Life without HDMI

Well, almost.

For many years, Jennifer and I had an “entertainment system” that was cobbled together with a ~19-inch TV complete with knobs on the front, a VCR, and an old Radio shack AV receiver. We had a passive subwoofer hooked up through an old PA amp, and a quartet of speakers, an off-the-shelf pair, and a pair of homebrew towers in the front. When the VCR died, we replaced it with a DVD player. We didn’t have a lot of tapes, and the machines were similarly priced at the time, so we took the opportunity to upgrade. One year, we got a healthy tax return, a.k.a. white trash savings account, and upgraded from the tube to a multimedia projector. We painted a 91-inch screen on the wall with a special paint. We’re still using and enjoying our Optoma HD72. It’s only 720p, but it suits our needs for the time being. Around the same time, we picked up a Marantz SR4600. It was deeply discounted because the HDMI models had just come out. We didn’t feel like we needed the new hotness, but we still wanted excellent sound quality. The Marantz is one of the cleaner sounding solid-states that I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, but it became clear that we needed a good center channel speaker, which I sourced on the internet.

When the Playstation won The Great HD Format War, we picked up a Samsung BD-UP5000 that was on clearance at the local electronics money pit. We were able to pick up a few HD DVDs at the time, for little to nothing for the same reasons. For full disclosure in reference to the title of this post, we do have an HDMI cable running from this player to the projector, for video only. Even though the Marantz didn’t have HDMI ports, nor decoders for HD audio formats, it did have 8-channel discrete inputs to plug in analog auto, and the Samsung had 8-channel discrete output. So far, so good! My friend, Beej even gave me a pair of Marantz towers that she picked up at an estate sale so we could have true 7.1 surround.

Some time in there, we picked up a pretty nice laserdisc player at a garage sale, bundled with a small collection of discs. Well to be fair, we went through a few players before we wound up with our Pioneer CLD-D406, but for the sake of brevity, let’s say we picked up a laserdisc player. It’s an A/B side player that even has AC3 output for Dolby Digital. I wound up sourcing a Marantz DP870 to descramble the digital audio. This sound processor does a great job at that, but it has discrete 5.1-channel output. This is where we started running against a wall. We now had two units with multi-channel output, and only one set of inputs on the receiver. We don’t watch laserdiscs very often, and the only title we have that is in true Dolby Digital is Showgirls, which we rarely have a driving urge to watch. So, although this was a problem, it was not a huge one.

When Avatar came out, many of our friends, whom we respect, reported that it was a really good movie. Conversely, many of our other friends, whom we also respect, regarded this film as a giant, steaming pile of thinly veiled white guilt cliches. Naturally, we had to check it out. We rented the Blu Ray from the local store and settled in for the evening. Our Samsung wouldn’t play it. So, I went off to Samsung’s website to find that they had just rushed out a firmware update for our player, specifically to tackle the Avatar issue. With the update installed, we were able to *ahem* enjoy this film. And, by “enjoy” I mean facepalm, exclaim “WTF?!?!” and generally hate it, joining in the latter mentioned camp of our friends.

And, that firmware update was the beginning of a pretty crumby experience with our player. It had difficulty with almost all new releases from Disney and Fox. Subsequent firmware updates did nothing. I chatted with Samsung support, got nothing in return, and told them that I was tempted to avoid Samsung products from then on because of the experience. By this point, it was getting difficult to find a Blu Ray player that had alternatives to HDMI, and I was not about to buy a new AV receiver. I decided that I would work towards replacing the player with the next HTPC, which we started on last year for Christmas. My research indicated that playing Blu Ray discs on a computer was not without its caveats, and we still haven’t accomplished the task.

I knew that I was going to eventually have 8-channel sound coming from the HTPC. So, that makes three devices with discrete output going to a receiver that has one input. It was now time to get creative. I needed an 8-channel analog sound switcher. Somewhere I found such a device online, but it cost as much as a new receiver. I put my head together with my brother’s, and formed a plan. I took a dead Pioneer SL-PG440 single CD player and gutted it for the project. I drilled out the back of the box to mount 40 RCA jacks that I sourced on the internet.


And, I even printed out an overlay to stick on the back of the unit to label the connections.


I shaved the front off the faceplate with my router table and rebuilt it with a sheet of dark colored plastic where a selector knob could be mounted.


I sourced some heavy-duty, Japanese-made, four-pole relays. These are discontinued new old stock, and are built like little tanks.


I discussed circuit options with my brother, and let him put it together, as he has done a lot more of this kind of work than I have, and he’s got a good soldering station.




When powered up, the relays make an authoritative “clack” between input sources. The switch has six positions, with the outer two wired as off, and the inner four switch between four input sources. I have not personally listened to sound through it yet, as I lack the cabling to wire it into the system yet. My brother has wired it for sound and reports that it is extremely quiet as far as noise is concerned, that it transmits the sound signal as if it is not even in line. This is exactly what I was after.

So in short, in avoiding purchasing a new AV receiver, my brother and I built a home theater electrical component from scratch. Now, we should be able to wire the discrete sound from the laserdisc sound processor, the HD DVD/Blu Ray player, and the HTPC without having to swap a handful of cables. And, I’ll have an extra input just in case we happen to pick up some other device that we have not yet thought of. Whenever I can manage to get it plugged into the system, I’ll let you know how it runs for me.

Oh, and back to the Samsung firmware issues… Jennifer’s parents gave us the new Die Hard movie for Christmas. When we threw it in the player, it did its annoying trick of sticking on the splash screen. After fiddling with it a bit and threatening to throw the player in the street, I checked the internet for a new firmware version. I didn’t expect to find anything as it had been several years since the last update. But lo and behold, Samsung released a new firmware version in October! I got that installed and we were watching Die Hard in no time flat. I’ve since been able to test the machine playing Tron Classic and Tron Legacy, two titles that have never worked on this player, much to my despair. So, the Samsung has a new lease on life and I’m not feeling quite as pressured to get the Blu Ray drive installed and configured in the HTPC.

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18 thoughts on “Life without HDMI

  1. Heh. Being able to cobble a working something together from “junk” your wife’s been complaining about cluttering up the garage is always an awesome feeling, isn’t it?

    And Tron. WOOT!!!! I think they’re both great movies!

    • Man, I’ll tell you. That project changed shape and form several times before it was done. I’d accumulated the stuff to put it together right before I got promoted to customer. It went on the back burner for quite some time. I was originally going to build it in a cabinet made of English yew and stainless steel. The main board sat around here for a few years before we finally got on the ball and finished it out. In order to wire up the system with it, I’m going to need to order about twenty cables from Monoprice, and that’s what’s keeping me from it at the moment. I was afraid that they’d totally screw up Tron with Legacy, but it was a great flick.

  2. First, that setup is awesome, I love the homemade switcher.
    Personally though, I’m WAY lazier than that.

    For my setup this year, I got a decent 32″ LED 1080p with two HDMI inputs and two rca inputs. Plugged a Sony Bravia (I think) “smart” blue ray into one HDMI, a mini android PC into another, and the Wii into one set of RCAs.

    I set the audio output to a computer speaker set giving me dolby 5.1 with the sub.

    I run all a bunch of media formats via wireless off the house fileserver through the droid PC, or netflix, or hulu, or amazon prime (the bravia has to run this through a CRAZY SUCKY interface because of amazons refusal to support android).

    Gives me the added benefit of playing any music CDs on the Bravia, internet radio and MP3s on the droid, and leaves it fairly simple (two remotes, one for the TV that controls the blue ray as well, and a small keyboard/mouse combo for the android).

    I will say though the little droid rocks, and is getting more friends of the same type in the house


    Doesnt have the neat factor of your setup, but for geek cred I’m still streaming most of the media from the server, and with a few tablets in the house I am able to give the 9yo the option to watch harry potter while the 5 yo watches little mermaid, and run sesame street on the TV for the baby

    • Thank you! I was extremely tempted to get one of those mini androids for similar purposes. I hadn’t talked with anyone that was using them, so I kind of avoided that option. It’s good to hear that you’ve had such great results. That’s a cool keyboard too. Are you playing physical CDs or streaming from a hard drive? One phase of the project was to gather up and organize our combined CD collection (from the last twenty or so years) and rip them all to the HTPC in full resolution .wav files. I was going to load the CDs back into our changer, but then I realized that we weren’t likely to ever listen to them like that again. It makes me a little sad that we aren’t using the changer, because that was one of the first ‘nice’ things we bought together. Oh well, time does march on.

      • One of these days, I’m wanting to set up a fileserver here to load movies/music on. Its on my list, right there in the general vicinity of the MAME cabinet for playing arcade games.

        ….unfortunately, they’re both on about page twelve of the list.

        • You know, it doesn’t take much of a machine to store music and movies, or to run MAME. In your line of business, it couldn’t be too hard to come up with a freebie that would chug along for either task if not both. I’m currently trying to set up MAME on our HTPC.

      • In our case I do run a small file server (sad that I can say “small” is only half TB, but when I work as a SAN Admin, and run multiple petabyte+ systems…. alas) that runs our music and videos off of.

        Best part is I got the DVDs out of the hands of the kids, where they get lost, broken, scratched, never put away etc and onto full digital media.

        Then they can play them on the TV, or the laptops and tablets without ever destroying another disk.

        In my case a simple PC running headless in a closet wired up to the house switch that runs two used cisco APs (one under each section of the house for better coverage/throughput) and the droid PC on the TV and I was able to do all of it in a long afternoon without the fam. I highly recommend it

        • In your experience, how many DVD movies will fit on oh, say, 100gb of hard drive space? I’d considered doing the same thing, but since I don’t yet have multichannel sound from the PC to the receiver, and then the HD movies really sucking up storage space, I hadn’t really bothered with it. Good call on keeping little fingers off your media! When it was still convenient to rent DVDs, I solidly got in the routine of giving each rental a good cleaning, especially if it was a kids’ or family movie.

          • so I encode all my media these days as mp4 mkvs @720p (more than good enough on a 32″ at room distance), and average a 2 hour movie in about 800MB.

            I can look up the encoder settings when I go home if you like, processing time takes a while, but results have been quite good.

            End result though is on a 100GB volume you can average about 100 movies and leave swap space for something else, or fill it with about 125

    • I’ve seen it mentioned before, but I get scared by the prospect of all the configurations those buggers must take. I wouldn’t mind playing with a pi, but that’s back-burner territory for me, and I’m not confident enough to pick one up with a specific plan in mind.

      • “Hacking Raspberry Pi” by Timothy L. Warner has full instructions for making MAME from an rPi.

        You can also make a media center or a minecraft server. Not bad for a little inexpensive board.

        • Grand, can I guess you dont have kids? :-)
          I love the concept of the rPi, but just dont have the time to invest in it. At least until the kids show interest in building computers :-) then who KNOWS

          • Just don’t tell my kid that you can build a pi into a Minecraft server, or I’ll never hear the end of the wheedling and nagging!

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