HDMI Video, Digital Audio Output, and Network Performance

HDMI Output

Playing back video with a direct connection to the N2560

I wanted to try out the digital video output right away, so after updating the N2560 to the latest firmware and XBMC software version I was ready for some HDMI action.

XBMC installation must be done through the "Official NAS Application" link

I must break away here for a moment to discuss how important the sequence is when installing XBMC on the N2560. The versions of XBMC in the regular Thecus app store aren't compatible with the N2560 (yet, anyway), so the only way to get it working is through that "official apps" link. It is vital, however, that the NAS is running the newest version of the Thecus OS before attempting to install XBMC. (I initially installed XBMC before updating the firmware, and ended up breaking XBMC – until Thecus support stepped in to update my N2560 with fresh firmware. After that, smooth sailing!)

So (idiosyncrasies of installation aside) there is no apparent result after XMBC is running successfully, but don't worry. After rebooting to complete the installation rest assured that XBMC is running, though you will see no icon or apparent way to access it. This is done by connecting both a display via HDMI and a keyboard/mouse directly to the NAS. There are two USB ports on the back for your keyboard and mouse, or you may use a wireless combo with a single USB dongle (which is what I did).

With a Microsoft wireless keyboard/mouse combo on the coffee table and the N2560 connected to my home theater receiver via HDMI, I was ready to try XBMC.  First, I booted up the NAS, which took a couple of minutes.  Once it was up, viola – there was the XBMC menu up on the screen!

To test video playback I had created video including a 720p version of an HD movie using Handbrake, and stored files directly on the NAS.  With no additional work it was a simple matter to navigate using XBMC and find the desired file on the NAS.

A few seconds later my movie was playing back on my living room TV, with the sound through my home theater speakers. That was… really easy! I did ecounter one snag with XBMC, however – though quickly remedied. During playback (especially when skipping forward in the video) I started experiencing significant audio sync issues.  After checking the video playback settings in XBMC I found that audio syncing was not enabled by default. After enabling this the audio was properly in sync when I tried the video again.

Overall video performance was good with only minor glitches. My video was not particularly challenging since I created files at 1280×720 with standard settings in Handbrake (AppleTV 2 preset) and it was smooth during continuous playback. There was some hesitation when resuming the video after pausing or when I'd jump around with the slider and start the video in different places. 512MB of the N2560’s 2GB RAM is reserved for "media functions" when XBMC is installed, though the GPU in the Atom SoC – PowerVR SGX545 graphics – are a bit long in the tooth. Momentary hesitations aside the overall XBMC video experience was solid.

Digital Audio Output

To test the digital audio output I connected the N2560 to my Marantz SA8005 SACD player, which is also an excellent standalone digital-to-analog converter (DAC). After connecting the N2560 to the DAC with a standard optical audio cable, I reconnected an HDMI monitor and my wireless keyboard/mouse combo and booted up the NAS. For an example of high quality digital music files I downloaded the current free sampler from HDtracks, which contains music ranging from CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) to studio quality (24-bit/96kHz).

Subjectively the sound quality was excellent, and I encountered zero glitches with the N2560 integrated into my stereo system. This would be a solid, inexpensive solution for playback of uncompressed files through a DAC, and with up to 8TB of storage for music it would hold a ridiculous amount of music. However, for an "audiophile" the playback with XBMC would not be appropriate given the presence of signal processing. All audio files were sent to the DAC at 96kHz (regardless of their original sample rate), as the files were being processed by the Atom SoC. This means there is no "direct" output for the bits.

While the XBMC software relies on the Atom SoC in the N2560 for decoding/resampling before passing the audio to the DAC, this is in fairness also the case with many PC to DAC applications. So-called "audiophile" software for music playback on a PC will make use of a technology like the Windows Audio Session API (WASAPI) to provide a direct path to your DAC. And while this might sould complicated, essentially WASAPI allows for a simple passthrough of the digital bits, preventing the Windows mixer from resampling the audio. Without such a passthrough the digital signal is being altered before it gets to your playback equipment.

Network Performance

I was interested in seeing how much different network transfer speeds might be with the more powerful N2560, and they didn't disappoint!

File transfer from NAS to PC

Transfer speeds from the NAS over Gigabit Ethernet were better than 100MB/s on average, with peaks of 110MB/s and above.

File transfer from PC to NAS

In the other direction the NAS wrote file transfers quickly to the installed WD Red drives, averaging over 100MB/s again.  This is 20MB/s faster than the N2310 was capable of on writes, and a very good result.

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