YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

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YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 3:35 am

Hey guys...

I seem to have Yet another Audio Question (YaAQ). I've just put my HTPC into a new case, going from a large and desktop-like case (t'was an NZXT Trinity -- bamf case I recommend it) to a more, subdued, compact, and media center-like case (the new one being an NZXT Duet -- <3 NZXT). Anyways, I have used this opportunity to clean up my cabling behind my TV and stand, and it struck me:

Someday, in order to have the maximum multimedia experience out of that box, I'm going to need some real home theatre speakers. What I mean, of course, is a decent set of Polk or Bose 5.1's or something. I actually went on Newegg and poked around in their Electronics > Home Audio > Home Audio Speakers section, and found a nice set of Polks (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.a ... 6882290066) that seem to be pretty nice, that also appear to be within my price range.

At the moment, I've just used some RCA extension cables to jury rig an above average desktop set of 5.1 speakers (the Logitech G51 speaker set -- it's also quite nice) hooked up to the Realtek ALC888 HD audio codec via analog 3.5mm TRS jacks (Front, Rear, and Center/Sub connectors). I will be moving to the gloriousness of digital audio via the S/PDIF available on an ASUS Xonar DX in an upgrade in the not-too-distant future...

...there's just one problem: It doesn't look like those Polks (or indeed, any of the speaker systems at Newegg) have S/PDIF inputs of any sort. How would I get the sound from my TOSLink or RCA port out into these magnificent speakers?

Thanks again. :D
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 5:58 am

Ya see, the product you found are speakers, not a home theater in a box, nor desktop PC speakers. They don't have any controls that you're, apparently, used to seeing.

In order to have 5.1 surround sound with these speakers, you will need to have a receiver to drive them. That receiver will need to have either a coax or optical S/PDIF input as well.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 8:42 am

What your probably thinking are inputs on the sub are for the crossover filter on the sub. If needed, you can run your front L/R speakers from the receiver into the sub where it will filter the higher frequencies and send unfiltered full frequencies back to the front speakers.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 9:28 am

I wonder why you haven't considered HDMI... This is something that AMD has done well with the 4000 series, and something that you should consider. Even the cheapest 4000 series card can do full decode of Blu-Ray assuming you don't have a CPU that can do it, and HDMI is by far the cleanest and most universal way of doing things these days. Blu-Ray drives for the PC are hovering around the $100 mark, keep that in mind, and the only way to get the original stream from the disc to the TV and speakers is to use HDMI w/HDCP.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 9:38 am

Oh, and shouldn't you be considering a 7.1 system? What's with all of these people marketing 5.1 systems nowadays. Latest HD formats support 7.1, and many old DVD's supported 6.1. C'mon guys, 5.1 doesn't even have a rear channel.

This is my minimum selection for a current system, with the intent of replacing the left and right speakers with some decent towers, and maybe the sub later on:
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16882120122&Tpk=onkyo%20hts6100

At least you get full surround sound out of the box, and the receiver can take anything you can throw at it.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 9:45 am

A_Pickle wrote:magnificent speakers?
You do get what you pay for, the set you linked may be the best in that price range, but I certainly won't call that "magnificent". Good speakers cost real money. I already know that my current Energy Take Classic (good reviews all around) has limitations that given enough time and money I will upgrade. Let's just say the itch is growing by the day, and that's already a set that cost twice as much (more if you are thinking Canada, damn FutureShop).

titan wrote:Ya see, the product you found are speakers, not a home theater in a box, nor desktop PC speakers. They don't have any controls that you're, apparently, used to seeing.

In order to have 5.1 surround sound with these speakers, you will need to have a receiver to drive them. That receiver will need to have either a coax or optical S/PDIF input as well.
++
Either a receiver+speakers setup (which gives you more flexibility down the road), or you will have to settle for a speaker set with optical input, which are usually designed for PC and may not be home theatre quality (lots of people use them for movies just fine mind you).
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 12:09 pm

A_Pickle wrote:I will be moving to the gloriousness of digital audio via the S/PDIF available on an ASUS Xonar DX in an upgrade in the not-too-distant future...

Why are you going to that card to just do digital spdif? You'd be spending a ton of money for nice analog circuitry that you wouldn't use.

HDMI from an ATI HD4000 series to a receiver with HDMI inputs would be a superior solution. You wouldn't need to use lossy compression between your computer and speakers for multichannel audio (only really matters for games and HD media with lossless audio as the audio on something like a DVD is already in a lossy format that can be sent out over spdif).
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 6:51 pm

Firstly, I'd like to thank everyone here for taking some time to write down their thoughts to help me out. You guys rock. :)

Secondly, I guess I need to make one thing clear: I'm not super super saavy as far as home theater stuff is concerned, so go easy on me. Lemme re-word my query and see if that helps at all, and I'll give ya'll a rundown of what I've got running.

Pickle's Current HTPC:
Airmantharp wrote:I wonder why you haven't considered HDMI... This is something that AMD has done well with the 4000 series, and something that you should consider. Even the cheapest 4000 series card can do full decode of Blu-Ray assuming you don't have a CPU that can do it, and HDMI is by far the cleanest and most universal way of doing things these days. Blu-Ray drives for the PC are hovering around the $100 mark, keep that in mind, and the only way to get the original stream from the disc to the TV and speakers is to use HDMI w/HDCP.
To be honest, I just hadn't considered it. I don't know too much about home theater stuff -- I don't even own a DVD player. All of my home theater needs will be taken care of through this home theater setup being completed correctly. And now, given your's and mattsteg's suggestions, I believe HDMI is looking like a very probable course of action.

Airmantharp wrote:Oh, and shouldn't you be considering a 7.1 system? What's with all of these people marketing 5.1 systems nowadays. Latest HD formats support 7.1, and many old DVD's supported 6.1. C'mon guys, 5.1 doesn't even have a rear channel.
Aren't 7.1's ridiculously expensive? And what do you mean 5.1 "doesn't even have a rear channel?" I guess it lacks a dedicated rear one, but there appear to be speakers behind me with a 5.1 system, so that's good enough for me. Do the two extra satellite speakers actually make that much of a difference?

Flying Fox wrote:You do get what you pay for, the set you linked may be the best in that price range, but I certainly won't call that "magnificent". Good speakers cost real money. I already know that my current Energy Take Classic (good reviews all around) has limitations that given enough time and money I will upgrade. Let's just say the itch is growing by the day, and that's already a set that cost twice as much (more if you are thinking Canada, damn FutureShop).
I'm not even beginning to say that a $199 set of Polks is going to be home theater nirvana -- I'm just saying that that is an amount of money that I am willing to spend, at the moment. I am not a huge home theater buff or anything, so I'll wait 'til I am before I decide to drop $600 on a subwoofer. 'Til then, those Polks seem to get good reviews which generally say that they perform at an above-average level for that price point.

Please also try to understand that my current set of speakers is a better-than-average 5.1 PC speaker set, the [url]Logitech G51[/url] speaker set. Currently, it's hooked up to my mobo's Realtek ALC888 HD audio codec via the unremarkable, analog 3.5mm jacks (Front, Rear, Center/Sub) on the back of the motherboard. In your professional opinion, are these worse, equal, or better than the Polk set I looked at, in terms of sound quality?

PS: And wow. I could be coerced to pay $399 for that set of speakers someday. I'm in the US.

mattsteg wrote:Why are you going to that card to just do digital spdif? You'd be spending a ton of money for nice analog circuitry that you wouldn't use.

HDMI from an ATI HD4000 series to a receiver with HDMI inputs would be a superior solution. You wouldn't need to use lossy compression between your computer and speakers for multichannel audio (only really matters for games and HD media with lossless audio as the audio on something like a DVD is already in a lossy format that can be sent out over spdif).
I dunno. My current thinking goes something like this: "S/PDIF is digital audio, ergo awesome audio". If HDMI is better, I'll go that route -- but I'd still like to have the Xonar take care of the audio processing, and then send it through the graphics card to output 1080P+5.1 audio via HDMI.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 7:03 pm

HDMI is essentially the same stream that would be going over the optical digital or digital coaxial cables, but across the USB like cable that HDMI is, along with the video signal. Oh, and it's encrypted, which Blu-Rays demand for full digital transmission. It's also really cool.

As for 7.1 vs. 5.1, many things are still released as 5.1 for sure. You won't be missing much in general, and it may not be worth the expense. But, the thing with 5.1 is, you don't get rear channels at all, going by the Dolby Digital 5.1 standard. What you get is a Center, which is generally camera focus/voices, a sub, left and right which are simply whatever is to the left or right of the focus of the camera, and then surround left and surround right, which is whatever is out of focus in the left or right hemispheres that still needs to be heard. That's it. No rear. Now, like I said, that isn't every movie, but if I were doing it, I would be at least making sure I could adequately play everything on a Blu-Ray, which would mean needing those two rear channels. And the thing is, if you get an Onkyo HT-S6100 or greater HTIB, you get a receiver that can do all of that decoding, and all of the HDMI/HDCP wizardry, and has all 8 speakers you would need for 7.1. The speakers are pretty much guaranteed to not be the best of course, but you can replace them, as I stated above replacing the left and right ones, which are important for music too, and possibly the sub.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 7:17 pm

A_Pickle wrote:
mattsteg wrote:Why are you going to that card to just do digital spdif? You'd be spending a ton of money for nice analog circuitry that you wouldn't use.

HDMI from an ATI HD4000 series to a receiver with HDMI inputs would be a superior solution. You wouldn't need to use lossy compression between your computer and speakers for multichannel audio (only really matters for games and HD media with lossless audio as the audio on something like a DVD is already in a lossy format that can be sent out over spdif).
I dunno. My current thinking goes something like this: "S/PDIF is digital audio, ergo awesome audio". If HDMI is better, I'll go that route -- but I'd still like to have the Xonar take care of the audio processing, and then send it through the graphics card to output 1080P+5.1 audio via HDMI.
You already have S/PDIF. You don't need to buy a Xonar to get it, except possibly for doing DDL for multichannel from games etc. For HDMI audio you absolutely don't need it, as you can just output multichannel PCM over HDMI. For anything related to watching movies, video, etc. you don't really want to do any audio processing on your computer - you want to send the digital stream to your receiver (or decode blu-ray lossless audio streams and send as pcm) and that's really about it.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 7:42 pm

mattsteg wrote:
A_Pickle wrote:
mattsteg wrote:Why are you going to that card to just do digital spdif? You'd be spending a ton of money for nice analog circuitry that you wouldn't use.

HDMI from an ATI HD4000 series to a receiver with HDMI inputs would be a superior solution. You wouldn't need to use lossy compression between your computer and speakers for multichannel audio (only really matters for games and HD media with lossless audio as the audio on something like a DVD is already in a lossy format that can be sent out over spdif).
I dunno. My current thinking goes something like this: "S/PDIF is digital audio, ergo awesome audio". If HDMI is better, I'll go that route -- but I'd still like to have the Xonar take care of the audio processing, and then send it through the graphics card to output 1080P+5.1 audio via HDMI.
You already have S/PDIF. You don't need to buy a Xonar to get it, except possibly for doing DDL for multichannel from games etc. For HDMI audio you absolutely don't need it, as you can just output multichannel PCM over HDMI. For anything related to watching movies, video, etc. you don't really want to do any audio processing on your computer - you want to send the digital stream to your receiver (or decode blu-ray lossless audio streams and send as pcm) and that's really about it.
I know I already have S/PDIF, with my Realtek chip. I want the Xonar for better audio quality -- unless you (and a general consensus of others) agree that it wouldn't result in significantly better audio quality?
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sat Mar 28, 2009 7:52 pm

A_Pickle wrote:I know I already have S/PDIF, with my Realtek chip. I want the Xonar for better audio quality -- unless you (and a general consensus of others) agree that it wouldn't result in significantly better audio quality?
For multimedia playback there will not be a difference. StereoPCM, Dolby Digital, and DTS are the 3 formats you'll normally send over S/PDIF. Video streams will already contain audio in one of these formats. The Xonar is only "better quality" if you use the parts of it that replace inferior parts of your onboard.

For multimedia playback using S/PDIF, all you normally want your soundcard to do is take an existing audio stream and transmit it in sync with your video. At most you'll decode something in software and then transmit it (or encode and transmit, which can be done in software). You're not looking for "audio quality", just an accurately transmitted digital stream.
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Re: YaAQ: Media Center PC S/PDIF to home theater speakers?

Postposted on Sun Mar 29, 2009 12:50 am

To understand why digital over S/PDIF is not automatic "awesome audio" (and hopefully to make this thread more useful for future references), you need to understand how the digital audio is being played back on today's systems. The digital audio reproduction pipeline, if you want to call it:
  1. Storage: Audio stored in digitally encoded (and most likely compressed) format(s)
  2. Playback: Digital data is decoded and decompressed to "raw" PCM data. There can be stages within called "transport" where the data travel along your setup in a variety of formats, involving transcoding and recompression, etc.
  3. Post-processing: I think this only works on decoded PCM data. Things like adding reverb, upmixing, etc.
  4. Digital to analog: digital PCM data need to be converted to analog electrical signals before reaching the speakers
  5. Listen: Speakers vibrate (or whatever other means to shake the air) to create the sound waves which your ears will receive them
Only the first and last stage are fixed. In between you can have all sorts of stages and variables which you need to figure out. Optimizing audio quality involves choosing components for the various stages and to choose where exactly in your pipeline you want stages (2)-(4) to happen.

So let's take two examples and run them through the pipeline: playing MP3's (or in-game audio from your computer) and playing movies from an optical storage medium.

Playing MP3's or any computer-generated audio: MP3 is a format that does both compression and encoding. So when you fire up your player application they are already doing the decoding+decompression. The result is "raw" PCM audio data (think of it as the wav file you rip from CD's). If you have a discrete sound card, you can either: a) use the D/A converter circuitry on the sound card (and also any post-decode-processing features of the card before the D/A process) and output the analog signal to the receiver/amplifier/speakers, or b) output the PCM data directly to a receiver/processor that can do the D/A conversion for you. In this case, audio quality is determined by the post-decode-processing (if you are just playing regular audio you may not want any of that) and the actual D/A circuits. A discrete sound card should feature better D/A circuitry than onboard. For now, what you are doing is using the D/A stuff with the onboard audio chip and you are connecting to the analog output.

If you want to use the digital output onboard or from a discrete sound card, then what you are doing is to transmit the PCM data over to something else for later processing+D/A conversion. For playing regular 2-channel audio this is fine, because S/PDIF can carry 2-channel (already uncompressed) PCM data no problem. All you need to do is to set the drivers to pass that PCM data untouched instead of doing the D/A. However, things get messy when you want some processing in the computer, such as upmixing from 2-channel to 5.1, or your game is giving you 2+ channel of audio data. To transmit this larger amount of data over S/PDIF, you need to recompress+re-encode the PCM data into something like Dolby Digital or DTS, which the "DDL feature" of a discrete sound card (or the venerable nForce2) will do for you. However, compression in DD and DTS is lossy, meaning if you are playing back a MP3 audio file you are lossily compressing the audio twice which should most certainly affect quality. This is where HDMI comes in, because it can carry multi-channel PCM data to the next stage in your pipeline. So this is the case when blindly going S/PDIF digital may hurt audio quality.

Now, on to playing movies from an optical medium: the audio data are already stored in DD/DTS/TrueHD/DTS-HD MA so there are 2 ways of playing the audio. First is to decode+decompress it in your player application (we are talking HTPC here after all), which means you are dealing with PCM data already. How to send that PCM data? Refer to above. The second way is to transmit that encoded+compressed data as is for something like a receiver to process. This is known as bitstreaming. So if your movie has a DD/DTS sound track, you can set the player application to bitstream the data directly outside the HTPC. For the new fancier TrueHD/DTS-HD MA tracks (they are encoded but losslessly compressed audio data btw), you can only bitstream them over HDMI. Decoded multichannel PCM data can still be transmitted over HDMI as described above.

---

For your current situation, if you are getting a Xonar, then what you are implying is to do everything up to the D/A conversion on the sound card. This is the cheapest upgrade that you can do because the Xonar should give you better audio quality compared to the onboard audio chip. The reason it is cheapest is because you can use your existing speakers. The reason for you to switch to S/PDIF digital is a) to bitstream DD/DTS data from your movies on optical medium, b) to send realtime DD/DTS-encoded (and lossily compressed) audio from games/music, and/or c) to send 2-channel PCM "raw" digital audio. Audio quality in some cases may be worse because of transcoding so this is not a silver bullet. This also requires another stage in your pipeline to process the digital audio data, usually an A/V receiver. You are going to be investing in home theatre-grade speakers as well so receiver+speakers is a big jump in cost.

HDMI is another animal but think of it as a digital output like S/PDIF without the bandwidth limitations. The HD3650 claims to have support but it is sort of messy (IIRC you need to route S/PDIF from your sound card/chip to the video card and you need a special DVI-HDMI converter which means no new fancy 7.1 formats) unlike the HD4xxx series. I would say you need to budget for a video card upgrade (preferably with native HDMI output too) in addition to the receiver+speakers.

So to find an answer to your current scenario you have to consider a number of things:
  • Do you need the flexibility of a receiver (primary example: multiple inputs) down the road? Like a console and other audio playback components?
  • Are you going to get into the new fancier audio formats on Blu-ray anytime soon?
  • Can you really distinguish the differences between what you have and what you think you are about to get?
  • Budget
  • And others...

Sorry if this is a long one. I hope I am not boring everyone to death. :o

Edit: FireGryphon has written another excellent post on a similar topic, but he came from the angle of wires and DACs. This should complete the picture for you.
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