Details

(Updated October 27, 2001)

I have put together a pretty serious home theater for the new loft.  I'm using some components from my old system - including the speakers, amplifiers, satellite receiver, VCR, TIVO digital recorder, and Bang and Olufsen 6 CD player - but I have bought some major new components, including the projector, receiver and DVD player, plus a new electric screen and projector lift, which suspends the projector from the ceiling.  The photos on the left show a couple of images projected against the wall before I had the screen.  The one on the right shows all the equipment on its stand(s).

 

In overview, I have an 8' x 6' Stewart Grayhawk screen (10' diagonal), which drops down from the ceiling.  I have bought a Sanyo XP21N projector, which is outstanding.  It's extremely bright (2500 ANSI lumens) and gives an excellent 8' wide image just projecting against the wall, even in pretty bright daylight.  The projector also drops from the ceiling using a lift from Display Devices.  I have a Sony ES9000 high end DVD player, and this produces a phenomenal picture with the Sanyo projector.  I have also bought a Kenwood VR4900 receiver. I bought the projector, receiver and DVD player on the web, at savings of 25% to 50% off the list price, which is a significant amount of money!  I'm using my existing Marantz amplifiers, Energy speakers, Aiwa VCR, Hughes DSS satellite receiver, Phillips Tivo personal video recorder, Bang and Olufsen CD player, and Dell PC.  More details below ...

Projector

The projector is a Sanyo XP21N. This is arguably the best home theater LCD projector available at the moment (see this review).  It's very bright - 2500 ANSI lumens - which was an important consideration for me as my loft is pretty bright during the day and I wanted to get a reasonable picture with a fair amount of ambient light.  I've been very impressed with it in this respect - as long as there isn't bright light shining directly on the screen it's still very clear, even in pretty bright daylight. This is especially true with bright images such as football games, which are one of the main requirements for daytime viewing!  I plan to get some remote control blinds to cover the windows and skylights for better viewing of films during the day.  The resolution on the projector is 1024 x 768 pixels (XGA), and it works very well both with my PC and with video images.  I have it set up to use a component video connection with a progressive scan input (480p) - a nice feature of my Kenwood receiver is that it can upconvert all video signals to this format - see below for a more detailed explanation.  The contrast levels on this projector are much better than most other LCD projectors at the moment - about 700:1 compared to a typical value of 400:1 on other good projectors.  This means that black levels are darker (the main criticism of LCD projectors compared to the alternative CRT or DLP technologies is that black comes out as dark gray).  The picture is improved even further with a bright projector like this by using a light gray screen like the Stewart Grayhawk. There are even brighter versions of this projector available - 3000 lumens or more - but for the image size I need, this is really too bright and wouldn't give such good blacks.  Another strong point is that the fan is very quiet.  Check here for official information from the Sanyo web site.

The biggest factor in my decision to choose this projector was the previously referenced review at projectorcentral.com.  I also read reviews and discussion at AVS forum, which reinforced this review.  I had been considering the Sony VPL-VW10HT, but the review at projectorcentral put me off.  Also, this has an LCD panel with a 16:9 ratio, which is good for widescreen DVDs but since I will be watching a mixture of widescreen and 4:3 ratio material, I decided it would be simpler to have a 4:3 ratio screen.  I was also considering some of the new DLP projectors such as the Seleco HT250.  These were relatively expensive as they're not available for sale on the web yet, just via local dealers.  Also there were some comments at AVS forum about problems with the early models.  I ended up buying the projector from Projector People - didn't use mysimon.com as I did for the receiver and DVD player, as it doesn't seem to know about many of the specialist projector sites.  They were offering it at a bit over 40% off the list price.

Screen

I have a Stewart Grayhawk screen.  Most home theater screens have a gain greater than 1.0, which makes the image appear brighter.  However, with very bright projectors like the Sanyo, a light gray screen which has a gain of less than 1.0 actually improves the picture quality by making blacks appear darker.

 

A challenge in the loft is the location of the screen.  In my old place, I had an electric drop down screen that retracted into a horizontal cylinder mounted on the wall.  I have a nice sculpture on the wall where I want the image to be projected, and the ceiling is pretty high (see the picture on the right).  I don't really want a cylinder containing the screen mounted two thirds of the way up the wall.  I had been thinking that the ideal solution would be if I could somehow drop a cylinder down from the ceiling, and then I stumbled on the "cable climber" at the Stewart web site, which is pictured on the left.  When stored, the cylinder containing the screen is all the way up to the ceiling.  When it drops down, the cables lower the cylinder to the correct position, and then the screen drops down from there.  However, I finally got a price quote for this which even I decided was outrageous, and I have now decided to go for plan B, a screen that has extra masking material at the top and will wind all the way up into a fixed cylinder on the ceiling.  I'm still going for the Stewart Grayhawk. 

Both the screen and the projector lift will be remote controlled.  I haven't worked out the exact details yet, but am hoping to use X-10 automation for this and other remote operations.

Receiver

My previous home theater used a Phillips DVX-8000 as the main unit - a combination receiver, TV tuner, DVD player and Windows PC.  Unfortunately Phillips no longer supports this and it will only run Windows 95.  While it was a nice system in many ways, I decided it was time to upgrade.  One issue was that it produced a very nice image at VGA resolution (640x480 pixels), which matched my old projector, but since the new projector is XGA (1024x768), when it scales the image up you this doesn't work so well.  Also it didn't support DTS, and didn't support a 480p progressive scan output or component video connection, which is the format that would give the best quality on the new projector.

I decided to buy a Kenwood VR4900, which is the top receiver in the Kenwood range.  This is the silver box on the top shelf in the picture.  It got consistently good reviews on all the web sites I found, including The Big Picture and Audio Review.  While it has a lot of excellent features, the single biggest selling point for me was that it can convert all video output up to a component video signal.  To digress slightly, there are three main types of video connection that can be used between a video source and a projector.  In order of increasing quality, these are composite, S-video and component video connections.  Normally only high quality DVD players would provide a component video output - my satellite receiver will output S-video, and my VCR will only output composite video.  This means that with many setups you need to run all three types of connection to the projector.  Since my projector will be mounted on the ceiling and will be a long way from the receiver (I will need roughly a 50 foot cable), it would be a pain to have to run three cables to it.  With the Kenwood, the different types of video signal all go into the receiver and it outputs a single component video signal to the projector, so I just need to run one (albeit expensive!) component video cable between the receiver and projector.  Having said that, I will also be running a second RGB cable between my PC and the projector (more below).

One thing that was something of a pain was that the Kenwood receiver is about an inch wider than all my other components, and it wouldn't fit on my existing equipment stand, which was 18 inches wide.  This forced me to buy an expensive new designer equipment stand made by Bell'O, which you can see in the picture above.

DVD Player

I also bought a new DVD player, the Sony 9000ES, which is Sony's high end player.  This can generate a progressive scan output (in the 480p format, which is an HDTV format), which gives a higher picture quality.  This refreshes all 600 lines on the screen in every frame, whereas a traditional (interlaced) image just refreshes every other line on the screen each frame.  I had several DVDs that wouldn't play on my old system, but I haven't had a problem with any of them with the new system.  The picture it produces is really outstanding.

In addition to playing DVDs, it will play various other formats including CD, Video CD (VCD), and Super Audio CD (SACD), which is a new high quality audio format being pushed by Sony.  It's hard to get these at the moment - I ordered a couple from Amazon (which has less than 100 titles), and so far have Verdi's Requiem and Meatloaf's Bat out of Hell (for contrast!).  They both sound very good, but need to do more side by side listening to compare them with regular CDs (I have a very nice Bang and Olufsen CD player, which sounds great).  As for less technical things, the player looks and feels really solid and high quality, AND it has a really cool blue light on the front :) !!  (Even the real hard core audio- and video-philes at AVS Forum talked about the cool blue light!!). 

Phillips TiVo Personal Video Recorder

My TV viewing has significantly changed since I got a TiVo a couple of years ago. It's essentially a souped up VCR which uses a hard disk instead of tape to record shows.  It's actually running the Linux operating system, for the techie geeks out there - though you never see this.  It has a very intuitive user interface, and downloads program information every night, which makes it very easy to select what you want to record and enables the system to provide a lot of nice features. You can select a program and say that you want to record every episode.  You can also watch something while it's still being recorded, and a nice function which takes advantage of this is that you can pause live TV (it just starts recording when you hit pause, and you can hit play again whenever you like).  This is also useful for skipping the ads, as you can start watching a program 15 minutes late and just fast forward over any of the ads.

TiVo just brought out version 2 of their software, which has a lot of nice enhancements that fix the biggest issues I had with the previous version.  The major ehnancement for me is probably that if you ask for a "season pass" to record all episodes of a show, you can specify a priority for which show gets recorded if there is a clash.  Previously it just wouldn't let you get a season pass if any episode overlapped with another season pass, which was very annoying.  The latest version also gives you a lot more flexibility in searching for programs and specifying what should be recorded - you can search for everything including a certain actor or set of keywords for example, whereas before you could just search on the title.

Hughes DSS satellite receiver

I have a Hughes DSS satellite dish and receiver, which I use to get Directv programming.  I bought this in a rather amusing situation.  I was visiting my friend Kate in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1998, when the Denver Broncos were having a great season and had won their first 13 games.  Only one other team had ever won all 16 games in the regular season, so I really wanted to see the game that week (as did Kate, who used to live in Denver).  I had assumed that we would be able to go to a sports bar to watch the game, but Meadville is a pretty small place and none of the bars were even open on Sunday - and on cable TV you could only get the Pittsburgh Steelers game (the local team).  On Saturday afternoon I came to the conclusion that the only way I would get to see the game would be to buy a satellite dish and get a subscription to the football service which showed every game in the country each week.  I did this and we managed to get the dish set up just before the game - see the picture on the left for our professional installation!!  In retrospect I'm surprised we managed to get it set up so quickly without mounting it on a pole, as I've now set it up in a couple of other locations and you have to be very accurate with the positioning of it.  The wind blew the chair round a couple of times during the game, and we would have to rush out and fix it so we could get a signal again.  Sadly, after this heroic effort to watch the game, the Broncos went on and lost (though they did go on to win the Superbowl).

Bang and Olufsen CD player

Plugged into the home theater system I have a Bang and Olufsen BeoSound 9000 CD player which is very cool.  It hangs on the wall and plays (and displays) 6 CDs.  It's almost a piece of art as much as a CD player (that's a justification for its extortionate price, anyway!).  You can see it on the wall in the background in this picture.

PC

I also have my PC connected into the projector, which can display XGA resolution (1024x768 pixels), as mentioned above.  It's a Dell machine with a 1GHz Pentium III processor, 256MB of RAM, a high end NVidia GeForce2 Ultra graphics card with 64MB of video RAM, and 80GB of disk space.  I have a cordless keyboard and mouse from Logitech, which work within a range of 20-30 feet or so from the PC, so I can use them from my normal viewing area.  I have almost my entire CD collection stored on the PC in MP3 format, and the audio output is connected to the main amps and speakers via the Kenwood receiver, so I get a pretty good sound.  I also just got a broadband internet connection (640Kbps DSL), which is fast enough to get pretty good streaming video which I can play on the big screen.

Downstairs TV

I have a second TV in the bedroom downstairs, which is an older 36" Sony Trinitron.  While the Kenwood has multi-room capability, this is hooked up to display the same signal as the projector upstairs.  I didn't really need the ability to watch two separate programs as I will just be watching in one place or the other, and this makes the control interface simpler.

Remote control

One of the challenges for the system is getting a good integrated remote control system.  There are a large number of components in various different locations, using both Infrared (IR) and Radio Frequency (RF) remote control signals.  In addition, I want to include control of lighting and the screen and projector lift.  It's important to include macros to make everything simple to use.

My plan is to develop a custom remote control system which uses a PC server with a web-based (HTML) user interface.

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