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

Asus EN9800GT Matrix Edition

February 10, 2009 by Devon
Cooke

Product
Asus Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe

PCI-E Sound Card
Manufacturer
ASUSTeK
Street Price
US$200~290

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 6.12.8.17.57 in combination with
Total Media Theatre version 2.1.13.126 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.

It should be noted that, long as the specification table below is, it does
not actually mention all of the various audio formats that can be decoded or
passed through the HDAV1.3 — probably because this is the responsibility
of ArcSoft's Total Media Theatre software that is bundled with the card (other
software decoders exist for most of these formats). Based on the logos on the
box, its decoding abilities include:

  • DTS-HD Master Audio
  • DTS-HD
  • DTS
  • Dolby TrueHD
  • Dolby Digital Plus
  • Dolby Digital
  • AVCHD

As mentioned, it also supports HDMI1.3 with HDCP, as well as PAPs with AACS
compliance. In case you didn't want to decode that gobbledygook of marketing
acronyms, it basically means it plays all audio formats currently in use by
the movie industry.

Asus HDAV1.3 Deluxe Specifications

(from the
product web page
)
Audio Performance
Output Signal-to-Noise
Ratio (A-Weighted)


Up to 120 dB for all channels dB



Output THD+N at 1kHz

Up to 0.0004% (-108dB)



Frequency Response (-3dB, 24-bit/96kHz input)

<10Hz to 46kHz



Sample Rate Conversion Quality

Almost lossless, using high-fidelity floating-point filters

- 140dB THD+N

(typical value for 44.1K->48KHz, 24bit)

- 145dB Dynamic Range

(typical value for 44.1K->48KHz, 24bit)
Bus Compatibility
HDMI (High-Definition
Multimedia Interface)


- Compliant with HDMI v1.3a industrial standard

- HDCP 1.2 compatible

- DVI 1.0 compatible
Main Chipset
Audio Processor

ASUS AV200 High-Definition Sound Processor

(Max. 192KHz/24bit)



24-bit D-A Converter of Digital Sources

TI Burr-Brown PCM1796 x 4

(123dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)



24-bit A-D Converter for Analog Inputs

Cirrus-Logic CS5381 x 1

(120dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)
Video Specification

Video Resolution

DTV Resolutions:

480i, 576i, 480p, 576p, 720p, 1080i up to 1080p

PC Resolutions:

graphics, Sgraphics, XGA, SXGA, UXGA



Enhanced Splendid HD Modes

Photo, Video, Gaming modes selectable

(Gaming mode requires ASUS graphics card)

Color Depth

Supports higher 24, 30, 36, 48-bit/per pixel color depths

(RGB or YCbCr)



Color Range

Supports broader xvYCC color space standard

Sample Rate and Resolution
Analog Playback Sample
Rate and Resolution


44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit



Analog Recording Sample Rate and Resolution

44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit



S/PDIF Digital Output

Dolby Digital, DTs, WMA-Pro



S/PDIF Digital Input

44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit



ASIO 2.0 Driver Support

44.1K/48K/96K/192KHz @ 16/24bit
I/O Ports Analog Output Jacks

RCA jack x 8



Analog Input Jack

Line-In/Mic-In 3.50mm mini jack x 1



Other line-level analog input (for CD-IN/TV Tuner)

CD-In, Aux-In (4-pin header on the card)



Digital S/PDIF Output

Coaxial and High-bandwidth Optical Combo Connector

Supports 192KHz/24bit



Digital S/PDIF Input

Coaxial and High-bandwidth Optical Combo Connector

Supports 192KHz/24bit (Shared with Line/Mic In)



HDMI Input/Output

HDMI1.3 - In Type A x 1

HDMI1.3 - Out Type A x 1
Driver Features Operation System

Windows Vista/XP(32/64bit)/MCE2005



Dolby® Digital Live

Dolby Digital Live encodes any audio signal on PC in real-time to Dolby
Digital (AC3) 5.1 surround sounds to your home theater environment through
one single S/PDIF connection

Dolby® Headphone

Dolby Headphone technology allows users to listen to music, watch movies,
or play games with the dramatic 5.1-channel surround or realistic 3D spacious
effects through any set of stereo headphones

Dolby® Virtual Speaker

Dolby Virtual Speaker technology simulates a highly realistic 5.1-speaker
surround sound listening environment from as few as two speakers.

Dolby® Pro-Logic IIx

Dolby Pro-Logic II is the well-known technology to process any native
stereo or 5.1-channel audio into a 6.1- or 7.1- channel output, creating
a seamless, natural surround sound field.



DTS® Connect

(contains DTSInteractive Encoder and DTSNeo:PC)

DTS Interactive encodes any sound on PC to “DTS5.1 Surround”
high bitrate digital stream to your home theater through S/PDIF connection.
DTS Neo:PC can convert stereo audio into 5.1 or 7.1-channel high-fidelity
surround sounds.



Smart Volume Normalizer™

Normalizes the volume of all audio sources into a constant level and also
enhances your 3D sound listening range and advantages in gaming



Xear 3D™ Virtual Speaker Shifter

Virtual 7.1 speaker positioning and shifting to adjust the optimum soundfield
for your speaker placement



Magic Voice™

Modifies and disguises the sound tone of your voice for VOIP and online
chat applications



Karaoke Functions

Music Key-Shifting and Microphone Echo effects



FlexBass™

Professional Bass Management/Enhancement system for small or large speakers



Other Effects

- 10-band Equalizer

- 27 Environment Effects



3D Sound Engines/APIs

Vista: DirectSound3D® GX 2.5, DirectSound® HW, DirectSound
SW, A3D®1.0, OpenAL generic modes, 128 3D sounds processing capability

XP: DirectSound2.5 SW, A3D®1.0, OpenAL generic modes, 128 3D
sounds processing capability

DirectX

DirectX 9.0 or above required for 7.1ch output



Splendid HD Video Enhancements

Proprietary Splendid video engine increases color performance and enhance
edges for a more brilliant and crispy image

Bundled Software Utility ArcSoft Total Media
Player


Supports playback of all three Blu-ray disc video formats: High Definition
MPEG-2, AVC, and VC1's well as all kinds of other High Definition (HD) content:
WMV HD, Quicktime HD, DivX HD, and H.264 HD
Accessories
4 x 3.5mm-to-RCA adaptor
cable (8ch)

2 x S/PDIF optical adaptors

1 x DVI-to-HDMI cable

1 x H6 Extension Board Cable

 

PHYSICAL DETAILS

The HDAV1.3 is a fine looking beast, with most of the electronics hidden under
a black "EMI shield" that probably does more to improve Asus' sleek
image than to reduce electromagnetic interference. It is telling that the daughterboard
(where most of the EMI-sensitive analogue circuitry is located) does not have
a similar shield.



The black cover is an "EMI shield", not a heatsink.



The Deluxe edition comes with a daughterboard that provides analogue outputs
for surround sound.

Surprisingly, the card requires external power from the power supply to operate;
it includes a 4-pin Molex connector. Given the large 25W power envelope for
PCI-e x1 devices (and our own tests), it seems unlikely that Xonar actually
needs extra power to operate. It seems more likely that the connector is used
to provide an isolated electrical source for the card's analogue components,
which could be aversely affected by the quality of the power regulation circuitry
on the motherboard. It is telling that even the most basic models in the Xonar
line require an external power source.



Connectors for power and a ribbon cable to the daughterboard.

As mentioned, the Deluxe model features a daughterboard that provides six surround
channels of analogue audio. The additional card is made necessary by the large
amount of PCB real estate taken up by analogue circuitry, which must be duplicated
for each additional channel supported. It also makes room for larger, more robust
RCA connectors instead of the standard mini-jacks. Adaptor cables are included
to support mini-jack speaker systems, but the card is really designed for HiFi
audio components that can take advantage of the better electrical characteristics
of RCA connectors.



Mother and child.

The main card itself supports only two analogue channels, and reuses several
of the jacks to provide as much functionality as can fit onto the back of a
single PCI slot. There are two HDMI jacks (in and out), a coaxial S/PDIF out
(convertable to optical with an included adaptor), right and left analogue channels
via two RCA jacks, and a single mini-jack that can serve as either mic-in, line-in
or S/PDIF in (via an optical adaptor). Only a single optical S/PDIF adaptor
is included, so using both S/PDIF in and out in optical form will require acquiring
a second adaptor.

The HDAV1.3 handles video by means of an HDMI pass-through connector à
la 3DFX with its early 3D accelerators. The video signal is generated as usual
by the graphics card, output via DVI or HDMI and then fed into the sound card
where sound (and possibly some video processing) is added to the signal. A composite
signal containing both the audio and the video is then output by the sound card
through a completely different cable. This has the added advantage of ensuring
that the audio and video are in sync, but it does open up the video signal to
tampering.



HDMI connectors in the foreground; daughterboard in the background.


THE COOLER & INSTALLATION

Popping the EMI cover off reveals an immensely complicated circuit board —
a testament to the wide variety of features on the card. It also reveals a couple
of additional connectors on the top edge of the card that we missed in our initial
inspection: An AC97 / HD Audio header to connect the card to the front audio
ports that most cases have, and a 4-pin digital AUX in port designed to receive
a signal from an optical drive (or any other audio device).

At the heart of the card is Asus' AV200 Audio Processing Unit, which gets its
heritage from C-Media's Oxygen processor (a.k.a. CMI8788).
Other important chips include Asus' Splendid HD video processor, two unidentified
"CAT"-branded chips that appear to be HDMI / HDCP controllers, and
a PCI to PCI Express bridge.



Naked. Note the front panel audio and AUX in ports along the top edge.



A top-down view of the card's analogue topology.

The most interesting part of the card from a circuitry point of view is the
analogue stage, pictured above. All of the electronics come from highly reputable
sources and can be expected to do a good job. The output stage starts with PCM1796
DACs
from Burr-Brown (TI) and then passes through two stages of op-amps:
a 2114D
op-amp
from New Japan Radio (JRC), and then the touted LM4562
op-amp
from National Semiconductor. Both chips use a DIP8 package and can
be replaced by those who like to tinker. The two stage design appears to be
intended to allow a second possible analogue source, with a separate first stage
for each. The secondary source is an Asus-branded DJ100 chip, which is apparently
a modified C-Media CMI9780 AC '97 codec that contains an 8 channel DAC of its
own. It should be noted that the DJ100 chip is not duplicated on the surround
daughterboard, but the first stage op-amp is (as are three additional PCM1796
DACs), which suggests a fairly long analogue signal path for surround channels
decoded by the DJ100.

It's not clear why this second (inferior) analogue source is included, so allow
us to speculate. While the Burr-Brown DACs do an excellent job with standard
PCM audio, they are incapable of decoding non-PCM sources such as Dolby Digital
or DTS Ordinarily, this is not a problem since they are decoded in software
before they enter the hardware stream. But, what if these formats are output
directly, either because the software is instructed to pass through the signal
via S/PDIF or because an encoder such as Dolby Digital Live or DTS Interactive
is used? Our guess (and it is a guess) is that the DJ100 chip is used as a decoder
in situations like these, allowing simultaneous S/PDIF and analogue output of
Dolby Digital or DTS streams.

The input path contains two pairs of op-amps (a
Texas Instruments RC4580
followed by a
New Japan Radio NJM5532
) and before the signal finally reaches the CS5381
ADC
from Cirrus Logic. It seems safe to assume that two signal paths are
used to differentiate between mic-in and line-in (which share the same input
jack), but it's not clear why a two stage design is used here. All of the op-amps
in the input path use a DMP8 package which is not user-replaceable.



Op-amps op-amps everywhere! A view of the daughterboard with a PCM1796
DAC at the far right, followed by a JRC 2114D op-amp and another LM4562
op-amp. Each of these chips carries two audio channels each. Note there
are two JRC chips in each two channel pair; the second is presumably used
to output audio from the DJ100 DAC on the main board.

 

TEST METHODOLOGY

SPCR does not have a set methodology for testing sound cards, but our examination
focussed on the following tests:

  1. Estimate the card's power consumption.
  2. Quantify analogue audio performance objectively using Rightmark's Audio
    Analyzer software
  3. Qualify analogue audio performance subjectively by comparing it with another
    known system using known audio sources.

Test Platform

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Objective Testing

Rightmark's Audio Analyzer was used to estimate several characteristics of
the HDAV1.3, including signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), total harmonic distortion
(THD), intermodulation distortion (IMD), and stereo crosstalk. Tests were performed
at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 96, and 192 kHz and bit depths of 16, 24, and 32
(int) bits. Inputs and outputs were set up exactly as per Asus'
RMAA test guide for the Xonar HDAV
, in which the analogue RCA outputs were
connected to the line-in jack using an mini to RCA splitter. Line-in level was
set to 100, and speaker out level was set to 40.

Subjective Testing

A total of 10 different tracks from 8 different CDs were used to perform an
A/B listening comparison. CDs were playing in iTunes, with the application,
driver, and system sample rates all set to 44.1 kHz in Vista's sound panel to
avoid resampling. The default audio device was set to "Speakers",
which allowed the HDAV1.3 to output simultaneously via S/PDIF and analogue outputs.
Both of these outputs were fed into a Yamaha HTR-5790 A/V Receiver. All DSP
filters on the receiver were turned off by setting the audio mode to "straight".
The two sources were then volume-matched (by ear) in the Xonar sound panel.
This turned out to be unnecessary, since both sources sounded the equal at 100
volume. The speakers hooked up to this system were a pair of floor-standing
transmission-line speakers custom-built by SPCR editor Mike Chin. They sound
extremely clear, and are estimated to have a flat frequency response down to
approximately 100 Hz (if only the same could be said for the room).

Using this setup, we listened to each test track through fully using each output,
and then a third time switching back and forth between the two sources. No attempt
was made to do blind ABX testing. This setup allowed us to compare the DACs
and op-amps in the HDAV1.3 against the same circuitry in the receiver. All other
elements of the signal chain remained constant between the two tests.

The following tracks were used for subjective testing:

  • Kodo
    – One Earth Tour Special
    • Tomoe: A challenge for any sound system, featuring deep bass
      rumble from the bigger drums as well as fast transients from the smaller
      drums.
  • Pink
    Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
    • Speak to Me / Breathe: A varied track starting with a quiet heartbeat
      and various sound effects, moving into a more conventional pop song with
      synth and vocals.
    • Money: A more conventional rock song with guitar, drums, and
      the occasional cash register.
  • Fats
    Domino – Greatest Hits "Live" in Concert
    • Whole Lotta Lovin': Live 1950's rock 'n' roll ... and the muffled
      remastered recording quality you would expect. A rockin' tune with little
      separation between the various instruments.
  • Brasstronaut
    – Old World Lies EP
    • Old World Lies: Jazz piano, trumpet and vocals, with good separation
      between each.
  • Fleetwood
    Mac – Greatest Hits
    • Rhiannon: Folksy soft rock tune that always sounds a little indistinct
      lots of electric guitar and female singer to die for.
    • Tusk: Interesting drum beat and lots of dynamics.
  • Big
    Sugar – Brothers & Sisters, Are You Ready?
    • Red Rover: Rocking Heavy Metal / Reggae with heavy bass and sharp
      guitars. Starts with a loud burnout of what sounds like a 70's Dodge Charger.
  • Denzal
    Sinclaire – Denzal Sinclaire
    • Tofu & Greens: A charming jazz ode to vegetarianism with
      smooth male vocals and quick, upbeat piano.
  • Nigel Kennedy
    – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons
    • Autumn, Pt. 3: My favorite rendition of Vivaldi's classic composition.
      This track features a large dynamic range in solo violin and full orchestra.

Estimating DC Power

The following power efficiency figures were obtained for the
Antec Earth Watts
power supply used in our test system. Note that the results are for the 430,
while our test system for the HDAV1.3 used the 380W model. It is likely that
the 380W model has slightly higher efficiency in the range we are using it,
but the difference is unlikely to be significant.

Antec Earth Watts 430 TEST RESULTS
DC Output (W)
42.7
65.9
92.5
150.6
AC Input (W)
60
87
118
186
Efficiency
70.8%
75.6%
78.3%
81.0%

This data is enough to give us a very good estimate of DC demand in our
test system. We extrapolate the DC power output from the measured AC power
input based on this data. We won't go through the math; it's easy enough
to figure out for yourself if you really want to.

TEST RESULTS

Power Consumption

Due to the dearth of sound card "loading" tools available, power
consumption was measured only at idle. While we can make guesses about which
tasks are most power intensive, there is no easy way of isolating those tasks
from the stress they put on the other parts of the system. Spot checks during
simple stereo playback did not reveal a significant boost in power consumption
under load.

Asus Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe

Estimated power consumption
System State
System Power
AC
DC (Est.)
Base System
42W
27W
Base System +

HDAV1.3
54W
38W
HDAV1.3 Only

(Calculated)
12W
11W

Even at idle, the power gobbled up by the HDAV1.3 is significant. While not
in the same league as power hungry graphics cards, it did eat up about 11W at
idle, increasing the total power consumption of our modest test bed by about
a third.

Objective Test Results

It is tempting to simply state that the acoustic characteristics of the Xonar
HDAV1.3 are excellent and leave it at that. So called "objective"
testing is difficult to do well, and SPCR has no existing body of results to
use as a baseline. While Rightmark's Audio Analyzer (RMAA) is a useful, standardized
tool, it is difficult to use correctly and interpret the results in a meaningful
way.

A proper lab test using RMAA would test each input and output in isolation
using reference equipment with known audio characteristics that are significantly
better than the card being tested. Ideally, the test suite would include multiple
reference levels and usage patterns. Unfortunately, advanced though the SPCR
lab is, we are not set up to do this kind of advanced electronic testing.

So, we offer a compromise. RMAA has a test mode called external loopback testing
in which the output of the card is looped back into the input via an external
cable. The test suite is then run, and the results include the performance characteristics
of both the input and the output sections of the card. Whichever section has
the worst performance will limit the results, but, barring distortion in one
section that is corrected by the other, both the input and the output should
be guaranteed to have performance at least as good at the test results.

Some other problems with the test:

  • Ideally, tests should be done either at the maximum output the card can
    provide (to maximize the possible signal-to-noise ratio and thus test all
    devices to their maximum potential), or at a predetermined set level (to provide
    a standardized test across all models — perhaps at the Redbook CD Audio
    "line" level of +6 dBV). The RMAA loopback test does not allow output
    levels to be set properly.
  • The RMAA tests do not test typical usage scenarios, in which the card's
    mixer, DSP, and levels can all affect audio performance.

So, with those caveats, we present the results of our loopback test for 96
kHz, tested at bit depths of 16, 24, and 32 (int). Only a portion of our RMAA
test data is reproduced here. Those who are interested may download
our complete set of results
, including every combination of sample rates
and bit depths from 44.1 to 192 kHz and 16 to 32 bits. The SAV files included
in the results may be opened with RMAA, downloadable
from Rightmark's web site
.



Frequency response is flat to ±0.05 dB from 20~20,000 Hz.



The noise floor is about -117 dB for 24 and 32 bit depths, and -100 at 16
bits.

Test @ 96 kHz 16 bit samples 24 bit samples 32 bit samples
Frequency response (from 40 Hz to
15 kHz), dB:
+0.05, -0.05 +0.05, -0.05 +0.05, -0.05
Noise level, dB (A): -100.0 -117.1 -116.9
Dynamic range, dB (A): 100.0 117.0 116.7
THD, %: 0.0007 0.0006 0.0006
IMD + Noise, %: 0.0029 0.0009 0.0009
Stereo crosstalk, dB: -98.3 -115.3 -114.1

The results at 24 bit / 96 kHz are representative of the card's performance
overall. Tests at 44.1 kHz or with 16 bit samples showed worse performance,
but this reflects on the limitations of these formats, not on the card itself.
We are still scratching our head trying to figure out how our 16 bit results
managed to exceed the maximum theoretical noise level for 16 bit audio (96 dB).
This
wikipedia article
suggests that the 96 dB number is based on assumptions
about the digital-to-analogue conversion, so perhaps the results are a reflection
of higher quality DACs ... or perhaps they indicate a problem with RMAA's tests.

At 48 kHz or 24 bits and above, performance was essentially the same for all
audio formats, suggesting that these results are the true representation of
the card's abilities (most likely limited by the performance of the inputs).
It also suggests that the performance (at least as far as noise is concerned)
exceeds what is required to play back the vast majority of audio sources (which
are 16 bit) "perfectly".

Obviously, noise is not the only concern, but the frequency response and various
distortion tests were also universally excellent. Frequency response was essentially
flat through the entire audible range, and THD and IMD were barely measurable.

It should be noted that our results more or less duplicate those obtained by
Asus in their own
RMAA tests
. We know of two other sites that have done RMAA tests on the
HDAV1.3, both of which produced different (and worse) results from our own.
Elite Bastards examined
the card here
, while Atomic PC obtained results so bad as to throw their
methodology into question in
this review
. In fairness to Atomic PC, we obtained similar results in our
first attempt by routing the signal internally by recording the "Wave"
input. Most likely, the poor results are a result of audio mangling within the
operating system and not a reflection on the hardware, but it does illustrate
that there are many factors that affect audio performance beyond the
hardware itself.

Investigating Distortion

All of our RMAA tests were done with the line-in level at 100 and the output
level at 40. Why 40? This was the only level we could get which was high enough
for RMAA to test but low enough not to cause serious distortion at the input.
This caught our attention, because we also noticed serious distortion at the
outputs when doing our speaker tests during setup. So, we decided to investigate
by pulling out our multimeter and actually measuring the output levels
electronically. And this is what we found...

At 100 (maximum) volume, our 1 kHz test tone (recorded at -3.2 dBFS, or 3.2
dB below the maximum possible level) measured 2.26 VRMS. That's a
lot. In fact, the standard line level for RCA outputs is a mere 0.316 VRMS.
Expressed in decibels, the standard line level is -10 dBV, while the Xonar was
outputting +7dBV. Adding in the potential 3.2 dB that could be gained by maximizing
the test tone brings the difference between the Xonar's output and the expected
line level to a whopping 20 dB. No wonder the output was clipped. Have pity
on the poor pre-amps that have to accept such a hot signal.

Now, to be fair, the line level is just a guideline; many products do not meet
it exactly, and all designs allow for some headroom. Unofficially, many devices
follow the Redbook audio standard such that the loudest possible signal is output
at +6 dBV (2.0 VRMS), a headroom of 16 dB. At +10 dBV, the Xonar's
maximum output isn't that much higher than the unofficial standard, but
it was high enough to cause distortion in situations where there shouldn't have
been any. We did notice that the Xonar's driver software correctly reports the
peak of the graphic equalizer as +20 dB. We also verified that a 0 dB peak on
the equalizer correctly output a line level signal of roughly 0.322 VRMS.
But folks, we have to warn you, blasting the HDAV1.3 at full volume into a substandard
amplifier or receiver could permanently damage your equipment.

Further investigation revealed that the "40" volume setting that
we used during the RMAA tests yielded an output level of 1.427V, or +3 dBV.
This suggests that the line-in (which clipped above this level) is not quite
up to the task of accepting a full strength signal from a CD player or any other
device with peaks above +3dBV.

We also noticed that, while boosting the volume from 40 to 100 increased the
output voltage by almost a volt, the level in decibels increased only by 4.
This behavior is indicative of the fact that the volume control in the Xonar
control panel sets the volume linearly, not logarithmically as it should.
The practical effect of this is that it is extremely difficult to set low volumes
reliably. For example, consumer line level (the level at which you'd be guaranteed
not to clip most consumer electronics) can be set at about ~13.5 on the volume
meter, but it is difficult to set with any precision.

Xonar HDAV1.3 Output Levels
 
Volume Setting
Output Voltage
Output Level
Maximum Output (Calculated)
100
3.266V
+10 dBV
Maximum Output with Test Tone
100
2.260V
+7 dBV
Maximum Level of Unofficial "Redbook" Standard
100
2.000V
+6 dBV
RMAA Test Level
40
1.427V
+3 dBV
"Consumer" Line Level
~13.5
0.316V
-10 dBV

With this new knowledge in hand we can revisit the results from the RMAA test
and see why they aren't as reliable as they might seem. Tested with the volume
set to 100, the HDAV1.3 could potentially show a 7 dB greater dynamic range
and signal to noise ratio (never mind that a recording with 124 dB of dynamic
range could blow your eardrums if you listened to it). On the other hand, even
if it could output the signal cleanly without distortion (and distortion increases
as output goes up), its high output level is likely to cause distortion in whatever
is plugged in to it.

By the same token, if it was tested at consumer line level (when the equalizer
peak is 0dB), the incredible 117 dB SNR would magically drop to 104 dB. In theory,
this is the level that should provide the best possible analogue performance,
allowing plenty of room for transient peaks. Not only will distortion drop at
lower levels, but keeping the levels closer to where other devices expect them
to be should help avoid distortion further down the signal chain.

The vulnerability of RMAA's test results to variable line levels makes us speculate
whether this is the reason for the HDAV1.3's high output levels. Boosting levels
is an easy way to artificially inflate signal to noise ratios (it's one of the
reasons why "pro" line is 12 dB higher than "consumer" line),
and it would not surprise this reviewer to learn that the practice is widespread
among all high-end audio cards. And, so long as the rest of the equipment in
the signal chain is also designed for levels with 20 dB of headroom above "standard"
line, this kind of design can offer a measurable improvement in SNR. However,
we repeat our caution that high line levels can damage equipment that
is not designed for this kind of signal.

Subjective Test Results

As with the objective results, we are tempted to simply state that the Xonar
is excellent and leave it at that. If you are not interested in audiophile musings
about the finer points of sound reproduction, we suggest you skip this section
and jump to the conclusion. Unless your existing sound card is absolutely dreadful,
any improvement that the HDAV1.3 can offer is likely to be incremental, not
revolutionary. And, unless you have a substantial HiFi system already, you are
unlikely to hear a difference at all.

One more disclaimer: The differences noted in this section are all small. While
some differences were audible (assuming no placebo effects), we were unable
to judge whether the HDAV1.3 made things better (or worse) in terms of either
enjoyment or accuracy.

All listening was done with the volume set to 100. Despite the hot levels,
no distortion was recognizable during the tests, though it is possible that
some of the differences we heard might be attributable to distortion.

Generally speaking, the Xonar's analogue output sounded slightly bassier, while
the DACs in the Yamaha receiver tended to emphasize treble a bit. Kodo's taiko
drums sounded boomy and muddy on the HDAV1.3, and the impacts seemed less clear,
especially with the smaller drums. Neither output captured the rolling thunder
that the drums produce live, but this can likely be attributed to not having
a subwoofer to support such ultra-low frequencies. A similar effect was noted
in Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, although here the emphasized low end gave the drums
a presence that was lacking in the Yamaha version.

Drums aside, few differences were noticed in frequency balance. At times, the
Xonar did seem more detailed, offering greater separation between the instruments.
In the case of Fats Domino's live recording, this was a great advantage, as
the recording has a murkiness typical of old recordings. This song sounded more
alive and better balanced than with the Yamaha. His kisses into the microphone
blended in better with the rest of the music and sounded less like they need
a pop filter.

Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac (not Fleetwood Mac by Rhiannon) also benefited from
more detail, as their tracks have a characteristic softness that tends to blend
the instruments together in a way that can sound flat, especially on poor quality
sound systems. And Denzal Sinclaire's swinging Tofu & Greens swung extra
hard with the Xonar, sounding more dynamic and varied than with the Yamaha.

On the other hand, studio recordings that already have lots of separation between
the instruments suffered with the Xonar. This was especially evident in the
Pink Floyd tracks, which sounded less like a piece of music and more like a
bunch of instruments being played together. For some reason, the added detail
gave the illusion that the band wasn't quite playing in time, and it was very
easy to get lost in individual instruments without listening to the song as
a whole. To a lesser extent, the same was true of Brasstronaut's Old World Lies,
which sounded sharper and less musical. While the piano may have sounded more
detailed (and its harmonics were more obvious), the Xonar made me want to analyze
the music, while the Yamaha made me dance.

Two of the tracks we listened to did not reveal much difference. Although the
car squealing out at the beginning of Red Rover had more ambiance and impact
with the HDAV1.3, the actual music did not change much. It's possible the bass
was a bit tighter and more controlled on the Yamaha, but not by much.

Surprisingly, the other track that did not change was our classical piece.
Despite the huge dynamics and various orchestral instruments in Vivaldi's Autumn,
we could hear very little difference. If pressed, we might say that the HDAV
sounded more detailed (with squeakier violin) and slightly harsher, but we weren't
able to confirm this during the A/B portion of our testing.

CONCLUSION

Overall we had few complaints about the Xonar HDAV1.3. After a few tough months
of teething problems, it now does what it is supposed to (for the most part),
and it is feature loaded and sounds excellent. While it is poor value if your
audio needs are limited to a few specific scenarios (especially if those scenarios
involve HDMI — you don't need a sound card to send data through a cable),
as a general purpose card it can do almost anything you can throw at it.

Our criticisms are limited to a few nit-picks and a scathing glare at the movie
industry for creating a situation in which early adopters who shell out a substantial
amount of money for Blu-Ray discs are forced to jump through hoops to get them
to play correctly while pirates simply ignore the restrictions by ripping and
decrypting the discs to their hard drives. AACS and BD+ have been cracked for
over a year — why are the studios still inconveniencing their best customers
to support a protection scheme that doesn't work? Among the movie industry's
hoops that apply to HDAV1.3 users:

  • Vendor lock-in to Asus' specific version of Total Media Theatre.
  • Requiring an RMA (rather than a firmware download) to fix 24P passthrough
    for cards manufactured before 2009.
  • Creating a situation where Asus can sell a $250 card to send DD TrueHD and
    DTS-HD MA out via HDMI without decoding it.
  • Forcing software that can decode these high resolution formats to
    downgrade the quality to 48 kHz / 16 bits before it is output (I know, I know,
    you can't hear the difference. It's the principle of the thing).
  • Disallowing the possibility of outputting audio via HDMI and S/PDIF (or
    analogue) at the same time.

Most of our nit-picks apply specifically the version of Total Media Theatre
that ships with the card, and are not directed at the actual hardware. These
include poor HD-DVD support (which, to be fair, is all we can expect of a dead
format), and a lack of integration with Vista Media Center (which apparently
has to do with Asus' license negotiations with Arcsoft).

On the hardware side, our biggest criticisms are that the card is incapable
of generating a black video signal to output HDMI sound without external video
connected, and the excessively high line levels on the analogue side of things.

Nit-picks aside, the analogue audio quality is excellent, and the RCA connectors
are much appreciated. This truly is a card worthy of integrating into a HiFi
home theater system. The analogue outputs are at least on par with the capabilities
of our midrange Yamaha receiver, and those who like detail may even find it
superior. Now, if only it came with an input card and an external amplifier
it could replace the receiver entirely!

And, if you want to game in surround sound while you're at it, or talk on Skype
without hearing echo through your speakers, the card can do that. Hey, maybe
you'll even find a use for the extra color correction or the 27 different environmental
effects while you're at it... Well, maybe not, but the card is fully-featured.
It's up to you to decide how to use it.

Asus Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe
PROS



* Excellent audio quality

* Does everything

* Only current way to stream lossless Blu-Ray codecs

* Replaceable op-amps

* High quality electronics

* RCA outputs
CONS



* Expensive

* Crippled by movie industry

* Vendor lock-in with Total Movie Theatre

* Excessively high output level

* Teething problems

Our thanks to ASUSTeK
for the Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe sample.

* * *

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* * *

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