The Empire Series Media Center PC — Serious Sound for the Serious Audiophile
There are two types of Media Center buyers really, the first is looking for the cheapest possible Media Center PC and there is good news out for this buyer. Just this past week I blogged on the fact, via Sean Alexander’s site, that eMachines is now out with a sub $600 Media Center PC. As cheaper Media Center PCs flood the market we all benefit as it helps the product build critical mass. And then there is the other side, and the side that I’d put myself on, the side of the “I don’t care how much it costs (well within reason) I want the very best technology out and I want it now.” In this high-end Media Center PC world it’s these super premium Media Center PCs that I personally get the most excited about.
This past weekend I was able to review one of these high end specialty PCs, the Empire Series Media Center PC from Expansion Solutions. My verdict? It rocks. Literally. With a 1000 Watt built in amplifier, integrated 5.1 playback and 110 db signal to noise ratio, this Media Center PC sounded better than any computer I’ve ever heard in my life. Now you might say this is not hard to do. I still remember hooking up my original Kliptch speakers to my HP873N PC and thinking that sounded pretty good back in 2002. Then I upgraded to a digital audio card and put an Onkyo home theater into the mix and this improved things as well. But the Empire Series PC takes all of this one step further and mixes the high end home theater sound system with your Media Center PCs.
I tested the sound with both my mp3 files as well as a DVD. The DVD obviously sounded better as it was designed with audio in mind, but both were top quality. I’m not sure exactly on the components or inner working of the actual inside audio components but the unit sounded seriously better than my current Onkyo home theater box and with the 1000 watt power this puppy could get LOUD, very loud. I used the same speakers that were hooked up to my Onkyo home theater for comparison.
Although high end sound for the audiophile is the calling card of this machine, the rest of the package is pretty nice as well. The Empire Series addresses two of the significant issues with MCE machines for the living room at present now. 1. Noise and 2. Aesthetic design.
In terms of noise, this is a non issue. The unit is quiet – real quiet. Although I do believe that there are fans in the thing I could not hear them. The unit is perfectly silent and in this aspect ideal for the home theater where you want all noise blocked out as you listen to the suspense and silence in many thrillers out today.
Design. Wow. If my HP873N is a Ford Pinto, this thing is a Porsche. Seriously. Although they apparently have a model in silver, the one that I reviewed and photographed above is in black. Sleek, sexy black. From the blue light behind the amp meter, to the quality metal case this box feels like something you would want to show off. When you press the front door to open the front of the PC it clicks and for some reason reminded me of the sounds of the door or glove box of a high end sports car. Then the door slowly opens. It’s feels sexy and nice would certainly be something to show off. Although the unit is a little large, it will fit adequately with other standard home high end rack equipment.
The nice thing about having this unit serve as your amp as well is that with everything integrated this unit takes no more space as it simply replaces your current amp that you already have for your sound system.
In terms of hardware specifics, the units are somewhat customizable based on what you want to spend. The Empire Series that I tested comes standard with an Intel Pentium 4. 3.0 GHz Processor 530 with hyper threading technology and a gig of RAM. It has a 200 GB 7200 RPM drive and a GeForce 6600 256MB graphics card. Full specs can be found here. Expansion Solutions does also offer a cheaper version of their PC for audiophiles, their Dynasty Series which has less horsepower of course. The Empire PC sells for $2,999 and the Dynasty sells for $1,999. The company is currently running a $200 discount promotion with the coupon code ‘fathersday.’
My only complaint about the unit, well, you guessed it, recorded TV quality — although you can’t blame Expansion for this one. I just can’t get beyond non HDTV content anymore. When I can watch crystal clear HDTV programming on my DirecTV HDTV TiVo I just could never go back to substandard horrible regular old TV. I don’t know how I ever did it before high def. It would be like going back to a black and white TV for me at this point. It just wouldn’t happen.
Although the HDTV CableCARD is not here today for Media Center, at this point I think we have to assume that HDTV CableCARD support will be coming at some point. Bill Gates said over at Engadget, “oh, we’ll get support for CableCARD into Media Center.”
According to James Bantner, President of Expansion, Expansion does plan on offering a “trade up” once the CableCARD is here (assuming that the cards fit standard PC expansion slots). While there would be a charge for this of course depending on the cost of the card, it is nice to hear as this is the main reason why someone might wait to buy a high end MCE machine today. This might work for the consumer that wanted to buy a new MCE machine today with high end audio but was waiting due to the HDTV CableCARD issue. Bantner said that when CableCARD technology was supported in Media Center that either Expansion or a local tech could perform the upgrade for consumers.
I think that it is important that Bantner is emphasizing the upgradability of his company’s PC and think that all high end Media Center OEMs should be addressing this issue with consumers – consumers that care as much about sound as Expansion does will most likely also care as much about picture quality as well.