Zalman HD160 Home Theater PC Enclosure

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THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING

Thermals and noise comprise the core of most SPCR equipment reviews. Several system variants were installed and tested in the Zalman HD160. The base components were:

DFI RS482 Infinity MicroATX motherboard
This new ATI Radeon Express 200 chipset model from DFI has the most flexible and user-adjustable BIOS we've seen on any microATX board, comparable to the best of the full-ATX boards. It allows the CPU core voltage to be manually set without disengaging Cool'n'Quiet, which simply applies the manual voltage adjustment to the various CPU power states. It allowed the X2 4800+ to be undervolted by 0.1V throughout the testing, for very modest power consumption in every load. It has no fans.

AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ processor
AMD's current second fastest desktop processor, one small step down from the flagship FX-60, this particular dual-core sample has a rated TDP of 85W. Previous testing showed it easily undervolts by 0.1V or more, with resulting power draw at full load of just ~60W at the 2x12V motherboard socket. It is overkill for a HTPC, but we're trying to push the envelope for thermal and noise testing in this new case.

OCZ Technology Gold PC4000 2 x 512MB DDR matched dual channel memory.

Samsung SP2504C 250GB SATA 3.5" hard drive
Our preferred quiet 3.5" desktop reference measures 21~22 dBA@1m.

Seasonic S12-330 PSU, new sleeved version
A very quiet 120mm fan power supply.

Other components included:

AOpen Aeolus PCX6800GT-DVD256 video card with Zalman VF900 VGA cooler at 5V. The SPL of this HSF at 5V measures 20 dBA@1m. It sounds a bit like a whispery rubbing of paper.

Zalman CNPS7700CU CPU heatsink modded with Nexus 120 fan
At a measured 21 dBA@1m (at 12V, which is where it was set throughout testing here), this modded HSF very quiet and offers decent performance.

Zalman CNPS9500 CPU HSF
The model used in Zalman own testing of this case, pretty quiet at 5V, and more effective cooling than the 7700.

The system assembly took some three hours, including fiddling time (to examine parts carefully) and the time needed to stop, plan out photos, take and check them, and so on. Even if photos were not being taken, it would have taken a couple hours to complete assembly. The installation of the drives and the PSU are all quite fiddly. Cable routing options are not great, even though a couple of adhesive-backed plastic cable hooks are provided. Most of the extra cabling was stuffed beneath the optical bay drive.


System with Zalman 9500 HSF in the HD160 case.


Bit of a cable mess around the HDD area.

Windows XP Pro SP2 was installed and fully updated, and our usual gamut of software tools installed:

  • SpeedFan 4.27 for CPU and other hardware monitoring.
  • CPUBurn for processor stress testing.
  • Rthdribl provides a steady high load to the GPU in a reduced window, allowing the nVidia GPU temperature gauge to be seen (on the monitor screen).

Other tools:

ACOUSTICS AROUND A MEDIA PC

Just a quick, relevant digression about the acoustic environment and desired functionality of the media PC. The way a media PC is used is substantially different than the average desktop PC. The most important differences are noted below.

Criteria
Media PC
Normal PC
Location
On equipment rack, near TV / stereo
On desktop next to monitor on on floor under / beside desk
Application
Play & record music and video, play games; usual PC functions secondary.
Office, creative, engineering, scientific and communication work; gaming and other entertainment functions usually secondary
User Position
Typically at least 2 meters away.
Typically not more than 1 meter
Overall Acoustics
Background, the PC noise, noise from other A/V equipment, conversation, and the music/soundtrack playing from TV/stereo speakers
Background + typing noise + noise generated by PC, perhaps background music

In a nutshell, the media PC is usually situated near the TV, which is usually at least six feet away from the seated viewers. The noise in the room includes whatever is being played through the speakers of the A/V system, plus any noise made by other audio/video gear. From first hand experience, we know that...

Many digital TV boxes and PVRs contain a noisy hard drive and fan(s). The HDD is usually on all the time, as long as the unit is plugged in. This means the noise is there all the time, whether you're using the gear or not. There is no real care in ensuring low acoustics; we've measured nothing lower than 25 dBA@1m; it's more typically closer to 30 dBA@1m or higher because the HDD is hard mounted to the chassis, and the chassis then makes whatever it's sitting on resonate.

Many high end A/V receivers (and not so high end) contain a fan that runs almost all the time. This is usually not as intrusive as the HDD noise in the digital TV boxes and PVRs, but still measure at least 20 dBA@1m.

Almost all rear projection TVs require at least one cooling fan to be on constantly. The speed of this fan does usually vary with internal temperature, which naturally goes up the longer the TV is left on. The typical noise of these TVs (with the speakers muted) is around 30 dBA@1m.

30 dBA@1m is about the absolute minimum level needed for intelligibility of speech, given typical dynamics when the TV, movie or game sound is turned on. Typical levels are much higher, with peaks reaching ~60 dBA@1m, and averaging at least 40~45 dBA@1m. This depends a great deal on viewer / listener habits, hearing sensitivity, housing setup, etc. In general, sound levels for movies are much higher, likely 10~20 dBA higher for both average and peaks. This is also true of music listening: Most people prefer higher levels for better realism. Typical peaks from an A/V system playing music probably reach 80 dBA@1m, with the average being perhaps 10~15 dBA lower (depending on the type of music, of course.)

These are broad generalizations on the acoustic environment for a media PC. Suffice it to say that we believe the acoustic environment for a media PC will almost always be much louder than for other types of home PCs. Its noise will be masked by the sound from the speakers — at least until you hit the mute button, at which point the PC and other A/V equipment noise may become very audible.

If the HTPC is in a multfunction room, but you still want quick and instant access to its media functions, then it will have to stay on. Then the idle HTPC noise will be there for you to hear whenever you are in the room, whether you're using the equipment or not. This is true for most systems even when the computer in standby mode.



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