Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 29
Home Theater Computers
Well, here it is January 1, 2002... Actually I'm writing it during the second week of December 2001 and hopefully world events over the holiday season will not negatively affect any of us. Funny how the past few months have changed my perception of time and life. Anyway, on January first I should be basking in the warm Caribbean sun not thinking of worldly, or audio happenings. Thus, no CES or THE Expo for me this year, thank G-d. A restful vacation in Paradise. I will leave the up to the minute reporting of that event to Steve Rochlin and the other troops of Enjoy the Music.com™. Remember, this is one of the few web sites that will give you day to day reporting of the event.
Up until about two weeks ago I was in a real bind and had not received any new products to review. Not much tweaking has been done either as life here has been happy for the third straight month with wonderful sound. That is definitely a record for me. Either I am getting old and contented or my system has reached the point where I do not feel it needs to or can be improved upon. For the first time since getting hooked on high-end audio 21 years ago, think I could live with what I have and be happy for life. Then I received a computer program, of all things, that did make a further improvement!
The Power DVD XP program version 4.0 sold by the Cyberlink Company, a producer of audio-visual computer programs for DVD playback, video authoring, and TIVO functions. Power DVD has been around for several years as a pretty good DVD playback program. The latest version is great, especially for an audiophile. I know, I can hear you from here asking "What does a computer audio-video program have to do with high end audio?" Computers have crappy sound cards, with little mini-phono jacks coming out the back, which are attached to cheapo self powered speakers that sound worse than a Japanese transistor radio. They are barely listened to by computer geeks while playing their games.
Well, believe me, a properly set up computer can output sound comparable to the best high end equipment, and if you don't believe me come over for a listen. Remember, most of the high-end CD players are now using DVD-ROM drives while the best D/A converters are using computer type cards and electronics. So why pay for the expensive label and hardware if you can get similar quality from your home computer using software? Remember, the best audio hardware companies such as Meridian and Theta now have computer-type platforms with the ability to upgrade by software. For a primer on this, please see my previous articles from two years ago (here and also here) for a review of the use of a computer for digital audio.
Now I am not talking about the typical computer, but one set up especially for audio/video reproduction that can also be used for typical computer functions. What does one need out of the ordinary? Not very much really. First, one of the better processors and mother boards (preferably a moderately fast chip with 800 MHz being good and 1.8 GHz better). A good DVD-ROM drive is important with one of the new DVD-RAM -/+ + R or RW drive for making your own CD's and DVD's would be better ($500 for DVD-Rom drive). Then you will need the Windows Millennium, Windows XP or 2000 operating system. Next, one of the good video cards such as the Radeon LE ($75) or 8500 series ($300), or a GeForce 2 ($150) or 3 ($300). In addition, possibly an HDTV tuner card such as Access DTV or Pinnacle HDTV ($400) would allow inexpensive HDTV recording and playback. A high capacity 7,200 RPM hard drive with around 80 to 100 Gbs ($200) for storage of all of that music and video. Just think, with a 100 Gbs drive one could store your whole collection of several hundred 16-bit/44kHz CD's, or 24-bit/96kHz DVD-V music discs with much reduced jitter on playback compared to some of the best CD players or the computer's own DVD drive.
Most important for audiophiles is a good pro or semi-pro sound card with 24-bit/96kHz DACS, preferably one that has the DACs and analog parts external to the noisy computer circuits. I personally use the M-Audio Delta 1010 sound card which has ten channels of 24-bit/96kHz balanced A/D and D/A conversion with one SPDIF and eight balanced analog in and outputs, all for $499 at discount, but there are many others out there for similar prices. How good can they be for that low price for ten channels? Very good! Remember that most if not all of the music on your CDs probably passed through one of these several times during their production and their brothers are used for DVD-V and DVD-A production.
Finally, you need a software program or two to tell the hardware what to do. Until now, one of the best audio decoders was actually a freebie: good old Windows Media Player that comes with all Windows operating systems. The newest is Windows Media Player 7.1, and to my ears does a wonderful job at 16-bit/44kHz decoding, at least as good if not better than the ones you pay for. Only problem with it is that if you want to copy your CD to the hard drive, it will only do it as compressed files, which, while sounding better than MP3, don't come up to 16-bit/44kHz. I know. Again you're saying this is a freebie, and from Microsoft to boot (no pun intended), and is probably fine for MP-3 decoding and playback of all of those horrendous web radio stations, Napster, etc. But it is a very good 16-bit/44kHz decoder when paired with a top notch soundcard, like the M Audio. Not only will it do 16-bit/44kHz decoding, but also has a built in twelve band digital graphic equalizer, and also a digital volume control and the SRS digital compander, which can add some dis-corellation to the signal to expand the room boundaries of those dry recordings similar to what Carver did years ago in the analog domain. It also appears to add several bits of low-end dither, so the volume control is always working above the 16-bit level. Thus no loss of information when turning down the volume. Sound is superb on my system, and with the added bits, one can actually hear into the noise floor similar to what one can hear with analog. And if you want to store your CD on the computer in full 16-bit/44kHz, then either Siren or Winamp will allow this. In addition, there is now a plug-in for Winamp that will convert 16-bit/44kHz to 24-bit/96kHz if you so desire! I have not tried this yet, but the buzz on the web is that playback of the upsampled music does improve on the smoothness and low level information, similar to what some of the upsampling DAC chipsets do via hardware. I will have to try it some day when the tweaking bug takes hold again.
Until now, with the 1010 card's multiple outputs and converters I have been able to feed a copy of the front two channels to a Smart Audio Center Surround 3X decoder (reviewed previously at AA Chapter 8) for ambience recovery. This unit was developed to do Circle Surround full bandwidth decoding for center front and two back surrounds. But it can also take the two channel front information and do Circle Surround ambience recovery to the rear channels, and can also be used to decode a center rear channel from the two back channels of Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 recordings giving 6.1 sound. I know most of my audiophile friends are content with two front channels, and many are actual Luddites, [such as a certain cheapo Stereophile writer from my birthplace (no names mentioned of course)] ready to stake and burn surround sound audiophiles, but, in my opinion, adding the ambience information by rear channels gives a much more natural sound field. Notice I said ambience recovery, not digital ambience production, which always sounds unnatural to me no matter how good the codecs. This is especially effective with the best old analog minimalist recordings.
Finally, with the 1010 and the proper program one can process all of your analog recordings, either tape or vinyl, with your super high-end analog system into 24-bit/96kHz files for safe storage either onto the computer hard drive or to a DVD recording disc. While there is some loss of information, it's a great way to protect those old masters from loss, and yours will probably sound much better than what the studios will do when they decide to charge us $25 for the latest reincarnation of our Shaded Dogs on digital.
So, am I pushing computers for high end audio digital decoding. You bet your life. For the price of a good but not great high-end decoder one gets great 16-bit/44kHz CD surround, 24-bit/96kHz DVD-V two-channel audio that can be processed for five channel surround, DVD video at better than the best DVD players with line multiplication and high refresh rates giving flicker and line free video. At the same time I can use the computer for its standard functions, including the web. All of your CD's can be encoded at full bit rate onto the hard drive from which they will play back with less jitter than all but the very top CD players, and all in a space no bigger than your computer. If you are into recordings, the Delta 1010 will do eight tracks of 24-bit/96kHz A/D conversion and storage giving you a mini recording studio. And the best part is that most of the programs offer free or cheap update when something new comes along. Try that for your hardware type processor.
For $500 more one can get a DVD encoder for recording 24-bit/96kHz multi-channel audio or video. For $400 bucks more you can get a HDTV decoding and TIVO-like recording of HDTV and standard NTSC video. Total price? Under $2,000 if you know what you are doing.
Well, this has been a long introduction to the topic of the day, the PowerDVD XP. This software program, along with others such as WINDVD, Cinemaster, TheaterTek, etc., started off as a DVD player working with video and sound cards to output DVD movies to computer monitors. A group of video aficionados realized that if one used an RGB video card with a good audio card, that the output could be directed to video projectors and surround stereo systems, with the earlier programs outputting standard 480I NTSC video and a SPDIF Dolby digital stream to an outboard D/A converter. The computer was then called upon to do line multiplication and increased refresh rates to hit the sweet spot for the projector or monitor to maximize the video reproduction. As most of the geeks were video men, the picture over each program update improved, but audio lagged behind. Finally some of the programs began improving on the audio decoding, first passing DTS data streams to outboard converters, then doing internal Dolby Digital decoding through the computer's sound card, and finally internal DTS decoding.
Enter the latest update to PowerDVD, the XP edition. The XP relates to Microsoft's newest operating system, which has had significant improvements to both audio and video decoding. Matter of fact, Cyberlink was chosen by Microsoft to do some of the official Windows audio decoding add-ons.
On the video side, the newest edition has made the picture smoother and much more film-like. While this is great, the biggest advances for me have been on the audio side:
1. Dolby Digital and DTS can be decoded with an onboard card rather than having to be passed through to an external processor. While WINDVD had done this previously, POWERDVD XP does it better, with much more natural analog reproduction. The 5.1 soundfield is much more seamless and three dimensional, and at least with my system. there is also a height component. Helicopters now fly over, not through my head, giving added realism to movie soundtracks. This is especially so with the Smart Audio decoder giving a sixth rear center channel, which allows rear pans to go as smoothly as those in the front. This is even more so with the PowerDVD program over the others listed.
2. For the audiophile, the biggest improvement has been made to two-channel CD 16-bit/44kHz decoding. Before, the analog reproduction from this program was one or two steps behind both WINDVD and the various CD only decoders. Not any more. Now the simple 2 channel decoding sounds as open and clean as some of the best high end D/A converters, and with the Delta 1010, superior to the Art Audio decoder Steve talked about last month.
3. In addition, they have given the listener the ability to use several different codecs to produce surround sound from two channels. With SRS True Surround, they have allowed the computer to do some de-correlation of the two channels to add some room warmth, similar to Carver's Sonic Holography for analog. With Virtual Speaker Setting, one can add the feeling of five virtual speakers and set them up so that one can actually expand or contract the room size. While the above sound very unnatural with great minimalist recordings, they actually don't sound bad with the real world stuff we get from the studios these days. In addition they have the Dolby Headphone codec, for giving an out of head sensation and pseudo-surround with headphones.
4. The biggest improvement has been the addition of Dolby Pro-Logic II decoding. This is probably the only thing that Dolby Labs has introduced in the past 25 years which has advanced the audio reproduction arts, and a true improvement over previous playback. Up until now, the main function of Dolby Labs, other than their Dolby A noise reduction for tape recording, has been to try to get more information for a cheaper price into a smaller space, thus decreasing bit rates to the point where even the average Joe cries uncle, and then going just one step higher. While this saves the producers gobs of money, it does only harm to the music. Witness Dolby Pro-Logic I, which added one surround channel to the mix, but at only up to 7000 Hz. Or Dolby AC3 that puts five channels of 16-bit/44kHz or 24-bit/48kHz into 450,000 bits of space, one third that for 16-bit/44kHz two-channel encoding. Or Dolby B and C decoding for cassette decks, which wiped out high quality tape reproduction.
Well not any more. Dolby Pro Logic II actually decodes a full bandwidth, center, front, right and left surround channels from any two-channel 16-bit/44kHz or 24-bit/96kHz signal using ambience recovery. And the decoding is wonderful, as close as I've heard to true 5.1 recordings. While not up to DVD-A or SACD, except with the audiophile 24-bit/96kHz DVD-V recordings (that's right, 24-bit/96kHz 5.1 channel surround). I think this brings CD playback to a level that would make most individuals think twice about spending $25 a pop for those recordings. The front actually sounds as if it is a three-channel recording. While I have never heard any preamp processors or receivers with the Dolby Pro-Logic II program, I did hear a demo of the Dolby Pro-Logic II tube processor $7,000) and the Meridian system (don't ask if you can't afford it) at the last CES, and do have a Circle Surround processor that has been doing 5 channel analog decoding for years, and this program with a great sound card produces the best ambience recovery I've heard. So I guess Dolby Labs has made up for some of the audio chicanery they have done in the past. This is a true advance, and PowerDVD-XP is the first program that actually lets a high ender use Dolby Pro-Logic II without having to buy a new receiver or preamp-processor, al of which at present are low end models.
Price? Just $79.95 with a free remote control and $39.95 for an update if you have one of their original programs. How's that for cheap.
And here's the tweak of the month. If you already have the Smart Circle Surround Decoder, with the PowerDVD-XP Dolby Pro-Logic II decoder, you can decode the two back surround channels into a third center back surround for an even more seamless sound field. Just think of listening to all of those great Mercury, RCA and London CD's in 6.1 surround. Well I do not have to think because I am. Right now, while reviewing this article for errors, I've been listening to a CD of Munch's Saint Saen's Symphony #3 in glorious 6.1 surround. Symphony Hall is in my room. (Or is my room in Symphony Hall?) Either way the sound is pulling me in. Uh Oh!! Here comes the last movement's organ entrance. Oh Heaven!!! And for that reason my friends, that is all for this month.