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  • Creating a High-Resolution 5.1 Music Server

    Diagram of typical 5.1 speaker locations

    Lossless High-Resolution Audio on a Disk

    Blu-ray disks often contain high-resolution audio formats. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD are two Blu-ray audio encoding formats that support lossless high-resolution audio. These systems support up to 8 channels of 24-bit, 96kHz audio, or up to 6 channels of 24-bit 192 kHz audio. These lossless systems combine a lossy compressed core signal with a residual signal to create a lossless transmission system. Early Blu-ray players may not fully support these formats. These early players only have access to the lossy compressed stream and are not capable of true high-resolution audio playback. Newer Blu-ray players combine the lossy stream with the residual stream to assemble lossless high-resolution audio that is bit-for-bit true to the original recording. This application note will show how to create a server that will deliver true high-resolution performance.

    The Failure to Deliver

    Blu-ray disks may seem like an ideal solution for the distribution of high-resolution audio, but there are problems. It is not easy to gain access to the high-resolution audio stored on these disks. Blu-ray players are prohibited from having high-resolution digital outputs. Users are forced to listen to the high-resolution tracks through the D/A converters that are built into the disk player. Unfortunately, these built-in D/A converters are not capable of delivering high-resolution performance. Most players cannot deliver anything better than CD quality to the analog outputs. The lossless high-resolution tracks on the Blu-ray disks may have marketing value, but they are of no benefit to most users.

    This problem is not new. The DVD, DVD-A, and SACD disk formats all seemed similarly promising for the distribution of high-resolution audio. DVD video disks could deliver 24-bit, 96 kHz stereo. DVD-A disks could deliver high-resolution surround formats.  SACD disks could deliver up to 6 channels of 1-bit DSD, a format that is roughly equivalent to 20-bit, 96 kHz PCM. But, like the Blu-ray players, these earlier disk formats were subject to restrictions that prohibited the inclusion of high-resolution digital outputs on the disk players. These formats also failed to deliver high-resolution audio due to the restrictions on digital outputs. In general, these disk formats have all failed to deliver high-resolution audio. The content is on the disk, but it is completely inaccessible to most users.

    Dumbed-Down Digital Outputs

    An examination of the digital outputs on DVD and Blu-ray players will show that the digital outputs are dumbed down to sample rates of 44.1 or 48 kHz at a bit-depth of 16 bits. These digital outputs are also limited to 2 channel PCM or lossy compressed 5.1 formats. No high-resolution audio is available at the digital outputs on any currently-available player!

    Accessing the High-Resolution Audio

    One solution is to set up a music server using a PC or Mac. We wanted to play high-resolution surround sound in our listening room here at Benchmark, and we wanted to be able to demonstrate high-resolution surround sound at AXPONA 2015. Our solution was to set up a PC-based music (and video) server. We used a Blu-ray equipped PC running Windows 7 and the JRiver MediaCenter software. A multi-channel digital interface was required to send high-resolution digital audio to 3 or 4 external Benchmark DAC2 converters. We selected a Lynx AES16e PCIe card which provides 16 channels in and out at up to 192 kHz. The 16-channel I/O provided by the Lynx card is overkill given that we only need 6 output channels for 5.1 or 8 output channels for 7.1. Nevertheless, this card is one of the lowest cost options available, and it is very reliable.

    Server Hardware

    Our server is a fairly ordinary desktop PC, but I will include the details of our system so that others can select components of equal or higher speed. We started with an HP Pro3500 PC with an Intel Core i5-3470 CPU operating at 3.20 GHz. This quad-core processor has the power to keep up with the demands of simultaneous high-resolution audio and video decoding. In most cases our CPU usage peaked at about 15%. Our machine is equipped with 4 GB of RAM. We removed the stock hard drive and installed two 2TB SATA hard drives in a mirrored RAID 1 configuration. We needed lots of storage space, and we wanted the redundancy of a mirrored configuration. The RAID options are built into the SATA controller on the HP motherboard and can be configured in the boot-up screens. We installed an LG WH16NS40 Blu-ray drive with a SATA interface and a 16x transfer rate. We opted to use the built-in motherboard video controller which is an Intel HD Graphics adapter with 64 MB of dedicated RAM. It supports DVI digital video outputs at 1080p. We inserted the Lynx AES16e card using one of the available PCIe slots. No other cards or hardware options are installed in our server.

    Server Software

    We installed a fresh copy of the Windows 7 Professional 64-bit operating system. We installed Microsoft Security Essentials because it seems to provide resonable virus and spyware protection without bogging down the machine. We then navigated to Lynxstudio.com and downloaded the driver for the AES16e card. We then installed the JRiver Media Center software version 20.

    Windows 7 Tweaks

    We selected the "performance" power option in Windows 7 (Control Panel/Hardware and Sound/Power Options) and edited the plan's "advanced power settings" to disable all power management functions. We also disabled screen savers and system sounds.

    JRiver Configuration

    We launched JRiver and navigated to Tools/Options/Audio Output. We then selected the the "ASIO AES16 [ASIO]" audio output device. We navigated to Tools/Options/Audio Output/Volume and selected "Internal Volume". We were now ready to play CDs, unencrypted DVDs, and unencrypted Blu-ray disks.

    Many of the high-resolution audio disks produced by AIX Records are unencrypted. The Disks from other record companies are often encrypted and additional software may need to be purchased to play these disks. Recommendations are available in the JRiver help files.

    JRiver Tweaks

    It is very important to set the CD ripping encoder to a lossless format before ripping any CDs to your hard disk. We selected Windows Media Lossless under Tools/Audio/Encoding/Encoder. Other lossless formats such as FLAC and ALAC are also great choices. All will provide identical bit-accurate quality.

    Enable the Media Network (Tools/Audio/Media Network). The media network allows bit-transparent DLNA transmission of audio over WiFi and ethernet connections. When properly configured, audio can be sent to or from a smartphone, tablet or PC. DLNA also supports the transmission of video and still images between devices. You can use this function to view photos from your smartphone on your computer screen.

    Add the JRiver Gizmo application to your smartphone. All JRiver playback functions can also be controlled using the JRiver Gizmo application for Android devices. The Gizmo app provides a remote control with album artwork displays and is very cool. A Gizmo web interface (WebGizmo) provides the same functions without the need to download an app, but this solution is slightly less convenient. The WebGizmo web interface is currently the only option available for Apple iOS devices.

    External DAC Connections

    The AES16e card provides AES digital outputs on XLR connectors. Windows and JRiver assign the output channels automatically.

    Channel assignments are as follows:

    • AES 1/2 - Left Front and Right Front
    • AES 3/4 - Center and Sub
    • AES 5/6 - Left Surround and Right Surround
    • AES 7/8 - Left Rear and Right Rear

    The Benchmark DAC2 DX converters are equipped with AES XLR inputs. The outputs from the AES16e card can be connected directly to this input on the DAC2 DX. Three DAC2 DX converters will be required for 5.1, four will be required for 7.1. All DAC2 converters will need to be set for volume control bypass (JRiver will control the volume). The DAC2 bypass function is programmable per input and can be enabled for the AES input only.

    Benchmark's 5.1 Listening Room


    We have the following signal chain in our listening room:

    JRiver Media Center Server > AES16e > 3 DAC2 DX converters > 3 AHB2 stereo power amplifiers > 5 SMS1 passive monitors

    We also have a Neumann KH 810 subwoofer. We use JRiver's room correction function to redirect frequencies below 80 Hz to the KH 810 subwoofer. JRiver provides the crossovers and mixes these low frequencies with the Low-Frequency Effects (LFE) channel on the surround recording.

    AXPONA logo

    AXPONA 2015 5.1 Demonstration System

    We will be operating the following signal chain at the AXPONA 2015 show:

    JRiver Server > AES16e > 3 DAC2 DX converters > 5 AHB2 mono power amplifiers > 5 Revel Salon 2 loudspeakers

    The system will also include two Revel B112 subwoofers for the LFE channel.

    We will be playing lossless 96 kHz 24-bit 5.1 recordings from AIX records. Most recordings will also include HD video which will be displayed on a JVC 4K projector. Our objective was to put together a multi-vendor system that uses the very best components available. Don't miss this opportunity to hear an absolutely extraordinary 5.1 system.

    John Siau

    Also in Audio Application Notes

    Closeup of Plasma Tweeter

    Making Sound with Plasma - Hill Plasmatronics Tweeter

    by Benchmark Media Systems June 06, 2023 2 min read

    At the 2023 AXPONA show in Chicago, I had the opportunity to see and hear the Hill Plasmatronics tweeter. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Alan Hill, the physicist who invented this unique device.

    The plasma driver has no moving parts and no diaphragm. Sound is emitted directly from the thermal expansion and contraction of an electrically sustained plasma. The plasma is generated within a stream of helium gas. In the demonstration, there was a large helium tank on the floor with a sufficient supply for several hours of listening.

    Hill Plasmatronics Tweeter Demonstration - AXPONA 2023
    While a tank of helium, tubing, high voltage power supplies, and the smell of smoke may not be appropriate for every living room, this was absolutely the best thing I experienced at the show!
    - John Siau
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    Benchmark AHB2 Power Amplifier

    ChatGPT Reviews the AHB2 and Includes Listening Impressions!

    by John Siau June 02, 2023 2 min read

    What happens when you ask ChatGPT to write a review?

    I asked ChatGPT to review the Benchmark AHB2, and I was shocked at the results!

    It turns out that ChatGPT wrote a review by gleaning information from the many publicly available reviews of the AHB2. I recognized phases and sequences of words that had appeared in prior reviews, and yet the text was new, original, and well written. The ChatGPT review seemed to summarize the collective impressions of the reviewers without directly quoting any particular reviewer.

    It should be possible to ask ChatGPT to write a review on any well-known product and the result will be an AI-generated review that reflects the collective opinions of many human reviewers.

    These AI-generated reviews may be more useful than traditional search results!

    If I am not mistaken, ChatGPT seems to have golden ears!

    Here is my dialog with ChatGPT:

    John Siau PFP

    John Siau:

    Write a review of the Benchmark AHB2 complete with listening impressions.

    chatGPT logo


    Title: Unleashing Sonic Purity: A Review of the Benchmark AHB2 Amplifier

    Introduction: The Benchmark AHB2 amplifier has gained a reputation for its exceptional audio performance and unwavering dedication to sonic purity. In this review, we delve into the heart of this powerhouse amplifier, exploring its features, design, and most importantly, the listening impressions it evokes...

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    ChatGPT Logo

    ChatGPT and John Siau Discuss Star-Quad Cables

    by Benchmark Media Systems May 30, 2023 7 min read

    Today, Benchmark's John Siau and OpenAI's ChatGPT had a conversation about star-quad cables. It turns out that ChatGPT got quite a few things wrong, but learned quickly when these errors were pointed out by John Siau.

    ChatGPT is quick to recognize mistakes, and quick to provide detailed corrections. In each of the first few corrections, additional errors were made. As each of these were pointed out, ChatGPT began to provide accurate information.

    Here is my conversation with ChatGPT: 

    John Siau PFP

    John Siau:

    How do star-quad cables reject interference?

    ChatGPT logo


    Star-quad cables are designed to provide improved rejection of ...

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