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Chapter 4. Playing with Hardware > Build a Dedicated Multimedia PC

Hack 45. Build a Dedicated Multimedia PC

Make your own dedicated PC system for multimedia and gaming, all at once.

Building a dedicated multimedia computer system is one of the most rewarding projects I've undertaken. A big part of that was building a powerful audio system. I'm not talking about adding a mid-performance PC to complement your living room's existing audio system. I've gone off the deep end with my gaming rigs by upgrading at every turn, never missing an opportunity to buy the latest video card or processor. If your system is out of control like this, your next upgrade should be a serious audio system to compliment everything you do on your rig.

For you dorm dwellers, this kind of audio setup can also be the cornerstone of your home theater system after you graduate.

4.12.1. Sound Equipment

Start with a top-of-the-line sound card such as the SoundBlaster Audigy or M-Audio Revolution. Because this is a dedicated system, you'll use the processor in the sound card itself, so use the analog connections from the back of the sound card with a set of three 1/8-inch minijack-to-RCA cables. If you wish to use a higher-grade cable, I recommend the Monster Cable iPod cable because it uses a very compact 1/8-inch minijack connector head. This is important because the jacks there are very close together on most cards, especially those that support 6.1 and 7.1 multichannel formats.

When you've connected your card to the receiver, you will be able to control volume with the receiver's master volume selector. This is a nice feature while you're playing a game. You can also use whatever conventional audio speakers you wish. You will need at least four monitor speakers and an additional center speaker to build a true 5.1 system. Remember to choose magnetically shielded speakers if you use a CRT. If you use an LCD monitor, it won't matter, but most home theater speakers have shielding anyway.

Many home-theater-in-a-box systems on the market today are convenient and value-oriented, but most of these systems suffer from the same problems as computer speakers. Remember why the ratings of PC speakers don't stack up? The same problem exists with HTIB systems that have the amplifier mounted outboard in the subwoofer. Choose at least a system that includes a real separate audio A/V receiver, and make sure that it has a six-channel multichannel audio input on the back. Finally, don't forget a subwoofer. In a smaller room, you can use a modest eight-inch driver-equipped sub so as not to break the bank.

For extreme hackers, the path to audio nirvana is paved with audio separates. Separate amplifiers cost more than receivers for several reasons, mostly due to build quality. Separates also hold their value very well, making the overall cost of ownership quite attractive compared to a top-of-the-mark receiver that depreciates with every new surround format introduced. In a computer environment that contains all the decoding and preamplification (volume control) on the sound card, all you really need is amplification. You can connect a multichannel amp in the same way you normally connect an A/V receiver with analog interconnects. See [Hack #44] for more.

4.12.2. Connecting Your Consoles

After you have handled the audio setup, you can even connect your other game consoles to make an ultimate all-in-one gaming system. Several devices can convert the higher-resolution video signals of the Xbox and GameCube to VGA that will display natively on your monitor. From here you can also connect an inexpensive KVM switch to toggle between consoles and your computer without rewiring between sessions once the video is in VGA format. Connect the audio output of the consoles directly to the A/V receiver, and you are good to go.

Needless to say, this kind of system is all you really need to enjoy games, movies, or music. Building a multimedia computer alongside a serious home audio system will reward you with scalability, upgradeability, and resale value.

4.12.3. Audio Alternatives

Last but not least, if you don't have the budget for great speakers and expensive high-end audio separates, you still have your options. A general rule of thumb is that headphones sound equivalent to speakers that cost 10 times their price. You can easily hang with the elite by investing in some quality headphones for a fraction of the price of a killer audio setup. Additionally, many current receivers support Dolby Headphone technology, which approximates a 5.1 system by using only your headphones. This technology is extremely convincing and realistic, and will close the gap between you and a truly excellent audio system. See http://www.headphone.com/ for everything you've ever wanted to know about headphones and headphone amplifiers.

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