The days of bulky HTPCs with built-in optical drives, massive internal storage arrays, and integrated TV tuners are long gone. The advent of over the top (OTT) online streaming services has moved a lot of functionality to the cloud. As NAS units become more powerful, it has made sense to move local media files to a central repository. All these have enabled the TV-connected PC to become more compact. Unless the consumer has specific requirements (like, say, high quality gaming), even ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) machines such as the Intel NUCs can fit the bill.

Home Theater Components: Keeping up with the Times

The primary functionality of HTPCs has evolved to become one of a powerful and versatile media player. However, recent advances such as 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) videos, as well as stricter DRM requirements such as HDCP 2.2 for premium content have made the perfect HTPC platform difficult to achieve. Before delving deeper into these new advances, it is helpful to have some insight into how the landscape has changed over the last decade or so. The advancements in that timeframe have meant that next attractive home theater feature was always around the corner. In the initial days of 720p televisions and other home theater equipment, it was Full HD (1080p). As 1080p became widespread, it was HD audio bitstreaming. After that, 3D support was sought after. A brief lull ensued before the market started slowly getting ready for 4K.

Over the last year or so, we have seen the appearance of displays and audio/video receivers (AVRs) supporting HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 along with HDR / Dolby Vision. Despite the announcement of HDMI 2.1, I believe that we have reached a point where it is possible to purchase a relatively inexpensive home theater and HTPC configuration without worrying about it getting obsolete within the the next 3 to 5 years.

On the media side, OTT streaming services have become popular to the extent that Netflix and YouTube moved to offer 4K videos to consumers ahead of Blu-rays. Fortunately, many modern PCs are capable of 4K Netflix playback, though HDR is available only on a subset of those configurations. UHD Blu-ray playback support is available through CyberLink PowerDVD 17. However, the hardware requirements are a lot more specific compared to premium OTT services. UHD Blu-ray playback with HDR requires that the home theater components fulfill additional requirements.

Building a Home Theater on a Budget

I started work on this home theater piece back in June 2017. The aim was to present a setup (TV, AVR, and HTPC) with all the bells and whistles, yet light on the wallet. While the TV (TCL 55P607) and the AVR (Denon AVR X3400H) were easy to narrow down based on the feature requirements and budget, the PC side proved to be more challenging. Our core requirements (compact form factor, 4K Netflix support, and HDR capability) narrowed down the choices to a NVIDIA Pascal GPU-equipped PC or a Kaby Lake PC with HDCP 2.2 capabilities. UHD Blu-ray support further narrowed this down to certain Kaby Lake PCs with a HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 display output.

In the course of our evaluation, we found that consumer electronic (CE) equipment almost always received features ahead of HTPC platforms. Keeping this in mind, we ended up evaluating a number of options for the fulfillment of HTPC duties

  • Roku Smart TV platform in the TCL 55P607
  • NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV (SATV)
  • Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN1080K
  • ASRock Beebox-S 7200U
  • Intel NUC7i7BNHX

Prior to looking at the performance of these options, it will be of interest to readers to delve deeper into our choice for the other home theater components. Earlier this year, I happened to embark on a house remodel, and I took that opportunity to revamp the HTPC test components used in our system reviews. Our choice of components is geared towards a typical family room (15' x 15') home theater.

The Display: TCL 55P607
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  • Galid - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    I would really much like to listen to your setup, sincerely. I know I would be in awe, never said what you put up on the internet is pure crap, all I wanted to hear from you is that there's stuff out there even if it's overpriced, includes DRM, seems like pure mockery that can still be liked by someone even if it seems impossible to you.

    But you are such a supreme being with no space around it for tolerance of imperfections in the current world
    Reply
  • Bullwinkle-J-Moose - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    "Sennheiser HD-800 and Hifiman HE-560 running into a burson conductor SL1793 and I know how a recording should sound. My stereo setup consist of Rega Elex-R and ATC SCM 19 v2."
    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    You poor guy
    You've never actually heard a great set of speakers
    Even your headphones begin combing over 10Khz with a sine sweep

    My Speakers have zero combing or image shifting at any usable frequency

    Image is stable at ALL usable frequencies! and the sweet spot covers the entire room unlike your ATC SCM 19 v2

    Phase coherent hybrid crossovers and full omni-directional imaging would probably scare the crap out of your after being stuck with your Low End setup for so long

    You have my sympathy
    Reply
  • Galid - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    Well happy to you if you got the most neutral stereo system in the world, never said mine was perfect but it's still good enough to know how a record should sound even if it still has coloration. I was already informed about the bump in frequency on my headphones, the frequency graphs came with the headphones.

    Who do you freaking think you are, I just said I've seen people liking lower end system than higher end ones. What you want in the end, it is not nature with it's imperfection, you want the perfection humans have created, you wanna hear mathematics perfectly aligned, let's kill all those unbalanced beings and create a planet where everything is robotized, controlled, calculated.

    I like imperfections and you seem to believe no one should, I never said you can'T like what you do. I'm trying to have you understand someone else might very much like what you find disgusting. You have yet to understand that.
    Reply
  • Galid - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    ''You've never actually heard a great set of speakers''

    How condescending you can be, I went to many audio shows including Montreal audio fest, again I guess every set of speakers there was really bad, everything is to you yet you recommend stuff like JBL powered speakers which by the way must sound uber crappy. I'm not trying to win a contest here, you already won the internet sir. You own the very best the planet has to offer and yet you can'T accept people can like stuff even if there's better out there.
    Reply
  • Galid - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    My crap low end system, let's then not consider 99.9% of speakers ever produced amplifiers and so on because they're all crappy colored and unworthy.

    Those JBL speakers you recommended are crap btw you just said it. No one can like them. That behringer 2496 can't be loved either, it's crap by your standards because you own better, everything below what you own is crap and then should not even be discussed on the internet.

    I never tried to show you I own better than you, I just wanted you to aknowledge someone might like what you dislike, audio is not science, it goes through someone's ear and then is interpreted by their ears. A neutral sound set of speakers will make some recordings unlistenable. If those records are 90% of what they listen to, they will hate your super neutral sound system.
    Reply
  • Galid - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    Forgive them for they know not what they do.

    I'm sorry, I forgive you, let's hope you will be able to do so with me.
    Reply
  • we - Monday, January 1, 2018 - link

    "My Speakers have zero combing or image shifting at any usable frequency"

    You are talking about the JBL LSR305? Even if that were true (which I doubt), there are many many other significant aspects of loudspeaker design. Some simply cannot be properly addressed at the price point of the LSR305. For example, it can be assumed that the drivers of the ATC SCM 19 v2 will have significantly better distortion / linearity specifications that the cheap drivers in the JBLs. And although powered speaker can be very good, I wonder to what extent JBL addressed vibrational effects on the internal amps and crosover considering the available budget (All amps and even crossovers are microphonic to an extent). So much more could be said.
    I have heard neither the JBLs nor the ATCs, but logic dictates that if the JBLs are even remotely comparable to the ATC in sound quality, then JBL truly pulled off a miracle!
    Reply
  • Bullwinkle-J-Moose - Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - link

    "You are talking about the JBL LSR305? Even if that were true (which I doubt), there are many many other significant aspects of loudspeaker design. Some simply cannot be properly addressed at the price point of the LSR305."
    ----------------------------------------------
    Oh HELL NO!
    I am definitely NOT talking about the "BUDGET" JBL LSR305 Home Theater setup

    I was referring to the 3-channel "Reference Standard" speakers I created over 30 years ago

    Additive/Subtractive frequency interference is easy enough to eliminate with a 3-channel system when done right, but cannot be eliminated in a 2 channel stereo system regardless of cost

    You will get ALWAYS get combing whenever you send the same signal to 2 or more speakers simultaneously

    Even the most expensive dynamic headphones exhibit image shifting at higher frequencies

    It is much less noticeable with planar magnetics, but still there

    You can easily test this combing effect by runnin a mono sine sweep into your headphones at a low level to protect your hearing

    The sweep (Starting at the bass end) will remain dead center of your headphones until it reaches a certain frequency which could be 6-8 Khz on pure crap headphones / 8-12Khz on most midrange headphones and above 12Khz on the best available headphones

    Ideally, you do not want the stereo image to shift left or right as frequency changes as the stereo image wanders and muddies up the acoustical image you are trying to create
    Reply
  • rapster - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    Hahahaha! Someone skipped a dose? Reply
  • FreckledTrout - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    @ddriver, this is very low end for me, so I have no issue with it being called budget. The Jamo sub is utter crap probably not even worth $100 if sold alone. If this build had say a SVS PB-1000 as the sub I might be onboard on the sound side. The in ceiling speakers are at least middle of the road. The other tips were nice but as far as the speakers go it couldn't be any more low end. I ahve the Denon AVR x3300 the prior year version of the one here and it is a lovely receiver mostly because of the Audyssey xt32. Reply

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