I am a semi-noob to the HTPC type setup and am trying to decide on a sound card for my new system. I am hoping those of you more experienced in this area can help.
I have been doing my homework for quite a few days now and think I am getting close to a decision, but need to confirm a few things before I pull the trigger. I will do my best to provide detailed info here.
A little background for you…
I am in the process of upgrading my computer to a Haswell-based (X87 chipset) system. I am pretty picky when it comes to sound quality and I have a decent audio system. It’s not nose-bleed hi-end, but it is definitely in the high-end realm. My music collection lives on my computer in the form of FLAC and maxed out VBR mp3’s. Since I live in China, proper blurays are not readily available so I download most of my movies. Yes, I know some of you may frown on this, but I don’t have much of an option here. The blurays that are sold here are pirated anyway, so it makes more sense for me to download. When I do download, I get the 1080p bluray rips which include the proper DD/DTS track (each movie runs 8-12 GB).
About my system/restrictions:
- · I have been using a combination of onboard sound (movies) and external USB DAC (music) for the past few years, but I want to switch for convenience reasons (1 card to handle movies, music, and games). My USB DAC setup, while sonically good, only really works for 2-channel and my onboard sound for movies is not really satisfying (plus I am upgrading).
- · I want to switch to a PC soundcard direct to amplifier solution, i.e. connect from computer to amp either via spdif or analog direct from the soundcard.
- · I have an integrated amplifier with spdif inputs (coax & optical), analog 6.1 inputs, and it can decode up to 6.1 (DTS.ES & DD.EX) but not anything newer. No HDMI inputs. I do not want to switch my amp.
- · PC running Win 8.1
- I have a strong preference for a PCI-e card as that is the way Intel is going in the future. The new X87 chipset(and future chipsets) don't even natively support the old PCI standard. Some lower grade X87 motherboards have a PCI slot, but that is only via a 3rd party chip. All high-end motherboards now don't have a PCI slot, it's all PCI-e. That being said if the only true option is a PCI card I will consider it.
- · My usage as follows: Movies 60%, Music 35%, Games 5%
I have been looking at almost every card made within the past 4-5 years and narrowed it down to a few. Below are my general questions and also specific questions about the cards I have picked so far.
5.1 vs. 6.1
I have read it both ways (usually comparing 5.1 & 7.1), however it seems many people say that while the difference isn’t huge, if there is a cost effective way to implement 7.1 it is definitely a moderate improvement over 5.1. Having never heard anything but 5.1 I am hoping you can help shed some light on this. A little trickier is the fact that my rig can only do 6.1 so I am not sure if that changes things at all. If there is a link or sticky somewhere that can summarize this debate, by all means please do forward that as I don’t intend to make this thread a big debate about 5.1 vs. 7.1.
Impact of Playing Compressed Bluray files vs. actual discs
As I noted above, I don’t have access to bluray discs. I currently use MPC (with k-lite codec pack) to play movies. Honestly, I can’t yet get my head fully around the relationship between the source file, the player (MPC/VLC), the soundcard, and the final output to the card for both modes (spdif and analog out). This is one topic where if you have some good links that help describe how they work together, I would love to see them. I think I get the basics, but when it comes to the details and limitations I am at a loss, hence my questions below about the specific cards.
Asus ST + H6 (Essence ST Deluxe) - PCI
- · No reason to use the spdif for this card, so I am assuming analog output all the way, right?
- · What DD/DTS formats can it actually decode and deliver via analog output? They seem pretty limited when I look at the Asus site, but I may not be reading it right.
- · Does it have a 6.1 mode? If not and only a 7.1 mode, what could be done from software side (MPC/VLC) or via connections to suit my amp’s 6.1 limitation? Would combining both rear surround outs into a single rca input to the amp’s singular rear input work?
Asus STX - PCI-e
· It only truly supports 2.0 channel output, but it does have spdif out. Would it be sending a 5.1 or 6.1 signal via the spdif for the amp to decode? 6.1 is the theoretical max for spdif, but can this card carry the signal?
Creative ZXR - PCI-e
· It only lists 5.1 support and only has 5.1 analog outs. Will the spdif out be limited to 5.1 or can it do 6.1(same question as for the STX)?
Auzentech – They have some really good cards, but it looks very, very much like they are going out of business or close to it, so I am not really willing to take a chance
HT Omega – don’t see any cards with a distinct advantage over Asus Essence series
Asus HDAV1.3 Deluxe + H6 – no longer in production and 2-channel quality not comparable to my top 3
I have done no research on multi-channel (5.1/7.1) external USB options, but if there is something that fits my situation feel free to recommend.
I think that’s about it. If there is a solution I haven’t thought about feel free to share it. My budget is flexible so I am not too concerned with the "value-based" comparisons, just which card best suits my needs.
Thanks a lot for your help and suggestions!
Edited by ChinaJay - 11/25/13 at 6:43am