A Changing Audio Landscape
The thirst for High Definition content has now spread to audio on the PC. Asus is hoping to capitalize on this push by releasing a series of soundcards designed to be HDMI passthrough devices able to bitstream HD audio codecs such as TrueHD and DTS-HD. The HDAV 1.3 Slim is designed to be used in HTPCs of any size, and to be as transparent as possible to the user. Now… can Asus succeed there?
I like audio. I have liked audio since my first real stereo system. It was an interesting Mitsubishi setup with very unique speakers, and a pretty futuristic design with tremendous sound (for the price). Sure, it was sort of an “all in one” collection of parts that would not work with other component based systems, but it was mine and it sounded good. While being a student in high school and college did not allow me to really explore high end audio from a financial standpoint, I was able to choose my upgrades and components very carefully. A piece here, a piece there, and finally I had a system that I felt would address my audiophile needs at a price that myself (and my family) can live with.
Computer audio has always been a bit of a red-headed stepchild of the audio world. My first real contact with what could be considered “high end PC audio” was one of the first sets of Altec Lansing 3 piece speaker sets. I am sure many of the older readers will remember the beige boxes that housed the two satellites and the small subwoofer for the system. For the time, the audio that these products gave were a huge step above traditional computer speakers. I am sure those are also memorable to some readers. Those small, tiney-sounding speakers that could either run on batteries or an optional AC adapter.
Towards the late 90’s we saw a steady stream of major improvements in PC audio. Companies like Klipsch, Logitech, Creative Labs/Cambridge Soundworks, Videologic (the great Sirocco speaker sets), and Aureal really stepped up with products that brought PC audio into respectable territory. Anyone that had a hankering for music or gaming had a 3rd party sound card installed in their system. Things were really moving along, but then something odd happened. With products such as the iPod coming out, and being able to attach to people’s home stereo systems fairly easily, computer audio took a back seat. Add into that fact that integrated audio was also starting to become “good enough” for the majority of users, we saw a tremendous decline in 3rd party soundcards. The PC was moving away from being the entertainment center, and simply becoming a hub for data transfer (streaming video/audio to standalone components, collecting and distributing MP3s and other audio formats).
Some basics about the board and its capabilities.
The past few years have seen another dramatic shift in PC audio. The PC is now seeing a lot more work as the center of home theater systems. With inexpensive motherboards available today that offer video acceleration and post processing routines that nearly match many high end standalone components, people are becoming far more interested in the PC as an active player in home theater environments. Not only do these PCs play HD video very well, but they can also stream music, be sources of information (weather, news, etc.) without having the user get up from their comfy sofa, and play Hulu (for those lucky enough to be able to access it) on a big screen TV in HD resolutions.
We are now also seeing relatively inexpensive computer Blu-ray drives hitting the market. Lite-On now features a very basic drive that retails for $59 US. When we consider that AMD is offering quad core processors at $99, 785G motherboards with advanced video playback functionality for $89 and below, it becomes very easy to build a fairly robust HTPC that can play back all kinds of high definition formats for less than $450, including the OS. A standalone BD player may cost as little as $159 now, but it will not stream audio from other devices, and it certainly will not stream internet video content at that price point.