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Building an audio PC ... do I need to leave the 90s?

Last response: in Systems
November 14, 2007 5:32:41 AM

Before anything else, I want to say thank you for the years of reference and help THG and its forums have given me!

Now then...I want to add hard drive-driven mp3/wav/etc. and Internet-streaming audio to our parlor. The sound system itself already exists, so all I really need is basic stereo output (i.e., not 5.1) to feed into the receiver so it can do the rest. While I can go digital coax, I’m not sure if the room acoustics are such that it’s necessary.

I’ve been building my own PCs for school (and now work) since the 486 days, and always went with the highest-end components I could afford at the time. But... but... but is it really necessary for this?

Our business is run from the home, so any computing we need to do is done from the office (there isn’t even a clock in the parlor). The CD changer is staying, so all I need to play are hard drive-based sound files. I can’t remember the last time I had a sound file bog down on me. Therefore, as long as it can move from one song to the next, and as long as it can bring up the basics of or other Internet radio site, that’s enough.

So I’m thinking I can cobble together old spare parts, and be done with it.

I mean OLD spare parts. The heart of the system would be an Asus P3B-F motherboard and a PIII 550 CPU. I think there’s 512K of RAM in there, enough to have had WinXP home running smoothly. Add a NIC, an old Voodoo graphics card, a run-of-the-mill SoundBlaster card, and a sizable hard drive, and I’m good to go, no?

Or am I missing something?

Yes, bells and whistles can be added (e.g., a SoundBlaster remote), but what I’m wondering is whether or not spending anything on more modern core hardware would be detectable in the final installation. Remember that with the exception of a single Web page and some sort of playlist-capable audio file player, nothing else will need to be run on the machine.



ETA: Oh, just in case the old parts are unusable, the same basic question would apply if I went with the cheapest (yet new) Asus motherboard, with onboard NIC, sound, and graphics I can find. Again, thanks!
November 14, 2007 9:22:48 PM

You could use that if the computer is just an audio source but the advantage of a new system, entry level AMD x2 3800 and mobo with onboard video and passive cooling with something like the Antec Sonata II if you can find it or III if not, former a little cheaper, would make it a lot quieter. Check these sound cards, I just got the HT Omega and made a noticeable difference in sound quality of music
November 14, 2007 9:57:07 PM

Just slap that older system together, and see if you're happy with it. I can't recall how loud those older coolers were. Unless it sounds like a hurricane, I can't imagine the cost of g-paw's suggestions being worth the trouble for an MP3 player.
Related resources
November 14, 2007 10:30:54 PM

Step 1, get a used original xbox
Step 2 get xbox dvd playback kit
Step 3, get HiDef kit
Step 4, get xbox modchip
step 5, load hacked bios and xbmc
step 6, enjoy all your media on your home theater for well under 200 bucks.

November 14, 2007 11:04:24 PM

I run all my audio through my old PII and a lovely '98 sound card. It will do internet radio very well, and even runs all the media players (Winamp, VLC, WMP) I need to play my stuff over the network. If you're not overly concerned about making it all sound the best it can be-which of course means not using harddrive-based music-you will do just fine.
November 15, 2007 7:27:44 PM

It sounds (heh) like while I can do it, there are two issues I need to consider. One is sound fidelity, the other is background noise.

As for sound fidelity, I don’t disagree but nor do I understand how a “good” sound card could change things. (Assuming, of course, a basic, working, non-noise-introducing card). Fidelity is important—crucial, even—as lots of the existing material is lossless (e.g., SHNs of soundboard recordings), and when I get around to moving, say, Kind of Blue or DSOTM to the station, I don’t want to lose anything. But why do I need anything more than basic L & R outs?

I’m relying on the existing sound system to handle the actual processing. The heart of the system is a JVC RX-9010VBK, driving a subwoofer and two pairs of Sony speakers for each channel. The room layout has centralized seating and the speakers are wired through the walls, so L & R channels fire toward the listening space. The JVC allows a fair bit of tweaking (e.g., speaker timing, levels), so I have it set so you can sit just about anywhere in the room clear your senses.

Background noise is a different story. It would be ridiculous to have speakers set up to hear the slightest nuance, yet have a constant hiss in the background! I’ve only had PCs in work spaces before, so it never occurred to me.

In terms of thinking about a basic system:

Asus M2A-VM $60
This gets me decent onboard features: video, sound, LAN, and RAID capability (for some semblance of data stability)

Low-end Sempron CPU $50
If a PIII system could handle the audio as I’d need, then surely any basic chip that’s still on the market can

1 GB generic RAM $20
I’m not sure I’d even need more than 512K for what I’m doing, but there’s no reason to be miserly to save $10.

Antec Solution NSK2480 $90
How odd that the most expensive bit is the case! But it’s got the finishing touches on the quietness and a basic power supply that will run the board.

2X Western Digital 320 GB drives $160
I’d set up a RAID 1 mirror right away, just to be sure if one drive ever goes south my ears won’t cry.

15” Generic LCD screen $200

For an OS there’s Linux and I’m sure I’ll be able to find basic free/cheap players.

What else am I missing? Well, keyboard and mouse would be nice, but since no real typing is taking place a ten-dollar combo will suffice. This puts a new system at about $590.

Wow, zero to six hundred bucks is quite a jump!

Then again, since I’ll have to buy the hard drives, monitor and keyboard anyway, $220 is a more accurate number to use for comparison. Which means I should be comparing my current system with either water cooling or just a new case (I actually have the Sonata here in the office, and it’s pretty quiet) to the whole kit and caboodle. It’s really hard not to just go and buy up some parts, but ...

Any opinions/suggestions?



November 15, 2007 8:15:09 PM

if youre concerned about just having primarily 2 channel stereo with no additional THD, no increased SNR, and no additional compression from your pc, and to just have your external sound equipment handle everything (digital decoder/digital amp), then the easiest route to go would just be to use the motherboards onboard SPDIF optical/coaxial connection to output a digital pcm signal... as most current motherboards come with that already... the next best option for stereo is to invest in a sound card, youll get more options that way, but it may be more than you need

edit: it almost seems a shame for me not to at least offer this as a suggestion, since its within $10 of your cpu budget, and will definetly be faster than what you had in mind (a second core definetly helps smooth things out as most people know now)...

AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ Windsor 2.0GHz 2 x 512KB L2 Cache Socket AM2 35W Processor - OEM - $59.99

so the only thing you need is a HS+F since its oem, and a stock one should work fine for $10 or so more with a heatsink it is more expensive than just the $10 difference by a few dollars, but if you can get a sAM2 HS+F for cheap, or free even, it would definetly be worth it over a budget sempron, i would think anyhow...

or this

AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ Windsor 2.0GHz 2 x 512KB L2 Cache Socket AM2 89W Processor - Retail - $65.99

it is more expensive by $5, but thats because it comes with a HS+F due to it being retail... the downside though it it will run slightly hotter and consume slightly more power, because its a somewhat older model.

as far as memory and a psu are concerned, generic is not the way to go for either of them. the reason you dont want to, is because theres always a greater chance that the product will not have passed QC (psu and/or memory), and will create random errors (psu and/or memory), will cause instability (psu and/or memory), will fail on you sooner (psu usually), possibly damaging other pc hardware as a result (psu usually), and in the end not be worth the money you had saved purchasing it (psu and/or memory)... so if you dont go for 1GB of generic memory, even 512MB of name brand memory would still be a much better idea then... same with a psu, go with a well known recommended name brand psu, as its what powers your whole system, and isnt just another component (it might also run quieter and consume less power too, due to higher efficiency, larger fans, and lower demand placed on it by your other components, which will keep it and your other components cooler so theyll have a longer life span)... but, if you can, dont cut corners on either of these... and if you are going to cut corners on memory, at least run memtest on it overnight before doing anything else with it, because if it does come up with errors, you can always return it and get a replacement (and be able to bypass future headaches and frustration that might come up)

edit: i overlooked that g-paw had already suggested an X2 3800+, too, sorry about that.
November 15, 2007 8:19:00 PM

Suggest you read some reviews of the HT Omega and Bluegear sound cards, which will explain why a good audio card makes a difference. There are some very good, readable reviews but I can't give you the sites off the top of my head. Just google reviews of the above cards. If sound quality is really important, then the sound card is important. I also had to get a Ground Loop Isolator because of static I was getting, I think it was like $15 or $20 at Radio Shack. If your receiver has an optical input, I'd use that.
November 15, 2007 8:24:24 PM

Why have the older (and loud) pc in the same room anyway? Get the remote and plug it's output into your stereo. Random google search found one for $150...your searches may vary.

OR - put just the display and keyboard/mouse in the parlor, shove the rest into a corner somewhere and run kva extentions to the cpu, and more wires back from the cpu to the stero.

My version of your system consists of an old PIII laptop running XP with output to the stereo, plays music off the server and is quiet enough to not bother me.