Building a Media Centre

I enjoy a good film and in my youth I used to love going to the cinema but as I got older I found the cinema became far too expensive for the reward and I just didn’t have the time anyway. Since I enjoyed watching things on the big screen the natural answer was a projector and for years I played DVD’s on a computer though a projector. Around ten years ago though the projector blew a bulb and, as I had other things on, it never go replaced. A couple of months ago though I bought a new projector and now I’m looking to set up a full home cinema.

Aims

My aim is to put together a home cinema / media centre based around a projector and a 5.1 or better surround sound system that gives me easy access to the content I already own as well as Netflix and Amazon Prime. A bonus would be to have access to YouTube, my existing music collection and online radio. I don’t care about any of the other channels / applications / games most of the possible solutions offer as I find Netflix and Amazon Prime provide more than enough video content for my needs and if I want to play a game or run an application I have a very nice PC and comfy chair in my office. The solution must be easy to turn off; I never watch TV in the day so I don’t want the system on any time other than the couple of hours I’m using it in the evening.

Existing Parts

The parts I have at the moment are:

All of the items on the list are good quality if a little old in a couple of cases. What I need is the hardware or software glue to stick them all together.

Initial Thinking

Local Media the Home Cinema PC and Plex

I’ll be honest and say this is the hardest part of the set up. I don’t watch things in my film collection all that often so I don’t want to devote much time, money or electricity to this part of the setup. Util now I’ve relied on a laptop plugged into the projector playing the files though VLC but this has it’s drawbacks the biggest being you have to get up to pause the film, something that happens a lot when you have two young children. I’ve tried Unified Remote but it’s so slow you might was well get up and do it manually even with all the keep alive settings switched on. What I want is something that organises the display of my film collection and presents a more remote control friendly interface.

My plan originally was to set up the home cinema machine running XBMC and watch my content through that. Over time XBMC became Kodi and so I installed that and gave it a try. Now I’m sure Kodi works brilliantly for some people but for me it was virtually a dead loss. I installed it under Linux Mint 18.2 using packages from the Kodi PPA. Kodi crashed repeatedly while scanning my content and wasn’t very stable during playback. After a day wasted googling error messages I decided to give up on it which is a shame because when it worked it was good.

With Kodi out of the frame I decided to have a look at Plex. I’m generally allergic to anything that involves spending money but Plex has a free version and I’m pleased to say it covers everything that I want for now. The pay for version is only about £100 for a lifetime license so I could be tempted if it looks like it adds functionality I want. Plex is a two part application, there’s the media server and the client. The server manages the content and streams it to the client, this is great because it means the client can be very lightweight in processing terms which in turn means there are clients for a wide range of devices such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Depending on how you are going to use the server you may or may not need a reasonably powerful machine to run it. The format of the source material determines whether the server will need to transcode it before it gets sent to the client. According to Plex the CPU in the server needs about 2000 PassMarks to transcode a single 1080p stream, the CPU in my home cinema PC scores nearly 6500 PassMarks so in theory it should be good for three streams and in reality I’d be surprised if it ever did two.

My film collection weighs in at around 2TB and I store it on my NAS which is always on. Some modern NAS systems can run the Plex server directly which would be great but I’m not about to shell out for a new NAS when I already have a perfectly functional one. In order for Plex to access the media the appropriate share on the NAS needs to be mapped to the PC. As I’m running Plex under Linux I’ve set up an NFS mount on my home theatre PC (setting up this share is outside the scope of this guide and well covered elsewhere).

The problem with the home theatre PC is that it’s first and foremost a PC. It sucks down so much power that I can’t justify leaving it on all the time and switching it off means having a monitor, keyboard and mouse connected. Additionally, although the Plex client runs fine on this machine controlling it from the sofa would probably mean a keyboard and mouse which is clunky, a remote control would be better. A wireless keyboard and mouse combo for example something like the Logitech K400 would work for shutting the machine down and there’s a Plex client for the all the media sticks as far as I can see.

Netflix and Amazon Prime

In an ideal world Plex would have Netflix and Amazon Prime plugins available but sadly that isn’t the case and almost certainly never will be. I’ve got both Netflix and Amazon Prime running on the home theatre PC by installing Chrome but annoyingly that’s limited to 720p in both cases – for Amazon it’s due to a lack of HDCP in Linux and for Netflix it’s because they only grace certain browsers with higher resolutions. I could probably live with the resolution but controlling the players through a browser isn’t ideal from the sofa, again it’s a case where a remote control would be better.

Fortunately there is a fairly cheap solution to this part of the problem in the form of a media stick. A media stick is a a small device that plugs into a TV or projector and connects to your home wifi network essentially turning a dumb TV into a smart TV. There are three big players at the moment, Google Chromcast, Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick. Each of these options has a bigger (and more expensive) brother and there are a few other players most notably Nvidia Shield but more about that later maybe.

If you have a look towards the bottom of this article there’s a table showing which services are available on which sticks (double check though, the comments indicate there are mistakes). I would have liked to use Chromecast as a lot of online services I use are Google based but Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon Prime so it’s a non-starter – technically you can cast Amazon Prime from a laptop / computer and you might be able to sideload the Amazon Appstore, neither are great solutions though. That leaves the Amazon Fire TV Stick and the Roku Streaming Stick and I’m inclined to go with the Fire as it feels like a slightly more polished offering.

BluRay and DVD

I don’t have many BluRay films but those that I do have I’ve mostly not watched and I’d like to experience them in their full BluRay glory. That means connecting a BluRay player to the setup. The BluRay player I have is a little old but it works fine so I’d like to use that but here’s where I hit a problem, the projector only has two HDMI inputs and I now have three devices I want to connect.

Sound

So far so good but I’ve focused on the video element of the set up so far and completely ignored the sound side of things. In some ways sound is more complicated than the video because there are several competing standards for interconnection. For video there’s only really HDMI at the moment. With sound you have a choice of analogue, coax, DIN and optical connections and then, if you are using a digital connection, you’ve got to consider what encoding the source and destination can handle. My speaker system can only handle Dolby Digital (AC-3) and analogue which could be a bit limiting especially for BluRay.

Problems

At this point I’m fairly sure that what I want to use is the home theatre PC running Plex for our local content, a streaming stick, probably an Amazon Fire TV Stick, for streamed content and the BluRay player for any physical media. I also want to use the speakers from my existing sound setup but I’m willing to replace the amplifier if necessary. The projector has the ability to strip out the sound from the HDMI input and send it on down an audio jack but that’s stereo only and I’d like to to experience 5.1 surround sound or better. Additionally since the projector only has two HDMI inputs and I have three things that need plugging in I’m going to need some sort of intermediate box or get used to a life of swapping cables over.

Solution – A/V Receivers

It seams the simplest solution to the problems discussed above is an A/V receiver or simply and AVR. A modern AVR is a box that accepts a number of HDMI and possibly other inputs and has one or more HDMI and amplified audio outputs, an example would be the Sony STR-DN1080. I would have liked to have avoided buying any more significant bits of equipment but it looks unavoidable for the set up I want to achieve. Initially there will be three video sources plugged into the AVR but I could easily see a PS4 and possibly a Nvidia Shield joining that in the future. A second video output might be nice to have as well for those long gaming sessions on a monitor.

The Sony STR-DN1080 AVR accepts speakers with an impedance range of 6 to 16 ohms which might be a problem (about speaker impedance, more) for the speakers I have. The speakers that come with the DTT3500 don’t list an impedance but I suspect they might be 4 ohm from this thread on Reddit. I’ll measure them but I without a signal generator to sweep over the frequency range of the speaker it’s not a terribly useful measurement. As the thread says though the speakers I have are are only capable of 7W for the satellites and 21W for the centre whereas the AVR can push out a whopping 165W per channel. The problem with using low impedance speakers is that they can draw too much power from the amplifier when run at high volume. I’m fairly confident that the speakers I have would catch fire long before the amp hit it’s maximum power output though. One slight downside of all the AVR’s I’ve looked as is they are all “pre out” on the subwoofer channels

The big question is what AVR to get, Sony generally make some nice kit (hence my choice of example) but I’ve always felt it was expensive for what you got. There’s a new (new for me anyway) game in town regarding sound in the form of Dolby Atmos and I’d like the AVR to support this even though I currently have no media that does.

My Final Solution

In the end I bought the Sony STR-DN1080 AVR, it’s a seriously nice piece of kit and although I don’t currently have any speakers that do it justice it’s made the speakers I do have produce the most amazing sound. I’m currently looking around for some half way decent speakers, I’ll probably pick some up second hand. The 1080 isn’t without it’s quirks which seems to be a perennial feature of software from Sony. The setup menu doesn’t seem to be able to cope with sending an image to a 4k display even though the device itself is capable of handling 4k. The remote control seems sluggish the first time a button is pressed after nothing has been pressed for a while. It’s almost like the unit has gone into a sleep mode and needs a second to wake up.

Rather than an Amazon Fire Stick or Chromecast I went with the Nvidia Shield with a memory expansion. It allows me to have the Plex server, Netflix and Amazon Prime in a box about the size of two packs of playing cards rather than messing around with a load of separate devices. Price wise it’s a little more expensive than separate pieces, especially as I already owned a machine that coule act as a Plex server, but it’s such a neat solution I felt it was worth it. On top of that I’ll be able to stream games down to the cinema room once I get a wired connection in there.

Nvidia Shield

Game Streaming

The Nvidia Shield is able to stream games from your main gaming PC down into another room which is great if you want to sit on the sofa and play with the family. In theory you can stream over wifi but in practice it’s not possible. Perhaps if the transmitter was right next to the Shield it would work but if it’s in another room the packet loss is two great for it to work – for reference I was able to just about get it to work across a room with wifi, when wired it was flawless. The image you get out of a streamed game isn’t as good as you get from a local monitor. The computer is clearly compressing the image quite hard to get it to the computer over the network. Personally, I don’t mind the lower quality, when I’m playing with the family I’m having so much fun I don’t notice.

Plex Server

The Plex server set up is not at all obvious but once you’ve figured it out it seems to work well enough. First mount the storage you want the Plex server to access, this is done within the Shield settings. Then log into your Plex account before switching the Plex server on. If you are like me you then spend 20 minutes trying to figure out how to add media libraries. The reason you can’t add any media libraries is because it’s all done from a PC through the web interface – it’s a fine system but it would have been nice to have a hint that’s how it works. Slightly worryingly my Plex server seems to have stopped working this morning I’ll update the article if it’s anything serious.

Tools

  • MakeMKV – Tool for ripping DVD and BluRay to discs. I’ve not used this much but it seems to work well. DVD ripping is free, BluRay requires a license after a 30 day trial period.
  • DVDFab HD Decryptor – Tool for ripping DVD and BluRay to discs. I did most of my ripping with this, it’s not great but it handled most discs just fine on the free version for DVD’s (it was a dead loss for BluRay).
  • Handbrake – The ultimate transcoder.
  • FileBot – File renaming and management tool. I’ve not used this but everyone claims it’s the best around, if I was planning on getting more DVDs or BlueRays I’d probably use this.
  • theRenamer – File renaming and management tool. I cleaned up the names of my films with this. It works reasonably well but it’s quirky and prone to doing stupid things e.g. if two completely separate input files return the same result on IMDB it maps them to the same output file.
  • Plex – Media server and client software.
  • Plex WebTools Plugin – A useful plugin for Plex, manual install only unfortunately.
  • Kodi – Media player, open source.

Reading

Posted in Miscellaneous and tagged .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *