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HTPC and sound card / sound quality... please help


bheinz
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Okay... I am looking for some advice on the best way (sound quality) to get source material from my HTPC to my ears. I am build an HTPC from scratch which will double as a gaming rig (See stats below). This system will be used evenly for music/gaming/movies.

I would like to say that cost is not an issue at this point since I have almost $10k invested into my speakers/power amp/tv/htp. But I would like to keep the solution below $400 if possible (not that it's written in stone or anything though).

So here are the 2 main options I have considered:

1. Pass a digital signal from my motherboard (no discrete sound card) to a pre-amp or receiver (signal processor), then to the power amp, then to the speakers.

...a. I have not researched pre-amps or receivers for option 1.

2. Use a high quality discrete sound card to process the sound which would pass an analog signal directly to the power amp.

...a. Here are the sound cards I have been considering

......i. HT Omega Claro Halo XT

......ii. ASUS Xonar Essence STX

......iii. Auzentech Home Theatre HD

......iv. Creative X-Fi Titanium HD

I am also polling some other forums which are more for computer nerds (as myself) and plan to post a summary (from all forums, to all forums) of my findings at the conclusion of this study. I have not been able to find any good information for someone in my specific situation.

System Info

Speakers:

Front: rf-7 ii

Center: rc-64 ii

Rear: rf-63

Power Amp

Sunfire TGA-5200

Primary HTPC Components:

MOBO: Asus Rampage III X58

CPU: Intel i7 950 (will likely OC to 4 gHz)

GPU: nVidia GTX 295 (may upgrade to GTX 580 for heat/power reduction)

OS Drive: Corsair C300 SSD (128 gb)

Memory: 6gb Mushkin Enhanced (998970)

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I use the hdmi output on my motherboard to pass audio to my reciever. Works fine, just doesn't do hd bitstream, which ss fine since none of the material I have on the htpc is bitstream capable, it's all dts and dd encoded 5.1 stuff, which streams out fine. If the motherboard doesn't have hdmi, get a graphics card that does and is capable of audio output, anything recent should do that now. Not worth getting a separate audio card if your keeping the stream digital till the reciever. A 1 is a 1 and 0 is a 0 in the digital realm. My quick 02$

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Glad to hear from someone with some experience on the issue! Have you played any games with a surround setup?



A factor I didn't consider before and am not totally sure how to figure it out is the quality of the DAC. Something tells me that I

would have to spend a fair amount more on a pre-amp or a reciever to get a comparable analog signal to any of the sound cards listed above... dangit! one more thing to think about....

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A few more notes.

I don't know if you bought the video card yet, but you may want to consider switching to ATI if you would like to output the HD bitstream stuff. I think the GTX295 can only output audio via the hdmi cable if you connect the spdif cable off the motherboard to the video card. So it will pass Stereo, DD/DTS 5.1 and DD Live information (toslink stuff), but not the HD/master audio streams.

So my HTPC box is only for playing TV and Movies. It is strictly running XBMC Live, and I play back DTS/DD encoded rips of my blu-ray discs. I don't play any games off the box or run windows, etc.

The way I see it is that as long as I pass the DD/DTS stream to the reciever, it will process it just like it processes my PS3 for games and blu-ray playback. So I personally won't spend extra money on an external DAC, and would just get a better pre-amp/AV Reciever to handle the decoding. I just don't see why I would want have an exteranl sound card decode the signal to analog to have it passed to the pre-amp/reciever. More un-necessary cables. I like the simple 3 HDMI cables to do all my audio/video needs for the TV(over air broadcasts), PS3 and HTPC. (I don't have cable/sat). I am using an Onkyo TX-SR608, and it does the ARC function off my Samsung C8000 series TV.

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I used to run an HT Omega card to bistream audio to my Onkyo 805. When I rebuilt the PC recently, I took out the HT Omega and put it on ebay.

I now bitsream from my PC to the 805 via an optical spif out on the motherboard. This of course only bistream DTS and DD.

I am now in the market for an ATI 5750/5770 card, which not only carry HD video signal to the 805, but also carry HD Audio codecs (True HD, DTS MA, etc.).

I would suggest you look into the above cards for your HTPC (or a higher end 58xx card if you game). And of course, you still need to find a decent pre-pro/receiver with a solid DAC.

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I now bitsream from my PC to the 805 via an optical spif out on the motherboard. This of course only bistream DTS and DD.

I used to use an external audio card.

I recently switched to Windows 7; and this card is not compatible (no drivers).

Low and behold; I looked closer; and my motherboard has an SPDIF connection..... (I did not know this; never paid attention).

So I have been using that.... Works well for all formats I have tried......

(My receiver is non HDMI, so no need for additional upgrades at this point).

Good Luck.

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Just for reference, with my current PC I am using a Creative titanium x-fi to process the digital signal and pass analog signal to my power amp (option 2). I am quite pleased with this sound most of the time but do get some hiss at higher volume levels. My boss is actually lined up to buy this PC from me so I will be losing this sound card. Hence, my search for something potentially better was born.

It sounds like you guys are taking the other route (option 1) to deliver the digital signal to a pre-amp or receiver which then sends analog to your speakers.


Shame on me for not doing more homework before posting the original question but I have 2 main concerns with option 1:

...1) From what I have read, the DAC's which the new Creative card and the Asus card use are "High end" stuff (Burr Brown PCM 1792A). This makes me believe that I would need to drop a fair amount of cash to get a pre-amp or receiver to deliver a comparable quality analog to my power amp.

.......... Check out this link for specifics on the ASUS



...2) Does anyone have experience playing games with surround sound while 'bit streaming'(I admit to not knowing what this means...). I don't currently know anyone who I could borrow hardware from to test this...

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I'm doing your option 2 with the Asus Essence ST Soundcard and am very pleased. Had been using it in old Dell XP machine, but recently built a new quad core HTPC. We have all media stored on a WHS server I built. Had to order another HD for it as our two 1.5 tb drives are almost full. We have all our photos, hundreds of CDs ripped to FLAC, about 150 ripped DVDs and about two hundred movies recorded from TV.

For music I use JRiver MC15 because I believe it is the most accurate player. For ripped DVDs (soon BDs) and TV and recorded TV I'm using SageTV. Our mains are Klipschorns, centers are temporarily Heresy's. They will later become the sides when I build a new center. Sub is a Danley DTS-10. Temporarily using some old KEFs for sides. Our amps are a hodgepodge which will later be replaced with some Class D amps, except for the sub amp which is a Behringer EP 4000.

So we are basically going straight from the soundcard to the power amps and am quite pleased with the results. I feel the Essence ST is a keeper. Also we don't have a hiss problem with it. Something to think about is by not needing an expensive receiver you can put the money into better amps or speakers. And I agree with you that it would take a very pricey receiver to get the same quality DACs that the Essence ST card has.

We aren't doing any gaming. I know a fellow on the JRiver forum with the same card who is though if you would like me to put him in touch with you.

Good luck.

Rod

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  • 11 months later...

I apologize to anyone who may have been looking forward to my results.... twas a long hiatus.

RECAP:

I purchased the 5 channel rf-7 ii set, one SVS pb-13 ultra, sunfire tga-5200 and was looking for an ABSOLUTELY CLEAN analogue signal to send to these speakers.

Summary:

I lost count of the number of sound cards i auditioned in 2 different PC's (1 HTPC, 1 mid-tower PC) but could not get an absolutely clean signal to the speakers. One card would be quite when the computer was idle, but have wierd sounds during games/movies and vise versa.. If i had to rank them, I would say put them in this order:
1. HT Omega Halo
2. X-fi Titanium series (NON-HD)
3. ASUS STS which ties with the ASUS ST.
**I know i will catch crap from someone on the ASUS ranking but i there always seemed to be SOMETHING wrong with these. I LOVE ASUS as they are my go-to for a lot of components with I build PC's but sound cards don't seem to be their calling. That said, when they worked, they did sound great.

In the end i ended up getting a decent deal on the Marrantz AV7005 which allowed me to pass the digital signal from my GTX 560 (yes this is a video card) via HDMI to be converted to an analogue signal and passed to my amp. While this still isn't ABSOLUTE silence when I would expect it, it is better than I could achieve with any of the sound cards and there are no longer unexpected crack/pops during start-up/shutdown or when launching applications. With the AV7005 i was also able to use balance cables which may or may not have helped since i had clean RCA rounting from the PC to the sunfire amp prior to the AV7005.



The Details:

I tried and tried (multiple x-fi's, multiple Omega's and ASUS cards) but could not get an absolutely CLEAN signal from my PC through these cards. I lost count on how many cards I sent back to amazon & newegg. In their defense, the rf-7 ii's do have a sensitivity of 101 db so it doesn't take much to make a *hiss* or other noises through those speakers.


I will say that I was MOST pleased with the HT omega Halo XT (xt only add analogue out for your surround channels) as well as their customer service. I had a bent pin on one card (still extension card, not the main) and they were very quick to respond to my call and sent me a new card before I returned the bad one. I took advantage of the situation to do A->B's on those along side of the x-fi and ASUS cards. A few times I even had competing cards in the same PC at the same time. This allowed me to simply change which one processing/sending the signal with the click of the mouse for a TRUE A->B.

So, I preferred the sound of the HT Omega over the other cards but the software was lacking (ASUS & HT OMega use the same Oxygen processor so their software is basically the same). Some say that the creative software is "bloated", while i might agree I will also say that it is by FAR the most powerful & flexible when it comes to dialing in your sound system. Another thing that was VERY important to me, the HT Omega card was the ONLY one that did not crack/pop during start-up/shutdown of the computer.

I am not sure how many people are actually interested in a setup similar to mine but when I was assembling this crazy mess I did not have a lot of resources to call upon. Hence I am posting this info to HOPEFULLY help others out.



If you have any questions feel free to ask.

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Interesting results.

I didn't realize it when you started the thread, but every one of those cards you listed is a PCIe card....internal to the PC. The PC is one of the noiseest noise genrators that I know. It seems most of the true highend audio cards/pro stuff, is all external via usb/firewire. I've got a headphone amp with a built in DAC that uses USB.... the signal is clean compared to any internal cards I had tried using, or the worst was the headphone jacks orginally on the PC speakers connected.

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