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PC sound vs external home cinema decoder

Discussion in 'Computer Components' started by NicolasB, Nov 5, 2002.

  1. NicolasB

    NicolasB
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    I am probably going to get my head bitten off for this, but I decided a long time ago that if I wanted to know anything I would have to be prepared to risk asking extremely stupid questions, so, here goes:

    Is there any PC-based sound device that can rival a dedicated Home Cinema processor for sound quality? (I'm thinking of processors like Arcam's AV8 or the Tag AV32R).

    At first glance things don't look promising: most sound cards aren't exactly regarded as audiophile grade, and the inside of a PC case is about as eletrically noisy as you're likely to encounter, which doesn't bode well for any sort of analogue sound output. The more obvious solution is to take the Dolby Digital (or DTS or whatever) digital stream and pipe it into a decent home cinema processor.

    But there are a couple of types of product which sound interesting. First off I'm sure there are "high end" sound cards that leave the average Creative Labs effort in the dust. Second would be an external sound device, something like the Creative Labs Extigy. Being in a separate box with a digital feed from the PC (via USB) this stands a good chance of avoiding interference problems. Finally I believe there are PC motherboards that actually have a built-in valve-driven audio pre-amplifier - things like the AOpen AX4B-533. Are there any products like this which are actually worth buying, or is a dedicated processor the only sensible way to go for home cinema?
     
  2. Shockabuku

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    How about something from the M-Audio line? If you fancy doing the processing on the PC, then something like the Delta 410 is ideal...10 outputs, full bass management features in the drivers, excellent support from M-Audio, and tons of info on here & on AVS to help you in case of problems. You'd then just feed the analogue outputs into power amps.

    If you just want to output a bitstream, then the Delta 410 might be overkill, but the M-Audio 24/96 would do the job. These cards offer a definite jump in quality from the Creative stuff, but of course at a price. Millenium Music stock the M-Audio range if u want to take a look.
     
  3. buns

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    but of course the pc still cannot do processing of external sources, at least not without horrendous difficulty.

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  4. Shockabuku

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    Yeah, the one feature that's still holding back the HCPC from being a total solution. One day it'll happen. Hopefully.
     
  5. buns

    buns
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    we just need somoen foresighted to design and put the money in!

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  6. Shockabuku

    Shockabuku
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    You'd have thought some enterprising hacker would have *ahem* reverse engineered some of the software that's already out there. Allegedly.
     
  7. reggs

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    Here’s my experience so far – I’d love to know if someone knows how to get better sound out of the PC but I’m struggling!

    Fitted a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 (the board only) to my HCPC yesterday.
    1st problem – You can’t feed the soundcard outputs direct to any normal amp/decoder as the SBA2 splits the outputs in to 3 (non bloody standard) analogue outs via mini-jacks – Front, sub and rears or something like that. You would have to use one of those dedicated PC decoder/speaker things which are generally crap when compared to any half way decent DTS/5.1 receiver or external decoder.
    Not TOO much of a problem (I guess) as I didn’t think that the A2 would be able to match my Sony DTS receiver anyway. Soooo - You need to bypass all of soundcards onboard decoding and take the digital out signal via a (mono mini jack) to the coax input on the back of your amp. Of course its near impossible to find such a cable, so you have to make up your own, probably out of some spare cable you’ve got left hanging around. Anyway, the cable is easy to make and that reassuring blue glow proves that everything is working as intended – After several hours of faffing about with the god dam awful SB config software that is!!!
    Anyway - What I discovered is that the sound feels flat and lifeless. It seems to lack the sound dynamics of my dedicated Pioneer 545 standalone player. This is not what I had expected at all. The difference in quality is easily discernable and I’m really annoyed.

    Some other things I’ve noticed – PowerDVD’s picture is crap and I cannot get it to touch anything like my 545’s quality. I’ve download every tweaking App I can find and it is still grainy and its colour saturation is poor.
    Thatertek 1.5 however shows a picture that annihilates the 545. BIG Downside is that the lip sync is out by about 3 seconds right from a DVD’s start menu and I’m gonna have to do some serious driver updates in order to fix that I’d guess. Sound however sounded exactly like PowerDVD, flat and lifeless. Advice, support, counselling – I’m up for nearly anything right about now :(

    HCPC System – XP+all updates /1GHz AMD /512Meg /Pioneer105DVD / 120GigMaxtor /Audigy2 /
    42”Panasonic Plasma PWD5/SonyDA50ES DTS Receiver/ Odyssey Stratos Power AMP / Kef 104.2 LF&RF/CelestionA4 Centre/KefQ15 LR & RR/Paradigm 1000 sub/ Pioneer 545 DVD /Toshiba 110 DVD
     
  8. Shockabuku

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    Ditch the Audigy & get an M-Audio :D
     
  9. MAW

    MAW
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    Your audigy sound may need to be tweaked in it's control panel to output 48khz. Default is 44.1khz, I'm sure the audigy can do that. Previous creatives couldn't, I had one, same trouble.

    You could also go to Richer and get 3 stereo mini jack to 2 phono leads, and connect to 6ch input on your amp. Still do that 48khz thing though. You should find the sound much improved. Picture, I've not had such a difference with software. Is your graphics card up to it? Are you matching the native resolution of your screen, try powerstrip.

    Checking my PC, you should have a new icon, audio control, in control panel. That's where you select the sample frequency for spdif. 48khz for DD, it offers 96khz also, for DTS. Try that, and post again.
     
  10. Branxx

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    As you are aiming quite high you'll need to erase from your memory any knowledge or reference to SoundBlaster of any kind.

    M-Audio is a good start but again, to get into a comparable quality region you'll need to think about Delta 1010. This would have the right acoustic qualities but with some specific issues. M-Audio drivers do not bypass Windows kmixer so regardless of the excellent quality hardware you will not be able to take the full benefit (at least not until software fix become available). 2nd problem with Delta 1010 in lack of individual volume controls on all channels.

    STAudio DSP24 has driver that bypasses kmixer. I am not sure about the status of volume control problem. This card has almost identical acoustic properties as similar M-Audio.

    Next step in quality is to use RME DIGI96/8 PAD that acoustically would be very close to top end external processors. The driver bypasses kmixer, as for individual volume control I don't have definitive info.

    Above those you can look at Echo Mia/Gina or LynxTWO. Acoustically, at least in 2-channel operation, those cards are above the quality of the processors you are trying to compare.

    However, soundcard is only a part of the problem that needs to be sorted. HTPC at present lacks the appropriate pre-amp software that would turn it into a general-purpose sound processor. So HTPC audiophile quality of the highest level is possible, but there is a lot of tweaking involved.
     
  11. reggs

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    Thanks MAW -
    ' ... output 48khz. Default is 44.1khz'
    - Have tried both 48 and 96 as my amp can handle both.

    'You could also go to Richer and get 3 stereo mini jack to 2 phono leads, and connect to 6ch input on your amp. Still do that 48khz thing though. You should find the sound much improved'
    - I don't think that this will work as it would mean doing the decoding on the SA2 board itself. If the board can't generate a good enough digital only signal, the best it can probably hope to achieve is the same. In reality I think the analog signal could only be worse. Don't get me wrong, the sound is adequate, just not up to the dedicated Pioneer. You would have to be in a position to do a direct comparison if you've not heard it for yourself.

    'Is your graphics card up to it?'
    - I have 3 to choose from - A Radeon 7200, Geforce 3 and Geforce 4. All 4 give the same picture! - TT Tech support solved the sync issue immediately. You need to use 'Direct Sound: Audigy' instead of whatever got selected by default. LS is now perfect.

    'Are you matching the native resolution of your screen, try powerstrip'
    - Yep. Further, TT can scale the displayed image in real time, which I though was as stunning feature. Picture easily on par with a high-end dedicated separates. TT just does a far better job than PDVD (in my opinion).

    Also, the TT/ IRman / Girder combo is awesome. I use a Pronto and downloaded the fully pre-configured .ccf. PC becomes almost transparent.

    I really believe especially due to the last post that SB's are built for games regardless of the blurb. It seems to me that I would need to move over to the MAudio as suggested in order to get back to the sound I have grown to expect.
     
  12. MAW

    MAW
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    One of my cards is an extigy, it actually sounds quite good doing the decoding, well 1000% better than my live! did, which couldn't do anything but 44.1 khz I haven't heard anyone's high end system from here, but my M8's are all stunned by the extigy. Chips are the same as audigy? With the extigy you get the opportunity to set the uSB and the card output to 48khz, can't think of an equivalent with a PCI card, but I'm certain it should sound good, maybe not as good as a £500 player, but acceptable.
     
  13. dave48

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    I've recently got an M-Audio 1010. The sound quality is stunning, c**ps all over my Soundblaster. It also does stunning quality recordings of vinyl, for example. Sounds great for CD playback, so you can ditch the CD player.

    I still have a long way to go to get the PC operating as a perfect DVD player / AV amp replacement though. This is for me the main pain with HCPCs - it requires an inordinate amount of time and swearing to do what you can do in 5 minutes out of the box for normal HiFi / AV components.

    I also do quite a bit of late night listening on Headphones (Sennheiser HD-600's powered by a Musical Fidelity X-CANS). On Dolby Headphone the sound is STUNNING. I don't understand the physics of how it is possible to get that level of 3 dimensionality from 1 speaker next to each ear.

    Dave48
     
  14. MAW

    MAW
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    The 3-d thing is a puzzle to me too. I'm afraid until that nice Mr Gates makes his software completely consistent, ie does the same thing every time under the same circumstances, then HCPC's will be for determined tweakers only. I agree with all on the subject of M-Audio, to the extent of spending my own money, but the poor man's just spent £90 on a good card, the results may not be as good as some, but it ought to be listenable.
     
  15. reggs

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    Who's the best supplier for the M-Audio cards?
     
  16. Branxx

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  17. Canoehq

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    Can I just clear up one point before I go off and blow my cash on Branxx's recommendation of a RME DIGI96/8 PAD soundcard.

    I only want to use my HTPC for playing DVD's and in doing so output the sound to an external Meridian processor. So, as to processing:

    is Shockabuku correct

    or Branxx

    I'm asking because at some point soon, I may want to release a £2500 investment in my processor if I find that a HTPC can do the whole shooting match !

    Also, sorry if I've taken quotes out of context or misquoted in any way but I am confused on this and just need a straightforward answer which I can inderstand

    All or any help greatly appreciated.

    Cheers
    Canoehq
     
  18. buns

    buns
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    Both are correct! :D

    If you only intend to use dvd's with your system, then the hcpc will be able to output whatever sound fomat you choose, through the analogue outputs of the likes of the delta 410, then straight into your power amps. Hence no need for the meridian. But, if you intend to use other sources, the hcpc will NOT be able to process them and output straight to your power amps, you would then require the meridian also.

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  19. reggs

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    I would seriously think twice about whether a HTPC will be able to match the sound quality of a £2500 Meridian!
    The discussions here (and my own experience) indicate that you would need to spend a serious amount of cash on the sound part of the system.
    Given the amount of engineering and design that can go in to such things as chasis and
    dampening design, never mind component selection and matching in high-end amps and processors, maybe
    PC's will just never be able to get there .... just a thought.
     
  20. buns

    buns
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    I cant argue with that view.......all i know is that there were plenty of guys at avs who were very very keen on the output straight to power amps....... they made some very big comparisons.

    As i learn more about pc's........ i am increasingly changing my view that the pc cant do the same things the big consumer items do, i think they can. Although there are difficulties with the pc, i think that the most would be able to be gotten around, even the noise issue should be able to be controlled with the correct knowledge.

    At the end of the day, £150 for the delta 410 is very small compared to the cost of a big processor. If DVD was my only source, I wouldnt think twice about the pc route for my first attempt.

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  21. reggs

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    Unfortunately Buns, I wasted my time with an Soundblaster Audigy 2 and even a straight digital bypass to my Sony ES on to my Odyssey Stratos power amp (which I imported from the US), gets murdered by the SB. I'm going to try and return it to Scan and go with M-Audio solution as you and quite a few others reckon they're the way to go. I'm really hoping that you're proved right.
     
  22. buns

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    Dont do it on my word! I havent tried it!!! Im just passing on views of others!

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  23. RichardH

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    I got my MAudio 410 straight from the 'States - http://www.digitalconnection.com - cheapest (worked out £163 delivered with duty IIRC), but am having a prob with it that means I will have to return it, which rather negates the cost savings. In fact I got it from there more because the guy who developed all the drivers to such a great degree works for them, so I wanted to support them.
    However, you could also look at Millennium Music in the UK - £185 for the 410.
     
  24. Canoehq

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    So, let me get this right.

    With DVD as my only source, as I don't have an amp (therefore no decoding there) but a good set of active speakers (again no decoding) as long as I buy a sensible soundcard (£500+) you are saying that it is possible for all of the sound decoding and processing (DTS, EX, DPL2 etc) to be done on board the HTPC by something like Theatertek and that output through a higher end soundcard, the end result (at my active speakers) might be to the same or better standard as an external processor / decoder could acoustically achieve.

    If that it true, then all I need to do is run the outputs of the soundcard straight to the speakers.

    Have I finally got it, has the penny dropped ?

    As Branxx says

    So before I go off on a tangent again, I am right in thinking that with suitable software, a HTPC can decode and process most of the more common sound formats around today ? In which case, I should try to keep an external processor only if I want to hook up additional external sources through it. Is that right ?

    Cheers for all of the help.

    Canoehq
    (a fellow Ulsterman, Buns :D) !
     
  25. buns

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    Yeah, you sound correct. You dont even need spend £500....... the delta 410 does it at less than £200. You do need to be careful on your choice of card though, although the card may be great, it may not have the drivers and support needed for hcpc, the 410 definitely does.

    Apparently the results can be startling.

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  26. dave48

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    Something like Power DVD has a 5.1 ananlogue out - all you would need to do is connect the analogue outs of the soundcard to the inputs of the active speakers and Bob's your uncle!

    Do your active speakers have balanced inputs? If they do, then it is worth getting a soundcard that has balanced outputs (e.g. Delta 1010) although this has the known issue that you cannot individually adjust the realtive channel volumes.

    The latest M-Audio drivers allow you to adjust the volume in 1db increments - just be careful the first time you plug everything together, the driver defaults to maximum volume!

    Dave48

    P.S. the above solution also works excellently for playing back CDs with or without DPLII. If you playback the CDs from the harddisk, you get basically no jitter, and Windows Media Player for exmaple gives you HDCD decoding.

    P.P.S. a card such as the 1010 which has 8 analogue inputs and an S/PDIF input can also be used as a sort of "pre-amp" - simply connect other analogue kit to the inputs of the soundcard and use the M-Audio panel to output it to the relevant outputs.
     
  27. dannyc

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    OK, as someone who has lived with a Delta 1010 for about 18 months now with Powerdvd XP I can say that it does sound absolutely amazing provided you have good power amps. It is as good as many other processors I have heard.

    If you can live without individual channel volume control then I would reccommend it. Be aware that the sound quality of the Delta 410 is not supposed to be as good, and if you are planning to replace a Meridian processor with it, this will be an issue especially if you want good CD playback too.

    Ironically I have just changed to an SDI equipped DVD player and am now have to use an external processor again!

    Anyone want a used 1010?

    Dan
     
  28. Canoehq

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    How much will you be looking for the 1010 Danny ?

    Canoehq
     
  29. dannyc

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    Caneohq,

    Be sure that a Delta 1010 is what you really want first, then if your still interested then I guess 2/3 of the best UK new price will do.

    Dan
     
  30. Branxx

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    Canoehq, reggs,

    From my personal discovery path over the last 3 years I tried more than a few sound cards and ultimately end up with three HTPC. Two of them are connected to Lexicon MC-12B. The third one is Delta 410 based configured as 6.1 system and connected to a set of 6 active Genelec 1029A satellite speakers teamed up with 3 Genelec 1092 subs (so no traditional pre-amp in the configuration).

    I’ve start from practical considerations using Delta 410 card without pre-amp. This HTPC is working excellently for watching DVD (I use PowerDVD in 5.1 config with Delta control panel configured to recreate rear centre channel (channel 6) from the information sent to RL & RR channel. Each speaker is defined as full range thanks to ability of Genelec to do its own bass management. If you are using different speaker configuration than Delta control panel lets you specify the roll-over frequency on each channel. The particular Genelec speakers are have chosen are selected for there compactness rather than the ultimate performance, but they sound way beyond their size and the whole set-up is awesome.

    So what are the problems with configuration of this type?
    • Major problem I have with this configuration is loud pops on system power up/down. Due to it, this PC is running 24/7 (for more that a year now). This is something that I attribute to Delta card, as for example RME generated negligible pops on power up/down;
    • Lack of surround processing when listening to TV or music sources, i.e. something like independent Dolby Pro-Logic II or Logic 7;
    • Too fiddly comparing to traditional setup.
    As for benefits
    • Pleasure of trying something different;
    • Sound quality is way beyond the amount of money spent on it;
    • Video quality is stunning. Achieve similar quality you need to spend at least 3 times as much;
    • Enormous flexibility in organising and sharing your music and films;
    • No need to deal with physical media on day to day basis, i.e. once CD/DVD is ripped it is just point and click to get it going;
    • Easy to upgrade.
    • Good hobby if you need one!

    The other two HTPC’s are following pre-amp route, as I wanted to get full surround processing on all audio music sources but keep other benefits of using a PC. Those two are using STAudio DSP24 and RME DIGI96/8 soundcards. Both of them have drivers that are written to avoid Windows kmixer re-sampling interference and produce excellent results. Thanks to Charlie Whitehouse I recently performed a comparison between a HPTC as a source for music material and Theta David II transport. You can read the result here. From my own experience and what has been reported by other forum member I am convinced HTPC equipped with good quality sound card is way beyond anything in £2-3K consumer region. In my case 2-channel analogue out from RME is in many instances more pleasing than what comes out of Lexicon’s own DACs that cost much more than £2,500.

    My recommendation: if you are up for a challenge and are not anti-pc in general, go for it. I’ll end up with audiophile quality above what you currently have and you’ll save money.

    For sound card I recommend RME or STAudio. Start with DIGI96/8 PAD and if at latter day you need more analogue channels you can separately buy add-on card AEB8-O, and get 8 analogue channel output.

    I did play with Delta 1010 for about a month and agree to its amazing sound quality, however lack of per-channel volume control was too limiting. Although, dannyc offer of 2nd hand Delta 1010 for approx £300 is a good way to make your first move.

    I would suggest you take a look at new generation STAudio DSP3000 M-Port as it seems to make significant advances over previous models.
     

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