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February 10, 2009 by Devon
| Asus Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe
PCI-E Sound Card
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
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 22.214.171.124.57 in combination with
Total Media Theatre version 126.96.36.199 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
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,
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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