Every now and then, you witness something that represents such a clean break with tradition, such a transformative moment, that you make as enduring a mental note as you can of where you were and what you saw.

On a blustery January day in midtown Manhattan, at one of the most revered and long-standing home theater dealerships in the Big Apple, pigs flew. Man bit dog.

Harvey Electronics touted a souped-up Microsoft Windows PC as both “the future” and “the now” of a high-end home entertainment environment.

Such an event was on par with finding out that your grandmother posts her own remix MP3s on her MySpace page. Definitely Post-It Note-worthy stuff for the ol’ noggin.

At its location near Rockefeller Center, Harvey hosted executives from Niveus Media, one of the leaders in the push to make Windows Media Center a legitimate uber-component for home entertainment in upscale living rooms and equipment racks—right down to its units’ slick “black box” appearance and passively-cooled, fanless, noise-free operation—as they introduced their newest Media Servers, based on the new Windows Vista operating system unveiled that same day. In all, the vendor introduced four new Vista Ultimate-based servers for 2007—its newest Rainier and Denali Editions as well as its Pro Series n7 and n9. The 2007 Niveus line incorporates Intel’s Viiv technology and Core 2 Duo processors, as well as 1,080p HD DVD and HDMI output (no Blu-ray Disc support yet).

The Rainier and Denali Editions are part of the Niveus Summit Series line; their pricing begins at $3,199 and $7,999, respectively. The rackmountable Pro Series n7 and n9 begin at $7,999 and $15,999, respectively.

“In the past, bringing a computer into the home entertainment environment wouldn’t have been something we embraced,” said Harvey Interim CEO Martin McClanan, mustering up as much understatement as possible. “But this allows people to have a full experience. The concept of lossless audio is in its infancy now, and these devices, as they become components in people’s home systems, offer seamless integration with the devices we sell.” McClanan further cited “the growing importance of home networking. It’s a solution we want to provide, and its compelling user interface is easy for the computer user and for the non-technical user alike.”

What appeals to Harvey—and Niveus agrees—is that the system is not intended to be sold off-the-shelf. “Customers are going to be looking for custom installers to bring all of this innovation to life,” said McClanan, who believes the devices will complement and enhance the experiences its customers get from the other brands it sells, hallowed names like Krell, McIntosh and Fujitsu.

Vista represents a major step forward for Windows Media Center, which can serve as an HD DVD/DVD/CD player and ripper, a mega-music server/DVR/photo library and more, with the ability to gather and transport content from anywhere and to anywhere in a home. With Vista, Harvey and Niveus and more say, Media Center now does everything in a manner befitting the performance levels expected by an A/V connoisseur. Among the improvements, says Niveus: “Faster frame rates, higher-quality television, faster music encoding, rich graphics and quicker response time.”

Vista also enables Niveus to offer its Digital Cable Receiver, an optional dual-tuner CableCARD unit (street price will be around $1,000) that will enable users to say bye-bye to cable boxes while providing the ability to record two high-def programs at once and to enjoy rather impressive DVR and program guide software capabilities. The only thing users would lose would be the cable provider’s video on-demand offerings.

Because the system is network- and broadband-connected, the ability to incorporate all kinds of live and stored metadata into the sleek, icon-based user interface (users will never see anything resembling a “PC” interface if Harvey and Niveus have their way) is ample and leveraged. Say you watched a movie starring Gene Hackman. With a few intuitive button pushes on the remote, you can drill down and get data, for example, about every other movie of which Hackman’s ever been a part, and can even lock in a future recording, whenever that may be, of one of the films if it isn’t scheduled in the next couple of weeks. You can get live sports data from Fox Sports. You can get all kinds of info about the music you own. You can download lossless “HD” music files from Niveus partner MusicGiants—“music downloads for grownups,” characterized Niveus CEO/Co-Founder Tim Cutting—or rip hundreds of your own CDs and DVDs using Niveus’ storage units. Multiple terabytes of storage are available to the user if required; as a result, said Cutting, “customers will never have to delete their favorite recordings.” You can get into serious, happy trouble with these things.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where a song, photo or video recording came from; all content is integrated into common menus. So if you burned a disc, bought a download, or are fetching a recording from a PC somewhere else in the house, it doesn’t really matter to the user; they’re all on the same menu. All that matters is that it’s somewhere on your network.

Of course, the question on everyone’s minds, including Harvey’s, is how stable Vista actually is for performing all of these functions consistently, over time.

Niveus Media is betting its growing business that it’s plenty stable. And Harvey Electronics is betting its reputation on it. CR

Additional reporting by

Nancy Klosek.