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Chapter 5 - Selecting components for a cMP² project

This chapter makes general suggestions about component choice and setup. Careful selection can offer good results quickly but, while a PC can overcome engineering issues associated with reading CDs in real time, it is still an electrically noisy environment. This limits the quality of audio reproduction. Later chapters describe how to address the issue further by minimising power consumption, mechanical vibration and motherboard traffic and offer step-by-step design examples.

Full assembly is explained in Appendix A.

#ItemRecommendationComments
1Operating SystemWindows XP SP2/3 ProfessionalcMP² works with Vista and Windows 7. XP however offers highest level of optimisations such as the advanced and important Minlogon optimisation (Appendix B). Be sure to select Professional (or Ultimate for Vista) version as this allows for AWE (used by cPlay).
2Case
Zalman HD160XT
Optional item. cMP build is described using this case.
3CPUIntel Core i3-530 (or i3-540)32nm based processors
4CPU Cooler
Thermalright SI128SE
Initial build must use the cooler as supplied with CPU. Only after BIOS adjustments are made resulting in dramatically lower CPU temperatures should the fanless cooler be installed. Make sure the cooler has the correct adapter to fit onto 1156-socket based mobos.
5MotherboardGigabyte GA-H55M-UD2HMobos with built-in graphics is preferred otherwise, a power consuming noise polluting graphics card is needed
6RAMDDR3Kingston ValueRam DDR3-1333 @1GB is a popular choice.
Only use a single RAM module.
Smallest capacities (512MB) works best but should only be installed after optimisations are done as Windows installation requires ~1GB RAM.
7PSUHigh Powered ~500 wattsPopular choices include Antec's EarthWatts and Zalman Heatpipe models
8StorageLaptop 2.5" SATA drives
HDD or SSD
SSD (Solid State Drives) are best but expensive and limited ito capacity
9CD ROM DriveSATA based ROM driveUsed for OS installation and CD ripping.
Basic choices are best as these provide no cache making secure CD rips faster.
Non SATA drives use the old IDE interface - if the drive is a permanent component then Granite Digital USB Bridge Adapter is needed to bypass IDE (see below, item #12).
Popular option is to remove the drive once everything is built and operational - CDs are ripped on another PC and transferred via USB memory stick, USB drive or temporarily connecting HDD via SATA port.
10SoundcardASIO compatible
PCI, PCIe or USB
Quality of ASIO drivers is very important. Many choices exist from Lynx, RME, ESI, EMU etc.. A popular starting choice is ESI's Juli@ (as used in this guide) offering 24/192k output via RCA. An alternative starting point can be the built-in PCI based mobo soundcard which is used via ASIO4ALL (an ASIO driver for non-ASIO based cards).
11Alternate PSU
Granite Digital PS
Provides power for non-critical and polluting computer components. Each unit offers up to 2A max power for each of the 5V and 12V lines. Standard Molex and SATA power connectors are provided. Depending on components used, 1 or more of these are needed (it's a good idea to order at least 2).

An alternative approach uses a 2nd computer ATX PSU. This is more advanced but is highly recommended! More details and how 2 can be found here. Modern mobos provide dedicated multi-phase CPU power circuitry via the P4 connector - a big advantage for audio as the CPU can be treated as a dirty component.
12USB Bridge Adapter
Granite Digital USB Bridge
Use this adapter to bypass IDE by connecting to CD ROM drive and Alternate USB port (item #13). This is an optional item (see item #9).
13Alternate USB Ports
USB ports
Power is sourced from Alternate PS thus avoiding noise pollution into critical mobo & CPU power supplies.
Peripheral USB devices such as a wireless mouse, CD ROM drive (non SATA types) or keyboard is connected here.
USB connector end fits onto mobo USB header which differs from standard USB connectors (see mobo manual). Mobos offer many internal USB connection headers for internally connected devices like audio hubs, touch screens, front USB hubs, etc..
14HDD Adapters
2.5" to 3.5" adapter
These are used for installing 2.5" drives into 3.5" slots
15Molex Splitter
Y Splitter
2-3 are needed.
Used for adding more components to Granite Digital's alternate PS (item #11)
16Power Re-route
Build using parts from item #14
Carefully remove red 5V lines from USB connector end. Do same for ground pins. Lift tiny plastic flap and pin should slide out. Using 5V Molex cable, connect reds (2 from USB and one from Molex) and blacks. Use screw type connectors and seal openings with silicone. Here's an example of the USB connector conversion of Alternate USB ports (item #13):

Case

Perhaps unexpectedly, case design is important for good performance. Most cases rely on fans, offer poor vibrational damping, allow electrical radiation from the power supply unit (PSU) to permeate the case and so on.

The chosen motherboard runs cooler than most once redundant features are disabled but attention must still be paid to cooling. A key design aim is to avoid fans as they vibrate and consume power.

Cases for Home Theatre PCs that address these issues are available from manufacturers like Thermaltake and Zalman, whose TNN-300 case can be recommended. It is heavy (reducing vibration) with a solid aluminium chassis, uses heat-pipe cooling (no fans) and features rubber mounts for disk drives and a good, externally mounted Power Supply Unit (PSU). It certainly looks the part of a high-end CD player.

Power Supply Unit

Even if a conventional case is chosen on cost grounds, it is imperative to use a quality PSU. Note that peak output will not even be approached: the aim is to operate the PC with the lowest possible power consumption, typically under 25 watts. Good results have been obtained from the Antec EarthWatts (430 watts) which provides good filtering, low ripple voltages and active PFC. Many other good choices are available. The PSU fan can be disabled only when all optimisations are implemented.

Motherboard & CPU

Although cMP² can perform ultra-high-quality upsampling of music data, it needs a powerful processor to do so. Intel's Core i3-530 CPU using its innovative 32nm technology provides adequate processing capability without unduly impacting the design goal of low power consumption. Its performance is due in part to a 3MB cache.

A small motherboard was chosen as larger boards have longer runs of embedded copper (which suffers greater antennae effects) and have more components which have no role in this application but consume power and associated noise.

The Intel H55 chipset, which supports 32nm processors and has itself low power consumption, is used on the recommended motherboard. A micro-ATX board with passively-cooled chipsets, it supports DDR3 RAM (which uses less power than DDR and DDR2) and allows flexible configuration. Even with fanless cooling throughout, processor temperatures while running cMP² are no more than about 45°C during playback. This illustrates the superiority of 32nm technology. When upsampling to 192k using highest quality setting (SRC @ 145db SNR in cPlay), CPU load is 90% (at individual CPU core level) when underclocked to 900MHz.

  1. If using a PCI soundcard, one or more USB ports (Hub & Controller) needs to be disabled to ensure it has a dedicated interrupt.
  2. Connect the front panel On/Off and Reset switches but not the status LEDs;
Display

Use only motherboards with integrated graphics – do not use a graphics card. Chapter 7 explains how to configure displays to minimise power consumption and data traffic.

RAM

RAM affects sound quality. Extensive trials with a range of memory types suggests that high-end memory is worth the premium, enabling stable operation at low clock speeds. Best results are obtained with DDR3 RAM which supports low latencies such as Kingston’s HyperX and ValueRAM range. Use at least one GB of high quality RAM. The consensus among system builders is that a 1 GB module sounds noticeably better than two 512 MB modules.

Smaller RAM sizes if available are best (a fully configured cMP² will operate on just 256MB of RAM). Unfortunately, smallest available RAM size is 512MB (for DDR3).

Disk drives

Noise and vibration are critical – drives with low power consumption and low rotational speeds are best and 2.5” laptop drives close to ideal. They typically consume two watts while reading compared to 12 for a 3.5” drive. Fujitsu’s 300 GB, 4,500 rpm drive uses even less. Capacities up to 1TB is available and is good for ~1600 CDs (ripped as uncompressed wav files). SSD is becoming cheaper and offers further advantages by way of no vibrations and very low power consumption.

Another option is using eSATA (available on recommended mobo). This way, an external storage unit can be used and is a better choice when storage requirements exceed 1TB. SATA ports can be converted to eSATA using an adapter that fits on the backplate.

Soundcard

A soundcard usually connects to the CPU via the PCI bus regardless of whether it is a PCI, USB or Ethernet card and, for best results, it needs the lion’s share of access to it. Disk drives connected via these buses compete with it for access and tend to degrade sound. However, many southbridge chips provide separate bandwidth for SATA drives.

To use cMP², the soundcard must support ASIO. Beyond that, this manual makes no firm recommendations for a soundcard or DAC: its remit ends once audio data are presented by the music-playing software to the chosen interface. Prototype systems were designed to use SRC upsampling and the soundcard chosen accordingly. Other builders report good results with other techniques (including NOS DACs) but they are not examined here.

It is strongly recommended that a good 24/192-capable soundcard is selected with quality drivers and an optical output. This last permits galvanic isolation, which is not possible with other interfaces. As demonstrated in Chapter 3 and despite a bad press, Toslink excels when providing 24/96 output over good cables such as the Audioquest Optilink 5 or the Van Den Hul Optocoupler.

  1. Soundcards come with various connectivity options but usually a bus cable only is needed. Route this away from hard disks, the motherboard and other cables – even a few centimeters make a difference. See Chapters 10 and 13;
  2. For some EMU and Creative cards, use the excellent kX software driver;
  3. If an external DAC does not re-clock or has no input buffering, ensure that the soundcard delivers a high-quality clock.
Asynchronous USB

Words like reclockers and asynchronous may suggest something new is happening. For enthusiasts, USB Device Class Specification for Audio Devices is an informative read. Although developed in 1998, designers were fully aware of jitter:

An essential issue in audio is synchronization of the data streams. Indeed, the smallest artifacts are easily detected by the human ear. Therefore, a robust synchronization scheme on isochronous transfers has been developed and incorporated in the USB Specification. The Audio Device Class definition adheres to this synchronization scheme to transport audio data reliably over the bus.

Isochronous (audio) streaming refers to constant data transfers to/from a USB device. For example an approach is to use a timing interval of 1ms so for 44.1k output, 44 samples are sent per transfer (45 on every 10th). For the isochronous transfer method, the USB specification allows for 3 types of sync: synchronous (like the example), asynchronous and adaptive.

Of interest is the asynchronous method (hence the name Asynchronous USB) which allows for an external 'master' XO to be used. USB receiver chips need to cater for this type of sync method.

Is this new? Comparing to PCI soundcards, this is not new. For PCI, we have a 'master' XO (internal or external via Word Clock input or S/PDIF input for Juli@) that drives buffer loads through interrupts (PCI read/write transactions). With PCI, 192k streaming is possible (USB is limited to 96k).

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Page last modified on January 02, 2011, at 08:10 AM