 CD titles is a LOT of typing), but the idea of all that music in one box seemed so attractive.
2000: New Millenium, New House
One of the requirements in the new house was for a room that I could turn into a proper home theater, just like in the great articles I kept reading. Well not quite the whole enchilada (cinema seats, curtains and that stuff were all out of the question for financial reasons), but as best as I could do on a reasonable budget. In the end we found our dream house, and it already had a media room! The previous owner had converted a space in the basement into a window-less, concrete floored, black carpet-walled media room. What more could I want? Well for starters the house was over twice the size of the previous place, and I knew that I would need to watch TV (and DVD) on various TVs other than the one in the media room, as well as listen to our music. During the month of closing on the house, I spend most of my waking hours thinking about how I would solve this problem.
The Original Plan
Obviously a 32" TV wasn't going to cut it in a 16'x16' room, so I would finally be able to get a big TV. [Big by USA standards even!]. It made sense for all of the components to live down in the media room as well, but I'd need some way of getting the signal around the house, and of controlling that stuff from anywhere.
To get the signal around the house, I wanted to use the existing coax that was currently used to redistribute the cable signal. I'd need a TV modulator, to take the video and stereo signal from the gear, but that's all. To control the gear from anywhere, I discovered the Windmaster Manufacturing Remote Extender IR to RF converter. This works by sticking little boxes on the end of all your remotes, then each box converts the IR into RF. The RF ends up at a box near the gear, and it converts the signal back into IR, controlling everything.
I could use this same system to distribute the music from the CD changer too, but I would need some way of extracting the stereo audio from the TV signal. I hunted high and low for an MTS decoder - I did have one (from Vidtech), but it wasn't great and I couldn't find another anywhere. Then I had a brilliant idea - broken VCRs! I placed an ad and picked up two broken VCRs - they were stereo, and their tuners worked fine (VCRs usually break mechanically but I didn't care about the mechanics), so I could use them to extract the stereo signal.
Finally there was the matter of choosing the music. The CD changer was to be down in the media room, so I needed to be able to select tracks from anywhere in the house. I discovered the Slink-e control box, which plugs into a PC and gives you Sony s-link connectivity (as well as IR). It even came with a program to automatically catalog your CD collection!
Of course the addition of the Slink-e meant I would need another PC, dedicated to AV control. Excellent! A merging of two of my favorite things: AV stuff and computers.
I had a plan, seemed reasonable enough. Of course things didn't work out quite like as, as you will see...
The New House
Once we moved into the new place, I took great pleasure in dumping cable TV. I had always hated AT&T Cable (who were TCI before that and Viacom before that), their service was always lousy, as was their picture most of the time, and they were so technically backward. For the last year in my previous house I was using so-called Digital Cable, which did offer a clearer picture than the analog channels, but I had real trouble with getting stereo sound (eventually fixed by replacing my box) and the device had no S-Video output (in 1999, no S-Video??). Also the TiVo was unable to reliably control the box, as it had to use an IR blaster and the GE cable box really didn't like TiVo's attempts to change its channels.
Anyway, I took great pleasure in dumping cable, thanks to the new house already having a DirecTV dish mounted on the side. I had to buy a decoder (a Sony SAT-B50), but that was a small price to pay for nice clear pictures, on all channels, at a reasonable price. At the same time DirecTV starting transmitting Seattle local stations too, so I was set.
At the old house all of the AV gear was piled onto an IKEA system, and it worked pretty well. However whenever I had to change something, I had to grovel around to get to the back of the equipment. With the TV on it too the whole thing was much too heavy to move, so I had to work with a flashlight lying at uncomfortable angles on the floor to do the simplest of things. I didn't want to suffer the same pain next time, so I wanted some kind of rack system that would let me easily get to the back. The Avständ turned out to be exactly what I wanted - it was a free standing AV rack system that rotated on its own axis, and looked great to boot. I measured the height of all of my equipment, added it up, and ordered the tallest Avständ there was, which would leave me lots of room for expansion. Or so I thought.
To distribute the signal around the house, I got a Channel Vision CVT 1stereo modulator. This takes a video and stereo signal and turns it into a TV channel, which is then sent around the house. I set it for channel 14 and set all of the TVs to that, as well as the broken VCRs.
Problem #1: No Control
The first problem was the IR repeater. It had worked fine in tests in the old house, and worked fine in the new house too, except that the RF signal could not permeate the walls of the media room, where the RF receiver was. The room is in the basement, and has thick concrete walls, which completely blocked the IR repeater. This was a bummer, as what good was all the gear if I couldn't control it? Fortunately about this time I discovered a second set of coax wiring through the house. Every TV point had two F-type connectors on it, but the second one was a mystery to me up to this point, I had assumed it was for future expansion. However I was wrong - I discovered this second set came together at a completely different place to the first, but was wired to the same points in the house. I figured this second coax cable should be able to help me out of my problem, and so it was - I discovered the Xantech range of equipment, which, in a nutshell, lets you send IR down coax cable. I got an Xtra Link 2 starter pack, wired it to the second set of coax, and I could control anything I wanted down in the media room from upstairs in the lounge. (The house is kind of upside down - we live mostly on the upper floor, to enjoy the view, downstairs is a daylight basement which includes the media room). I am no longer sure why I used the second coax wiring for this, a while later I put it all on the one set of cables, mixing the IR with the TV picture, and it all worked fine, as it is designed to.
Problem #2: The PC
I wanted a PC to control the AV gear via the Slink-e, so I wanted it to be small. I didn't need any expansion slots, so I was pleased to discover the BookPC. [Note: there are several completely different boxes called BookPCs]. It was a tiny form factor, yet powerful enough to do everything that I wanted. It even had an S-Video output so I didn't need to get a monitor just for it. However, being so small, and (almost) legacy-free, it didn't have a serial port. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, except that the Slink-e requires a serial port, so I had to hunt around for a USB to RS323 adaptor that worked on Windows 2000. In the end I found the GoHub Go-COM232 device, which, eventually, was made to work with W2K. This wasn't to be the last problem I would have with my PC and device drivers...
Problem #3: CD Control
Once I got the RS232 adaptor working, it was time to connect the Slink-e. This I did, I wired the s-link ports to the CD changer, the DVD player, and the receiver, and put the IR transmitter block on the wall to control to everything else. I installed the software, fired up CDJ, and asked it to catalog my CD collection. Off it went - took a couple of hours, but it cataloged all but a couple of bizarre CDs I have. This was far easier than typing the names into the CD changer directly, and no ridiculous 14 character limits either. I could control the CD changer from, well not quite anywhere, but from any PC that could Terminal Server to my server, which meant the Office PC upstairs. Hmm, not ideal, the CD needed to be controlled from anywhere really, I didn't want to have to power up a PC to do it, and my wife certainly didn't.
The Wireless Plan
I was intrigued by the Panja device, but it was probably expensive and not very flexible (I couldn't browse the web on it for example). What I needed was something that worked like it, but more open to me as a techo-nerd. I wanted something wireless, that could speak to the PC that was connected to the Slink-e. I installed a Symphony Wireless Network , and bought a used Vadem Clio C1000. The Clio is a great tiny sub-laptop PC-like machine, that runs Windows CE (not full Windows). I put a RangeLAN card in the Clio to get it onto the wireless network, then I planned to write some HTML/ASP code to give a web browser interface to the Slink-e. I program in C++ for a living, how hard could a bit of ASP be? To someone with no experience of it, or even VB, the answer is "quite a bit harder than you might think". A side effect of the wireless network is that an old, long forgotten portable was dusted off and a Symphony card plugged in to get it onto the network too. It makes an ideal web browser, that fits in your lap and can be used while watching the TV. The wireless LAN works in most places in the house, except of course the aforementioned concrete-lined media room.
Big TV Time
I couldn't wait any longer, I had to get a large rectangular box to put into the media room, so I got a Pioneer Elite Pro-610HD. This was by far the most expensive part of the whole setup, but was well worth it. I really should have got the 710, but the media room has a post smack in the middle of it, and experiments proved that the post would severely reduce the viewing area of a 710, but a 610 would fit just right. It was also HD capable, although I couldn't prove it for many months. The 610 with an anamorphic widescreen DVD playing was just awesome.
I am English, so have quite a selection of PAL video tapes, which I can play on my multi-standard VCR. However I was starting to collect Region 2 DVDs from the UK, and had no way to play them. Fortunately Apex came to the rescue, with a dirt cheap DVD player (the AD-600A) that happened to have a 'secret' menu that lets you change the region coding (and disable macrovision). This was an opportunity too good to miss, so I ran off to Circuit City to pick up one of the beasts, took it home, and sure enough it had the secret menu. I only use this player for Region 2 discs, its picture quality is nowhere near the Sony's. Its ironic that my father, living in the UK, can more easily buy a multi-region DVD player than I can, thanks to the MPAA having such powerful control over the manufacturers in the USA.
Problem #3.5: CD Control Part II
Well I learnt a lot pretty quickly, and I eventually did manage to get some ASP pages that could read the CDJ database, present the choice via a web page on the Clio, and the user could select what they wanted to hear. It wasn't terribly pretty, but I was after function first, form later. I tested it through the TV, and it worked great, so I wired up one of the broken VCRs to my old JVC receiver, and, oh dear. The sound was really muddy, not at all good, a great disappointment. Either the modulator wasn't very good at encoding the stereo sound, or the VCR wasn't very good at decoding it, or both.
The MP3 Plan
I was beginning to lose interest in CDs all of a sudden, and many friends were big fans of MP3, so I changed my plan: RIP my CD collection to disk, then take the audio output and transmit it on a cable (somehow) upstairs directly, avoiding the modulation/demodulation step.
Problem #4: PC Sound
At this point I discovered a flaw in this plan - the sound output from the PC was crap. I don't mean just on MP3s, I mean on anything, even a WAV file. I tried at least four different driver versions, they all produced pops and clicks on playback. One of the drivers had even been through the Microsoft HCT lab, which meant it was very reliable, but I guess no-one actually tried listening to it! Around this point my patient wife gave up and bought a stand-alone JVC CD player. I got the message...
The MP3 Plan Part II
Now I had the CDs RIPped, I really wanted to get rid of the CD changer (I need the space in the AvStand), so I had to be able to play the MP3s upstairs. Just before Xmas 2000, Dell released their Digital Audio Receiver , so I got one. This is a stand-alone device that plugs into your network (via ethernet or HomePNA) and lets you choose your music from your PC, then sucks the MP3 files down to play. It has some problems (see the review), but, for the first time, we could now play our CD collection upstairs. Not quite anywhere upstairs (there needs to be an Ethernet socket), but if the Dell DAR had a wireless network interface we could. (Postscript: the DAR is now consigned to the dustbin of history, replaced with the Turtle Beach Audiotron, using a WET11 wireless bridge).
HDTV Is Here
In January 2001 I bought the only available HD OTA and satellite decoder, the RCA DTC100. After some trouble getting a signal from the new oval dish (I needed to get a professional in to aim it through a gap in the trees), we got HD channels from four local stations, plus HBO, and were loving it.
Cinema SeatingPerusing eBay one day I discovered someone selling used cinema seats, so I picked up 10 seats for almost nothing (shipping was $35/seat though). Once they arrived I realized that they needed some renovation, and as they were designed to be bolted to the floor, I needed to construct some kind of stage for them. With the awesome assistance of a friend who isn't afraid of mucking about with wood, we build a two-level wooden stage, carpeted it, renovated the chairs then attached them in two rows of five, for the ultimate cinema experience.
RemotesFor a while it was Remote Hell in the media room. I had eight remotes to control the gear (plus three that I didn't use at all). After some unsbtle hints to my wife, for my birthday I got a Home Theater Master MX-500 and it has solved almost all of my issues with the remotes in the media room.
TiVo UpgradeTempted by some great deals, I upgraded my TiVo to a Philips DirecTV Receiver with TiVo to get better picture quality and more recording capacity. Selling the old TiVo and satellite receiver almost paid for the new one, which was very handy.
PC UpgradeI upgraded to a proper PC Server in the media room. This was the first PC I had built from component parts, carefully chosen for low noise, black-ness, and sufficient power to run the Domain, share MP3s, and capture video. It has almost a gigabyte of storage in it now, though in retrospect trying to do video capture (one of the least reliable things a PC can do) on a Server (the most reliable kind of PC you should have) was not such a great plan.
LightingIt has bugged me since the day I first used the media room that the light switch was outside the room, which meant getting up and leaving the room in order to dim the lights! After over a year of suffering this, I solved the problem by using an IR controllable dimmer control. As this was still outside the room, I also wired an IR repeater to it from an IR receiver sitting in the equipment stack inside the media room. I can now dim the lights while sitting on my behind, with my trusty MX500 remote.
XBoxThe addition of a Microsoft XBox to the media room has been great fun. It really shows off the equipment and is a blast to play with friends. Its on the network so we've have some long multi-player Halo sessions using some of the other TVs around the house, before the advent of Xbox Live that meant we could do the same kind of thing but stay sitting in the comfort of our own homes.
2003: Baby Proofing aka Flat Screen TV TimeHard to believe it now but it was originally my wife's idea to get a flat screen TV for upstairs, as a part of our baby-proofing. Although I am not usually one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if it involves buying new gear, I thought she was crazy. Her idea was to get rid of the 32" tube TV from where it was easily accessible by a baby, and to get a flat-screen TV and stick it on the shelf above the fireplace, well out of baby's way. That shelf is pretty high so I thought it would be uncomfortable to watch, but the real problem turned out to get getting one that fit. We couldn't use a wall-mount as the wall is covered in very cool-looking rocks, so cool in fact that the idea of drilling into them to mount a TV was out of the question. The shelf is 8" deep, so whatever we bought had to have a stand that was no wider, and this proved a challenge. However one day we were ogling the flat screens at Costco Home when we saw a 32" plasma with a stand that was the magic 8" deep, so we had to get it. It turns out that mounting the TV so high is not a problem, or uncomfortable to watch unless you are lying on the floor. (Postscript: that particular plasma was a PD3231 sold under the Studio Experience brand, but it is really a Moniterm: ours gave us various trouble, and we took it back to Costco after just over a year for a refund. It was replaced with a 30" Dell LCD, which has a 7" stand).
HD TiVoTo be honest while HD was cool and all in the media room, we never did watch much because it required us to watch Live TV, which we just couldn't do any more after so many years of TiVo. We did have alarms set so we would remember to watch Band of Brothers and Six Feet Under live on HBO-HD, but those were the only "must see" HD programs we ever watched. Until the HD TiVo came out of course. Handily we had an HD-capable flat-screen upstairs now (thanks to my wife's brilliant plan) so it was a no-brainer to get one.
HD PhotosAdding the Roku HD1000 HDTV Media Player to the flat screen TV was agreat idea too, so now we can view our photos (and our guest's photos) right there and then in HD glory.
In the media room we have cinema seating, a great HDTV, can watch DVD movies at a better quality than most cinemas, and truly deafen ourselves and our guests. Upstairs we can watch HD TiVo, DVDs, Photos, and listen to our MP3 collection.
The media room has a post in the middle of it. It's holding up the house, so I can't just take it out, it needs more serious work than that. When it eventually goes, its entirely possible I'll be tempted to upgrade to a projector.
ControlAV is a trademark of Andy Pennell.