Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe: Asus HTPC sound card does Everything

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Asus EN9800GT Matrix Edition

February 10, 2009 by Devon Cooke

Asus Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe
PCI-E Sound Card
Street Price

The movie industry is dumb. This is the conclusion I've reached after spending two weeks with Asus' Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe, a product that, from a strictly engineering standpoint, has no reason to exist. And that brings me to the movie industry, which has colluded with certain technology giants to create audio (and video) standards that require special hardware to use, even though all of the actual decoding and processing is simple and easy to implement in software. Yes, I'm talking about the fiasco that is HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection) and PAP (Protected Audio Path). And, yes, PAP is just as unpleasant as it sounds.

More on that later. As the top model in Asus' line of audio cards, you do in fact get much more for your money than just the ability to decode a few industry-supported proprietary formats. Let's face it, if you're going to buy an external sound card, you want it to do something more than your existing onboard sound can provide, and the HDAV1.3 doesn't disappoint: It does everything. And so do most of its competitors. What makes the HDAV1.3 unique is its support for HDCP and PAP, which allows it to output streams protected blocked by these technologies using HDMI, including the high resolution lossless formats supported by Blu-Ray discs like DTS-HD Master Audio (DTS-MA) and Dolby Digital TrueHD (DD TrueHD).

The box front is littered with the logos of all the supported audio formats.

Since HDMI carries only digital data, streaming these high resolution formats amounts to pulling the digital bits off the Blu-Ray disc and outputting them via HDMI — a simple task that could, should, and probably will soon be done by most graphics cards and IGPs (any HDMI v1.3 device should be capable of this). However, thanks to the arcane and as-yet unimplemented encryption requirements of HDCP and PAP, no existing graphics cards are up to this task. Hence, the HDAV1.3: A $250 solution to a $10 problem.

Even with the HDAV1.3 installed, playing protected streams is only possible when using a special Asus version of Total Media Theatre. In fact, aside from providing a certified HDCP / PAP path, the hardware doesn't appear to be involved; all of the heavy lifting is done by Total Media Theatre. If this seems to limit the usefulness of the card, too bad. The movie industry has decreed (through licensing agreements) that thou shalt not be able to use movie players that they did not specifically approve.

Given these restrictions, we have to question whether buying an HDAV1.3 just so you can stream the latest HiFi audio formats is worth it. The vast majority of audio recordings (including Blu-Ray discs) can already be played back at full resolution — only those mastered with 24 bit or 96 kHz audio (or better) stand to benefit from the streaming that the HDAV1.3 can offer because these are the only formats that are downsampled in compliance with HDCP. Since the vast majority of Blu-Ray discs and all DVDs are mastered at 48 kHz / 16 bits, there is very little tangible benefit to be had. I should add that most normal people (with normal sound systems) simply cannot hear a difference when audio resolutions are pushed above 48 kHz / 16 bit.

Luckily, the card also does what an audio card is supposed to do, namely, provide high quality analogue audio from whatever digital signal it is fed. Asus has put considerable effort into the analogue side of the card, especially the Deluxe version which features a daughterboard that enables full 8-channel audio with high quality RCA-style connectors (the basic version only supports analogue in stereo). They go so far as to name the manufacturer and model number of the DAC, ADC, and op-amp chips used in the card's analogue section. The op-amps are even replaceable"for preferred analog sound color". Asus also lists comprehensive audio specifications including signal-to-noise ratio, total harmonic distortion (THD), and frequency response. As always, we recommend taking the specifications with a grain of salt — and that goes double for audio gear where even carefully measured specifications don't tell the whole story.

The card also includes a video processor called Asus Splendid HD. Exactly what it does is a little unclear, but it is claimed to "increase color performance and enhance edges" at no CPU cost. This is apparently an automatic process, so what it actually does under the hood is anybody's guess. It also provides yet another set of sliders for manual adjustment of brightness, contrast, etc. (in addition to those found in your application, your graphics driver, Windows itself, your TV, your receiver, etc.) Most serious users will probably elect to turn it off on the grounds that less signal processing is generally better.

Accessories are plentiful, and include four 2xRCA->1/8" jack adaptors for surround systems that use mini-plugs (these are not the ones that are likely to take advantage of the Xonar's high analogue quality), a daughterboard for analogue surround channels, a short 1' DVI to HDMI adaptor cable, and a slightly longer 3' HDMI1.3 compliant cable. A short ribbon cable that joins the daughterboard to the main card and an optical S/PDIF adaptor round out the package.

As the first (and so far only) card that can output HDCP and PAP protected audio, the HDAV1.3 was eagerly awaited by those who have to worry about these technologies, namely, the home theatre crowd and early adopters of Blu-Ray. In fact, the product's official thread on AVS Forum (153 pages long at the time of writing) generated hundreds of posts before the product was available. It then generated thousands of angry posts as the product experienced growing pains after its official release. Among the issues uncovered were immature Vista drivers, missing features (such as the ability to stream the advertised lossless formats), incompatibility with certain graphics chipsets, excessively bright video, and the inability to output a true 24P (24 Hz) video signal.

Why would a sound card cause video problems? As mentioned, the card includes a video processor, but that in itself is no reason to use the video portion of the board, especially when it isn't working properly. Unfortunately, it's not so simple. HDMI carries both video and sound, which means, somehow, the two have to be connected. In theory, there is no reason why the video signal shouldn't be able to pass through untouched (it's a digital signal, so there should be no degradation), but early revisions of the driver did not properly disable the video processor.

With the exception of 24P passthrough, all of these issues have now been resolved through software updates (beta driver version in combination with Total Media Theatre version are confirmed to be working). It appears that a large number of the initial issues were caused by the proprietary version of Total Media Theatre, not the card itself.

Solving the 24P issue requires upgrading the card's firmware to version 1.39 — or buying a card manufactured in 2009 (2009 revisions have serial numbers starting with "9"). Unfortunately, Asus does not provide a download for this, but instead requires that the card be sent through their RMA process for upgrading. The reason for this rigmarole seems to be related to the movie industry's need for control. To quote Asus spokesperson Yoyolai (post #39):

"We designed not for user update was based on request of our licensor partners, afraid of someone to hack the firmware and release non-HDCP or non-AACS protected version to public....Well...

Anyways, we've decided to change it and future cards will have user updateable firmware."

Although it has been stated elsewhere that the HDAV1.3 is simply not designed for end-user firmware updates, this claim rings somewhat hollow given that Asus already makes available a firmware update that is designed to solve another, unrelated issue.

At the time of writing, only a few minor issues remain:

  • HDMI passthrough for HD-DVD titles does not work, likely due to the fact that HD-DVD is largely a dead format (downsampled PCM audio is available).
  • The Asus version of Total Media Theatre does not support integration with Vista Media Center.
  • The HDMI out will not pass an audio signal unless there is a video signal connected to the HDMI input.

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