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?
1. CD Transport with SPDIF output
1. DVD decoding directly from the digital stream.
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"!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Well, that's it for A.A. 36. Let's see if I can find twelve more columns for the coming year.