PC for Multichannel Music Playback - What's your Setup?

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The Bright Side

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Hello team,

I just got inspired by mdmost's post over in the Superunknown thread: I think it would be interesting to discuss and share our PC setups, and how we use them to listen to our multichannel titles.

What solutions have you guys found to make it all work? I'm playing my titles from my PC almost exclusively these days and I guess I have a very unusual setup, so I'll go ahead and post my details to open the discussion.

Operating System:

Ubuntu Gnome 14.04... at the moment, that is. I update whenever a new Ubuntu release comes out, and I have been known to use the Unity UI for a release or two instead of Gnome Shell. I still have it on my laptop, I like them both.

Audio Ripping:

  • DVD Audio Extractor can rip audio straight from DVD-A, DVD-V and Blu Ray and transcode to multiple formats, including FLAC, straight demux (to .mlp, .ac3, .dts etc. files). Cross-platform compatible. I very very highly recommend this software.
  • MKVmerge, a part of the MKVToolnix software package, can separate audio from video files, or package source files together into MKV containers. It will perform lossless cropping on the fly, which is useful to e.g. get rid of sounds at the beginning and end of music videos. I made pure audio files from e.g. the INXS and Janet Jackson video collections that way.
  • Handbrake to rip video DVDs to .mkv or .m4v files. It will copy any audio stream over unedited.
  • For my SACD collection, I find PS3 rips and use Foobar and the SACD plugin to transcode them to FLAC. One of the few things I cannot do in Linux; I have to switch to my Windows partition for it.

In the end, all my discs are stored in the following formats on my PC:

  • FLAC: mostly for music from Blu Rays, SACD, DVD-A
  • MKA: container format that has DTS or AC3 streams in it. I find that MKA is more compatible with playback software than .ac3 or .dts files. Also, thanks to MKVMerge (see above), I can merge individual tracks e.g. from a live gig or a concept album together into one big .mka file (e.g. Heart's "The Road Home").
  • MKV: in cases where I really like the video parts of a collection so much that I want to keep them. Sade, for instance. She's stunning. Also, the two "Forsenses" Blu Rays. Boy, these are amazing in all respects. Flawless video and 5.1 content.
  • WAV: for DTS CDs (e.g. Jasmine Nightdreams, Night Calls).
  • ISO: rarely use this, but sometimes I have ISOs of DVD-V titles I own (for instance, A Valid Path). Don't even remember why.

Playback Software:

  • VLC Media Player mostly for DTS content. Other players sometimes don't properly decode DTS .wav files and play back loud white noise. Always makes me jump.
  • GNOME Videos (aka Totem) for anything else. The one really interesting thing I found is that VLC tends to "normalize" AC3 streams, messing up audio dynamics. I think it has to do with some inherent flag that is set in AC3 streams to normalize audio for movie playback (so e.g. dialogue doesn't get drowned out by loud explosions). Sucks for music. For instance, Systematic Chaos sounded incredibly bad on VLC (lots of volume ups and downs) until I found out that Totem doesn't apply this AC3 normalization stuff. Now, I love listening to that album's surround mix.

Magic Little Helper:

  • Pavucontrol. I love love love this program. It's a richly featured mixer for Ubuntu's "Pulse Audio" system. You can control everything with this, from hardware to software. It allows me to tweak the playback volume for every single channel, both for input and output. So for instance, if I play back Larisa Stow's wonderful "Moment by Moment" DVD-A in Totem (recorded kinda silent), I can boost its volume somewhat past 100% in the "Input" tab, then raise the volume of the rears in the "Output" tab to accommodate whatever spot I'm in in my room.

Hardware Setup:

HDMI cable from my Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 graphics card to my Yamaha RX-V661 receiver. When I got that receiver, I tried running analogue cables from my Creative Sound Blaster Live 5.1 Surround Pro USB card to the receiver, but then I realized the receiver does not post-process the sound. Since Ubuntu does not offer any bass management software either, I had completely unprocessed sound and it was really bad.

Passing the audio through HDMI works well, but of course, HDMI cannot be used for audio only. So there's an actual video signal that runs to my 5.1 receiver and then ends there, making my PC think I have two screens attached. That is one problem I haven't been able to get around.

I configured my two "screens" to only touch each other in the top right/bottom left corner, so that way my mouse cursor doesn't disappear when I move it to the edge of my actual screen. Some programs/windows insist on opening on the invisible screen, though, so I have to blindly pull them back to my actual screen (ALT+F7 gives me control over any active window and lets me move it, so I don't have to blindly "catch" it with my mouse cursor first).

The hardware setup is highly unusual and sometimes it gets annoying, but overall, I am very happy with my solution. Although I still have and love the good ol' Oppo BDP-83, It is such a relief to not have to deal with menus (try to get to the bonus songs on the "Lightbulb Sun" DVD-A - takes forever and you can't even play them in a row), disc loading times, HDMI handshakes and cut-off beginnings of songs (the Oppo eats the first few milliseconds of almost all songs on the Foreigner debut DVD-A). Also, I don't have to switch settings and reload a disc to hear DVD-V content on a DVD-A (e.g. the last track on Tipper's "Surrounded", the beautiful "Lullaby", which only exists on the Dolby Digital version).

Open files, click "Play". Music plays. Magic!
 

Kal Rubinson

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CAPS V3 Zuma with JRMC v19 connected to exaSound e28 mch DAC via USB and/or Meridian 621/861 via HDMI. EQ options include DiracLive on the server or MRC in the 861.

Download files or Rip with dBPowerAmp, DVD Audio Extractor, PS3. Store on remote QNAP NAS.

A continuing delight to have easy access to spectacular assortment of HD, multichannel music and there are thousands more to rip.
 

jdmack

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Somewhat related to the question, I am still using Adobe Audition 1.5 (from 2004). This version of Audition allows me to monitor in 5.1 using a cheap Soundblaster Live sound card. Later versions of audition require ASIO 2.0 sound cards to be able to monitor in 5.1.
 

drphibes

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My system is somewhat limited because I did not understand the limitations of a TOSLINK S/PDIF digital audio connection. That being said, I almost never put in a disc anymore. Simply opening up the Surround Encoded playlist (1657 songs, 6 days of music!) and hitting "random" is a real joy for me.

The PC
A Mac Mini from 2010. OS is Mac OS 10.9.3. Audio out is a Toslink S/PDIF cable. This has some downsides, which I'll explain in the Why DTS? section. The internal media drive gave up the ghost last year, I replaced it with an external blu-ray read/write drive, a Samsung SE-506BB/TSBD. This computer is also the home computer and the DVR for digital TV received on a broadcast antenna. Display is a 1080p LCD HDTV made by LG.

Software
Ripping from discs is done with DVD Audio Extractor 7.2.0. I generally use this to make a DTS CD because of bandwidth limitations with the S/PDIF. The DTS CD is then converted to Apple Lossless with X Lossless Decoder (XLD) and imported into iTunes. Metadata is entered in DVD Audio Extractor before rip, although XLD was sometimes able to find and assign the metadeta for me if I neglected to do this. Album cover art is from AlbumArtExchange.com.

Things were not always so easy. At one time, DVD Audio Extractor did not have an option to make a DTS CD (or I didn't know how to access it). This meant extracting each song as an individual file. Then the file would be sent to an pre-Intel Mac that had a DTS encoding software called Vortex Surround Encoder. Then I'd import the dts .wav files back, encode them to ALAC, and then add metadata. If the file I'm trying to make is anything other than 5.1 (say, quad), I still have to follow this byzantine process with an added step. The files have to be exported as individual channels (e.g. four .wav files for one quad track), exported to the old mac, assign the channels and then encoded with Vortex Surround Encoder into DTS, re-imported into the Mac Mini, etc.

Why DTS?
I would have ripped them into a non-lossy format, but it won't work because of S/PDIF limitations. I discovered this when my 5.1 channel flac files only played in stereo. The next PC will support lossless audio, which may mean a large re-encoding project. I'll need to do some A/B testing to see if I can even discern a difference as I don't have bat hearing.

Listening
The TOSLINK S/PDIF cable connects to a Yamaha RX-V667 receiver. DTS is decoded here and sent out to Energy Take Classic 5.1 Speakers. I also have Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Headphones, the "surround in headphones" angle is variable, it works well for DTS X 11.1 tracks.
 

DennisMoore Jr.

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My system is somewhat limited because I did not understand the limitations of a TOSLINK S/PDIF digital audio connection. That being said, I almost never put in a disc anymore. Simply opening up the Surround Encoded playlist (1657 songs, 6 days of music!) and hitting "random" is a real joy for me.
Hello my good Doctor :)

I promise to post a thingie on my HTPC once I finish configuring Foobar. I just two months ago upgraded from toslink to HDMI so I can relate, though I feel like an idiot for waiting so long. HDMI is the only way to go on the PC/Mac. :)

Basicall the whole toslink limitation thing is(@group I'm doing this from memory, so no anal-retentive corrections please... ;))

The toslink fiber optic or coaxial digital is actually limited by its sillicon in the I/O chips. It was invented long b4 lossless 5.1 audio came out.
Toslink can only support a max speed of 24bit/96khz PCM audio of TWO channels. So dolby digital & DTS were concocted to work around this limitation. PCM is the uncompressed language that D/A converters understand. Toslink circuits simply can't pass data fast enough for 5.1 channels of 24bit/96khz PCM. This is why we graduated to HDMI which can pass digital signaling at those speeds and more.

Interestingly enough its all done via the computers "video" port, but it is nothing more than ones & zereos. But the video card must understand the protocol that audio over HDMI uses. All modern video cards from the last 4 years can do this. I have a HTPC which has that built in ability on the motherboard chipset, so the HDMI on the motherboard supports it! So I have no video card at all. I just use the HDMI from my mobo directly into my Onkyo receiver. In Windows Sound Manager I select the "Onkyo receiver" and I am all set. It is so easy it is shocking!

Now I can play blurays direct from my PC, but like I said I need to fiddle with Foobar to get SACD and DVD-Audio going.

I hope this helps!

By all means, run out a get a new $50 video card and get you HTPC on HDMI. It will allow you to play everything and there is so little setup with the PC/Mac and the apps on the PC/Mac.

Cheers!

DM
 

skindzier

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This: http://www.amazon.com/Xonar-Essence-24-bit-192KHz-Interface/dp/B002UVME88/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402098663&sr=8-1&keywords=asus+xonar+essence+st
+
This: http://www.amazon.com/Xonar-H6-Channel-Upgrade-Essence/dp/B003LD94SM/ref=sr_1_2?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1402098735&sr=1-2&keywords=asus+xonar+essence+st+h6

is also an option if your receiver/amp has multichannel inputs (That's what I have. I previously was running HDMI & in my opinion the Asus sounds noticeably better. More expensive, but not as expensive as most multichannel DACs)

Edit: I guess I can fill out the rest of the system - Assassin custom HTPC Intel i7 processor w/16 GB RAM, going to a Yamaha Rx-V667 receiver. I run JRiver Media Center on the PC for playback and extract standard CDs through that, SACDs through an old PS3 and DVD-As and Blu Rays through DVD Audio Extractor. I also use eac3to to work around some of the tricky issues when extracting DTS-MA from blu rays. You physical disk folks don't care, but it is SOOOO much easier to rip the other lossless options.
 

DennisMoore Jr.

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I have no argument with what you say except that HDMI is not the only way. USB is preferable if you can get a MCH DAC.
Of course, with Macs & PeeCees that have USB 3.0, the USB controller can serve as the input/output as well. If one has the $$$... external multi-channel DACs are fabulous and allow much smaller laptops to be the HTPC.

There are very many combinations to hook up a computer to a sound system. My above post was trying to underscore the reality of:

Toslink or coax = Dolby Digital or DTS or 2 Ch 24bit/96khz

HDMI = everything including DTS - Master Audio & Dolby Tru (both are uncompressed 24bit/96khz 5.1)

Its worth it to leave Toslink/coax and upgrade to any method that enables uncompressed 24bit/96khz 5.1

@Kal: Props on having a very nice piece of gear. (y)

@the Group: Windows 8 has an improved USB controller which makes a very fast USB 3.0 even faster(approx. 3X)
 

drphibes

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What a productive and informative discussion! Thanks folks. @skindzier, can I get a "HELL YEAH" for Yamaha receivers? I've always been thrilled with them.
 

fredblue

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Hell yeah +1 for Yammy AVRs! (y) I've had Sony & Denon receivers in the past and my current Yammy (RXV2067) blows the others out of the water.
 

HomerJAU

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Anyone on QQ using a NUC with Openelec, XMBC or similar media software?

I am currently using a Mede8er media player but they are not fixing an issue with being able to select tracks on my music video selection on my IPad interface. I can only select the first. For audio only it is perfect but I want the same experience for music video and it looks like an Intel NUC and free Openelec will do it.
 

Halloway

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For playback I'm using a HP Microserver N40L with a graphics card, running Windows 8.1 connected to a Yamaha RX-V673 via HDMI. I generally rip and convert surround music to multichannel FLAC and I play these from XBMC. For the occasional SACD or DVD-A ISO I use Foobar2000.

For ripping and converting, I tend to use DVD Audio Extractor or MakeMKV, depending on the disc format. If I need to convert SACD ISOs then I simply use the convert function in Foobar2000. For tagging FLACs I use mp3tag.
 

Wildman

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I run toslink and j river, to get multichannel flacs to play I set j river to output in a Dolby digital container. Not perfect, but sounds good to my ears. It'll hold me over until I upgrade the soundcard.
 

HomerJAU

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Ok after doing a bit of web surfing I went ahead and bought an Intel i3 NUC and loaded openelec (which includes XBMC media player software on a small Linux build needing only 200mb so it can run on a USB stick).

It has an HDMI output and LAN connector so I can plug into my AVR and home network to my server. The Intel i5 decodes HD video and Audio internally. The NUC includes an IR receiver for remote control and XBMC has IOS and Android tablet/phone remote control apps.

It plays all my high res audio from 4.0/5.0/5.1 FLAC (44.1 to 192kHz) to 5.1 DTS 24/96, DTS-HDMA and TrueHD music and movies from blu-ray and DVD etc. I read the next version of XBMC will include DSD decoding.

Really nice user interface. Browse music library and video library while watching a video or listening to music.

I will post some pictures etc over the weekend.

Info on the NUC: http://www.intel.com.au/content/www/au/en/nuc/nuc-kit-d34010wyk.html
 

HomerJAU

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I have downloaded a couple of new 'skins' (user interface designs) for XBMC. One of them auto downloads and shows photos of the current song artist, which change every few seconds. I was playing The Eagles and there was about 4 or 5 photos in the slideshow.

I changed skins and played Bryan Ferry Boys and Girls and the lyrics automatically appeared. Same when playing Pink Floyd WYWH.

I have a self made compilation of seventies acoustic tracks (mostly surround). Unlike my Mede8er media player, my NUC/XBMC software shows the original imbedded album art. So each track in the compilation shows its own album art. Nice.

With the Mede8er you need to create an external file (xml) with 3rd party software to create its music database. With XBMC it automatically scans your nominated music folders for new music and reads the tags. So it's been pretty easy say so far as I've already tagged every FLAC album I've made.

For example, yesterday my Mando Diao Aelita blu-ray arrived, I converted to FLAC 24/96 in my usual way (DVDFab and AudioMuxer), added tags and renamed the tracks (almost automatically with free Tagscanner software - it looks up an online music database) then copied the files to my NAS (file server) and on start-up of XBMC it found the new album and displayed it on the start-up screen with its album cover in a list "recently added albums". Just click and it played!

More to come...
 

DuncanS

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I've been thinking about getting one, but hadn't done any research yet. So thanks!
 

HomerJAU

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A few screen captures from my Intel NUC running openelec/XBMC. (All are using a free 'skin' named Aeon Nox 4.1.9.9)

Typical Audio library (these are all multichannel - the two Police albums: 1. SACD 2. DTS-CD for A/B listening tests)
screenshot011.jpg

NOTE: Pretenders Greatest Hits has not been released in surround its actually up mixed. Richard Clapton is DTS audio from a DVD-V concert with some interviews cut out.

When an album is playing the screensaver pops up info about the album and artist (the info is downloaded automatically over the internet):
screenshot008.jpg

You can navigate around in the screensaver to get other info:
screenshot009.jpg

Music Video/Concerts:
screenshot013.jpg

When you click a cover the track list is shown (Actually I have ripped each song/track as a file named after the song/track) - a small capture of the track is shown down bottom left:
screenshot014.jpg

It's looking very promising. Still a few niggles and a bit of customisation needed. But the good news is I've not had to change any existing music or video files. All working 'out the box'

More to come...
 

LizardKing

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Here's my set-up that I've just set-up over the Xmas break:

Playback Software:

foobar2000 – for surround audio playback – I have the following installed:
· AC3 Decoder
· DTS Decoder
· DVD-Audio Decoder
· Super Audio CD Decoder
· TouchRemote DACP server & TunesRemote+ on my Smartphone for remote control

I’ve skinned foobar2000 with the DarkOne 4.0 skin/theme http://tedgo.deviantart.com/art/DarkOne-v4-360862076 – as the standard interface is quite clunky. I think it works quite well. I’ll add a screenshot of the interface later – I think it looks great.

Jriver Media Center – I’m tossing up whether I carry on (and purchase) this. It’s great for video, but although it would play SACD ISOs and display them on the Smartphone remote (Gizmo) it would display both stereo and Surround tracks – in foobar2000 you can easily customise it to display only Multichannel.

Also on the low spec laptop I’m using Jriver skips at times playing SACD ISOs (even after tweaking all the settings) – whereas foobar2000 plays ISOs perfectly.

Operating System & PC:
Windows 8 –and a standard dual core laptop.

Hardware Setup:
HDMI from my laptop to my Emotiva UMC-1 pre-processor.

Audio Ripping/Tools:

DVDFab - if I want a decrypted DVD-Audio ISO.
FooBar2000 - to extract & convert DVD-Audio tracks directly to hi rez FLAC.
MakeMKV – To extract audio from Blu-rays/DVDs, then Audiomuxer to extract the audio from the MKV files to FLAC.
SACD - For my SACD collection, PS3 ISO rips – foobar2000 plays back the SACD ISOs natively and converts to PCM on the fly (or DSD if you have a DAC).
Audiomuxer – This is my "swiss army knife" for converting audio from one format to another.
Audacity - If I want to invert the phase on one or more of the channels of Pale Communion. :mad: Also useful for amplifying channel levels (with a non-clipping gain - of course).
MP3Tag - for tagging FLACs

Audio is mainly stored in the following formats in my library:
· FLAC: music from Blu Rays, SACD, DVD-A, DVD etc...
· ISO: DVD-Audio & SACD (PS3 rips) - more of a pain to tag than FLACS...
· dtsWAV: for DTS CDs
 
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