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Enjoy the Music.com Review MagazineAudiolics Anonymous Chapter 36
Home Theater Computers
Article by Bill Gaw

 

  Another year gone by. This now makes three years that I have been writing for Enjoy the Music.com. When I first started with Issue One way back when, I thought one or two articles would be it, I or our editor would lose interest and I'd be done, but it's three years later, and I'm still finding new or improved things to talk about in our hobby, or should I say obsession.

To celebrate the anniversary, I went out and had built a new piece of audio-video equipment. Not something either audio or video cognoscenti would consider to be high end, but which has turned out to beat anything I've seen or heard that does the same functions. It will do just about everything that the majority of our other pieces of high-end equipment do, and in some ways better, at 1/10th the cost and space. That does not include the savings on interconnects, video cables, AC cords, feet, bricks, and time and effort in set-up. And it still has plenty of things that will keep me tweaking as long as I want.

What, for instance, does it do?

 

A: Audio

1. CD Transport with SPDIF output 
2. Ten 24-bit/96kHz A/D and D/A converters for internal digital encoding and decoding with transcoding up to 24-bit/ 96kHz.
3. Recording of up to eight channels of analog with up to 24-bit/96kHz accuracy.
4. SPDIF input for decoding of external digital sources, including two-channel, Dolby Digital or DTS.
5. 8 balanced analog inputs with volume control, switching, D/A and A/D conversion. 
6. 8 balanced analog outputs with volume control for up to 7.1 channels
7. Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 decoding. 
8. Dolby Pro Logic II decoding with 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 output.
9. Mix up to eight channels of analog with 2 channels of digital into two channels.
10. CD-R,-RW recording
11. 10 band digital graphic equalizer
12, Storage of up to 200 gigabytes of audio or video information with almost infinite capacity possible with add-ons.
13. Ability to decode DVD-A and possibly SACD in near future.
14. etc., etc., etc.,

 

B. Video

1. DVD decoding directly from the digital stream.
2. Decoding of NTSC and High Definition off the air broadcasts
2. Scaling of Video from 480I up to 1080P
3. Increase of frame rate from 24 or 30 per second to maximum of 90 or 120.
4. Adjustment of Brightness, Contrast, Color, Tint, and Gamma of image before D/A conversion.
5. Recording of NTSC and High Definition signals to hard disc, tape, CD-R or -RW or DVD-R or -RW, or output through fire-wire or USB II to external video recorder.
6. Output RGBHV, Component, composite or S Video signals to Video Monitor.
7. Play video games in 2 or 3D.
8. Transfer Home digital or analog video tapes to MPEG II encoding, store to hard disk, edit, and burn to DVD-R or-RW.

 

So what piece of equipment am I talking about, if you have not guessed by now? My new, self designed, but professionally built Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC). The audio-video "All-in-One machine of the future"!

At this point you are probably ready to ask two questions:
1. What the hell is it?
2. What makes it good enough to waste my and your time discussing it in a high end audio journal?


Fair enough to both. First, it is a purpose-built computer using off the shelf parts that anyone can obtain, but which are of the highest quality available at present. What makes it good enough to discuss is that the audio and video this baby can control and deliver is probably the best you will see and hear outside of a studio environment. And I don't mean that statement derogatorily, as in most engineers can't hear, use inferior mixing techniques and equipment to get the brightest, loudest studio sound possible. I mean quality obtainable only with the best audio ( think Meridian, Lexicon, Levinson, etc.,) and video (Extron, Faroudja, Meridian, etc.,) equipment out there. Think $20,000 to $30,000 on multiple chassis in one $2,999 machine. That's right, for under $3,000. That's probably less than you paid each for your last preamp, transport, D/A converter, or even wire.

Next you are going to say: But I've got a computer at home recommended by the Dude from Dell, (or should that be Hell), watch it on my 17" monitor, listen through my Bose speakers at my desk while surfing the web, and " Boy, it ain't no giant killer". Well, neither is a boom box, but you wouldn't compare your high-end audio components to that either.

For a review of my feelings on these wonderful machines, please go to my previous articles for an overview. Or become a member of the AV Sciences HTPC website where experts give freely of their time and expertise. A word of warning though... Before asking questions, go to their Search area first to look up information as it has all been discussed before, and slackers who re-ask the same questions may be trod upon.

So what is the configuration I've chosen?

 

Components

1. Antec Plus 1060 P4 Case with 4-5.25" bays, 1-3.5"bay, 2 Internal bays for hard drives, 350 Watt power supply.
2. 4 super low noise fans -very important in a high end audio environment.
3. Tyan 510S2266 P4 Motherboard.
4. Intel P4 2.2GHz MMX, chip with 512k on CPU cache.
5. Ball bearing CPU fan with Heat sink - again for low noise and to be able to overclock the chip if software HDTV decoding becomes a possibility.
6. 512MB DDRRAM.
7.120GB Western Digital Ultra ATA-100 DMA EIDE Hard Drive.
8. Pioneer DVR-AO4 DVD-R,-RW DVD drive.
9. Aopen 16X CD-R,-RW drive.
10. 56K US Robotics PnP Fax/Data Modem
11. Adaptec Duo Connect Firewire-USBII multiport.
12. M-Audio 1010 10-channel balanced audio card.
13. M-Audio 410 8-channel single ended audio card - for review purposes.
14. Visiontec Geforce TI 4600 video card

 

Programs

15. WindowsXP.
16. Windows Media Player 7.1.
17. Cyberlink PowerDVDXP DD ,DTS DVD decoder.
18. Intervideo WINDVD DD,DTS DVD Decoder.
19. Cyberlink PowerDirector video editor.
20. Pinacle Video Editor.
21. MyDVD 3.5 MPEG II converter and DVD burner program.
22. Sonic Frontiers CD player, transcoder and CD-R,-RW burner.

 

If you've read the previous articles you'll understand why I'm so enthused over HTPC's. First, they are cheap, with most parts made in the millions. Second, they are ubiquitous, with everybody having at least one or possibly several. And each of these, with a few parts changes, can become a home HTPC giving better than adequate service for the audio and video enthusiast. Third, for a reasonable amount of money compared to most high end audio equipment, you can build a top of the line HTPC audio-video computer that will beat most high end equipment out there.

The scoffers out there will of course say "how can a computer sound as good as or better than my "mega-bucks" D/A converter"? Remember, most of the high end CD decoders, preamps, pre-processors out there are now built using computer like circuit boards with the same chips as those used by the computer manufacturers. For instance, the chips in my M-Audio 1010 sound card are the same ones used in several mega-bucks D/A converters. Also, most of the digitized music we listen to has been produced, stored, manipulated, and transcribed to CD and other storage media on and from computers, with the 1010 cards being used in many of those studios. 

After all of that hype, what are the disadvantages of the HTPC? 


First, the operating system. Both Windows and Apple make using the computer more difficult than loading up your disc on your CD or DVD player, especially for someone who is not computer literate. On the other hand, its not that much more difficult than turning on the typical high end audio system, or even a mid priced audio video receiver. Remember, you are now using one piece of equipment as CD and DVD player, D/A converter, Pre-amplifier/processor, television tuner and video scaler, and high definition television receiver for off the air broadcasts so the complexity of the system is lessened.

Second, they are sometimes finicky, locking up at inopportune times, especially with less than perfect discs, as the error correction systems don't seem to be as robust as with the best players. This has become less of a problem with Windows XP operating system, and we audiophiles certainly don't allow our discs to get dirty or scratched anyway.

Third, there is still no programming that will decode DVD-A or SACD, or the RIAA curve for vinyl playback, but there is a possibility looming on the horizon at least for the digital. Thus, a separate player and phono stage would be required for these. But for those surround enthusiasts, one can use a program to play back analog sources through the computer and do equalization, volume control, and Dolby Pro Logic II surround processing. You haven't lived until you've heard a shaded dog two-mike recording in surround sound. Hall ambiance anyone?

Obviously, how well the computer performs is predicated on the quality of the components. Thus the standard computer parts need not apply for a high-end machine.
So what's important for a high-end unit?

 

1. The case. The more ruggedly built and larger, the better. The more rigid, the less chance there is for vibrations to affect the processing. The more sound insulation there is the better. Drives and fans make noise, and the electronics produce heat. Sound insulating materials take up space and decrease cooling of components, so the more space, the easier it is to deaden the chassis without increasing the internal heat.

2. The fans. The chassis will require at least one, and for proper cooling two or more, and the CPU and video board have one each. Thus it's important to get the quietest possible. Special ball bearing oversized fans running at lower than normal RPM's in my unit do the trick.

3. The brains of the thing, the CPU and main board, which should be the highest speed and quality affordable. Audio and video alone don't require much processor power, but combining them for DVD or HDTV playback or Audio digital processing requires more, and for optimal playback, much more. My previous HTPC had a 700MHz P3 processor, and while it worked well, the new one with a P4 2.2GHZ unit works flawlessly giving much more analog like audio and near HDTV-like video. So size does matter, at least with the CPU.

4. If one is going to do much recording, the larger and quieter the hard drives the better. Thus my unit has a 120GB, 7200 RPM Western Digital unit that is quiet, fast and very reliable. It can store 200 CD's, or 25 DVD's, or 50 hours of NTSC video broadcasts, or 11 hours of high definition television more bit perfect than any other medium. The computer still has three bays for more hard drives, and the possibility of adding external drives through fire wire or USB2 connections for almost unlimited storage. Just think, my entire CD collection could be fit on one hard drive, with backup on a second and then I could give away my space hogging CD collection. The kicker is that I have found that there is actually an improvement in sound when the digital information is read from the hard drive through the RAM than directly off of the CD, probably related to lower jitter, but who knows.

5. The video card. Not just any old card will do, unless one is using the VGA output to a low-grade computer screen or television. For best reproduction of video, especially when one gets into high scaling and frame rates, there are two companies that fit the bill, Radeon and Geforce.

 

I had a Radeon in my previous unit, and while it gave a superb film-like image, it had problems with a movement artifact called judder, and some programming problems. This time I chose the top of the line GeForce TI4600 from Visiontec, which gives a superb image without hardware acceleration, and with PowerDVDXP and WINDVD 4.0 a picture that beats the best I've seen with the best DVD players and line scalers, except possibly for the Terranex, a $40,000 plus unit. The image quality on my Electrohome 9500LC projector with 10 ft wide 16:9 screen with a Sony Super-bit DVD such as Desperado, running at a line quadrupled 1080P, 72 Hz., approaches the best I've seen from off the air, DirecTV and C-Band HDTV productions, its that good. 

The advantage of the HTPC over other DVD players is the fact that all manipulations of the signal are digital, with one final D/A conversion compared to all other DVD player - scalers that require at least two A/D and D/A conversions. Like with audio, most errors, noise and other artifacts happen at those two points, and the more conversions, the more chance for errors. The unit beats the best scaling I've seen from my IEV professional quadrupler, and a Faroujda quadrupler sourcing from a Pioneer DVD-47A DVD player, S-VHS VCR and C-Band NTSC transmissions, and the Zenith 1080 DirecTV receiver, reputed to be the best small dish satellite receiver available. 


6. Finally, the most important for our readers, the sound card. Most home computers use either the mother board for sound decoding, or at most a Sound Blaster or Hercules card, which do a reasonable job for both two and multi-channel sound, but are definitely not up to audiophile standards. I've had several cards for evaluation, and John Atkinson, in Stereophile has discussed the German made RME, but for the money the ones to beat are made by M-Audio

 

They have a line of seven cards varying in price, quality and number of channels of in and output, and I have had four of them in my systems and each has worked to its potential, giving excellent sound for the price. For a review of the Delta DIO 24/96 professional 2 analog in and out and SPDIF in and out, and the Audiophile 24/96, with the same ins and outs and better elelctronics see AA Chapter 7, and 16 and for the Delta 1010 with SPDIF in and out and eight channels of analog in and output, AA Chapter 29.

 

Delta 1010

The 1010, is a balanced eight analog and one SPDIF in-out card with external processor that I have been using for over a year now. If you look back at my Article 29, you will find that I have been super happy with it, as its sound output compares very favorably with my EAD Theatermaster Signature pre-pro and the Lexicon and Meridian units I've had in my system for evaluation. Plus, it can do upsampling to 24-bit/96kHz of 16-bit/44kHz information when the program permits.

 

There had been two problems with it up till now using it as a multi-channel processor because it was built primarily as a professional 24-bit/96kHz digital sound mixing card. It was able only to control volume for two channels at a time. Thus, one needs a preamp or volume pot between the card and the amplifiers. Second, there is no program out there to this day that will allow the card to process anything other than two channels of external digital and analog, thus no decoding of external sources of Dolby Digital, DTS, DVD-A or SACD. Unhappily, I still cannot get rid of my EAD pre-pro and Pioneer SACD, DVD-A player until somebody comes up with the appropriate programming for these functions.

Enter Cliff Watson, the resident guru of the AV Sciences Home Theater Computer board, who had been working on the software for M-Audio's newest card, the 410, a four analog and one SPDIF in, eight analog and one SPDIF digital out computer card that has been purposely built to function as a high end computer based multi-channel audio decoder. Using the 410 program, he found a way to allow a master volume control of all channels of the 1010, thus overcoming the major barrier to its simple use in a high end HTPC, as the volume of individual channels very rarely has to be changed in relation to the others once proper setup of a software program occurs. In addition, he was able to control bass management and speaker distance of each individual channel of the 1010. Finally, he also added the ability for the 1010 to do 6.1 and 7.1 decoding of DD, DTS and Dolby Pro Logic II.

I became so enthused over the 1010 and my computer's sound output that Cliff suggested that I compare the 1010 to the 410 for this review, which I accepted. Unhappily, I received the card June 1, when I was awaiting my new computer, so couldn't put it in until June 5, and had to return the card to M-Audio before July 1 in order not to be charged for it. Thus I only had three weeks to break it in before commenting on it for this review. Thus, I am not sure that all I have to say below is valid.

 

Delta 410

The card is very well constructed, as are most these days, using high quality chips found in several high end D/A converters, and is very easy to mount in the computer, which recognizes it as a plug-and-play device. The software automatically loads from the supplied disc, and it also controlled my 1010. Only problem I found was that the software wouldn't recognize both the 410 and 1010 cards at the same time, even though it should through a software switch on one of the pop-up screens, so every time I wanted to switch from one card to the other for comparison, I had to remove the other from the computer's memory and reboot. I can't understand this as the programming should be able to run several of the M-Audio cards, so I am unsure whether this is a program or user error, but shouldn't be a problem for most of us who only need one of the cards.

 

So what are the differences between the 1010 and 410?

First, the 1010 is a pro card all the way, with 8 balanced analog in and outputs by stereo phono plugs. The A/D and D/A converters are in a separate box fed by an umbilical from the computer card, and has its own power supply. The 410 is a pro-sumer grade single ended card with a dongle applied to the back of the card with two inputs and 8 analog outputs through inexpensive looking 6 inch interconnects with female RCA's. All converters are on the card, which gets its juice from the computer's power supply.

Second, the 1010 can be configured for either +4 or - 10 dB balanced or unbalanced signal levels from a push switch at each in and output, whereas the 410 can be adjusted globally for all outputs at +4 or - 10 dB by a hardware switch.
Third, the 1010 has a dynamic range of 108 dB for D/A and 109 for A/D with less than 0.001% distortion as compared to the 410's 101.5 and 99.6 dB with 0.002% distortion. Both use 24-bit/96kHz converters with 22Hz - 40kHz, -.2dB frequency response, and system requirements are the same modest P III 500 MHz. chips.

Fourth, while the 1010 can now have volume control of the front left and right channels and master volume control of all 8 together, it has no ability, due to its chip configuration, for allowing volume control of each of the 8 analog outputs separately. The 410, on the other hand has both master and individual volume control of all 8 analog outputs.

Fifth is the price difference, $999 list and $599 street for the 1010 and $269.95 list, $189 street for the 410.

 

Before I get into the sound differences of the two cards, I wanted to go over the wonderful changes that Cliff has made in the software for them. Prior to the latest drivers, there was very little control over the various M-Audio cards for output purposes, especially the 1010, as they were originally designed for pro mixing applications. This was a real pain in the butt, as each DVD and CD music software program has different total output volume levels, and with WINDVD and PowerDVD, the Dolby Pro-Logic II and ICE 2 to multi-channel programs give different relative volume levels of the center and back channels to the front left and right. Thus, if you use more than one of these programs, each time you change you have to adjust the volume of each channel at an external preamplifier or amplifier volume pot. With the new drivers, these can now be set up by adjusting the volume sliders on the software screen, and with the 410 there is a screen for setting up volume for individual channels. Once volumes are set up, one can then set up memories for each individual input, program type etc., so this function need be done only once. I know this sounds confusing, but once you start to play with the program it is very easy to do and save to memory.



In addition the new program allows one to:
1. Set up bass crossover management from any or all channels to a separate subwoofer, which can then have its volume controlled by a slider.
2. Set distance from the listener for each speaker.
3. Allows computer decoding of DD and DTS 5.1 to 6.1 or 7.1 for those with side and back surround channels.
4. Mute all channels or decrease total volume by either a slider, or a -14 dB button for quieter listening.
Of course all of this is done in the digital domain, so there should be no problem with analog volume pots distortion and phase problems, but does have the disadvantage of losing bits each time the volume is lowered.

 

Finally to the sound!! Is there any difference between the 1010 and 410? I was certainly hoping not, as not having the ability to control individual channel volume with the 1010 is a minor pain in the butt, and I could sell my 1010 for what I paid for it if the 410 were its equal. One can certainly run the output of the 1010 through a six channel input pre-pro or receiver just like with SACD or DVD-A, but then one loses the major advantage of using the computer directly to your amplifiers.

Unhappily, the answer is no.

The 1010's analog output is as good if not better than the high end 24/96 pre-pro's I've had for evaluation. Its sound is dependent only on the quality of the software running it. For DVD, Power DVD and WINDVD are the two to beat, and for CD, Windows Media Player and Siren, with WINAMP coming in a close third. With the upsampling to 18 bits that WMP appears to do, and the ability of the 1010 to double the frequency to 88 or 96 kHz, the 1010 and the 410 will match every high end D/A converter out there for these features.

A caveat here. I only had the 410 for three weeks testing before it had to go back to the factory, so it may have needed further breaking in. I have found that high end D/A converters and their electronics need four to six weeks of usage before they work to their optimum, especially DVD-A and SACD players, but I heard little difference in the sound from the time I placed it in my computer on June 6 until I sent it back on June 29.

All of the controls on the 410's panels worked as described, and the ability to control volume in each channel was the major advantage over the 1010. I found this especially important when going back and forth between WINDVD and PowerDVD. For some reason, especially with Dolby Pro Logic II decoding, the center and surround channels were too loud compared to the front left and right channels, and each program had different volume relationships between them. Thus using the 1010 means having to get up and adjust the volume pots on the different channels every time I changed program. This is a minor annoyance when using one program for all music and movies, but a real pain when reviewing and switching.

While I no longer have the Audiophile 24/96, which I sold when I got the 1010, I would say the 410 sounded very much like the former, and is far superior to the top of the line Soundblaster card I have in my work-play computer upstairs. The biggest fault compared to the 1010 was a mild stridency in the high frequencies whether playing two or six channel music recordings, and was indistinguishable on most movie soundtracks. This could be overcome on two-channel recording by opening up the graphic analyzer that comes with most of the CD programs and decreasing the 5-10K slider by 1 to 2dB.

Second and most important difference was a decrease in stage size. On great recordings, such as Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, recorded 45 years ago, the 1010 transported me back to the performance, while the 410 lost some of the very low volume ambiance information that gives us the feel for the hall. On movies, the Foley effects seemed at times more real and at other times less so with the 1010 compared to the 410, but these are all made-up sounds, so who knows what the reality truly is.

Image placement was very good, with instruments in surround recording in the same place that they were with the 1010. Explosions were equally percussive with both, and fly-overs, such as the one in "The Right Stuff" in the graveyard scene were superb with both, especially with the 7.1 decoding switched in. Matter of fact, the jets here, and bullet whizzing by effects in other movies were REAL with both cards in 6.1 and 7.1, being equal to the 6.1 decoding of my SMART Circle Surround decoder, a $295 unit, which does a superior job to either DPL or DPLII at building a sound space. Both cards gave superior decoding of DD and DTS DVD's compared to my Pioneer Elite 47A DVD, SACD, DVD-A player, which is one of the better DVD units, with the 410 equal to the 47A for CD decoding and the 1010 superior.

So there you have it. The 410 is at least equivalent to the $1000 Pioneer 47A for CD and DVD audio playback and does the function of the $295 Circle Surround decoder for DVD 5.1 to 6.1 decoding. The 1010 stands with the best D/A converters in my estimation for CD and DVD decoding with the added benefit of being able to do ambiance recovery with the proper programming.

I'm not bragging, but I do have a super high-end audio-video system that brings out subtle nuances in equipment, and the above differences between the cards would probably not be audible on 95% of home systems. So, if you want the best that HTPC offers, and don't mind the inconvenience of having to get up to make volume changes, or have a pre-pro which passes six channel information with volume control without digital conversions, then get the 1010. If you have an average or above average audio system, but not cutting edge, or are just a lazy slug who requires a cell phone in your media room to call your wife to make you your popcorn, then get the 410 and enjoy. Again, either way these cards in an HTPC with a good video card will give you better audio and video than the best separates out there.

 

Now if we only could get somebody to:
1. Write programs for DD and DTS and DPL II decoding of external sources and playback of DVD-A and/or SACD recordings, and possibly a RIAA curve phono amplifier software, all one would need for an entire high end playback system would be amplifiers, speakers and video monitor or projector.
2. Have M-Audio or some other manufacturer produce the audio quality of the 1010 with the user adjustability of the 410.
Just think, $30,000 of equipment traded in for a single $3000 piece. No interconnects, AC cords, clutter, etc. Boy, what a dream for me and nightmare for high end manufacturers and dealers.

Well, that's it for A.A. 36. Let's see if I can find twelve more columns for the coming year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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