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How to replace your home theater pre-pro with a HTPC!

The concept

In a previous blog article – deconstructing the home theater pre-processor – we introduced the idea of replacing the pre-pro with a home theater PC (HTPC). This post provides the meaty details of how we did exactly that!

 

Overview of the system

Our media server HTPC build is based on the CAPS Zuma but uses a larger chassis with an optical drive to allow DVD and Blu-Ray ripping and playback from optical media. It is a silent PC using heat pipes to cool the processor and contains no fans. We are using a Lynx AES16e card with external DACs from DEQX (the HDP-4) and a Metric Halo (the LIO8).

 

Hardware bill of materials

Most of the parts are the same as the CAPS Zuma so please see that article for product links.

  • Case: Streacom FC10. This is a larger case than the CAPS Zuma with space for two expansion cards and a slot loading optical drive. Two expansion cards allows use of the Lynx AES16e 16 channel digital output card and either a USB card like the SoTM or a video card.
  • Motherboard: Intel DH77EB.
  • Processor: Intel Core i7 i3770S.
  • Memory: Crucial 8GB DDR3 1600.
  • SSD: Samsung 840 Pro 120GB.
  • Power supply: picoPSU-160-XT + 192W Adapter Power Kit. This is a larger power supply than used in the Caps Zuma and requires the power entry on the rear of the Streacom case to be enlarged using a drill.
  • Expansion card: Lynx AES16e. This is a 16 channel PCIe to AES converter.
  • Expansion card riser: Logic Supply flexible riser.
  • Optical drive: slot loading blu-ray, whatever you can find. I used a TEAC.
  • Cables: a couple of special cables are required a) the cable included
    with the picoPSU is too short to reach across the case so I had to
    extend it using crimp connectors and a short lengths of hook up wire b) the slot load optical drive requires a SATA to miniSATA and power supply adaptor cable.

 

The build part 1 – installation of the motherboard, processor and heat pipes

 

The build part 2 – installation of the power supply, RAM, SSD, optical drive, Lynx AES card

 

Software installation

With the hardware done it was time to move onto the software. The bill of materials is as follows:

 

Operating system. All computers need an OS and a HTPC is no different. Windows rather than Linux is the way to go for a HTPC, mainly because we want to use cool applications like JRiver Media Center! I used Windows 8 Pro 64 bit for two reasons: firstly it can back up itself over a network, which lesser versions of the OS cannot and secondly that it includes remote desktop. As a side note having an optical drive like we do in this build makes it much much easier to install Windows 8. Installing it from a USB drive is a royal PITA!

Playback software. Once the OS is installed two key pieces of software need to be installed. The first of these is JRiver Media Center v.18. This amazing library management and playback application is the only way that I know of to replace a pre-pro with a HTPC. The other two pieces of software needed are SlySoft’s AnyDVDHD which allows you to playback and rip blu-ray discs and ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theater for the dtsdecoder.dll (a file that allows JRiver to decode DTS-HD audio – see here for more details).

Once you’ve installed the software it’s time to move onto configuration!

 

Windows 8 optimization

Very little optimization is needed to Windows 8 especially when you are using a SSD, 8GB of RAM and a kick ass processor! SweetWater have provided a nice guide written for Windows 7 – but applicable to 8 – that I used to tweak a few settings.

 

JRiver setup

Now we get to the meaty part! JRiver has SO many settings that it is all a bit daunting at first, even for a professional like me! Many of the settings are not that well documented either, which doesn’t help the setup process either. I left most of the general settings untouched except as follows.

In the Tools>Options>Audio menu I changed the following:

  • Audio Output:  select ASIO as the “Output mode” and then in “Output mode settings”
    change the buffer size to 0.1s and check “Device only uses most
    significant 24bits”. The Lynx only uses 24 bits even though it is presented in a 32 bit wrapper and that’s why this setting should be checked.
  • Volume: set “Volume Mode” to internal and turn on “Volume Protection”. See this wiki article for more. Changing the volume mode lets you use JRiver’s volume control to set playback level and is required for our system topology using external DACs.
  • Settings: check “Play files from memory instead of disk”. This is a setting to optimize audio file playback, as far as I can tell it does not affect blu-ray playback.
  • Track Change: set “Switch tracks” to Standard (gapped) – 0.5s instead of the annoying cross-fade it is set to as default.

In the Tools>Options>Video menu I changed the following:

  • General Video Settings: change video mode to “Red October HQ” (see here for more information), check “Videoclock” (more) and turn “Adaptive Volume” off (set to low by
    default). Adaptive Volume seems to be a form of volume compression intended to be used for late night listening…quite why this is in video settings I am not sure about given
    that it is an audio parameter!

The next part of the setup is particular to our home theater demo room where the system is installed. I’ll show you the details but just bear in mind they will be different for you if you decide to setup a HTPC of your own! These settings are accessed as follows: Tools>Options>Audio>Settings>DSP Studio. Using JRiver gives you an insane amount of flexibility (way more than all the pre-pros I know of except maybe the DataSat RS20i) in terms of how you want to setup your system.

 

1) Output format

First we need to properly set the number of output channels. In our home theater demo room we need 12 output channels. This is because the left, center and right are all bi-amplified (i.e. 6 channels), then we have both side and rear surround speakers (another 4 channels) and four subs arranged in separate front and rear arrays (2 more channels). The closest JRiver setting is for 16 channels, which works fine in our case since we have a Lynx AES16e! The big benefit here is that everything is kept in the digital domain. With a normal pre-pro and the screen channels we would need to have an additional DSP box like a Xilica XP3060 after the pre-pro with the resulting extra cost, cabling complexity and potential for sound quality reduction due to the additional analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions.

Most blu-rays only have two surround channels (i.e. they are 5.1) but we have four physical surround channels and so we need to somehow create these extra channels. On a normal pre-pro we would enable Dolby Pro Logic IIx to synthesize the extra surround channels. JRiver does not have Pro Logic IIx but it does have a proprietary upmix algorithm called JRSS. Unfortunately there is precious little information on how JRSS actually works but it does it’s job nicely.

2) Room Correction

This is the part of JRiver where bass management settings are controlled. It is also possible to set speaker levels and delays here but we are doing that in the Parametric Equalizer simply because it’s easier to precisely set individual delays there rather than using the typical pre-pro concept of entering everything as a distance and then having the software work out individual delays. If we are honest the name “Room Correction” is misleading…it’s more like speaker configuration. We’re not doing any room correction here!

In our case we are crossing over the Procella P610 screen channels at 40Hz to our subwoofer array. The P610s are ‘full range’ speakers but we like to rolloff the lowest octave to increase system headroom, lower distortion and improve overall clarity. The surround speakers are P6s which have been designed per THX specifications i.e. they have a characteristic 12dB / octave rolloff below 80Hz.

Jriver’s bass management flexibility is amazing – way, way more than you get in all the pre-pros I have used. Most pre-pros use a fixed 12dB / octave high pass and a fixed 24dB / octave low pass. Since most speakers are not designed as per THX specification this can and does result in imperfect crossover integration (for more see this article). JRiver let’s you perfectly setup bass management every time.

3) Parametric Equalizer

Finally we have what I think is JRiver’s crowning glory – a hugely flexible parametric EQ system built right into the application. In our high end home theaters (and two channel systems too, given a chance) we always specify in and calibrate a parametric EQ to dial out the last remnants of room mode resonances remaining in the low bass after passive acoustic treatment. This normally involves using an outboard EQ like a aforementioned Xilica with the extra cost, wiring complexity and potential for signal degradation it incurs.

We are using the parametric EQ to set levels, delays, add crossovers for bi-amplification of our Procella P610 screen channels and the like. See below for some of the details!

Intel display driver settings

For the video part of blu-ray playback we are using the Intel motherboard’s HDMI output. The settings for this are managed via the Graphics Properties. Out of the box a lot of ‘visual enhancements’ are turned on which will screw up our picture so it is important not to skip this step. Here are the things we changed:

  • Resolution – set to 1920x1080p, 60Hz.
  • Display > Monitor / TV settings > Enable “IT Content”. This turns off any processing within the Intel display driver.
  • Display > Color Enhancement > Enable “YCbCr”. This forces video levels to 16-235 which is the consumer standard used in most displays. If your display supports 0-255 then you could leave this unchecked.
  • Media > Image Enhancement > Change “Noise Reduction” and “Sharpness” to application settings, turn off “Skin Tone Enhancement”, “Film Mode Detection” and “Adaptive Contrast Enhancement”.

 

Lynx mixer panel configuration

To get JRiver’s software outputs to the right physical outputs on our Lynx card we have to do some tweaking to the routing in the Lynx mixer panel. The panel is confusing and mislabeled but eventually we got there!

Other settings that were changed:

  • Settings>Buffer Size – reduced from 1024 to 64.
  • Settings>Advanced – disable “Synchrolock”.
  • Settings>Driver Options – disable “Topology Driver”. This solved an issue where on computer restart the left and right channel volumes in the mixer would reset to -22dB.

 

Physical hookup of the HTPC to display and DAC

  • Video – HDMI from the Intel Motherboard to the display or in our case a Lumagen XS video processor and then onto our SIM2 projector.
  • Audio – the Lynx AES16e uses a DB26 connector which is something you don’t see often but does have some advantages in terms of the amount of conductors it packs into a small form factor. To hook it up to our DEQX HDP-4 and Metric Halo LIO8 we had custom cables made up by Redco. The DEQX cable is a DB26 to XLR cable and the Metric Halo cable a DB26 to DB25 cable.

 

The HTPC in use

It was a lot of effort to determine the proper way to configure everything but I think it was worth it. The system plays back blu-rays flawlessly and the audio DSP works as intended. Sound quality is way better than with a basic pre-pro and the video quality is on par with a nice blu-ray player. There are no pops, clicks or any other nasties to give away the fact you are using a PC. CPU utilization is around 13% and memory utilization 18% when playing back a blu-ray. The system should have plenty of headroom to allow me to experiment with and run multi-channel room correction algorithms from Dirac Live or Audiolense.


Whilst I was configuring JRiver I came across a great additional feature called Zones. This allows you to setup multiple profiles, each of which can comprise a completely different JRiver configuration. The really cool part is that you can get JRiver to automatically switch between profiles using ZoneSwitch depending on what content is playing. In my case I have setup my system so that 2 channel music goes out of the PC into a USB/SPDIF converter and then into my DEQX. I found this to have better sound quality than the Lynx AES16e. When I pop in a blu-ray disc (or play back from a disc stored on my NAS) then JRiver switches back to the Lynx AES card. This means that the HTPC has also become our music server for playback of both redbook and hi-rez music. Bye-bye Mac Mini, iTunes and Pure Music (we won’t miss you!).

What do you think about our HTPC experiment? Please gather your thoughts and add a comment below!

Update 04/17/16:

The HTPC as pre-pro replacement was an interesting project, but we found a number of issues with it:

  • Limited to sources originating on the computer (can’t switch external HDMI sources)
  • High complexity (many JRiver settings to fiddle with)
  • Average reliability (updates to JRiver or Windows stop the system from working, requiring manual interventions)
  • Poor usability (don’t expect other family members to be able to use it)
  • No Atmos or DTS.X decoding

As a pure media server, a PC is a possibility, but with the fall in the cost of dedicated hardware (Kaleidescape) we are no longer recommending this as a solution to our clients.

51 thoughts on “How to replace your home theater pre-pro with a HTPC!”

  1. Installing Windows from a USB drive is much faster than installing from an optical drive and it’s relatively simple to configure. Microsoft has a free utility for creating a bootable USB drive from an iso image of the installation disc. Create an iso image from the disc using your favority iso utility. Then, use the Microsoft utility to prepare the drive and copy the iso image to it. Set the BIOS to boot from a USB drive and plug it in. Just make sure you remove the USB drive from the PC when it reboots for the first time or you’ll end up rerunning setup all over again. Reset the BIOS to boot from the newly configured OS drive and you’re in business. I do all of my installs from a USB drive now.

  2. Great article, why lead you to the decision to use the internal digital volume control instead of an external dac with a volume control (for example the Prism Audio Orpheus)?

    1. Hi Dom, mainly because I wanted to use two different DACs – I use the DEQX HDP-4 for my left and right Procella P610s and a Metric Halo LIO8 for everything else. That means for home theater I need to use JRiver’s internal volume control. For music listening when I am only using the left and rights I set the JRiver volume at 100% and use the volume control in the DEQX.

  3. Hi Dom, mainly because I wanted to use two different DACs – I use the DEQX HDP-4 for my left and right Procella P610s and a Metric Halo LIO8 for everything else. That means for home theater I need to use JRiver’s internal volume control. For music listening when I am only using the left and rights I set the JRiver volume at 100% and use the volume control in the DEQX.

  4. HOT, HOT, HOT!!!!!! Wonderful piece of work indeed!!!! I’ve created something similar but not quite as indepth as yours (I’m not bi-amping at all). Question, are you using Gizmo or JRemote or another app for remote control?

  5. Thanks for sharing. I am planning a similar setup of about 10 channels. If I were to use Aurora 16 instead of DEQX HDP-4 and Metric Halo LIO8, which version of Aurora 16 would you recommend? Would I also need multiple pre-amplifiers in that case?

    1. Hi Alok

      I am not at this stage (Sept 2013) familiar with the Lynx Aurora though I believe they have a USB interface which would probably sound best. Makes sure you check how many channels are supported at 24/192 though…

      The Metric Halo sounds fantastic but I have had some strange operational issues where sometimes there was no output from it which required turning the unit off and leaving it for a few minutes to ‘reboot’. There are some other drawbacks with it too – it doesn’t have a power standby or output muting relays, so you have to be careful in terms of the order you switch your components on and off.

      Nyal

  6. Dear sirs, i read your article about making HTPC with number of digital outputs for external DACs. Did you finish experimenting and got some results? I am looking to do the same. I have external DACs and can build HTPC with Lynx card but where can i get room correction software with external mic usage how to route 7.1 channels of the bluray playback to the corresponding digital outputs? thank you very much in advance, Ivan

  7. How Can We Help You?
    Dear sirs, i read your article about making HTPC with number of digital outputs for external DACs. Did you finish experimenting and got some results? I am looking to do the same. I have external DACs and can build HTPC with Lynx card but where can i get room correction software with external mic usage how to route 7.1 channels of the bluray playback to the corresponding digital outputs? thank you very much in advance, Ivan

    1. Things are working great with the HTPC and I fully recommend it. The software we are using as mentioned in the article is JRiver Media Center.

      We aren’t using any other room correction software. All of the parametric EQ filters that were used in JRiver were manually generated by us during the calibration process. We used Room EQ Wizard with JRiver ‘loopback’ (http://thewelltemperedcomputer.com/SW/Players/JRiver/Loopback.htm) to take measurements.

      If you are only using 7.1 channels from a bluray then JRiver does all the routing.

      1. Hi Neal, thank you very much for reply. Few more things. 1) Is there any way to use several ( like 4) USB-> Spdif converters with 4 external DACs instead of the Lynx card for 7.1 bluray playback? i mean is there possibility to assign channels in JRiver to the corresponding USB DAC? 2) how about DTS-MA? Since it is available only at the HDMI output of the video card how do you play it? 3) how the systems compares to the top of the line pre-pro like Mcintosh MX151? 4) do you think JRiver room correction works at the same level as modern Audyssey XT32 , Trinnov or similar?

        1. Hi Ivan

          1) No it is not possible to assign channels in JRiver to individual USB/SPDIF converters
          2) DTA-MA is decoded to LPCM by JRiver if you put the dtsdecoder.dll file from Arcsoft in the right location. See here: http://wiki.jriver.com/index.php/Blu-ray#HD_Audio. The LPCM then goes over the Lynx AES card to your DACs
          3) It is very much dependent on the quality of your external DACs. To me it sounds great and at the level of $10k pre-pros with my Metric Halo LIO8
          4) JRiver’s internal parametric EQ is manually setup by you or a calibrator. Done well this has the potential to be as good if not better than modern room correction algorithms. It is not an automated process through so the results you get are very much dependent on the skill of the person setting it up. I do not think you can mention Audyssey XT32 in the same voice as Trinnov or Dirac Live. Audyssey is, to me, strictly ‘mid-fi’

  8. btw, i desided to make custom 10 channel tube DAC and use it for theater.
    Right now I have DIY custom 2.5W single ended amplifier and full range speakers for music together with modified Audio Note Kits DAC 4.1 and very satisfied with its quality.
    Also i have newest MSB Analog DAC, but AN DAC sounds day and night better even while trying DSD 384K source files for MSB.
    So for the multichannel DAC i am planing to use AudioNote kits digital boards.

    Amp is only 2.5W per channel but speakers has more than 100dB sencivity so that is more than enough for 40 square meters room, never used more than 60% of volume.
    Full range speakers gives very fast and detailed sound so i think it will work fine with movies.
    I tried watching movie in stereo with my music setup and difference was so significant comparing to Denon receiver AVR-4520 with 5.1 KEF speakers which i have now for theater so i even prefer stereo now until i made 7.1 tube setup.

    what do you think about this tube theater idea?

  9. btw, i desided to make custom 10 channel tube DAC and use it for theater.
    Right now I have DIY custom 2.5W single ended amplifier and full range speakers for music together with modified Audio Note Kits DAC 4.1 and very satisfied with its quality.
    Also i have newest MSB Analog DAC, but AN DAC sounds day and night better even while trying DSD 384K source files for MSB.
    So for the multichannel DAC i am planing to use AudioNote kits digital boards.

    Amp is only 2.5W per channel but speakers has more than 100dB sencivity so that is more than enough for 40 square meters room, never used more than 60% of volume.
    Full range speakers gives very fast and detailed sound so i think it will work fine with movies.
    I tried watching movie in stereo with my music setup and difference was so significant comparing to Denon receiver AVR-4520 with 5.1 KEF speakers which i have now for theater so i even prefer stereo now until i made 7.1 tube setup.

    what do you think about this tube theater idea?

  10. Nyal, I’m getting ready to go to a pro audio interface myself. I’ll be contacting you or Mojave’ if I have any hiccups. Replacing my Essence ST/H6 for the new year!

  11. Hi

    I’ve recently installed a Lynx aes 16 card to my htpc. This is feeding my Datasat AP20 via aes.

    I’m using JRiver for playback.

    I’ve had to add an audio delay of about 50ms to correct lip sync.

    Did you have this issue?

    Kind regards

    Stuart

    1. Hi Stuart

      Thanks for reading!

      Yes, I add lip sync correction to Jriver, infact nearly 300ms is required on 24FPS sources. For some reason I do not need to add any correction for 60FPS. Go figure!

  12. Hey nyal,

    I found your thread on AVS and your website explaining how you put your system together! Great write up appreciate your efforts. What I couldn’t find was an actual review of how it all sounded in the end?

    Would you say your htpc pre pro with external Dac sounds as good as a dataset rs20i ? Would you say it sounds better than a marrantz 8801 pre pro ?

    You have obviously been in the industry a long time and listened to some high end gear. I would love to read a review of your htpc compared to the other pre pros in your show rooms.

    Have you run direc live room correction on your htpc yet?

    Also could you please explain how it is all connected for me a bit better so I can wrap my head around it. For example is it

    Htpc Hdmi from onboard motherboard to lumagen> lumagen to projector for video source.
    If I don’t own a lumagen can I go Hdmi htpc to projector? Would I be better off buying a graphics card to handle video instead of onboard Hdmi if I don’t own a lumagen?

    Audio u go out from your lynx to the external Dac. Does your Dac connect to your power amp to drive the speakers ?

    Also how do you split the audio and video signal on the htpc from Hdmi.. I thought you needed a graphics card for 5.1/7.1 output. I wasn’t aware u could send video from the onboard Hdmi and then split the audio from something else.

    1. Hi Paul

      Thanks for reading and following along with this project!

      It sounds very, very good. Certainly better than the Marantz 8801 / Yamaha CX-A5000 level. Probably on par with the 10k or so higher end pre-pros. I’ve never had a Datasat in here to compare so I can’t answer that question. I would expect the DACs to be better in the ExaSound than the Datasat, plus the USB interface is very low jitter compared to HDMI, so it should sound better.

      The current configuration is that for audio I am feeding an ExaSound E28 DAC via USB. There is a crossover after the ExaSound to biamp the LCR speakers and independently delay the front and rear sub arrays. Dirac Live is running on the HTPC. For video HDMI goes to the Lumagen and then onto the projector. Some people (not me) have had problems with video playback using JRiver, but mostly it seems because they are trying to do too much with their hardware. I don’t use any of the color calibration / scaling in MADVR, I use the Lumagen for that. The graphics cards are mostly fan cooled and so will add noise.

      Not sure if you saw but we are now offering configured servers for sale along the lines of what we described here, with a few tweaks, plus proper support. So if DIY is too much for you then that’s an option. Take a look at the MS1: http://store.acousticfrontiers.com/Acoustic-Frontiers-MS1-Media-Server.html

  13. I am interested is using an i7 IMac as an HTPC with functionality similar to your MS1 Media Server. Can you tell me what might be possible using the IMac?

    Thanks

    1. Hi Forrest,

      Do they make an i7 iMac anymore? Are you planning on using OSX or Windows?

      I know JRiver has a version for OSX but I’m not sure whether it is functionally equal to the Windows version. JRiver is really the brains of the operation!

      Nyal

  14. First off, really great effort and article. Really got me thinking as I am in the middle of shopping for a new AVR ..

    I can live with everything in your article, but need functionality to attach and switch between various HDMI devices (i.e. Roku 3, Apple TV, etc.), all while using JRiver as the video/audio output box. Reason is to support things JRiver does not currently support (i.e. Airplay).

    If that type of AVR HDMI switching functionality could be made to work, I don’t need an AVR as selecting anyone of them (especially a budget model) is basically an exercise in which set of compromises you want to make.

    Thanks in advance for input.

    1. That’s the downside to a HTPC. No HDMI input! We’ve actually moved away from a HTPC as pre-pro in our showroom and only recommend it to the 1% of hardcore enthusiasts with no other sources and who can put up with the usability and maintainability issues of a Windows box. It makes a great SOURCE but not a great pre-pro. Too many limitations such as no Dolby Atmos decoding (and probably none likely to show up either), no 3D in JRiver, etc.

      1. Thanks for your reply.

        I was wondering if and how you got around the HDMI input issue. I will continue using my dual audio out OpenELEC HTPC (HDMI to AVR for home theater, external USB DAC direct to amp for music) as a source.

  15. Hello Nyal

    How is your Metric halo connected to the amplifier, DB25 to RCA?

    Because of your nice article, I have decided to convert my own HTPC to a pre/pro, and make 3way active crossovers for my fronts (XTZ Divine 100.49). My budget is a “tad” lower than yours, so I’ve looked on a Solid state logic MadiExtreme 64 soundcard, and SSL Alpha-Link MX4-16 DAC. This DAC has DB25 output and my amplifiers is normal consumer Rotel’s with RCA input. I’ve read that balanced output is higher voltage than RCA, so will the DAC kill my Rotel’s RCA input?

    And a few more questions 😉 My plan is to make the crossover filters with Acourate, and use Dirac as room/speaker correction(yes I like dirac a lot;-)) but is it even possible to get dirac’s calibration sweeps through the Acourate crossovers? I have never used Acourate, so I’m not familiar with how it works. And how about Spotify, Netflix can I get all this to work together?

    1. Hi thanks for your comment. We are no longer using the HTPC as pre-pro concept. When we were using the Metric Halo it was connected via DB25 to XLR cables.

      If your amp is designed to run on consumer output voltages and you feed it pro voltage levels then you will need to use a lot of digital attenuation in the HTPC which could lead to sound quality issues due to bit reduction.

      I am not familiar with Acourate but I think it has both room correction and crossovers in it. I’d try getting that working before you try adding on Dirac Live.

      You can use the “audio hijack” feature in JRiver to stream Netflix and Spotify through JRiver.

      Good luck!

        1. We gave up on it due to poor reliability in day to day use and excessive complexity and difficulty of use for non-uber geeks.

  16. Good afternoon!
    Please help me how to make measurements in the REW V5.13 after setting JRiver?
    Sound card fitted, how can I send a signal through JRiver in REW V5.13?

    1. Thanks for reading…to send REW through JRiver you need to go into JRiver and select “Open Live” WASAPI Loopback from the File menu. You need to set REW to play to the Windows default soundcard, and set the default soundcard to be something other than your main soundcard.

      1. Thanks for the advice!
        With this I understood but now I have another problem,,,
        I’m using active and passive acoustics front surround channels, all set up and redirected to the active channels division but I do not gain +10 LFE subwoofer
        Where can I read about it, or maybe you tell me?

  17. I have been using a HTPC now for a while using an upgraded Exasound e28 with JRiver and running Dirac Live on the PC. It has been just about flawless and easy to maintain. The sound is definitely superior to the current high-end pre-pro’s out there as I auditioned in my home Datasat RS20i (professionally setup by the company), McIntosh MX151 and I already own Theta Casablanca and Meridian 861 (The Meridian Dealer brought in a brand new V8 to compete as well). He left with no sale. There is no comparison, the exasound beats them all.

    The one and only pain in the ass is exactly what you mentioned. The no “HDMI Input” issue. I haven’t needed it all this time but now I thought hey I will plug-in my Cable Box and a game console so my wife and I can hack and slash zombies from time to time and blow up the house soundwise while doing it. Nope, won’t happen. Not possible. Show STOPPER.

    Finding this out has re-engaged my obsession to find a new pre-pro or upgrade one of mine. Even though I know I will be disappointed with the sound quality versus my current setup. If they ever found a way to fix this, wow. Then and only then can it truly replace a Pre-Pro.

    1. Hi thanks for your comment. We actually found the RS20i to be very slightly sonically better than the Exasound, however this may also be related to a couple of factors, the main one being that without the RS20i we were running the LCRs through an additional analog active crossover since the LCRs are actively bi-amped. It is possible this extra analog crossover led to our findings of E28 vs RS20i falling the way that they did. To be honest though they were very, very close. Within a few percentage points for sure. Nothing like the difference in quality between say a Yamaha or Marantz pre-pro and the RS20i. More like the small differences that you hear between the kind of top flight pre-pros on your list. I’d say the RS20i simply had a more cohesive and correct presentation than the JRiver / E28 solution. It turned our room from being a home theater to something that sounded like a commercial cinema (in a good way). Note that our evaluations were with multi-channel only, not two channel.

      1. Thanks for your comment. Do you know if anyone has used these ASRock motherboards for routing HDMI audio / video through a program like JRiver. This would be required to use a HTPC as pre-pro.

  18. Hi,

    I’m also looking to replace my pre-pro with a HTPC.

    I see here people looking at Exasound but what about Benchmark? I found
    a review about a hi-rez multichannel set up.
    They were using several Benchmark DAC2’s in combination with the AHB2 amps. Does anybody know something about the quality of this Benchmark set up. Is it on the same level
    then Exasound?

    1. I have not A/B’d the Benchmark vs. Exasound. I’m pretty sure using the Benchmark will be much more difficult – one of the advantages of the Exasound is the ability to use a USB cable for playback of 8 channels of audio. With the Benchmark you’d likely need to get an internal PCI-E audio card like the Lynx AES to get the digital audio out of the computer. Then you also have the issue of clock sync of multiple DACs.

  19. Hi Nyal,

    Thanks for the reply!

    Just a question about the splitting of audio and video.

    If I would use a graphic card, nvidia gtx 980, can I send then the video via the HDMI to my projector and the sound via the USB to an external DAC (exasound)?

    Sorry for the questions but I’m into home theater and not so much into HTPC so
    I still have to learn a lot……

  20. is there any chance with the modern graphic cards gtx 970 etc to have also dolby atmos with an htpc and dirac live?

    1. The limiting factor is that there is no Dolby Atmos codec available for use on the HTPC…and I have not heard of any plans for there to ever be one.

  21. Hi Forrest,
    In your first post it says “you could use a digital interface and hook up a number of 2 channel DACs”
    I have several stereo DACs, so this would seem the ideal setup for me. This option wasn’t explored further in your interesting experiment, or did I miss smth obvious? What kind of “digital interface” did you have in mind?

    I’ have a working audio setup (JRiver, Foobar) and would like to add multi-channel playback. The video part is secondary.

    Thanks in advance.

    Erik

    1. You can use a soundcard like a Lynx AES16 which is a 16 channel soundcard to get multiple channels of audio out of the PC, then use multiple two channel DACs.

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