Entertainment, Hardware

Building an HTPC with Zalman and Acoustic PC


Have you wanted to setup an HD HTPC? Have you felt like you can get a lot more from your $1,000+ investment in your 50+ Inch HD TV? We know that we have and we think we have found some of the best pieces and parts to build one. With the help of Acoustic PC and Zalman we have put together an Intel Core i5 661, AMD HD 5380, Asus Xonar DX, based system inside a Zalman HD503 HTPC case. On top of this Acoustic PC has sent us some great extras to keep things cool and quiet while stuffed into our TV stand. So with that in mind let?s dive in and see how the build went.

As you can see in the images below, Zalman and Acoustic PC sent us a ton of loot to get this build going. We had some nice choices in the parts we wanted to use and the case, while not Zalman?s best, is very high end.

Looking at the Zalman enclosure box alone we find that it is more than sufficient to get your attention. Both the front and back have a large image of the case along with some of the more prominent features. Zalman also gives you some of the specifics of the HD503 [that is the case that we received from them for this project] on the sides.  The box is made of some pretty sturdy cardboard too. As you can see in the image below it took a little bit of a beating in route to us but thanks to the great packaging it arrived safe and sound.

Looking at the front of the HD503 you really get the impression of a large piece of home audio gear. This is right down to the volume knob in the center of the face plate. The smaller buttons on the left side of the face remind me of the programed stations on my last tuner.  The effect is quite nice and removes the ?I?ve got a PC in my living room feeling? from having this setup.

The right side of the face has two press-to-open flaps. The upper one hides the Optical drive while the lower hides the usual front panel ports [audio, USB, eSATA, etc.].  It also hides a  slot for a hot swappable drive. Both sides of the case contain an intake and exhaust port. These are opposite on each side; the left side has the intake in the front and the right side has it in the back. It creates a nice cross breeze.  The placement of the left side intake also allows the PSU to vent directly out of the case instead of adding more heat back into the case.

The top of the HD503 has an intake/exhaust right above the area that the CPU fan would sit. This helps maintain good air flow around the CPU as well [while the side intake keeps things moving quite nicely.

The back has even more fans to keep the air flowing as there are two Zalman ultra quiet fans here for exhausting hot air out the back of the HD503. As you can see the HD503 can support a full sized ATX motherboard without too much trouble with room for all of the expansion slots filled.

Looking at the inside of the case we find a fair amount of room.  Looking closely you can also see that the 5.25-inch bay is removable. This is nice for installing your optical drive.   On the back of the 5.25-inch cage is a fan header panel which also serves as the connection and power point for the hot swap bay.

For your regular HDDs you have a three drive cage that is very different from the norm. Instead of the typical horizontal bays with clips or screws you get a top down installation with the drive vertically mounted. Each is secured to a sturdy handle that locks into place and helps lower vibrations.  Both the 3.5 inch and 5.25 inch drive bays can be removed for easy access and also for easier installation of the fans [in regards to the intake on the front left].  

Of course that is not all; as we mentioned Acoustic PC sent us quite a few extra goodies to help with the noise. You can see the pile of them in the image below. We also received two sheets of AcoustiPack matting.

The Build
After getting everything together we wanted to begin the build. So let?s move into that now. For starters we had to assemble all the gear and get CPU, RAM and Fan mounted. Now for our build here we wanted to use a low height but efficient cooler. We picked out t
he Zalman CNPSB700NT; this is a great cooler, but as of this writing there is not an 1156 mounting bracket for it. This helped us decide on the next component The ASRock H55M Pro. The H55M Pro has mounting holes for both 1156 and 776. We would be able to use the CNPBS8700NT without too much trouble.

At least that is what we thought. As you can see the mounting bracket for the 776 does not fit well on the H55M Pro. This is partially because it is rotated slightly and partly because of the back plate for the socket.  Still we were able to get things together and the fan mounted properly. After that we dropped in the 4GB of DDR3 1066 RAM and we were ready to tackle the case. 

The first order of business with the Zalman HD503 was to pull out the two drive cages to have better access [and more room for my big hands]. We also wanted to remove the side covers to install the two fans [again acoustic PC provided some great Zalman fans for this]. Now the 5.25-inch drive bay was easy to remove, but the 3.5-inch bay was not. For some reason Zalman used a large thumb screw to secure one side and a much smaller and obscured screw for the other side. This made removal more difficult than it needed to be. The side pieces also proved to be something of a chore to remove. But in the end both the 3.5-inch drive bay and the sides came off.

After installing the fans [using the rubber mounts instead of the normal screws] I placed some of the AcoustiPack foam in the left over space. Next I remounted the two fans in the back using the same rubber mounts that I used for the larger 120mm fans.  

The motherboard and PSU went in next. For this I used Cooler Master?s Silent Pro 1000W PSU. Lastly, the two drive bays were reinstalled and the cables were run semi-neatly through the remaining space. In this picture you can see the Kingston 128GB SSD that we are using for the boot drive. We attempted to install it in the Hotswap bay. However, this did not work out as the adapter tray for the 2.5-inch drive did not push the smaller SSD back far enough to make contact. We ended up having to install this drive in the 3.5-inch bay with the 1TB Seagate drive we use as a storage and recording drive.

The last item on the build list was to install the AcoutiPack matting on the case top. This was a pretty easy thing to accomplish neatly. From there we just needed to close things up and get Windows 7 installed.

Aesthetics is a big part of case design. Believe it or not; I have known people to buy cramped and shoddy cases on the inside just because they looked good on the outside. After all if the case if closed [as with the Zalman HD503] no one will see just how messy the system is, but they will see the front and sides. If they look gaudy or cheap, well there is going to be an issue.

As aesthetics is an entirely subjective topic we like to get other people?s opinions on the looks of the cases we test and not just rely on our own thoughts. We ask a minimum of five people to rate the case on Looks and ?cool factor?. The latter we define as the quality of an item to make you stop and think ?now that is cool?. For PC enclosures we also ask for a one word description.  With the Zalman we used five test subjects and ran our questions by them.

For the most part our test subject felt the look of the Zalman HD503 was clean and sleek. They liked that the overall effect was one of high end audio equipment to keep the PC impression minimized.

Personally, I like the looks of the Zalman HD503, but felt it was a little too big. As is the case fits in my TV stand but just barely.  This size does allow for more room and better cable management [and airflow as a side effect] but can still be something of a pain when you are setting it up in your living room. Most TV stands or AV racks are not deep. They tend to be designed with traditional home theatre gear in mind. Still this bulk does not hinder the front end looks, which are very well done. I do wish the LCD looked more like the image on the box though?

The Zalman HD 503 will set you back about $220 -$250 depending on the e-tailer you buy it from. That is a rather steep price to pay for a case on the surface.  But let?s see if the features and construction can add up to the cost. The first item that is going to immediately add cost to the case if the iMon panel. These things are simply not cheap. The one on the HD 503 is an LCD panel. This means that it is a little more flexible and cooler than the typical LED panels used. The remote and remote sensor package on the HD503 is also of much higher quality than your average iMon panel. We found it responsive and having a much wider angle of use. After we get past the iMon panel we next want to take a close look at the front mounted controls. These are not only functional but they are also discrete.  The volume knob works great and, unlike many we have tested, has excellent stepping control [meaning it does not jump two and three levels every time you turn it]. The depth of the case was a bit of an issue for looks, but was a plus during the build as was the fan control/ Hotswap SATA panel. We installed all of the case fans to this panel and set it to ?low? to reduce system noise.  With a list of features [and this is not even all of them] that $220-250 is starting to look reasonable. To be honest though, I think a price of $180-200 is where the HD503 should be to make it more attractive.

To wrap things up we liked the Zalman HD503 with a few minor exceptions. One of the first issues we have with it, the depth, is something we will just have to deal with. We did not like that it was so deep and barely fit into our TV stand, but we loved having the extra space during the install. The next two issues were build-only issue. This was the 3.5-inch bay mounting [to the case] and the sides. They both are a pain to remove. These could have been designed a little better, but as they are usually a one-time problem they are also minor. The last one is a little more concerning. The 5.25-inch bay has some troubling issues. The first of these is with the hotswap bay. As we mentioned above when we tried to use a 2.5-inch SSD with the include
d adapter the SSD did not extend far enough back to connect with the SATA/Power plug. This was annoying to say the least, but we also checked it with a standard SATA drive and the connection was not completely solid either. It looks like the SATA port there is just not far enough forward to make solid contact. The other issue was with the optical drive bay. The button for ejecting the tray does not line up well. Depending on the drive you use, it might not line up at all. We found that our Asus DVD-ROM lined up ok, but it has a large eject button on the front. The third issue is with the ?push to release? cover; when closed it is very secure, so secure that the pressure of an ejecting DVD-ROM tray will not push it open.  

Now these issues are not completely deal breakers, they are items to be forewarned about though. For the most part we have been [and still are] very happy with the Zalman HD503 and its construction, looks, and performance. We can recommend it to anyone that is looking for a larger HTPC case and wants to make sure it has style and functionality. For your troubles you will also get some great air flow and cooling without adding much noise to the process.

Acoustic PC?s extras. I have to say that I was very happy with the quality and selection of extra that Acoustic PC sent along. I have used the AcoustiPack foam before and love the stuff for its great noise dampening and the fact that it does no absorb heat like many other acoustic dampeners [it will still absorb some]. The extra Fans, Mounts, gaskets, feet. Everything was top notch we used just about everything that was sent our way. But more than the Eric at Acoustic PC was extremely helpful and informative when it came to build suggestions. When we talked to him about the build he had multiple suggestions about CPU coolers, cases, accessories, you name it. All to make HTPC we had in mind as cool and quiet as it could be. We can highly recommend Acoustic PC to everyone looking for high quality gear to build a low noise low heat system.

This review is a little odd in that we are giving away two separate awards. For the Zalman we are happy to award the HD503 our innovation award. For Acoustic PC we are very happy to award them our Value award for the great service and the quality of the parts and accessories they offer.