How to Integrate a PC Into Your Home Theater System

Home Theater

Getty Images / Dana Hoff

With the popularity of internet streaming and home networking, not only has home theater evolved significantly in just a few short years, but the line has blurred between the PC and home theater world.

As a result, your desktop or laptop PC can become a part of your home theater experience. There are several reasons why this might be a good idea:

  • You can use your large screen TV as a PC monitor as a display for document work, photo and video editing, streaming content viewing, and even PC gaming.
  • You can access a room-filling home theater surround sound listening experience.
  • If you have a Smart TV, internet Blu-ray Disc player, or media streamer, you may be able to use them to access video, still image, and music files stored on your PC.
  • You can use your PC to aid in setting up and controlling your home theater system.

Use Your TV As A PC Monitor

The most basic way to integrate your PC with your home theater is by simply finding a way to connect your PC or Laptop to your TV. With today's HD and 4K Ultra HD TVs, the display resolution and overall image quality may be just as good as many PC monitors.

To do this, check to see if your TV has a VGA (PC monitor) input connection, if not you also have the option to purchase a device, such as a VGA-to-HDMI converter or even a USB-to-HDMI that can also allow a PC to be connected to an HDTV.

A photo example of a VGA PC Monitor Connection
Robert Silva

If your PC has a DVI output, you can use a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to connect your PC to the TV as well.

However, if your PC has an HDMI output (most newer ones do), this makes things a lot easier, as it eliminates the possible need for an additional adapter. You can simply connect the HDMI output of your PC directly to an HDMI input on the TV.

HDMI Male Connector - Close-Up
HDMI Male Connector - Close-Up. Getty Images - AlesVeluscek - Collection: E+

Once you have PC connected to your TV, you now have a really large screen area to work with. This is not only great for viewing your still photos and videos, but web browsing, document, photo, video creation and editing takes on a new perspective.

In addition, for serious gamers, some HD and Ultra HD TVs support 1080p 120Hz frame rate input signals. If you are considering using your TV as part of your PC gaming experience, check both your PC and prospective TV for this capability.

Accessing Audio From Your PC On Your Home Theater System

Of course, in addition to displaying your PC's screen on your TV, you also need to get the audio from your PC to either your TV or home theater audio system.

If your PC provides HDMI connectivity, simply connect the HDMI output of your PC to one of the HDMI inputs on your TV or Home Theater Receiver. If you are using the HDMI connection option it should also transfer audio, as HDMI connections are able to pass both video and audio signals.

In other words, whether you have the HDMI output connected directly to your TV, or routed through your home theater receiver, your PC screen should be displayed on your TV and the audio should be heard from your TV or home theater receiver.

Also, if routing your HDMI connections through your home theater receiver, and it detects an incoming Dolby Digital bitstream via HDMI (from services such as Netflix or Vudu, or if you play a DVD on your PC), it will decode the signal for a full surround sound listening experience.

However, if your PC is older, or it doesn't have the HDMI connection option, there are workarounds that will still enable you to access audio.

One workaround is to see if one of the HDMI inputs (or the VGA input) on the TV has a set of analog audio inputs paired with it. If so, connect your PC to that HDMI or VGA input to access the video, and the audio output(s) of your PC to the analog audio input that is paired with that HDMI or VGA input. Now when you select the HDMI or VGA input on your TV that your PC is connected to, you should be able to see video and hear audio. If you still don't hear any audio, consult your TV's HDMI or input settings menu or your user guide for any additional steps needed to activate this option.

If using a home theater receiver, see if your PC has multi-channel outputs that are normally used for a powered PC surround sound speaker system. If so, you can use those same outputs (using adapters), to connect to a home theater receiver that provides a set of analog multi-channel preamp inputs.

Multi-Channel Analog Audio Inputs

Also, if your PC also has a digital optical audio output, you can connect it to a digital optical input on a home theater receiver.

Digital Optical Cable Tip and Connection Example
Digital Optical Cable Tip and Connection Example. Images by Robert Silva

When using either the multi-channel analog or digital optical audio solution with a home theater receiver, you need to connect the HDMI or VGA output of your PC directly to the TV and make your audio connections separately to your home theater receiver.

Combine Your PC and Home Theater Components Into A Network

So, far, the options for integrating your PC into your home theater setup require that the PC be in close proximity to your TV and home theater receiver. However, there is another way you can integrate your PC into your home theater even if it is in another room in the house - via a network.

In addition to your PC, you can also connect a Smart TV, media streamer, most Blu-ray Disc players, and even many home theater receivers, to your internet router (either via Ethernet or Wifi), creating a basic home network.

Depending on the capabilities of each your connected devices, you may be able to access and stream audio, video, and still image content that is stored on your PC to your TV either directly or routed through a compatible your Blu-ray Disc player or media streamer.

The way this works is that your TV, Blu-ray Disc player, or media streamer may have a built-in app, or one, or more, downloadable apps that allow it to recognize and communicate with your PC. Once identified, you can use your TV or another device to search your PC for playable media files. The only downside is that depending on your device, or the app used, not all media files may be compatible, but it does provide you a way to enjoy PC-stored media content without having to sit in front of your PC, as long your PC is turned on.

Home Theater Room Correction

Another way your PC can become a part of your home theater is a tool for setting up and controlling your system.

In terms of setup, almost all home theater receivers include an automatic speaker setup system (referred to as Room Correction). These systems go by various names, depending on the brand. Examples include Anthem Room Correction (Anthem AV), MCACC (Pioneer), YPAO (Yamaha), Accu EQ (Onkyo), Audyssey (Denon/Marantz).

Although some of the details of these systems vary, they all work by using an included microphone that is placed in the primary listening position. The receiver then emits test tones which the receiver analyzes. The analysis enables the receiver to set the proper speaker levels and crossover points between the speakers and the subwoofer so that your system sounds its best.

Where your PC can fit in, is that on some higher home theater receivers, the PC is used to start and monitor the process and/or the speaker setup results. The results may consist of numerical tables and/or frequency graphs that can then be exported so that they can be displayed or printed out using a PC.

For room correction systems that take advantage of PC start and monitor, the PC needs to be connected directly to the home theater receiver, but if the receiver performs all the tasks internally and merely exports the results to a USB flash drive, the PC can be anywhere.

Martin Logan Motion AFX Speakers - Anthem Room Correction Graphs
Robert Silva

Home Theater Control

Another way that a PC can be a useful tool is using it as the control hub for your home theater system. In this case, if your key components (such as your TV and Home Theater Receiver) and your PC has RS232, Ethernet ports, and, in some cases via Wifi, using Internet Protocol, they can be linked together so that the PC can control all functions, from source labeling and selection to all of the settings needed to perform the tasks to access, manage, and play your video and audio content. Also, in some cases, control the room lighting, temperature/ventilation, and for video projection systems, controlling motorized screens.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, there are several ways that you can use your PC (or Mac) as part of your home theater system.

However, although you can integrate just about any PC or laptop into a home theater setup on some level, to ensure total compatibility with your TV, home theater audio system, gaming, and streaming needs, you might consider buying or building your own Home Theater PC (HTPC).

Another thing to point out is that TVs are also becoming more sophisticated and are actually encroaching on some PC functions - including built-in web browsing, streaming, and basic home automation control, such as lights, environmental, and security systems.

Combine that with the capabilities of today's smartphone and tablets, which can also stream content to PC and home theater component directly or through a network, as well as perform home theater control functions via compatible apps, and it becomes obvious that there is no Home theater-only, PC-only, or mobile world anymore - it all blends together as one all-encompassing Digital Lifestyle.