Desktop Theater: The Home Theater PC

written by Mike Shea on 21 March 2002

I was against the whole idea of a Home Theater PC for one reason. PCs suck. There are few every-day devices that are harder to use and more unreliable than the home PC. One major product has changed my mind recently, Windows XP. Now, I hate Micro$oft as much as every good citizen should, but now we have an operating system that is easy to install, easy to use and reliable. Now with a solid OS, the desktop theater may be the most accurate representation of a DVD available to the masses. Unfortunately, this accuracy comes at a price.

There are two ways that PCs can fit into a home theater system. Some higher end systems use custom computer based DVD players in place of standard off-the-shelf DVD players to allow custom display outputs to front projection systems. For about $1000 the DVD player is a bit expensive but when you consider the cost of a video scaler, it is actually pretty cheap. A lot of good information on the home theater PC for projection systems can be found at AVS Forum.

The other way to use a PC as a home theater component is to use it simply as a PC. This is often known as the "Desktop Theater" Home Theater PCs can be used as either components to an existing home theater system or as a desktop theater device. This article covers this type of home theater PC configuration. Basically, you have a PC with a DVD player, Windows XP, WinDVD, a good monitor and good headphones.

Advantages to the Desktop Theater

There are a few advantages of the desktop theater including:

The biggest advantage of a home theater PC is video quality. While most users will take a home theater PC and connect it to a digital projector, I have mostly been looking at the home theater PC as a desktop device using a standard monitor mentioned below. In short, a desktop theater is as close to a DVD reference quality system you can get for under $2500 total. The use of software video scaling allows the desktop theater to eliminate scan lines, interlaced artifacts and increase resolution. Computer monitors are of a far higher quality than standard TV tubes, allowing for a better picture and higher resolutions.

The ability to upgrade is another large advantage. As new audio and video cards are released, upgrading to higher level components can run as little as $200. For example, if you decide to jump to 24bit 96khz audio, buying an M-Audio Audiophile 2496 can get you there for about $230 instead of another whole new component.

While the cost of a PC is not something everyone can afford, it is often far cheaper than even modest home theater systems. The size also allows it to fit just about anywhere including dorms and small apartments. The use of headphones means you won't be evicted for watching Twister too many times. As many homes already have a PC or plan to purchase one for other uses, using the PC as a desktop theater can use an existing tool for multiple jobs.


There are a few disadvantages of a desktop theater, some severe:

The main problem with the desktop theater is the non-conventional watching environment. Watching a movie at a desk is not the right way to watch a movie at home. Movies are meant to be watched while flopping in a big overstuffed chair with a Burger King 56 ounce soda on a TV stand. While video quality is much improved over a standard TV, having to sit in front of a computer monitor for two hours isn't for everyone. The smaller screen of a computer, roughly 20" diagonal 4x3 at best doesn't usually fit into the THX 30 degree viewing angle spec of a good theater. Sitting close helps but it isn't as good as a 100" screen. The desktop theater really can only be used by one person. No one wants to drag their gang in front of a computer to watch Anaconda, they want to be all over a living room scaring your cat and spilling beer. You might be able to do two people with a headphone splitter, but anything over one and you might best look for a living room system.

Using headphones means you gain accuracy but lose multi-channel sound. Good stereo soundtracks are a lot better than you think when listening through a good set of headphones, but they don't compare to a great DTS soundtrack going through 1000 watts of amplifiers into full range speakers. While you may gain technical accuracy with headphones, you lose all the big rumble of that big hunk of ice falling in Cliffhanger (I made that up, I never saw Cliffhanger) because of a lack of a subwoofer.

How to Improve the Desktop Theater Experience

Many of the Tips for Improving your Home Theater Experience can be done with a desktop theater. The main things to help improve the system include:

Equipment Reviews

While not picking out a full system for purchase, as any good Windows XP box with a DVD player can do the job, there are a few particular components that really stood out as wonderful desktop theater components. Here are some small reviews.

Sony G520 21" monitor: The Sony G520 21" monitor might be the best display I have ever seen. Tubes are far from dead. While DLPs and LCDs are all the rage right now with the kids, they don't even come close to the resolution and contrast levels of a good tube. The G520 takes even tube displays to a new level. It has resolutions far outside of HDTV, it has a perfectly flat screen, perfect color, brightness, contrast and geometry. I have never seen DVDs look as good as they do on this monitor. No matter what source material I throw at it, it still shocks me with perfection. It is a big sucker, weighing in at 70 pounds and requiring a pretty hefty desk to hold it up. It also doesn't have the biggest screen you can find for home theater use, but remember that viewing angle is far more important than size. The real advantage of the monitor is clarity. Using a high resolution and a software DVD player the 520 displays a picture without scan lines or artifacts. It gives you exactly what the DVD has to give, there is nothing lost in the translation. This display was the first one that had me wishing for higher resolution DVDs. For the price range of $700 to $900, there is no better computer display and no better DVD monitor than the Sony G520.

Turtle Beach Santa Cruz Audio Card: Part of building the multimedia PC is a good solid soundcard. There are some higher priced soundcards with built in DTS decoding, 24bit 96khz playback and other features, but for this system, a simple Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card fits perfectly. It has a wide range of software selectable inputs and outputs including a Digital pass through. You can hook up a full six speakers and have software Dolby Digital decoding take care of the playback. Most importantly, it has excellent filtering to make sure no weird interference from other components gets passed into the audio. When using headphones with a system like this, any type of interference can be heard very clearly. The Turtle Beach is dead silent. The card also has great driver support including Windows XP certified drivers and an excellent tuner and equalizer program. For $60 it is very hard to beat.

Windows XP: The key component of the home theater PC is the OS. Windows XP is the first operating system offering enough stability and usability to make it worthwhile for home entertainment. DVD Playback occurs without any crashes, lag or lipsynch problems. It recognizes hardware and software quickly gets itself out of the way. Windows Media Player 8 comes bundled and does a good job playing back audio CDs. For DVD playback I used the WindDVD application, which ran $40 for the higher end version. It would have been nice for Windows to bundle a DVD program with the OS, but I can't complain with the performance. This software installed and ran without a hitch. Until now, every Microsoft OS has been all but truly defective. Windows XP is the first solid Microsoft OS I have ever used.

Sennheiser 580 Headphones: The hardest home theater habit to break is that of multi-channel sound. While it is possible to set up a full six speaker home theater array around a PC, it isn't very convenient. For this setup I chose to throw out Dolby Digital and DTS and go for straight stereo using a my favorite pair of headphones, the Sennheiser HD580 headphones. For music these headphones have been my reference drivers (I love saying snobby shit like that). They are the first set of headphones that got me wishing for higher resolution CDs. Their only drawback is that they require some kind of amplification and that they are only two speakers, not six. Still, they offer a full range of sound that requires no tuning or treatments from 10hz to 30khz. Getting this level of quality from speakers requires thousands of dollars.

Headroom Little Headphone Amplifier: I decided to go a tad audiophile and pick up a true headphone amplifier. I found the great website which has great information about the right headphones and amplifier for the job along with their own line of headphone amps. I decided not to go too crazy and picked up a Headroom Little headphone amplifier. While it doesn't blow me out of the water like I expected, it does give the headphones the boost they require without any kind of coloring of the sound. I get the exact source material amplified to the right level. I couldn't ask for anything more. At $300 this amp along with the $200 headphones is still well within the cost of a full speaker system.


The following music CDs and DVDs were screened on a desktop theater PC with the above components. The machine itself is an custom Athalon 1.2ghz with 1gb of ram and a Geforce 2 GTS video card.

Music CDs I listened to a variety of music CDs on this system including my reference disc, Lorenna McKennett's Book of Secrets. It was as good as I have ever heard it. Not too much bass, not too harsh. I then tried Enya's Paint the Sky with Stars, a great collection of Enya's greatest songs. Book of Days became a new favorite song of mine after hearing it on this system. The balance of sound for each ear is so perfect that no two channel speaker system could do as much justice as the Sennheiser headphones did. I found myself listening to it over and over again. Filling my fantasy music selections out I tried the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. This one was a little harsh during the large battle scenes, though whether this is the purpose or an effect could be debated. Track 10, The Council of Alrond, is one of the more beautiful songs I have heard and if it has any fault it is the short duration. Though the desktop theater is a bit against my luddite nature for audio systems, I can think of no better sound system and it proved it on these CDs.

Full Metal Jacket: I started off watching a movie I knew wasn't going to be the best choice, but I was in the mood for Kubrick at the time. Full Metal Jacket had the advantage of being 4x3 so it filled up the whole screen of the Sony monitor. All the grain of the original film was present and I could even tell where voice looping occurred within the audio track. This all showed me that sometimes, coming up with the perfect reference viewing environment has the disadvantage of showing you all the errors of the source material. I can hardly blame the system for this, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Hearts in Atlantis: Hearts in Atlantis was a much higher quality DVD to test this new system out with. Although I hadn't received the Headroom Little amplifier yet, I still had a great experience. The two things I missed most were a comfortable chair to flop in and the freedom to move around without getting headphone wires tangled up. Still, the technical specs of the system showed the movie as well as it could ever be shown.

Swordfish: Though I wasn't a HUGE fan of the movie, I did find Swordfish to be entertaining enough to take me away from my desk and into the life of some wacky hacker / terrorist twisty turny plot line. I actually started watching this on my Sony XBR 32" set but the scan lines bothered me enough that I watched the second half on my desktop theater. The picture got substantially better and the audio wasn't wrecked to the point that I even noticed I was listening to only two channels. Color and contrast were perfect. Audio was full without being too harsh.

AI: Artifical Intelligence: AI is really a "big screen" movie. Though it is shot in 1.85 to 1 instead of 2.35 to 1, it still begs for a huge 100" 16x9 screen, a Runco projector and a 4x line quadrupler. Still, on my desktop theater I was engrossed enough to actually quit playing Everquest so I could finish it. Black blacks, great looking wide shots. The rock beat of the android bashing festival hammered away without losing any of the power. The movie gave me the feeling of dread for the little android bear from the moment he was turned on until his last appearance. At no time was I worried about picture artifacts, audio frequency drops or any other weird technical thing. I felt what the director wanted me to feel. The system was transparent.

Home Theater systems should be vehicles for movies to users. Whatever the setup or circumstance, we should be given a vision that the director wanted to give us. While a desktop theater is far from a traditional home theater setup, it was able to offer me the best picture and the most accurate sound I have ever gotten from DVDs. While this came at the cost of comfort, multichannel sound and screensize, it still needs to be considered as a viable home theater medium. If you watch movies alone and have limited space and money, definitely consider the desktop theater. Not only does it work, but it can be considered a true reference system.

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