Build It: Convert Your Home Office Into the Ultimate Home Theatre

Maximum PC Staff

Is it possible to convert a standard home office into a surround sound home theater with minimal fuss?

I have an average-size spare bedroom that mostly functions as a home office and gaming room, and has been used primarily by me. Given the cramped quarters of San Francisco apartments, I set out to make the room less me-centric and more family-friendly by transforming this home office into a home office theater. The goal was to create a room suitable for three things: normal PC computing, big-screen surround sound movie viewing with no reconfiguration needed, and big-screen gaming. Ancillary goals were to make the room feel less like a cluttered man cave, and to avoid breaking the bank.

For the most part, I think I got this one right.

Ingredients

Component Spotlight: Audio

YAMAHA SP-2200 DIGITAL SOUND PROJECTOR

This is the secret sauce of my digital home theater build. The YSP-2200 delivers big, rich home theater sound at what feels like a bargain rate.


Yamaha's YSP-2200 Digital Sound Projector produces accurate tones in all ranges and accurate surround sound effects.

The trick with this build is that I wanted to be able to connect my PC as well as my PlayStation 3 to the 1080p projector. Prior to this, I’d heard considerable praise heaped on Yamaha’s sound projector, and Maximum Tech editor Michael Brown recommended I check out Yamaha’s YSP-2200. I’m glad I did.

The YSP-2200 consists of two parts: a 37.13x3x5.75-inch center unit and a 17.13x5.38x13.75-inch subwoofer. It uses complex algorithms and an automated self-calibration routine to determine the acoustic properties of any room, and then projects discrete sound channels at walls and other barriers in the room to recreate the surround sound experience. Frankly, the 5.1 and 7.1 modes really surprised me given the size, enough so that it’s hard to imagine ever buying a space-consuming six- or seven-speaker set again.

It also supports HDMI 1.4a, making it 3D-compatible down the road. Not surprisingly, given the acoustic quality and reduced footprint, this is a category that is quickly gaining in popularity. We’re starting to see more and more sound projectors on the market every year. It’s worth noting that Yamaha makes both lower-end and higher-end sound projectors, as do a number of audio companies, including Boston Acoustics and Polk.

Component Spotlight: Video

EPSON 8700UB

So much for not breaking the bank. The moment we got our hands on Epson’s 8700UB projector, we knew it was destined to be the visual centerpiece of this project. Truth be told, it’s not that easy to find high-quality 1080p projectors that don’t cost a fortune. The low-end of the price scale in this category includes Optoma’s highly touted HD20 ($900 retail), and Epson’s PowerLite 8350 ($1,100 retail).

The picture quality of the 8700UB is superb, and the 1,600 lumen output (which increases to 1,830 in Dynamic mode) allows it to function surprisingly well with some ambient light present.


You can find cheaper 1080p projectors, but few deliver the sharpness, brightness, and image-throw versatility of Epson's 8700UB.

I really love two of this projector’s features. First, an adjustable 2.1:1 manual zoom lens allows you to throw a 110-inch diagonal image from variable distances ranging from 11 feet, 9 inches all the way to 25 feet, 1 inch. This allowed me to run a 120-inch image in my 15x13-foot room. Second, the projector allows you to shift the image position vertically and horizontally, which allowed for convenient installation in the corner of my room. (It’s worth noting that using the zoom lens does reduce the brightness—Projector Central reports that this drop-off can range from 18 to 36 percent, depending on zoom level).

I spent a lot of time contemplating a wide variety of projection screens to go with the Epson projector. I drooled over a number of higher-end motorized screens, dreaming of push-button conversion to theater mode before settling on a simple manual screen with a 1.1 gain. It works great. (Gain indicates the reflectivity of any screen or projection surface. A 1.0 gain is considered normal. Most conventional screens have gains in the 1.0 to 1.3 range.)

Regardless of the lumens and the slightly reflective screen, I still found that the best condition for the greatest visual quality was darkness. With notions of weekend-long sessions of Portal 2 and Shogun 2 in mind, I purchased an inexpensive vinyl pull-down shade for the large window in this room. In an effort to keep my girlfriend happy, I installed the shade inside of the room’s curtains. Success!

Other Important Components

If you remember last year’s 3D HTPC build , you may recall that we used a number of interesting accessories. I transferred a few of the devices we used back then to work with this home theater.

The no-brainer of the batch was Ceton’s InfiniTV 4. Its four-tuner capacity makes it a recording workhorse, and Ceton recently introduced the ability to split the four tuners among other Windows systems on a network, which makes for easy live streaming. We’ll explain how to make this work below, but it’s worth noting that you’ll also need to get your hands on a multituner CableCARD from your cable provider if you want to use it.

Similarly, I found that Logitech’s diNovo Bluetooth keyboard and Glide TV’s remote control mouse granted me full range of Media Center controls and some basic gaming controls at a distance. Razer’s Onza Tournament Edition controller rounds out my collection of input devices.

More and more, Warpia’s StreamHD is becoming an essential part of my home theater. It’s great because it allows my friends and family to quickly and easily run media (including music) from their laptops to the big screen and receiver. A USB dongle plugs into a laptop, which then wirelessly transmits up to a 1080p signal to the soundbar and then on to the projector. As I mentioned in my review of the StreamHD , some compression artifacts are visible at the higher resolutions, but picture quality is surprisingly clean.

Key Steps In Home Office Conversion
Step 1: Rearrange the Room

The first step in converting my office into a hybrid office theater was to rearrange the furniture, desk, and equipment. Oh, the equipment.

Prior to the conversion, I had a typical office setup, with a desk facing the window, and an old 36-inch CRT (hey, at least it was 1080p) and stereo system situated on a 7-foot-long wooden media cabinet. Inside the cabinet was my cable box and PlayStation 3.


BEFORE: In terms of shape and size, this layout worked perfect as a makeshift office. However, the TV, cable box, and room layout make it inherently antisocial. The computer is essentially the center of the room, and the weird angles caused by the TV and couch aren't very inviting.

One of the goals of this project was to upgrade the CRT to a more impressive-looking (and larger) projection display more suitable for games and HD movies. My other goal was to be able to extend my PC’s desktop onto a projected image for gaming, movies, videos, and more. Secondary goals were to ditch my cable box and enable PS3 action on the big screen.

The worst part about redesigning an office/theater room is that you have to spend a whole lot of time unplugging cables. After a few hours, the room was littered with about 45 different types of cables. I placed them all in a box and set them aside. With the hope that I’d never have to use them again, I removed the TV, cable box, speakers, and more from the room. I then set about shifting the furniture around to find the ideal arrangement.

Ultimately, I discovered that the most effective configuration for watching media on the projector would be to use the longest dimension of the room for theater viewing. This allowed for a more theater-like feel, and it conveniently allowed me to place my computer in an ideal location on the far side of the room across from the door.


AFTER: After shifting the furniture around two times, I finally locked in on a format that allows the room to function as an office, home theater, and den. The window provides natural light for the room while working or lounging. And using the longest part of the room as the theater throw makes for a more cinematic experience.

Prior to rearranging the furniture, I measured the couch, desk, and media cabinet and made some sketches. However, after spending several half-days arranging and rearranging the furniture in this room, it became clear to me that the only way to find the optimum configuration is to explore as many possibilities as you can.

Step 2: Mount the Projector

In an effort to avoid having to hard mount my projector to the ceiling multiple times, I used a makeshift series of boxes situated in the corner of this room for a few weeks until I was absolutely certain the room configuration was right.

After examining a series of projector ceiling mounts, I took a chance on a mount a friend recommended: Atdec’s flush-mounting telehook device. At $55, it’s affordable, but also sturdy. Out of the box, it looks a little bit like a spider—this flexible design allows it to easily latch onto a number of projectors.

The first step in mounting the projector is to detach the ceiling/wall mount mechanism so that you can more easily attach the mount to the projector (below, left). This is easily accomplished using the included hex wrench.

The next step is to determine the center of gravity for your projector. This is important because you want to make sure the projector is properly balanced when you attach it to the mount. You can do this by holding the projector with your hands, and sliding your fingers back and forth on the x and y axis until the projector feels balanced. Mark these axes with a pencil or pen (above, right). The area where they intersect is where you’re going to locate the center of the flush mount.

Now it’s time to attach the mount to the projector. To do this, you’ll need to place the projector mount in the center point, and then screw the appropriate-length mounting arms to the center mount. Once you do this, you can tighten up all the mounting arms, and you can then attach the entire mount to the screw holes on the projector (below, left). Use the rubber standoffs to ensure a snug connection (below, right).

You’re pretty much done from here. All you have to do now is attach the ceiling/wall mount to your ceiling, which is easily accomplished, and then attach the projector mount to it. The whole process shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes.

Step 3: Run and Connect Cables

The YSP-2200 has three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output as well as optical, S/PDIF, and analog audio inputs. This allowed me the convenience of running all my video sources—PC, PS3, and Warpia StreamHD—directly to the soundbar. I could then run a single, long HDMI cable from the soundbar directly to the projector.


Like many mid- to high-end receivers, Yamaha's YSP-2200 allows you to run all your video cables through the device to the display.

One quick note on HDMI cabling: If you’re going to have a long run, like I do, from either your speakers to your projector, and/or from your PC to the projector, it’s important to know the limitations. Typically, high-speed HDMI cables are capable of longer runs, up to 15 meters (almost 50 feet). They’re also able to transmit 1080p and greater signals. Standard HDMI cables are not able to transmit signals over long distances, and top out at 1080i.

I also took advantage of this cable-reconnect job to organize my cables a little more effectively. I zip-tied the slack loops on my cables, and also clipped the long HDMI runs from my PC to the Yamaha YSP-2200 and from the YSP-2200 to the Epson projector.

Step 4: Get TV Tuner Up and Running

Installing and initializing the Ceton InfiniTV 4 tuner card was a snap. I plugged the device into my rig, plugged my CableCARD into the tuner, installed the drivers, and then initialized the card directly in Windows Media Center (below, left).

I chose to keep two of the card’s four tuners assigned to my office PC, and I wanted to assign the other two available tuners to the computer connected to the big screen in my living room at the front of my house. This would effectively allow my household to record and watch TV shows in two different locations with only a single CableCARD device managing the content.

The process for accomplishing this was easy. Once Windows Media Center detected the four individual tuners the InfiniTV 4 card provided, I deselected tuners 3 and 4, leaving only tuners 1 and 2 available for my home office PC (above, right).

Later, after I had completed the setup for the office, I used the InfiniTV Network Tuner setup on my living room PC. First, Windows Media Center detected the two available tuners (below, left); it showed the two tuners already in use as grayed out. I quickly selected tuners 3 and 4 (below, right), and was finished.


I was able to assign two of the InfiniTV's tuners to my office PC and two to other PCs on my network.

Assessing the Outcome

Between rearranging the furniture and mounting the projector, this project took several weeks to complete, which makes the end result all the more satisfying. I now have a room that is able to function as a basic office, and with a few quick adjustments, I can quickly turn it into a full-on 1080p theater with surround sound and a 110-inch, 16:9 screen. The best part is that I can now play games and movies using my PC or the PlayStation 3.

The real surprise here is the YSP-2200. Holy cow, it’s great, so much so that I am kind of kicking myself for buying a 5.1 system for my living room’s sound system last year.

Also impressive is the Atdec projector mount. Being able to easily tuck my projector into the top corner of my office frees up lots of space and adds a professional touch that enhances the sense of being in a home theater.

If I had to do anything differently, I’d have used a rigid tension-mounted projector screen instead of a pull-down one. The non-tension pull-down screen works well, but the naturally curved surface produces some slightly distorted images. If I had used an $800 projector, this would be excusable, but a $2,200 projector demands a screen more appropriate for a higher-end home theater.

But in general, this project was a rousing success. The very best part is that I’ve just become a hero in the eyes of my girlfriend—who no longer has to wonder why two full-time professionals are dedicating an entire room solely to productivity—and my friends. Movie and game nights are way more fun now.

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