Need High Fidelity Sound? Media Center PCs Starting To Provide It

These builders have come up with a variety of options, from the K2 system from Niveus Media, a model the company believes will go up against $20,000 stereo components, to Convelux Systems' iHome MultiCenter for use with high-end components from Audio Design Associates (ADA).

Focusing on audio is a good bet. System builders say a general dearth of high-definition TV options at the moment puts the Media Center's audio capabilities front and center. And they note that customers using Media Center (MCE) PCs in home theater setups want the best-quality audio to match their investments in video. Many system builders say a typical entertainment PC audio solution has a signal to noise ratio (SNR) of 80 to 90 decibels (dB), while the new systems seek to raise that to well above 100 dB.

"We want to bring the Media Center up to the level of dedicated audio products," says Marty Kashiwai, a product planner at Integra, an Upper Saddle River, N.J., manufacturer of high-end audio products that will release its first Intel Viiv-based product this summer.

Integra's model will include a sound card the company markets in Japan that Kashiwai says boosts SNR to more than 100 dB, though at press time he did not have specific figures or model pricing. It also supports Dolby 7.1 surround sound and optical digital outputs. "We feel audio has the most potential in the Media Center right now," Kashiwai says. "There is not much high-definition content and the systems are not high-definition cable-ready yet."

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Jeffrey Lloyd, president and CEO of system builder Inteset, Hanover, Mass., is loading Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi sound cards on its Denzel Media Server to deliver the quality audio that customers with home theaters demand. The card delivers SNR of 109 dB and supports Dolby Digital EX, DTS ES, two 7.1 surround sound formats and is THX-certified. "In a standard Media Center system, it is recommended that customers use an SPDIF out from the box and plug into a receiver. We don't recommend that," he says. "We recommend you use our audio capabilities and go directly to an amplifier."

The card allows users to process DVD audio and play it back out of the five-channel analog output. "It's studio-quality sound," he says. "That's what it comes down to."

Inteset also has developed some innovative customized software for the Denzel. "We have an interface from within the Media Center where users can put a five-channel DVD audio disk and actually be able to play it back with a very user-friendly interface," Lloyd says.

The device supports multiroom audio, offering two additional zones. Inteset also plans to release a feature that allows more zones through additional daisy-chained modules, Lloyd says. The multiroom audio can be controlled by devices from a variety of vendors, including Crestron and AMX. MSRP starts at $6,595 for the standard Media Center version and $6,995 for the Viiv model.

Another company that advocates bypassing the receiver is Niveus Media, Los Gatos, Calif., which makes several Media Center PCs, including the high-end K2 model for audiophiles. With prices starting at about $15,000, the device is for the most discerning customers.

Niveus relies on Lynx Studio Technology's LynxTwo high-end sound card to help deliver the performance. The system, says Tim Cutting, Niveus CEO, features six-channel balanced XLR and RCA output. An XLR connector is often used in professional audio. The system also provides a single pair of balanced XLR and RCA inputs for 24-bit 192KHz DVD-audio quality recordings. S/N ratio is 116 dB. A passive cooling technology is used so that the system runs completely silent. "This is equal to a $20,000 receiver," Cutting says.

Niveus' foray into high-end audio is just beginning, Cutting says. The company recently recruited to its board of advisers Gayle Sanders, founder and former president of MartinLogan, a manufacturer of high-end speakers. Sanders brings more than 25 years of experience in the A/V market. Many audiophiles credit him with advancing and stabilizing electrostatic loudspeaker technology and bringing it into practical applications and home use. "Gayle has a lot of exciting ideas," Cutting says.

In a similar collaboration, Convelux Systems, Princeton, N.J., has teamed with Audio Design Associates, White Plains, N.Y., to develop a Viiv system that integrates support for ADA's high-end audio components, an IP control system and an multizone iTunes server. The resulting iHome Multi-Center allows users to play back iTunes music from different rooms in the house through Convelux's custom software. With so many owners of high-end audio systems using them to stream music from their iPods, "we saw an [iTunes server] as an immediate need," says Convelux CEO Leon Podolsky.

The multiroom audio capabilities are accomplished by adding two additional sound devices connected to internal USB ports, Podolsky says.

While Convelux, Niveus, Integra and Inteset all have specialized offerings, Dolby Laboratories, San Francisco, is working to promote audio capabilities built into motherboards that eliminate the need for extra components in the system. The developer of popular sound technologies has been working with several motherboard makers, including Asus and Intel, to promote Dolby-licensed technologies in Viiv and Media Center boards, says Greg Rodehau, director of Dolby's PC business unit. Dolby has developed a logo system to help customers understand what level of Dolby audio they will receive in a given device. Several of the new motherboards support Dolby's highest rating, offering up to 7.1 surround sound.

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