A Budget Home Theater & PC Setup: 4K, HDR, UHD Blu-ray, and Moreby Ganesh T S on December 26, 2017 8:30 AM EST
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 It is almost given that most components will become outdated 4-5 years down the line.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|
|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.