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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
+Background


Last time I put together a home theatre set-up, I spent a long time researching how I could finally get pre-amps, receivers and IR out of my life. There was interesting stuff going on with a USB audio interface being built in to box with high-end power amps, but it turned out that it was impossible to buy one. I ended up going for a Cambridge Audio Azur receiver, interfacing with S/PDIF, and writing a software front end that would let my PC control the pre-amp through RS-232 (serial). This was much better than anything that had going before, because the software was able to read back all the status from the Azur meaning I didn't have to deal with a tiny screen to let me know that the gain was set to 0dB before I cranked up Foobar and shattered the windows.


6 years on and after a selling the amp due to moving to a house with a different mains voltage, I'm reopening the worm can for another taste. This time I'm looking at the newer breed of 'audiophile' consumer soundcards boasting.SNRs of at least 110dB. These seem ideal for direct connection to a nice multi-channel power amp. The software even seems to provide the traditional processor features like stereo to 7.1 matrix (some Dolby, some DTS, never both), delay lines, gain adjustments etc. Here's a list of the kind of cards I've been considering:

  1. Creative Soundblaster Z or ZxR
  2. Asus Essence STX II 7.1
  3. HT Omega Claro II



I'm open to USB soundcards, but it seems the trend has moved and that PCI is now the way to go for a high SNR.

Requirements

  1. Everything should be controllable from the Windows desktop
  2. No noticeable noise, even at low levels (e.g. watching movies when people are sleeping)
  3. At least 5.1 channels
  4. No difficult settings changes when switching from, say, VLC playing a movie with 5.1 channels to Foobar with 2 channels matrixed to 5.1
  5. There should be nothing between the sound device and the power amp other than some short, good quality, analog cables
  6. I would like the option to pass a stereo output from the input to the outputs via the card's onboard processing (5.1 matrixing) with minimal latency
  7. I would like the option to pass a digital multi-channel stream from the input to the outputs



I don't care care about digital outputs at all, otherwise I'd just use on-board audio again. I don't care about gaming at all. I'm interested in ASIO if it makes life easier and means I can use 'direct monitoring' to achieve passthrough. I suspect using ASIO outputs means I can use the card's processing, which might rule it out.

Questions

  1. Has anybody managed to achieve either of the last two points on my requirements list?
  2. Should I be concerned about the maximum peak voltage level from the card being lower than might be a traditional pre-amp might supply?
  3. Are there other output devices I should be considering? USB?
  4. Is there any sense in going the balanced-audio route given the very short interconnections?
  5. Are thee pitfalls I might not have thought of yet?



I really appreciate any input on this. It's been difficult to find these kind of details because it still seems this is not a mainstream thing to want to do.
 

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I am in the same exact spot as you.


I was sure, 8 years ago, that the HTPC would rein as the premier method for Pre/Pro replacement. Really shocked that that has not come to pass.


I ran two systems with X-Fi Elite Pro cards direct to Parasound power amps (and B&W speakers), and it worked great. Simple, great sound quality.


As these old X-Fi cards have poor driver support for newer versions of windows, I bit the bullet finally two years ago, and bought two Emotiva UMC-1 Pre/Pro's.


Sound quality very good, but I hate the complexity. As I REALLY care about two-channel music reproduction, I took pains to put high-end analog crossovers to blend my subwoofers into the mix without having to suffer through A/D > bass manage process > D/A conversions in the Pre/Pro.


I still suffer problems with HDMI handshking on both systems through the Emotivas, having to reboot and/or physically cycle power on my HTPC's and destroying the WAF. This is not to slam the Emotivas, and I probably could work through these issues with things like HDMI detective, or playing with EIDI settings on computer. But, as my "use-case" has narrowed, I find myself not using most features in that Pre/Pro. It takes lots of space, and, on principle, completely unnecessary.


I AM DETERMINED TO ELIMINATE THE PRE/PRO AGAIN.


Once I get a satisfactory 5.1 7.1 system that has very good sound, I will consider getting a good two-channel USB DAC and doing my own sound tests on 2-channel music between these two sound approaches. I will keep both if the USB DAC is superior to my aging ears. Two channel to be unprocessed via WASAPI or other path (USB DAC to have volume capability).


Here is my audio use case:


1. I will still use external bass management with Linkwitz-Riley analog crossovers.


2. No intervention for different audio sources 2-channel, 5.1.


3. Ability to upmix from 2-channel to 5.1 or 7.1 for casual background music in big room.


4. Ability to switch (3) above from the Harmony remote with on-HTPC-screen display


5. Ability to adjust volume for center channel and bass, also from Harmony with on-HTPC-screen display.


6. Full high def audio on blu-ray disks and rips. (however, I could compromise on this point and live with Dolby/DTS)


I started off by looking at a high-end 8-channel DAC (exaSound E28). It only supports a couple of software front ends (like JRiver). I use JRiver for music but use SageTV for all of my video needs, so this path is dead.


I use a mini-ITX HTPC, so I need a low-profile sound card (although I would get bigger case if I could find a great full profile sound card solution)


The only card that fits some of these requirements is the HTOMEGA eClaro (low profile + PCIe). I bought it six months ago, and it is still sitting in the box, as I have not had time to play.


The big problem with this card is the auto input source switching, I believe, and all of my "on-screen display needs." I just couldn't get the answers anywhere, and I thought I would just give this a shot, as see what I can do with Autohotkey and some clever programming.


Please keep me updated on your search, and I will post update of my experience on your thread.


p.s. the X-Fi Elites did allow you to INPUT 2-channel and 5.1 SPDIF and process/output, and I did use it (there was a slight delay that I had to work through to sync audio/video). I believe they eliminated that capability in an updated win7 driver, and I suspect this will be your toughest requirement to find a solution. I need no external sources, so my use case is easier.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
It's interesting that you raise the issue of remote controls. To me, eliminating traditional remote controls is one of the bigger things that's always driven me in this direction. Once everything is in Windows I have complete control. It is the ultimate OSD and my Di Novo keyboard is the ultimate remote control. In my previous system, I did have a remote control to automate basic tasks for 'guest operators', but I never felt the desire to use it myself. I may go that route again, but suspect that will be an afterthought for me.


You're right that the most difficult aspect of my specification is probably the external sources issue. I'll probably get round the occasional need to watch linear TV by installing a cable receiver in my HTPC. It would be nice to think that I could plug something up temporarily though (like a friend bringing round a games console). Have you ever tried ASIO direct monitoring? The frustrating this is that I know this is all technically possible, it just seems that there is too little perceived demand. Another route is Virtual Audio Cable, although I really doubt that the latency could be kept low enough.


I guess the gap in the market is for a real pre/pro card. This would have several inputs (including one or more Windows virtual outputs), and provide a front end and API for controlling the mix and processing onboard the card. I guess the closest I could get to that today would be something like a professional DSP unit, but that does seem very overblown and more expensive than my power amp and my HTPC.
 

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Not gonna happen. The pre/pro and/or receiver market is driven by volumes, and an HTPC is a miniscule % of that market. None of the big decoder companies will even talk to you unless you can promise them sales in hundreds of thousands to millions. A year. The licensing cost is a complete deal breaker.


I know. I tried.
 

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Great point, Kapone.


In general, the HTPC market is miniscule in other areas too, beside just the audio side of things.


Specifically on the point about decoders....


I understand if I wanted to put "a Pre/Pro-on-a-card" with its own onboard DSP/micros for doing what happens in a real pre/pro, that these licensing issues would be immense.


However, if the CPU of the host PC becomes a major player, are there not existing PC decoders today?


When I look at what Creative did with the X-Fi Elite Pro eight years ago.....it had two SPDIF inputs, analog inputs, Analog and SPDIF outputs, Dolby and DTS decoding, expansion from lower-channel content to 5.1/7.1 with Dolby technologies. In its day, it did it all.


Today, it would have to take one or more HDMI inputs, and it would have to have the decoders to take HD audio and provide lossless D/A. I am not clear if any sound cards today can do this (or are they only capable of protected path bitstreaming to an external pre/pro) ? I do use decoders in my PC today to bitstream, and there are ways today to decode HD Audio to FLAC.


Thoughts?
 

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The keyword in your post is "eight years ago".



DD and DTS licensing costs are cheap. And you don't have to pay any licensing cost for the S/PDIF interface itself (it's a non issue).


With HDMI and DTS-MA/TrueHD etc etc, you have DUAL licensing costs. One to the HDMI consortium and one to the actual decoder consortium. And when you sign their agreements, you pretty much sign away your first born. You deviate from their iron clad rules one bit, and they take away your master keys.


That's what kills it.


Eight years from NOW, they may relax the rules (like they did for DD/DTS/SPDIF etc) but by then, there'll be something else that's current, and everyone will want THAT.
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by dcard  /t/1524880/another-attempt-to-avoid-a-pre-amp#post_24550816


However, if the CPU of the host PC becomes a major player, are there not existing PC decoders today?

There aren't, none that will "connect" to an S/PDIF input, but even if there were, that's not the biggest problem...
Quote:
Today, it would have to take one or more HDMI inputs, and it would have to have the decoders to take HD audio and provide lossless D/A. I am not clear if any sound cards today can do this (or are they only capable of protected path bitstreaming to an external pre/pro) ? I do use decoders in my PC today to bitstream, and there are ways today to decode HD Audio to FLAC.

HDMI is the biggest problem. There's no way DCP LLC will grant an HDCP receiver license to anyone making a PC input card. It is, for just about all practical purposes, impossible to make an HDCP compliant HDMI input card that can pass the processing of audio or video to 3rd party software, there are just too many vulnerabilities to allow a PC to be an HDCP Repeater.
 

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Thanks for great responses here.


I am now also convinced that the magic sound card to replace a "modern" Pre/Pro just isn't going to happen. (modern = hdmi input sources)


However, for my use case: No inputs, no HDMI in or out, analog out only, all sources originating in HTPC, do I have options today?


Are there any sound cards that can be fed an HD audio compressed bitstream source from multiple PC players (i.e. directshow) and decode to lossless analog HD sound?


Thx!
 

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Quote:
Originally Posted by dcard  /t/1524880/another-attempt-to-avoid-a-pre-amp#post_24552070


Thanks for great responses here.


I am now also convinced that the magic sound card to replace a "modern" Pre/Pro just isn't going to happen. (modern = hdmi input sources)


However, for my use case: No inputs, no HDMI in or out, analog out only, all sources originating in HTPC, do I have options today?


Are there any sound cards that can be fed an HD audio compressed bitstream source from multiple PC players (i.e. directshow) and decode to lossless analog HD sound?


Thx!
You don't need to do all that, if you're looking for analog outs from your HTPC.


Depending on which software you use for playback, all decoding can be done in software with (upto) 7.1 being passed out of the sound card as analog. This is what I was doing for the longest time, with an X-Meridian. I was feeding the output of the X-Meridian to a Fosgate pre-amp and then to amps, but the Fosgate was being used as a glorified volume control, nothing else. The volume could have been controlled directly in Windows.


That being said, this solution isn't "elegant" and sometimes has a mind of its own. In addition, you can't implement Room Correction in a PC/software without significant cost (Dirac). In the end buying a decent pre/receiver was a much more elegant solution and offered quite a bit more functionality (4 HDMI ins... dual HDMI outs, 11.2 outputs) for not that much money. I ended up getting a Denon 4311ci, which at the time was on sale for $1,000 (with full warranty). Can't do everything it does in a PC for even 3 times that much. And then there's the warranty and the fact that it "just works".
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
As you pointed out, dcard, HDMI inputs is a non-issue for the PC->Power Amp system described. One of the big selling points that makes the other pain worthwhile is that you don't have to worry about all that interconnection stuff. Before I started this thread, with a bit of ignorance of the US scene, I didn't realise you could decode digital cable TV in your PC. Now I know that, and everyone has confirmed that's there's still no good way to pass audio through, I realise that I need to continue with the 'do everything on the computer' idea from my previous system.


Kapone, I'm interested in what you say about room correction software. Looking at Soundblaster Z manual (page 41) I see that it does claim to offer at least a much control as mid-range AVRs I owned in the past. Do you question how effective this is compared to a hardware processor, or did you have something else in mind?


Ellis, I've used the Delta 1010 for professional applications in the past, and I'm naturally drawn to balanced audio even if it's hard to claim a performance difference for such short interconnects. It was actually the availability of software processing with the consumer cards (as in the manual above) which made me think they might be a better choice. Also, I get the feeling that multi-channel power-amps which have balanced inputs tend to be a bad fit with a nice-sounding home system, but I'm willing to be educated on that one.
 

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The problem with doing anything (room correction, bass management, time alignment) in a player is that you can't play everything with a single player. Want a Blu-ray with menus, have to use PowerDVD/TMT/etc no room correction/time alignment. Want to watch encrypted cable, have to use WMC and ditto. Online streaming, probably going to need a browser, so ditto.


alphie, that's not room correction, this is:
http://www.hometheaterhifi.com/audio-calibration/audio-calibration-reviews/anthem-room-correction-arc-system-part-1.html


Denon has it (Audessey MultiEQ) on their second from the bottom model, Pioneer is the same (MCACC), I assume Yamaha and the like are similar.
 

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Yeah, there's a few of us around still who have tried, or maybe "researched" going down that path a few times. The problem is the HTPC market is miniscule, and the portion of that market that's willing and able to have no other source device in their system is a miniscule fraction of that, so there's just no incentive to cater to that market with something like Audessey MultiEQ in an affordable package (that and I have no idea what Audessey's licensing terms are like if it's even possible).


The simple fact of it is [soapbox] no "for profit" entity of any size/resources is interested in supporting the HTPC market for anything. The HTPC market is basically supported at this point by open source and private developers, many of which are great, but all of which are too small to get the attention or support they need from those who hold the keys to higher end home theater technology. Look at Blu-ray, all the really good developers are too small to be able to afford the licenses, so we're stuck with Cyberlink, Arcsoft, etc who don't really care (no more Theatertek, which would have been an awesome BD player
). [/soapbox]
 

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Yep. I have been very fortunate that I can get all of my HD stuff recorded directly into my HTPC. Seven tuners, OTA and cable, all premiums, no copy once issues, etc. (Firewire), 40TB RAID 6, etc.


As I am moving very soon, I am going to lose that simple capability, and I may need that impossible "Input Source" on my HTPC very soon. Thanks all for giving me clarity: that is a very dead end without a dedicated Pre/Pro for audio.


On the broader issue with HTPC's, I know that there will a day in the future where I can have immediate access to ANY movie (old and just released), any CD, on any TV or handheld device I own for a reasonable fee, and in the highest of quality. At that point, there will just be an appliance to hook to TV and Pre/Pro, and life will be wonderful.


10 years ago I waited for a Whole Home DVR solution from a now defunct satellite provider. They were advertising for a year, and it never happened. I was so determined to watch anything, anywhere, (with far more storage than DVR's back them) that I took this HTPC route. I was sure that "the future" was 5 years away.


Really shocking that still today I cannot subscribe to a service and with simple "appliances" have access to any A/V content I want. I would absolutely pay top dollar ($30) for a theater-release movie, watch once, to avoid sitting in an actual theater. I wonder how many people would ditch their HTPC's and their A/V disk collections under that paradigm?
 
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