Last year ASUS released the Xonar HDAV; it’s a sound card. The Xonar HDAV’s claim to fame was its ability to bitstream Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA over HDMI. Don’t have any idea what that means? I wrote a primer here last year, but I’ll give you the quick rundown.

Blu-ray discs are huge, you can store up to 50GB on a dual-layer disc. That’s not enough to store lossless video, but it’s enough to store lossless audio. In other words, you can have a bit-for-bit reproduction of the audio track that was mastered at a movie studio in your own home. For most consumers it’s cool as hell just for bragging rights, but for some super high end home theater enthusiasts it’s a perceived necessity.

These audio tracks are stored using one of two lossless compression algorithms: Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. The content owners however were very nervous about putting these audio tracks on BDs, specifically allowing PC users access to them. After all, if you had unencrypted access to one of these tracks you could potentially...uh...idunno, turn them into MP3s? Stop going to the movies? I have no idea. Regardless, the studios were nervous and the result was a ridiculous requirement for security.

In order to play one of these tracks you have to properly implement what’s called a Protected Audio Path (PAP). I go into much greater detail about the encryption/decryption requirements for a PAP but you need OS, software, driver and hardware support for it. Windows Vista gave us OS support, ArcSoft and Cyberlink gave us software support and the GPU vendors gave us driver support - all we were lacking was the hardware.

The GPU vendors didn’t include support in their designs for a number of reasons, so no integrated or discrete graphics currently support sending these compressed audio streams over HDMI. Next year that will change, but for now it is what it is.

The only hope was for sound card makers to tackle the problem, but the sound card market isn’t what it was back in the 1990s. ASUS was the first to take it seriously, because, well, ASUS takes everything it does seriously.

The Xonar HDAV launched and as you’ll see, I haven’t reviewed it. When it first hit, driver support wasn’t there. Despite the hardware support, you couldn’t send TrueHD or DTS-HD MA over HDMI because the driver didn’t allow it. This part took months to fix, it took some more months to work out a number of other bugs and in that period I just gave up on it. I went back to it not too long ago and while it worked, I’d lost my interest.

Before I ever heard of the ASUS card I heard that Creative Labs and Auzentech were working on one. I even wrote about it. I actually expected it to be out first, but for whatever reason it got pushed back. The card finally launched this year and today it finally received support from Cyberlink to bitstream these codecs without any loss in quality. The PowerDVD 9 patch notes tell you right here:

You do need PowerDVD 9 for this to work, no it doesn’t come bundled with the card, yes the latest patch is needed for it to work.

Auzentech sent me a card and I went to testing it. Perhaps it would be my one last hurrah with high end HTPCs before I accept fate and build a modest XBMC box for my needs.

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  • Mempile - Thursday, September 17, 2009 - link

    Thanks, but no thanks, Auzentech and Asus. I'll get a PS3, which is simpler, smarter, and probably better. Reply
  • cubdukat - Friday, September 04, 2009 - link

    I've been waiting for this card to come out ever since it was announced, because I had read that Auzen's X-Fi cards were a quantum leap over Creative's as far as general stability and audio quality were concerned. However, this review is giving me pause.

    Auzen made a point of trumpeting its collaboration with both Nvidia and Cyberlink on the card's design. That it seems to be having such issues with Nvidia chipsets is not a good sign. I am using a GeForce 8200-powered mobo with a 9800GT card, and I have no intention of crossing over to ATI or Intel in order to use this card. I certainly hope that either Nvidia and/or Auzen fixes this problem soon.

    The second issue I have is that Auzen has stated that not only will there be no Linux support for DTS Connect and Dolby Digital Live, they will also not even provide rudimentary Linux drivers for the card either. Now, for most people this is a non-issue, but I also dual-boot a Linux multimedia distro called Mythdora, and that's a deal-breaker for me.

    As it stands right now, I am torn between getting this card or one of the Creative PCI-e X-Fi cards. On one hand, it's perfect for my HTPC setup because I can bitstream TrueHD and DTS-HD to my receiver or output the uncompressed LPCM without downsampling. On the other, I don't want a card that I am going to have to fiddle with, as I already have too many components in my system that fit that description, not to mention that the Creative card does have Linux support. So I think I'm gonna wait and see how this shakes out...
    Reply
  • CDJay - Saturday, September 05, 2009 - link

    See, I've been waiting for this card for entirely different reasons....

    I have a "HTPC", but I don't use it for DVD or Blu-ray, at least atm. No, I use it as an easy way to play music, or games at 1080p. So whilst I could get a PS3 Slim ( I have a normal PS3, I just never use it ) I'd be stuck w/ games that cost more, and run at resolutions that look utterly horrific on my 65" screen.

    So in fact the reason I wanted this card, and indeed why it is now sitting in my PC, is so I can play stuff like Race Driver Grid, Street Fighter IV, Pro Evo 2009, Crysis, Bioshock, Call of Duty Modern Warfare yada yada yada at 1080p/60hz and with PCM over HDMI. Some games ( Streetfighter IV and Pro Evo 2009 I am looking at you ) don't make use of my 7.1 setup, but Race Driver Grid and Crysis most certainly do. I had a Creative X-Fi Fatal1ty using the multichannel input on my audio processor, but that bypasses the decent Audyssey MultiEQ Pro room correction and bass redicrection and thus sounded fairly crappy. I could use Dolby Digital live, but that's lossy and limited to 5.1.

    So to sum up, if I want to listen to lossless stereo, 5.1, 7.1 for music and games this card is the only practical option. Before anyone asks, I have a Xonar HDAV 1.3 sitting in a cupboard upstairs, I didn't enjoy the horrific driver issues and stereo Race Driver Grid etc.

    This is a niche product, sure, but if anyone has the money to burn on having a true 1080p/60fps/multichannel audio gaming setup for multiplatform or PC specific titles this is a VERY interesting product indeed. IMO, YMMV.
    Reply
  • archer75 - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    Just rip your blu-rays to your hard drive, NAS, server, whatever and rip that audio as lossless flac. Stream to receiver as LPCM.
    You get 100% of that DTS-HD MA or TrueHD with none of the DRM and no need to buy expensive sound cards either. Simple.
    Reply
  • DominionSeraph - Saturday, September 05, 2009 - link

    Simple... and illegal under the DMCA. Reply
  • medi01 - Tuesday, September 08, 2009 - link

    Is ripping DVDs legal? Reply
  • wonder1980 - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    please do a comparison between x-fi and ATI 4650 if possible, thanks a lot! Do you think the difference worth $200?
    Reply
  • archer75 - Friday, September 04, 2009 - link

    If you are using a digital connection such as HDMI, optical, etc. there is no difference. It just passes the audio straight out. You don't even need a soundcard for this.
    Either you are bitstreaming it out or your player is decoding it and passing out LPCM. But the sound card is just shipping the audio out.
    If you are talking analog audio then yes, the soundcard will make a difference.
    Reply
  • chizow - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    Anand or anyone else who has this card already,

    Can you measure the card's dimensions? Particularly the length? Trying to see if it'll fit in a Classified's x1 PCIE slot. Amazingly Auzentech's website documentation and even their manual PDF do not list any dimensions or a detailed schematic drawing.

    Thanks for the review, sounds like it'll do what it advertises. One key thing I didn't see mentioned or emphasized though is that this card also retains all of the X-Fi's EAX capability in games and should also be able to encode them as DD Live/DTS Interactive over HDMI. Sound quality will be the same as previous PCIE or PCI X-Fi cards for games, but it'll be the first sound card to offer this all natively over HDMI.

    Also curious if passing video through the sound card has any negative aspects, perhaps input lag, decreased quality or framerate limits.
    Reply
  • chizow - Thursday, September 03, 2009 - link

    Here's the part that concerned me about the HDMI passthrough aspect, as taken from Auztentech's website about the Silicon Image chips used:

    http://www.auzentech.com/site/products/x-fi_hometh...">http://www.auzentech.com/site/products/x-fi_hometh...

    quote:

    The SiI9135A and the SiI9134 are used in many high end AVR designs. The parts support HDMI 1.3 capabilities for transmission of high fidelity audio and 12bit Deep Color per video component.

    Overall link speed of the SiI9134 TX and SiI9135A RX is 225MHz allows for support of 1080p 60Hz Consumer Electronics resolutions and up to 1600x1200 UXGA PC resolutions.

    The HDMI SiI9135A and SiI9134 can support HDCP Repeaters which keeps the downstream and upstream links Authenticated.


    The bolded portion being the biggest concern. Will the card be able to pass higher resolutions than 1920x1080p @ 60Hz or 1600x1200 @ unknown refresh? Or will it cap frames due to limited bandwidth, or simply refuse to pass higher resolution signals?
    Reply

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