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High End Comparison: HTPC using RME DIGI96/8 PAD Sound Card vs. Theta David II.

Discussion in 'Computer Components' started by Branxx, Aug 19, 2002.

  1. Branxx

    Branxx
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    For a few years now I was building up and upgrading my home theatre. Every incremental quality jump was in response to the improvements in sound and picture quality that I was able to squeeze out of HTPC. I am still far from reaching audiophile/videophile nirvana yet, but my current configuration reached an important milestone. In order to determine just how high-end audiophile HTPC is I’ve enlisted a help from Charlie Whitehouse who kindly offered to bring his Theta David II player over to my place.

    The comparison concentrated only on sound quality from CD sources. Following configurations were compared:
    • Home Theatre PC is self built using Asus TUSLC-2 motherboard, Celeron 1.2Ghz, 512MB PC133 memory. Sound card is RME DIGI96/8 PAD. Connection to sound processor was via coax SPDIF using 10m standard video cable (HTPC and the HT are on different floors).
      HTPC operating system is Windows 2000 Professional SP3. Software player is Sonic Foundry Siren (now discontinued). All tested music was stored on a hard disk in Perfect Clarity Audio lossless compression.
      Cost of this configuration, including cabling, is sub £1,200 including the software licences.
    • Theta David II is a current model (modified for SDI video output although that was not compared). Player was connected to audio processor via coax SPDIF using Transparent Reference Digital Link. Power cord was also from Transparent range. Cost of this configuration, including cables is over £7,000 (player is approx £6,000, coax SPDIF cable £750, power cord £250, SDI mod > £1,000).
    The rest of the audio system comprises Lexicon MC-12B, connected to active speaker from M&K, three MPS-2510P fronts (150W+150W amplification per speaker box), two MPS-2525P (180W+100W+100W per speaker) surrounds and MX-350 sub (350W). In total, there is over 2KW of amplification. Active speakers are connected via balanced cables from Studio Spares.

    Charlie brought several CD's of his choice and we used them in our comparison. Tracks that we listened were:The average listening level on Lexicon was -10db. DSP mode was Logic 7 Music. Charlie calibrated all speakers to 75db white noise level.

    We listened for a few hours switching from HTPC to Theta without any obvious difference between the two. Both Charlie and me have to keep looking behind us at the Lexicon panel to make sure which source as playing as there was no obvious or easily recognisable difference.

    After a while we did agree that on two tracks, Evelyn Glennie and Mary Black we can, in certain specific part of the track, hear a higher level of detail coming from the Theta player.

    Why did comparison turn out such a result?

    One obvious difference is in the length and the quality of the connecting cables (10m basic video cord connected HTPC vs. Transparent Reference Digital Link about 0.5m long). Another possibility is the audio quality of a standard CD is insufficient to fully reveal the difference between the two players. Third possibility is that the rest of the system is not ‘high-end’ enough to properly differentiate between the two. Fourth: audio compression maybe not completely lossless.


    I am now convinced that a HTPC equipped with good professional sound card can certainly perform as (very) high-end CD player. It confirms the results reported by Bill Gaw in his review of audiophile merrits of HTPC equipped with M-Audio Delta 1010 sound card and a review of RME card by Stereophile Magazine and by Kazushi (Jam) Marukawa. Review of Theta David II can be found here.

    I wish to thank Charlie Whitehouse without whom this comparison would not have been possible. I also want to thank members of this AVForums and AVSForum.
     
  2. buns

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    Nice post, very interesting!

    A couple of questions/points. While the Theta David II player is undoubtedly a wonderful machine, it is not purely a cd player. Considering the additional electronics within the machine for visual purposes, I would probably tend towards calling it a very good cd playback device, perhaps not the ultimate in high end.

    In as much as this is true, I think it somewhat levels the playing field between hcpc and Theta David II player. Both have a reasonable amount of circuitry provinding all varieties of fields which may cause interference.

    Heading towards the system used. Although you have a system i will wait my life to own, it is not an audiophile system, it is biased towards video sound playback. Thus again, absolute conclusions are unfair to draw.

    I guess this is not your point though. I would agree that, in theory, an hcpc should be every bit as capable as any high end audiovisual player such as that tested, and at considerably less money as you have shown. In the absolute case, I think that the hcpc would lose out to a high end cd only machine in a purely audiophile system, but of course I would need to test that! Come back to me in 5 years and i'll ty it with you!

    But, yes, you have shown that the hcpc can be used as a very very capable cd player, and for the most of us will better any cd only machine we will ever be able to afford.

    Ad
     
  3. Branxx

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    Buns,

    I would have expected that any DVD player costing as much as Theta David II is universally capable in the true meaning of 'high-end'. In a same sense HTPC is even more versatile.

    My hope and intention was to determine how much of the 'high-end' can be achieved with HTPC in the first place. The fact that is comes at the 5th of the price is a very welcome bonus.

    I am pleased to have proven that, compared to the player of such outstanding quality, HTPC was not blown out of the race at the first hurdle, but was rather formidable competitor.

    What this means in practise? For those who can stand the fiddly nature of HTPC, high-end audio quality is achievable at a very reasonable cost. PCs most commonly comes with Creative Sound Blaster card (they cost £50-70). For a modest outlay (in comparison to what would one have to pay to own traditional high-end player) of £270 I bought my RME DIGI96/8 PAD at Turnkey in London. Undoubtedly the best value for money single component I have ever purchased.
     
  4. Charlie Whitehouse

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    In some ways I was surprised that there was not a bigger difference to be discerned here. But there again, if you think about it, in both cases we were feeding an SPDIF signal to the Lexicon MC12B. As some have said before, 'bits is bits', the only possible difference could be in the timing (jitter). The MC12B does its own thing in de-jittering the input so the differences were only ever likely to be small.

    The Theta David II is only a DVD/CD transport. There are no audio DACs included. For a straight comparison between the Theta and a conventional high-end CD player you need to pass the SPDIF signal through a processor/DAC. In this context, I think that the David II/Casablanca II with Superior or Extreme DACs would give pretty much any CD player a run for it's money. Theta's DACs are considered to be reference quality. The Lexicon MC12B sounded pretty neutral, but I don't think in Branko's system it threw such a broad and deep image as my Casablanca. But there are too many variables here to draw any hard and fast conclusions - different room, processor, amps and speakers to what I'm used to.

    It's worth pointing out that in most cases we were running the MC12B in Logic 7 mode, rather than pure stereo so that may have complicated things. It would be instructive to feed an HCPC input to my own system in pure stereo to see how that compares.

    As it stands, the comparison here proved that the HCPC can provide a stable SPDIF signal where the jitter in most cases didn't undermine the sound quality from the MC12B. The quality of the cabling used also played a small part. We tried using a really cheap and cheerful digital lead from the David II to the MC12B and at least some of the greater detail we heard, in the two tracks in which we could discern differences, was down to the cable used.

    Since I've had the thing modified to output SDI, a lot of the video analog output electronics has become surplus to requirements too!!

    As it is, I was more than happy to participate in this test. I found it very instructive. It would be very interesting to do a real Tag/Theta/Lexicon/Meridian head to head sometime. Anyone else interested, let me know! :)
     
  5. buns

    buns
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    I didnt realise the specifics of the theta david. Knowing a bit more now i will choose not to comment because i have no experience! I have never heard a dvd player approach a similarly priced cd player, but when you are considering a trasport, i wouldnt like to stick my neck out! More specifically what i meant was that the theta david would probably not be considered in the purest audiophile circles due to its video abilities. But If you want to give it to me i'll smile and say yes please! :D

    The object of this little exercise was to show the relative ability f an hcpc, and hats what counts! There should be no reason why an hcpc is as capable sonically as it can be as a video processor. Of course it will be beaten by the player which was made on an unlimited budget, but who of us can afford that.

    I will be hoping to do such comparisons in the not too distant future. I want to be able to convince myself with my own ears that adding a £300 sound card can give me a hcpc cd player capable of the performance a £2000 standalone can give.

    Thanks for the review though, it makes for an interesting line of thought.

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  6. Branxx

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    Buns,

    If you are in the process of collecting money for that £2,000 purchase, then it is a small expense to spend £300 and check it for yourself, especially if you already have a suitable PC. Good thing about HTPC that it make it affordable. If you don't like it, pro sound card can be easily sold.

    Charlie,

    I agree that in the digital world, jitter aside, it becomes difficult to differentiate between CD players, even if they are in wastly different price range. What our exercise suggests is that the money should be put in good speakers, amplification, and DACs.
     
  7. Charlie Whitehouse

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    No problemo! I steer clear of commenting on more mainstream kit for exactly the same reason.... :blush: :devil:

    Spot on! ;)
     
  8. Gordon @ Convergent AV

    Gordon @ Convergent AV
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    Actually I think what your experiment suggests is that if you have an HTPC or a Theta DVD transport and you don't want to buy a stand alone CD player then you may want to consider better dacs, amplification or speakers.

    It would be worthwhile trying to get hold of a good £1000 stand alone CD player for the next dem...and use its analogue outputs.

    Gordon
     
  9. Branxx

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    Gordons,

    It was the intention of our 'experiment' to compare players with digital output and it that sense Theta David II fits the bill rather well.

    I would be quite interested to compare analogue performance between HTPC and a suitable CD/DVD player. Although, I don't think we can find traditional CD player that would be a proper match for RME card for £1,000. Sound card's stereo outputs have dynamic range of 112dB, that is the higher spec then my Lexicon MC12B.

    In any case is there anyone else interesting in contributing to the next stage.
     
  10. Charlie Whitehouse

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    Gordon,

    Are you saying that you believe a £1000 one-box player would outperform what is in effect a £10,000+ two-box player? One of my reasons for going to the Casablanca in the first place was that its stereo performance was virtually indistinguishable from the Theta Pro Gen 5A at the time. As a two-box solution, a Theta CD Transport and that DAC were / are highly respected. While I can't say the MC12B was quite as good in stereo as my Casablanca (I would, wouldn't I!) we weren't comparing them back to back, but the MC12B didn't sound bad. Not saying you're wrong, but it would be interesting to do the comparison. ;)
     
  11. Gordon @ Convergent AV

    Gordon @ Convergent AV
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    What I am saying is that you are pre-supposing that all HTPC's fitted with that card will offer same performance (at least that's what I think you are inferring)..and that all hi-end/expensive DVD/CD transpsorts will have comparable digital outputs (which I do not believe at all). You carried out a valid demo of the respective digital output charcteristics of your players in that system.

    I believe that if you were to play a quality analogue output CD player in to the analogue inputs of your chosen pre-amp against those devices as transports you would also get an even more interesting result. Which would win or be the more enjoyable is something that remains to be ascertained in another demo.

    I also believe that although the dynamic range of an audio board is interesting so is the power output of a car engine.....but that tells me little about the overall performance of the device in question.

    All I am saying really is that you have dismissed single box cd player solutions in your conclusions and I don't think you should have. If the comparison was just to be of digital transports then fair enough....

    It will be an interesting comparison when/if it ever happens. If I had a cd player I could bring you I would. I don't though...sorry. Look forward to part two!

    :)

    Gordon
     
  12. Charlie Whitehouse

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    Gordon,

    I don't think we really were dismissing single box cd solutions. The point of the test, given that Branko had a 'high-end' processor already, was to see if using an htpc as a digital source was losing him anything in quality terms compared to a high-end DVD/CD transport. In that context, I think the result was interesting in that the difference was so small. I suggest this is more due to the de-jittering capability of the MC12B rather than the relative qualities of the digital signal afforded by either source. I have never seen the measured performance of the David II in terms of jitter but would be surprised if it was significantly worse than, say, the TAG. I have no idea what the jitter performance of Branko's htpc card is, but I think that paper specifications of such devices are highly misleading anyway. I think all we are saying is that given a decent processor that can de-jitter the input signal satisfactorily, the choice of source device is pretty much immaterial. That should be good news to many.

    As for a comparison against a 'quality' analogue output CD player, would you care to name some makes/models worthy of consideration? Someone might then offer to enter the lions' den here by offering theirs for a comparative test??? :)
     
  13. Gordon @ Convergent AV

    Gordon @ Convergent AV
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    Arcam Diva 92 or a Linn Genki should do....

    Should be interesting dem! If no-one can lend you one then I will try and borrow something adn come down sometime. Won't be for at least 6-8 weeks....

    Gordon
     
  14. Branxx

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    Gordon,

    This is a very kind offer and I'll be happy to have you and Charlie back into my 'study' whenever it suits.

    Two things we can do: connect the CD player via analogue leads to MC-12B, or connect players to active M&K directly (with the proviso that we will loose bass management capability, unless you have one of the M&K LFE-4 units at your disposal).
     
  15. ReTrO

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    Following on from Gordon has said, we did a fairly extensive test between a Proceed PMDT DVD transport (£7k) and a Linn Ikemi CD player (£2K) using a pair of B&W N803's and 4x Linn LK240 monoblock power amps. We used both Linn 5103 and Proceed AVP pre-amps/processors.

    The Ikemi walked all over the Procced transport even with digital connections from both machines. The Proceed PMDT is the best and most expensive DVD player we sell, and even it cannot compete with a 'good' CD player (we're not talking Linn CD12 here, not that you're looking that high).

    I've not yet had the chance to test my Hercules Home Theatre XP equiped PC against the PMDT, hopefully I will have the time, only got a week left at TSG.
     
  16. Charlie Whitehouse

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    Call me Mr Picky, but for the sake of total accuracy the Eton Choirbook track we used was actually track 7 (Browne: Stabat Mater) from this disk. Sorry... :blush:
     
  17. Nic Rhodes

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    Mr Picky ;)
     
  18. Charlie Whitehouse

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    Ha! Ha!

    But I would like to thank Branxx, because without his link I would not have realised that there were actually 5 other volumes of this music, which I have now ordered. Of it's type, this is superb stuff. If you haven't heard it, I can definitely recommend it. :D
     
  19. Branxx

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    Charlie,

    Picky, picky, picky...

    Thank you for pointing to my error in copying the track name. It is wonderful piece of choral music and I have listened to it several times since your visit.

    I have now put together a new AudioPC with the RME card. My daughter and I are doing some critical comparisons between SPDIF and analogue-out from the card. So far very interesting observations. STAY ALERT.

    I am convinced that we need to get Elliot onto this and include Tag DVD32R in the loop.
     
  20. Gordon @ Convergent AV

    Gordon @ Convergent AV
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    Don't think Elliot has his TAG anymore...might have a dem one he can lend though...

    Gordon
     
  21. browellm

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    Hi guys, sorry to muscle in on the thread here - very interesting and informative btw.

    I would be willing to throw my Helios Model 1 into the ring if you still want to dem a reasonably high-end one box CD player.

    Basically my valve amp is being, well..........a valve amp at the moment and needs a little TLC, so the model 1 is sitting on the shelf looking lonely.

    Let me know if interested.:)
     
  22. fraggle

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    Any of you guys interested in throwing an Audiolab 8000DAC/CDM into the comparison?

    Ok, not a single box solution, but I'd be interested to hear how well a £2.5k two box solution stacks up...

    Ok, you can start laughing now :D :rotfl: :D
     
  23. Branxx

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    fraggie,

    This maybe a nice w/e task. If you fancy coming to West London I'll like to setup a test. bring a few of your favourite CD's and connecting cables. I assume Audiolab 8000DAC can be connected to my Lex in analogue pass-thru mode.

    Let me know which weekend would be suitable for you?
     
  24. fraggle

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    Great,

    I'll let you know when I can make it and PM you the dates.

    The DAC will certainly plug into the analogue inputs on your LEX and also the CDM should plug into the digital inputs, so we can compare the Audiolab DAC as well :)

    (I've also moved the thread to HTPC since its a lot more relevant in there)
     

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