(LAST UPDATED 12/5/2008)
We are at a point where there are a number of options for setting up a HTPC with a single HDMI connection for HS audio and HD video - basically like a regular Home Theater component. That's a great thing, as just a year ago there were basically no options. This thread is to capture the current state of the world as it relates to accomplishing this goal. We're far from perfect, but we're getting closer with each new product release.
===> If you're not interested the single HDMI HD solution, then no need to read further.
===> If you already have one of these solutions, but aren't interested in something new, no need to read further (head over to the thread dedicated to your solution)Note - I own, and continue to use and test everything in this list except the Xonar.
I test with 1080i MPEG2, MPEG4, 1080p BD and HDDVD ISO's, MKV's, MKV's with FLAC, AVC HD 24p/30p/60i, and many other SD and HD formats using multiple commercial and freeware players and media centers, including TMT, PDVD, MPC, VMC/MCE, MP, XBMC, and others.SUMMARY
First, there are three main ways of getting HD audio and HD video out of a HTPC over a single HDMI connection - IGP, dedicated HDMI graphics card, and dedicated HDMI audio card.IGP
This is an integrated solution, where the graphics processing is on the motherboard. The main advantage of this solution is that you basically only need the motherboard to have a complete HTPC setup, resulting is low-power, low-heat, and a very slim form factor. The main disadvantage is that the graphics chips tend to be powered to just barely meet HD video needs, and as a result are pretty much useless for anything else (e.g. gaming). Also, any "all-in-one" solution can be a problem, as in the process of trying to do everything, it can end up doing no single thing particularly well.Dedicated HDMI Graphics Card
This option lets you buy any motherboard you want, and then pop in a graphics cards that support HD audio and HD video over a single HDMI out. The main advantages of this option is that you get to pick-and-choose your motherboard and graphics card more, and you end up with a much more powerful graphics card, suitable for HD video as well as gaming, and support SLI/Crossfire. The main disadvantage is that you're closer to a full PC, with more heat and power and noise.Dedicated HDMI audio card
With this option, you can pick any motherboard and graphics card you want, and you simply pass the HDMI video through the HDMI audio card. The audio card then "merges" the HD audio into the video, and sends the combined stream out HDMI. The main advantage of this option is that you have the most flexibility, picking each of your components separately. The main disadvantage is that this is now a full PC, with all the power, heat, and sound requirements.PAP/PAVP and Bitstreaming
One more thing that's important is called "Protected Audio Path"/"Protected Audio/Video Path". This is the only way to get bitstreaming support - that is, sending the audio stream directly to your AVR/pre-pro without touching it in any way. While technically, the PC can convert everything to LPCM and it should be absolutely identical (it's just math to decode the streams), the reality is that the PC players often mess with the sound as part of the decoding and end up screwing it up in the process. So while bitstreaming should be technically unnecessary, it's clear we need it (for now) to get the best sound possible from the software players.
The only way to get the untouched sound is with a PAP/PAVP, which must be supported by the audio/video hardware, the drivers, and the software players.IGP Options
The following is an up-to-date list of current IGP, or single motherboard solutions:Intel G35
- Obsolete, replaced by G45
This is mostly obsolete at this point, as it's been replaced by the G45 (see next). This is a competant motherboard solution, but Intel removed 24p support soon after release due to timing issues (it has recently been added back, but like the G45, it's one of the worst 24p solutions out there). The G35 also has limited hardware acceleration for HD video formats, so you need a significant CPU to play back much more than MPEG HD video. It requires a fair amount of tinkering to get it working right, but once you do, it's not bad. The audio is good, with full 7.1 LPCM support. There is no support for PAP/PAVP.Overall rating: 5 out of 10Intel G35 ThreadIntel G45
This is the newest IGP solution from Intel. It is an improvement over the G35, with hardware acceleration for all HD video formats, and a promise of PAP/PAVP. The initial setup is slightly better than the G35, but we're in the same boat of having to tinker with a bunch of different components to get it working properly, and 24p support is still not quite right (one of the worse of this bunch). The PAP/PAVP appears to be a non-starter that Intel is abandoning, so don't expect any bitstreaming from this motherboard. Right now it's only a minor improvement to the G35.Overall rating: 6 out of 10Intel G45 Thread - Gigabyte mATXIntel G45 Thread - Intel mATXIntel G45 Thread - Intel mITXnVidia 8200/8300
This is the first AMD-based IGP solution, and it supports "Hybrid SLI", which lets you use a (limited) number of dedicated graphics cards to augment the IGP graphics capabilities. This is the only solution with silky-smooth 24p playback and no audio drift. No 5.1 support (only 7.1), which isn't a huge deal, and has the silent-stream bug, also not a huge deal. If you prefer AMD over Intel and want an IGP solution, this is your only choice. If you prefer Intel, go for the 9300/9400 (see below). Requires Phenom X3 or better to be safe, of the xx50 variety. No PAP/PAVP.Overall Rating: 8 out of 10nVidia 8200/8300 ThreadnVidia 9300/9400
The Intel equivalent of the 8200/8300. Supports silky-smooth 24p, and has the 5.1/7.1 big fixed. Still has the silent-stream issue (no big deal), but still no PAP/PAVP. All the same positives as the 8200/8300, but now with an Intel chip. (Some people have reported heat issues with the NB, but this might just be an anomoly.)Overall Rating: 8 out of 10nVidia 9300/9400 ThreadDedicated Graphics Card Options
The following is an up-to-date list of dedicated graphics cards options with HD audio and HD video over a single HDMI cable:Radeon 45xx/46xx/48xx
This is the first HD audio/HD video graphics card released, and it's fairly impressive. Just as a regular graphics card, it's very powerful and more than adequate for gaming, and it supports Crossfire (48xx series). It also fully supports hardware acceleration for all HD video formats, and fully supports 7.1 LPCM HD audio. The setup isn't too bad, but for some reason ATI doesn't put the audio drivers on their site, so you have to dig them up from the RealTek site (called HD audio codecs on the RealTek site - apparently also available now on the ATI site). 24p support is nearly perfect, with only a very slight stutter every few minutes (perhaps with ArcSoft TMT only), likely not noticable by most people on normal displays. The only real issue with the card is it doesn't have a PAP/PAVP, so the audio issues introduced by the software players are present when using this card.Overall Rating: 7 out of 10Radeon 4850/4870 ThreadRadeon 4850/4870 Thread (non-gamers)Dedicated HDMI Audio Cards
The following is a list of dedicated HD audio cards that support HDMI video passthrough and PAP/PAVP:Asus Xonar HDAV - (note - this is the only item on this list I don't own, due to how bad it currently is)
This dedicated sound card is designed to support HDMI video passthrough with a PAP for HD audio over the same HDMI cable. Currently works only with a proprietary version
of ArcSoft TMT (not the commercial one). This card is currently the only solution available for bitstreaming HD audio, but it's got some issues. The current release doesn't support 24p (appears to be a hardware limitation), and has a very shaky driver release history, with long gaps between updates. It also has a "Splendid" video engine that seems to harm the video more than it helps it when it's turned on (thanks to a new driver release this can be turned off, but it still prevents 24p passthrough). Why they added any sort of video processing to a sound card makes no sense to me. Asus has announced that they are replacing the current card with new hardware (to support 24p), and will be releasing a new card that is truly a video-passthrough card. Once these are released, I'll reevaluate, but until then, this card is not worth purchasing (it's effectively been pre-obsoleted by the Asus announcement).Unrated due to too many issues and pending replacement card
- Don't even bother with this card (right now)Asus Xonar HDAV ThreadAuzentech HDMI
- Not Released Yet
Same as the ASUS, but hopefully actually working. Initial release will only work with PowerDVD.Evaluation Criteria
The primary criteria used to evaluate the solutions are the following items, listed mostly in order of importance:
- Works over a single HDMI cable
- Can play multiple SD and HD video formats, including (but not limited to) HD MPEG2, HD MPEG4, AVCHD, BD/HDDVD ISO, MKV, MKV FLAC, SD ISO, AVC, MPEG2, MPEG4
- Supports judder-free 24p
- Has full hardware acceleration for all HD video formats
- Supports all HD audio codecs (either as LPCM or bitstream, both have advantages and disadvantages)
- Supports all software players
- Runs very quiet and cool and low-power
There are a lot of other items that are important and tested, but these are the main ones. Remember this is for a HTPC, so the testing is geared towards HTPC use. If you don't care about some of the items above, then one of the lower-rated solutions might be okay for you.CONCLUSION - As of 12/5/2008
As of today, the best overall solution is the nVidia 8200/8300 (AMD) and 9300/9400 (Intel)
. These IGPs are more than powerful enough for HD video, are the only solution with silky-smooth 24p with no audio drift, are relatively easy to set up, and seem to be supported in all applications. The 8200/8300 requires a Phenom xx50 X3 or better to ensure smooth playback and post-processing/proper deinterlacing. However they doesn't support PAP/PAVP, and the 8200/8300 has no 5.1 config (the 9300/9400 does), so this crown could quickly shift to another option once the software players and hardware and drivers allow for bitstreaming.
If you want to play games on your HTPC, then the 4850/4870 is your best solution. Not quite as good at 24p, and some audio drift at 24p with TMT, but better than anything else (other than the 8200/8300/9300/9400). Will run hotter and louder since it's not IGP.OTHER ISSUESSoftware Players
- These are still notoriously difficult to work with. The primary players (for full discs with menu support) are ArcSoft Total Media Theater and Cyberlink PowerDVD. Both players support HD audio and HD video in similar ways, and both players have their share of problems. The good news is that there is competition, so we are seeing improvements and hopefully, eventually, will get a solid solution. (There are other players that support playing a "ripped" version of just the HD movie, but that's for another thread.)ArcSoft TMT ThreadCyberLink PowerDVD 8 ThreadBit Stripping/Down Sampling
- Due to the lack of a PAP/PAVP, the current batch of software players (see above) are messing with the sound before sending it out over HDMI. Specifically, they are downsampling to 48Khz, and bitstripping to 16 bits. While the HD audio is still substantially better than the non-HD audio, and most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference between 48/16 and 48/24 or 96/24, the reality is that the software players are introducing audio artifacts in the process, including audio drift and some minor periodic audio static. PAP/PAVP and Bitstreaming will solve this problem. However with the nVidia 8200/8300/9300/9400, you can get basically perfect HD audio and video, and just ignore the bitstreaming.AVR Issues
- For some AVRs and some graphics options, there are additional potential problems (mostly with older Denons, Onkyos, and Yamaha AVRs with older firmware). This comes in two flavors - one is where the HTPC thinks you only have 2 channels of sound, and is the "EDID" variety of the problem (this can be fixed by purchasing an "HDMI Detective" from Gefen). The other prevents encrypted video sources from being played because the HTPC doesn't think you have an HDCP compliant connection to the TV, and is the "Repeater Bug" variety of the problem (this can be fixed by puchasing AnyDVD HD). These problems are mostly annoyances, and can be resolved through spending more money, but it's annoying and shouldn't be required.See your AVR Thread in this ForumHDMI EDID/HDCP issues thread