So, we have our HTPC hardware setup with Windows on board. Boot times and power management optimized – things are going great! But you’ll have noticed that we haven’t actually played any media on our HTPC yet – PC, tick. HT? Okay, let’s get that sorted out.
If you cast your minds back to the beginning of the book, you’ll recall that we were going to hook up our example HTPC to a modern Audio Video (AV) receiver via a HDMI connection. That provides a very simple video connection from our HTPC into the AV Receiver which itself is connected to our big screen TV.
That connection is providing a fabulous image on-screen – but another great benefit of utilising an AV Receiver is of course surround sound! Whether it’s Blu-ray movies, streaming media or our ripped audio collection we want the best possible sound for our Entertainment and that’s another area where the modern HTPC excels. So, in this chapter, let’s walk through configuration of our HTPC’s audio settings and we’ll test out just what it can do.
Bitstreaming vs Decoding
Before we get hands-on with our audio settings, I need to briefly tell you about a couple of audio concepts – Bitstreaming and Decoding. Depending on whether you decide to use an AV Receiver, or pump your audio straight from your HTPC to speakers (or the TV itself) then you may need to vary your HTPC cofiguration a little – it all hinges on where we’d like our audio decoding.
Take a look at a DVD or Blu-Ray sleeve, and you’ll see a variety of acronyms that explain the standards used to encode the surround sound audio on your favourite movie. Do the terms DTS, DTS-HD, Dolby Digital and Dolby TrueHD sound familiar? They’re some of the audio standards Hollywood uses to create those amazing effects and soundtracks you love.
There’s a whole array of these standards, and the good news is that most modern AV Receivers support all of those standards – ensuring that your movies sound their best. But wait! If we’re using an AV Receiver, we need to ensure our HTPC passes that audio correctly to the receiver so it can be decoded and played back on our surround sound speakers. This is called Bitstreaming. Hollywood
encodes the movie’s audio on to your Blu-ray disc, you play the disc on your HTPC and rather than have the PC decode the audio, you simply want the PC to pass it over to the AV receiver for decoding and playback.
You can tell when the AV Receiver is correctly receiving encoded (Bitstreamed) audio from your HTPC (or any other device) as you’ll see a DTS or Dolby Digital graphic appear on the receiver’s display. So, you should ensure that your HTPC can support audio bitstreaming, like our Intel NUC. Intel’s Core i3 and higher processors have supported HDMI Audio Pass Through for native Dolby TrueHD & DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreaming for some time, so I’d always recommend at least a Core i3 processor for your HTPC.
The alternative to bitstreaming is software decoding. In this scenario, an application on your PC recognises the Dolby or DTS encoded audio and decodes it on the PC before sending it as unencoded audio to your speakers or TV. Some people prefer to decode on the HTPC so they can tweak audio settings to the Nth degree, but for convenience, I’d generally recommend bitstreaming to an AV receiver and letting your dedicated hardware do the job it was designed for. That said, I’ll cover both options in this chapter so you can see how each works.
Install Your Windows Audio Drivers
Before we do anything, we’d better install the audio drivers for our Intel NUC HTPC. Without drivers installed, nothing is going to work. So, head over to the Intel website (or your own motherboard manufacturer’s support site) and grab the latest audio drivers for your PC.
Once downloaded, install your drivers and reboot the PC when asked.
Once you’re back up and running, head to the Control Panel and click on Hardware and Sound > Sound > Manage audio devices.
Ensure the correct audio device is set to default for your HTPC (you may have multiple devices available, depending on your manufacturer). In our case, we want the Intel Display Audio device set as default. If necessary, highlight the device and click Set Default.