How to Make Your Home A/V Setup Better

A major rewrite of this article is in progress

This post would be more aptly titled, “How I Made My Home A/V Setup Better in 2013”

I spend a lot of time optimizing the systems that I engage with on an ongoing basis. My home A/V setup is one of the systems that has seen gains in the first part of this year. I’ll briefly describe my home A/V setup, and introduce some areas for continued refinement.

My Existing Setup

Display: Panasonic Viera TC-P55ST30 55″ Plasma TV
Audio: Logitech Z-5500 THX Speaker System
Media Storage and Retrieval System: Apple MacBook Pro 15.4″ laptop
Media Storage: 3*LaCie Quadra D2 external hard drives
Human Interface Device: Apple Bluetooth keyboard, Apple Magic Trackpad
Audio Playback: Audio Technica AT-LP60 Fully Automatic Belt Driven Turntable

The focus of the setup is the Panasonic Viera ST30 class plasma TV. Advances in plasma technology over the past half a decade have made plasma TVs excellent choices for video playback. I could write an essay on the comparative differences between plasma and LCD technology for video playback — the big three that you’ll be interested in are contrast, viewing angle, and size. Plasma televisions offer impressive contrast and can display deeper blacks than most LCD sets. The viewing angle on plasma televisions doesn’t suffer at extremes. LCD televisions must be tuned for placement in order to provide a good viewing experience. Setting an LCD television at a suboptimal viewing spot results in reduced contrast and image quality, whereas plasma TVs are very forgiving because of their wide viewing angles. Finally, plasma TVs are typically cheaper than equivalently sized LCD sets.

My audio setup hasn’t seen updates for a few years. The Logitech Z-5500 speaker system is a 5.1 system that was designed as a computer sound system. It does its job well in its current location, where all five speakers have been laid out in-line. The Logitech Z-5500 control unit has an optical audio input that I run directly to the TV. An analog input supports playback of stereo tunes from my media storage and retrieval system. The system produces enough power for my living room, though I could upgrade it for greater audio fidelity. There is a tradeoff that one makes in audio between size and clarity. Smaller speakers stow away easily, and the Logitech Z-5500 can always find a comfortable place on my office desk.

The turntable is a more recent addition into my home A/V setup. It is a fairly basic model, as far as modern turntables go. A built-in pre-amp eliminates the need for additional A/V equipment on my part, and it produces great sound for the price. It’s my turntable. Belt drive with a replaceable stylus, and fully automatic.

Changes from 2012

Previously, I had a second generation Apple TV (MC572LL/A). It was my main media retrieval system for about one year. My MacBook Pro laptop was kept in another room, along with the external hard drives. I jailbroke the Apple TV and installed XBMC on it, which allowed it to play back files outside of my iTunes library. This worked fairly well, though I encountered serious streaming issues when playing back larger files. I suspect this was due to a problem with XBMC and its ability to work with Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) shares. Furthermore, the Apple TV had an output resolution of 720p, which meant that higher resolution content was being scaled back. Not that I could play back anything in 1080p, anyways, but it was a factor for consideration.

I contemplated the purchase of a new router, but stopped myself several times. I had researched the maximum wireless throughput of the top routers available on the market using SmallNetBuilder.com’s Router Charts before purchasing a Cisco-Linksys E4200 Dual-Band Wireless-N Router in the summer of 2012. Other options that retained the Apple TV 2 as the media playback and retrieval unit included migrating my media library to Plex or moving away from AFP and towards SMB for home file sharing.

Then at the start of 2013, I moved the MacBook Pro and my external hard drives to the living room. The external hard drives house my media files – everything from music to movies to digitized home videos is stored (and backed up) on those drives. The MacBook Pro has a 3.5mm audio out jack that can transmit audio data digitally using TOSLINK. Now I can play back all of my media files on the big screen with few issues. Having the computer hooked up to the rest of my home A/V setup also provides me with added functionality above and beyond that offered by traditional A/V components.

Using an old computer to serve up content was not without its faults. I found that Netflix lagged when playing back HD videos at 1080p resolution. Any workaround that involved tweaking the computer would have meant compromise on some other part of the setup. For a time, I swapped in the Apple TV 2 whenever I wanted to stream a film on Netflix. Luckily, I found that my TV had some smart TV functions that I had not previously experimented with. I found that it not only had native support for Netflix, but the TV’s built in Netflix app was quite good. Ultimately, I sold my Apple TV 2 for twice what I paid for it because it was no longer a necessary part of my home A/V setup.

Future Changes

My home A/V setup would benefit most from having a dedicated home theater sound system. I am quite satisfied with the amount of power produced from the existing system. However, better components will produce greater tonality and clarity. I am quite enamored with sound bars – they do a good job of producing sound for a TV setup, and they can be cleanly integrated into most home A/V setups. My budget pick for a sound bar would be the VIZIO SB4021E-A0 40-Inch 2.1 Home Theater Sound Bar. Pie in the sky, money is no object pick would go to the Bowers and Wilkins Panorama 2 Integrated A/V Sound System ($2199.99 at the time of writing). For full disclosure, I’ve experienced neither one of these two, but the B&W set looks very sexy.

As interesting as sound bars are, I could see myself going in a whole different direction. I have done some research into DIY speakers, and some of the builds that are floating around out there are marvelous. As with any system, the sky is the limit when it comes to the upper dollar figure that you could spend.

July Update

Added Bluetooth to my Logitech system