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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  • StevenG - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    Forget sound cards, I won't be ready to build an HTPC until somebody markets a "preamp card" and allows me to ditch my receiver and use the HTPC as the true center of an A/V system.

    The card would need to replace all of the inputs, switching, and processing capability of a full-fledged A/V preamp: At least 3 HDMI inputs (for cable/satellite box, gaming console, etc), a few optical/coax digital inputs, and an analog input or two (yeah, some people still use cassette decks). Full Dolby/DTS decoding (including lossless codecs) for streams sourced from HDMI or internally (BluRay drive, hard drive), bass management, speaker level settings, some DSP music modes, maybe Audyssey processing. Decent DACs. 7.1 analog output to an external amplifier and subwoofer (yeah, the card would need to take up several rear panel slots to make room for all the inputs/outputs). Web-based GUI access to all preamp functions, as well as API access so users can develop simple homegrown preamp control applications and macros. And make it software upgradeable for new DSP functions and other features.

    So you'd just need to hook up the HTPC to a decent 7-channel amp, and yer all set. No more receivers or preamps.

    I would drop $600 easy for a card that did all this. Has any manufacturer announced such a product? Who else would buy one?
  • archer75 - Friday, September 4, 2009 - link

    Yes, there are cards with the preamp. The Asus HDAV with the daughter card.
    You aren't going to get all those inputs though.
    But you plug it straight into an amp and go.

    Though I don't know why you'd want all that in a computer. A receiver can do it for cheaper. Doing all that in a computer just introduces too many variables. Too much to go wrong. Software that can monkey with your audio.
    No, i'd rather just have it bitstream to my receiver.
  • crimson117 - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    With your home theater setup, could you tell the difference? Was the audio noticeably different?
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    Did I notice the difference from higher bitrate audio? Tough to tell.

    Where you actually notice the difference is that True HD and DTS-HD MA give you 8 discrete channels of audio, whereas the best you get with DD/DTS core is 6. If you have a 7.1 setup the extra pair of surrounds are derived from the other surrounds; with True HD/DTS-HD MA you get 8 discrete channels, and it sounds better.

    If you don't have a 7.1 setup then I'm not sure if most people would notice a difference. It is a significant increase in audio bitrate (> 20Mbps uncompressed?!?) but as with most things in the AV world, you really have to train your ears. I am more likely to notice issues with video than audio it seems, perhaps it's different for other people.

    Take care,
  • Zorlac - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    This reminds me of all the problems there were when DVD playback initially came to the PC. It was a freaking nightmare!

    Hence the reason I did not even try for Blu-Ray on the PC this time. Instead I went with a PS3, then a Bitstream capable dedicated player and now probably back to a PS3 Slime (since it can now bitstream).

    HTPC has always been too much of a headache for me. I will just stick to dedicated A/V equipment for movies and PC for gaming, head-fi, etc.

  • sprockkets - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    And it wasn't until stuff like xine, mplayer or vlc came along that gave us easy dvd playback via analog or digital means.

    I can understand why Apple doesn't want to touch BluRay. Needing firmware updates for players, receivers and tvs to get it working is not only annoying but is BS. Paying $400 for a player or around $300 for a bluray drive plus software to decode it is also ridiculous.
  • RubberJohnny - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    Who's TV or reciever ever needed a firmware to play a bluray?...that statement is BS.

    There's a $60 sata bluray drive on new egg at the moment...where did you pull this $300 figure from?...more BS?
  • sprockkets - Thursday, September 3, 2009 - link

    "Who's TV or reciever ever needed a firmware to play a bluray?...that statement is BS. "

    Oh, I don't know, maybe the previous Anandtech article about his receiver needing a firmware upgrade to talk properly to the computer?

    "Gary tried the Denon AVR-3808 and got the same error: HDCP failed until a firmware update from Denon although the unit worked fine with competing solutions. His situation was slightly different with the Pioneer VSX-94TXH as it worked properly (finally) after the latest updates from ArcSoft and Corel. However, Cyberlink's PowerDVD 8 Ultra still does not have G45 repeater support at this time."

    Fun shit huh? Oh, btw, how fun is it that you need a firmware upgrade every time Fox decides to change keys? What if your player is not worth upgrading anymore?

    Also read about how certain TVs needed firmware updates to properly talk to HDCP bluray players; there were times where the TV would all of a sudden be treated as a "illegal" or "unauthorized" device by the player. Even if this issue is not around anymore, it still is stupid to begin with that I would have to upgrade my TV to play movies. That never happened with DVDs.

    Btw, unless things have changed, and I doubt they have, those bluray drives come with crippled versions of software, and require you to pay for the $70-90 version for all the features that blu ray offers.

    Well, if you want to keep feeding the MAFIAA, go right on ahead.
  • Zorlac - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    PS3 Slim that is (gotta love the edit button) =P
  • taltamir - Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - link

    "Piracy shouldn’t be easier, it should just be cheaper."
    This is why those industries are failing and they don't understand why. When people buy your product, put it on the shelf, and use a pirated version of what they just bought because the pirated version actually WORKS, then you have a huge problem.

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