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 Post subject: High-end Quiet & Efficient HTPC Build
PostPosted: Thu Jul 07, 2011 9:19 am 
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Joined: Wed May 25, 2011 6:29 pm
Posts: 10
Hi folks,

This build was an attempt at a truly silent HTPC, using high-quality, efficient components for long-term durability and good performance. Gaming was not a factor; the primary purpose of the machine is to be a music server and digital audio workstation.

The Case
I had constraints on the size and shape of the case, needing something that would fit in my rack. Anything much taller than 6 inches was out. Also, I wanted to use a full ATX motherboard to accommodate future expansion and to have integrated Firewire.

After looking at a Thermaltake DH101, I decided on the Zalman HD160 Plus, which just barely fits into my rack. Good thing, too -- this case is an outstanding example of an HTPC case done right. Its features include:

  • Beautiful anodized aluminum construction all around. Very high quality construction.
  • Plenty of space inside for ATX mobo, one 5.25" ODD, a 3.5" front card reader, and five 3.5" drive bays.
  • Front I/O ports and card reader hidden by flip-down aluminum panel.
  • Provisions for two 80mm fans in back, plus five (5!) more fan openings including one for the PSU. Also an adjustable top vent.
  • Nice implementation of the popular Soundgraph remote and front panel VFD display.
  • Reasonable price for the quality you get. More expensive than the average PC case, yes, but you get what you pay for -- this case is the opposite of cheap and flimsy. And it's not nearly as pricey as other HTPC cases that include a touch-screen panel -- I never understood the point of those.

Sadly, this case has been discontinued. I managed to find one at FrozenCPU.com for $339, and a few may still be out there. Zalman now offers a couple of newer cases that look similar, but they would have been too tall for me. I'm very lucky to have found one of these!

The Motherboard
The Gigabyte GA-H67A-UD3H-B3 suited my needs perfectly. Full ATX, integrated Texas Instruments Firewire chipset (important for my audio applications), fast SATA and USB, and integrated video including HDMI and DisplayPort. It can also control my 3-pin Noctua HSF fan via voltage.

The CPU
Intel's newest Sandy Bridge offerings include a low-power Core i5 (quad-core) known as the 2405S. It includes the more powerful HD3000 graphics processor, making a separate video card unnecessary for my application (and helping in the quest for a quiet PC).

The CPU Cooler
I love Noctua's products and service, and the NH-C14 was an excellent addition to this build, fitting perfectly in the case and not interfering with other components. Yes, it's overkill for a low-power CPU. So what? I wanted the best, and didn't want heat or noise ever to be issues in this machine. I hate noisy CPU fans!

The Power Supply
For my money, the Seasonic X650 is the best. Outstanding quality and performance, super-efficient, and essentially silent in my machine. Modular cabling is a big plus, too.

The Memory
OK, so a couple sticks of Kingston 2GB 1066 won't set the world on fire, but in my case that's a good thing!

The Hard Drives
SSDs are ideal, but to keep costs reasonable I chose a dual-drive setup with a Crucial C300 64GB SSD for the OS, and a WD 1TB 2.5" Scorpio Blue for data. I put the Scorpio in a NoVibes adapter, the kind with rubber cords isolating the drive -- as with all the other components, I was going for cool 'n' quiet.

The Optical Drive
I thought about getting a Blu-Ray burner, but instead chose a Lite-On DVD burner which will meet my needs for now.

The Case Fans
Noctua all around -- I replaced the two 80mm Zalman exhaust fans on the back panel and added one 92mm intake fan where the hard drives are mounted, along with a ModRight dust filter. I used the ULNA resistors on all fans, including the HSF. My final air-flow scheme didn't need two of the side case openings (left rear and right front), so I sealed those off with tape.

The Other Bits
Windows 7 64-bit, J River Media Center (works with the Zalman remote!), generic USB internal 3.5" card reader, external Seagate GoFlex 2TB USB 3.0 drive for backups.

The Build
Installation of all components went smoothly. Here's a shot of the empty Zalman case:

Attachment:
pc_1.jpg

Lots of room in there, eh? The drive cages are easily removed, each secured by a single screw. Everything fit with no problems. Probably the most difficult part of the build was the removal of the DVD drive's front tray bezel. After a good bit of prying and fiddling, it finally slid up and off. The new aluminum bezel stuck right on with the supplied double-sided tape. All other components installed easily, including the massive HSF -- gotta love Noctua's attachment hardware.

Here's how it looked after everything had been put in:

Attachment:
pc_2.jpg

You may notice that I took off the top fan from the CPU cooler. That's because, even though it fit fine and would have drawn in cool air from the top case vent, it made a whooshing noise with the lid closed. Unacceptable! I rethought my airflow scheme and reworked things to make the bottom HSF fan point up through the heatsink, letting the back fans draw the "hot" (relatively speaking) air out of the case. I closed the top vent. No noise this way.

Also, I prettied up the wiring a little more after these shots were taken. :-)

The Result

Attachment:
pc_5.jpg

In all areas -- aesthetics, quietness, performance, functionality -- I call this a success. The case looks fantastic with my other components, and I can just barely hear the system from a meter away. From my normal sitting position at 3 meters, it's inaudible. CPU temps have always stayed below 40 C. Performance with music and HD Video playback (and general use) is excellent -- no lags, hiccups, or delays have been noticed. Random clicking noises were apparent at first when playing music via the FireWire processor, but this was fixed by using the legacy 1394 driver. I also have an issue with the card reader not being detected by Windows (even though its USB port works), but I haven't yet had a chance to mess around with it. And one other minor annoyance: the blue Power LED is too freakin' bright (a common issue). I affixed a small sticker inside the case in front of the LED, and it's fine now.

I should mention that I am now of the opinion that if you start with quiet, cool-running components, it shouldn't really matter what case you use, as long as you can get decent airflow inside. Even with the lid off and power on, I could barely hear anything from this machine. Keeping things cool will also help long-term reliability. Heat is the enemy! The combination of efficient components plus effective cooling results in a system that's both quiet and reliable.

A word about the J River software: highly recommended for high-end audio applications. All the digital resampling and signal processing options you could wish for, and a bargain at $50. I love being able to listen to a large library of music at, say, 24-bit/176.4kHz while controlling things with the remote. Audiophile heaven! (Now if only I could figure out how to control the Firewire processor's output volume with the remote's volume control ...)

Any comments and questions are welcomed. Many thanks for all the good advice I gleaned from this site and others -- I put a lot of thought and planning into this project, and it turned out much better than I had expected. Happy (silent) computing!

Sam


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 Post subject: Re: High-end Quiet & Efficient HTPC Build
PostPosted: Thu Jul 07, 2011 10:58 am 
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Joined: Thu Oct 06, 2005 4:36 am
Posts: 4775
Location: Monterey Bay, CA
Very pretty. Congrats on your build. :)

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 Post subject: Re: High-end Quiet & Efficient HTPC Build
PostPosted: Mon Jul 11, 2011 4:46 pm 
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Joined: Mon Mar 27, 2006 8:11 am
Posts: 306
Location: Silicon Valley, California
Why use a gigantic 650W PSU when you are running basically a barebone computer?

Any why not use the Z68 chipset instead? SSD Caching is pretty nice.

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 Post subject: Re: High-end Quiet & Efficient HTPC Build
PostPosted: Tue Jul 12, 2011 10:19 am 
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Joined: Wed May 25, 2011 6:29 pm
Posts: 10
Ah, questions from the audience. Excellent!

1) The extra headroom allows for future expansion, but more important, as with all my chosen components, the PSU had to be quiet, efficient, and high-quality. The Seasonic unit is the epitome of these criteria -- its fan has yet to spin up in my machine, so it's silent. I'm drawing 35 watts from the wall at idle -- pretty efficient, eh? And, judging from the tests on this site and elsewhere, the quality of power it provides is unsurpassed.

I might mention that I subscribe to the philosophy that clean, stable power is the foundation for good long-term performance from all electronics. That's why I plug everything into high-quality power conditioners, one of which can be seen just above the PC in my rack. Ever wonder why mass-market PCs seem to have more problems than they should? One reason is the cheap, skimpy PSUs they generally use.

2) At the time I was choosing parts, the selection of Z68 boards was very limited. I felt that SRT, while potentially useful, wasn't compelling enough of a feature to warrant a delay in the project. Plus, it likely won't be long before SSDs become cheap enough to replace all traditional HDDs cost-effectively.

Thanks for asking!

Sam


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