Concluding Remarks

Home theater components have seen rapid technological advancements over the last decade. It is almost given that most components will become outdated 4-5 years down the line. Under these circumstances, it is important to identify local troughs where things don't change much except at the leading edge. The rise and stabilization of 3D video was the last such trough. Right now, 4K and HDR seem to have finally matured and become ready for mass adoption. From a HTPC viewpoint, HDMI 2.1 should not be a cause for concern and make consumers wait for the next big thing. This is a marked departure from the tone I had adopted when we last looked at options for HTPC displays back in 2015.

In the process of working on this article, I configured and set up a budget home theater build from the ground up (except for a few speakers from my earlier setup). The table below lists the components that I chose along with the pricing for each. Readers interested in building their own set up will not go wrong by picking and choosing from the list below.

Home Theater Setup Components Guide
Component Model Price Notes
Display TCL 55P607 $700 The TCL C-series (with Dolby Vision) is also recommended, and is available for a comparable (if not lower) price from outlets like Costco as of December 2017.
AV Receiver Denon AVR-X3400H $999 The lowest price we found while tracking this product was $799. A more budget-friendly is the Denon AVR-S730H at $430 (as low as $349 at times)
Media Streamer NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV $199 Available for as low as $160 at times. Recommended as a more flexible alternative / add-on to the Roku Smart TV features of the TCL P- and C-series TVs. Offers ease of setup and use compared to the HTPCs listed in this table
HTPC ASRock Beebox-S 7200U USD 349 (Barebones) Recommended HTPC if media playback is the primary requirement
Intel NUC7i7BNHX1 USD 506 (Barebones) Recommended HTPC if media playback is a primary requirement, and flexibility to add an eGFX enclosure for gaming and/or hardware extensibility is also desired. Offers much better CPU / GPU performance compared to the ASRock Beebox-S 7200U
Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN1080K USD 2000 (pre-built) Recommended HTPC if gaming is the primary requirement. Most powerful CPU and GPU in the list of considered systems, but comes with size and power consumption penalty, as well as the inability to support UHD Blu-ray playback
Blu-ray Drive Pioneer BDR-211UBK $117 Our choice for the Blu-ray drive has to be an internal one as of now, since almost all USB-based ones are currently not available directly in the North American market
SATA-USB Bridge for Blu-ray Drive UGREEN SATA-USSB Adapter with Hub $26 A multi-purpose SATA-USB bridge with a microSD reader and a couple of additional USB 3.0 Type-A ports. If looks are a concern, the Vantec NexStar DX USB 3.0 Enclosure (NST-536S3-BK) at $44 is a good choice. However, since the components are concealed in my setup, I went with the more veratile and cheaper UGREEN option
Blu-ray Player Software CyberLink PowerDVD 17 Ultra $48 Pretty much the only option available to play Ultra HD Blu-rays legally. Does automatic playback in HDR mode for supported local files on supported Intel GPU-based systems. Note that this is not a mandatory component if the Pioneer BDR-211UBK is used. The Blu-ray drive comes with a OEM version of PowerDVD 14 that supports UHD Blu-ray playback. However, only the retail version gets updates that can fix issues that new titles in the market may have
Speakers Polk Audio RC80i $117 Purchased a couple of these in-ceiling pairs for new rear and surround channel speakers, along with ceiling speaker protective covers. Choice depends on home theater size and other requirements. Works well enough for me to recommend
HDMI Cables AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable (10 ft. / 3 pk.) $14 The Monoprice cables are recommended over the AmazonBasics ones.
Monoprice Certified Premium High Speed HDMI Cable (10ft.) $3.14

Consumers looking for a compact and pure media playback HTPC (including OTT streaming, local media playback, and UHD Blu-ray playback) can opt for either the ASRock Beebox-S Kaby Lake series or the Intel NUC7i7 series. The key is the presence of a HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 port. If UHD Blu-ray playback is not essential, a machine equipped with a GP107 GPU (GTX 1050 / GTX 1050Ti / GT 1030) is a good choice, as it comes with a GPU capable of VP9 Profile 2 decoding in hardware. However, such a system is unlikely to be as compact as the UCFF machines. If gaming is as important as media playback, a hybrid setup with the Intel NUC7i7 series along with a eGFX enclosure connected to the Thunderbolt 3 port and incorporating a high-end Pascal or similar GPU can also fit the bill. While we have not evaluated such a HTPC setup, it does offer the best of all worlds on paper - gaming with Dolby Vision, UHD Blu-ray playback, and all the other bells and whistles. This is possibly a setup we would like to evaluate in a future article.

Moving forward, consumers should look forward to dynamic HDR metadata support. If the components in the display chain are already capable of Dolby Vision, it is likely that consumers are not going to see any major difference compared to components supporting the dynamic metadata feature of HDMI 2.1.

Dolby Vision on PCs presents a host of challenges. In general, dynamic metadata is problematic for general-purpose devices like Windows machines. On such systems, there may be many different video windows open, each with conflicting metadata. So all these different formats need to be merged into a single color/brightness domain. By comparison, most CE devices are in full-screen-video mode, and don't normally have to worry about multiple HDR formats appearing on screen concurrently. Addressing these challenges will require the OS and GPU vendors to work together to go beyond the current HDR10 deployment.

In terms of HTPC hardware, one of the interesting platforms about to debut in shipping systems is Gemini Lake. The low-cost platform supports SGX, HDMI 2.0, and HDCP 2.2. Gemini Lake platforms have a lower power budget and memory performance compared to the KBL-U systems covered in this piece. Intel confirmed that they do not plan to support HDR processing workflows in Gemini Lake due to those constraints. Consumers looking for Gemini Lake to provide a low-cost HTPC platform should prepare to temper their expectations.

Finally, a note on the HDMI cables used in my setup: I bought a number of them of various lengths (up to 10ft.) from both Amazon (Amazon Basics) and Monoprice. The Amazon Basics had a 33% failure rate (only 4 out of 6 were able to work with the GTX 1080 in a Razer Blade Pro driving a 4Kp60 signal at RGB 4:4:4 to the LG 43UD79B). Fortunately, I was able to test out prior to installing the cables inside the wall. On the other hand, the Monoprice Premium Certified cables had a 100% success rate. It is a no-brainer to go with the Monoprice ones.

UHD Blu-ray Playback in Action
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  • Golgatha777 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    It doesn't even make financial sense to try and do 4k Blu-ray on PC. The optical drive is $117 and the playback software, PowerDVD 17 is $40 currently. Add to this the requirement for specific motherboards and CPUs for the DRM chain, and you've more than paid for an XBox One S.

    Not to mention from my anecdotal experiences during the Bluray days, the software will be buggy as hell, the audio will be a pain in the ass to configure correctly, and you'll need to update the software (in this case PowerDVD) to the newest version down the road to keep up with the DRM key refreshes.

    I built a HTPC years ago, and it's only still useful because I also use it to game on, and because of software that strips DRM off my discs. Now that commercial playback software must support Cinavia, it's useless to me as well for playing back ripped ISO images and media files; so I turn to open source programs and will keep my old hardware that ignores Cinavia, etc. for playback. For streaming and 4k discs, and XBox One S is much more cost effective, and the playback software will get updated for free going forward (support for new DRM keys, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, etc.).
    Reply
  • Golgatha777 - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    Forgot the $26 for a SATA breakout drive enclosure for the 5.25in optical drive. Reply
  • edzieba - Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - link

    For regular BD playback, by far the most painless experience is to just use AnyDVDHD and play the movie file directly off of the disc. No mucking about with menus (and waiting for a Java VM to load up just to RUN the menus!), no dealing with the steaming pile of garbage that is PowerDVD, no worrying about having to have an obtuse HDCP compatible chain, etc.

    Recent developments have shown HDCP 2 is on the way to being broken in a similar way, so soon the only practical requirements may be a BDXL capable drive and a HDR capable monitor/TV.
    Reply
  • Fujikoma - Thursday, December 28, 2017 - link

    I rip everything to an NAS and strip the Cinavia out of it. It also saves me the hassle of getting off my lazy butt and I can just stream anywhere in my house without a problem. My 4k BD drives cost me less than $70 (LG) and they both work fine for ripping (1950X TR with NVidia 1080). I can use my XBoneS for the odd video files (format, audio and sub options) I have and the Roku (boxes and the t.v. built-ins) work just fine for my h265 MP4s. I think you're right that the XBone platform would be a better option for 4k at this point. I'd use a 4k dedicated player for family, if no one games because it's less complicated. With family, fewer remotes and components has been the way to go. That's why I keep the amps and pre-amp setup in my computer room.
    The article, itself, doesn't really make any sense because there's too much skimping on the home theatre. Just easier to start with a good t.v. and audio setup with front speakers only, then add in the extra bells and whistles later. The list doesn't even contain a sub... which means a decent sound bar would be viable option to ceiling speakers as the surround setup isn't even in the cost breakdown.
    Reply
  • rapster - Sunday, December 31, 2017 - link

    How do you strip out Cinavia? Last I heard there still wasn’t a viable solution and would be very glad to hear that the situation has changed. Reply
  • Fujikoma - Sunday, January 7, 2018 - link

    I'm not going to list the software, as it already had a run-in with the U.S. govt. and I don't feel like causing myself more hassle again even though I have a legal right to rip my own BD/DVD collection. Considering I (as does everyone in the U.S.) pay a 'fine' to the recording industry every time I purchase recordable/storage media for potential pirating/format change of stuff I own, my attitude towards it is even more jaded. Needless to say, the software was worth the money. Reply
  • Aikouka - Wednesday, December 27, 2017 - link

    I wouldn't just flat-out recommend the Xbox One to anyone as a UHD BR player. The Xbox One's biggest problem is that it's far too noisy when playing UHD Blu-rays (disc noise), and it's quite easy to hear during quieter parts of a movie. I went that route to start with, and it only took me one movie to start researching alternatives. Unfortunately, most alternatives have issues too. Sony's player is arguably the one that has the least amount of awkward teething issues, but it'll never support Dolby Vision. (TCL's P605/P607 supports Dolby Vision.) LG was supposed to add it, but they pulled the update. I've also heard complaints of noise from other players. The only player that seems to get decent praise is Oppo's 203, but it's also over twice as expensive as the others (~$500). Reply
  • edlee - Thursday, December 28, 2017 - link

    I understand the superiority of Dolby Vision, but the fact that its not widely supported in the tv market, only LG, roku tv, and vizio support the feature. All the support is going to the forthcoming HDR10+, i know its difficult to review right now, but its an open standard and royalty free. You will see support for it from more tv manufacturers as well. It has streaming support from Amazon on over 100 titles, and support is mostly coming from Netflix in the future. Reply
  • Reflex - Thursday, December 28, 2017 - link

    And honestly until you get to 80" or higher projector style setups DV is unlikely to make a noticeable difference in image quality. DV is a nice to have, but not at all mandatory for a first class experience, at least not yet. Reply
  • HStewart - Friday, December 29, 2017 - link

    I actually have Xbox One S and primary used it for UHD Blu-rays. There is difference in having it on PC then on Xbox - because you can also used it as 4K Monitor which is good fro graphics programs.

    I would agree for low cost it best to go for Xbox One S ( or X ).

    I would think with this Pioneer drive - you should be able to get HULU in 4k on PC - but even with the Xbox you will need 13 megabit Internet connection to run 4k HULU.
    Reply

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