USB Sound Cards: Omni Surround Pro 5.1 vs. Recon 3D USB vs. X-Fi 5.1 Pro

I am a bit nuts about external USB sound card / DAC /AMP combos.  I’ve bought 3 from the same manufacturer.  They are all part of the Sound Blaster line of sound cards from Creative. I wanted to capture some thoughts as there isn’t much written about these cards.

A bit of background

I am part of a small community of people who build and maintain Hackintoshes (I’ve been doing it since the early versions of Boot-321).  One thing that has always troubled me is that sound would be continually borked.  It was frustrating enough for me to just dump the modified onboard sound kexts and look for a properly supported USB sound card.  I haven’t looked back.

I first bought the Sound Blaster Recon3D USB (SB1300). It was a good buy at $40 CAD (many stores were liquidating them at the time). It’s powered by a Creative’s Sound Core3D chip–a quad-core DSP that also integrates a USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC), an Analog Digital Converter (ADC), a separate 600-ohm Headphone Amp, a digital microphone interface, S/PDIF inputs and outputs and General Purpose Inputs and Outputs (GPIO). In 2012, they rebranded the chip to the SB-Axx1™ chip.

Impressed by the sound quality, I searched for second, but wasn’t able to find a supplier.  So I bought the Sound Blaster X-Fi 5.1 Surround Pro (SB1095)–it’s an older USB card with similar features and had just been updated with Windows 8 drivers.  Minimal research showed that it was compatible with Mac OS X and would be a good addition to my office setup at Kobo.

I was wrong. It didn’t work at all on the mac.  So it’s been sitting in its box for about 6 months.

The Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 (SB1560) is the spiritual successor of the X-Fi 5.1. In addition to Mac OS X compatibility, it offers a dual-noise-cancelling microphone and a 600-ohm headphone amp (the X-Fi’s amp was designed for low-impedance headphones).  It also supports all the same software features as the Recon3d USB.

Tear down

One thing I found troubling about the Omni Surround 5.1 is that there was no advertised Sound Core3D chip (or SB-Axx1™ chip), yet it supported all the same features of the Recon3D.  Here is a breakdown of core chips:

 

Device DAC ADC Headphone Amp Hardware DSP? 3D?
X-Fi 5.1 Pro 6-channel DAC (CS4361) 2-channel ADC Cirrus Logic (CS5345) NXP Semi. Amp, 32-ohm (TDA1308) No THX
Omni Surround 5.1 6-channel DAC (CS4361) 2-channel ADC Cirrus Logic (CS5345) Max. Integrated Amp, 600-ohm (MAX97220A) No SBX
Recon 3D USB 6-channel DAC (SB-AXX1) 4-channel ADC (SB-AXX1) Onboard, 600-ohm amp (SB-AXX1) Yes (Quad-core DSP) THX

 

A few highlights:

  • The Omni Surround 5.1 and the X-Fi 5.1 Pro do NOT contain any hardware audio processors–everything is done in software.  While this is disappointing, keep in mind that sound processing requires minimal CPU time and the resources of today’s computers and consoles greatly exceeds many people’s needs.
  • The addition of the MAX97220A headphone amp is a common addition to the new Z-line Sound Blaster products after complaints that the onboard  600-ohm amp offered by the Sound Core3d processor (SB-AXX1) received poor reviews.
  • The Recon3d USB and X-FI 5.1 Pro both support “THX® TruStudio Pro™” , whereas the Omni Surround 5.1 supports “SBX Pro Studio“.  From what  I can tell, the software is identical. The prevailing belief is that Creative did not wish to pay the licensing fee for THX. In fact, the pages for THX® TruStudio Pro™ and SBX Pro Studio are eerily familiar.

Sound Quality

Most people coming here are probably looking for my impression on sound quality.

I haven’t tried the X-Fi 5.1 Pro.

To be frank, I can’t really discern between the Recon3D and Omni Surround 5.1. They work well for what I use them for.  I like the dial on the Omni Surround better than the buttons on the Recon3D.  The beam microphone on the Omni Surround works really well.

I will write more when I upgrade my headphones.

Getting old posts back in 2014 and the new Fuji X-T1

My site has been running in some form since 2002.  However, I have lost data multiple times and I have always meant to go back…get my old posts back on the web, but I never do.

It doesn’t help that I keep changing blogging platforms. Movable Type, Textpattern, ModX, Tumblr, Octopress…

I’ve committed to getting it back up in 2014.  I’m sure that it will be more likely than declaring that this year is the “Year of the Linux Desktop”.

I bought a new camera: Fuji X-T1

I have been a big fan of my Fuji X-Pro 1.  I bought it used back in Summer of 2013–it’s made photography fun again for me.

When Fuji announced the SLR format X-T1, I was a bit torn.  I really liked the “range-finder” style of the X-Pro 1.  It slowed me down. Made me think about what I wanted to capture, how I wanted to capture.  I would say that I’d took 1/10th less pictures, but my “hit” rate was substantially higher.  

The X-T1 gave me great pause.

Would I go back to shooting in burst mode?

I bit the bullet today (about 2-days just shy of being able to take advantage of Henry.com’s free vertical grip offer…) and pre-ordered it with an XF 23mm 1.4 lens.

Well, that was unpleasant

So I had some server unpleasantness that I noticed after I posted my 2014 Goals post. The site just froze and logins were barely possible.

I immediately SSH’d into the prgmr.com server, but was greeted by an extremely slow console.  I actually had to access the VPS Xen configuration menu and do a hard shutdown of the instance.  When I rebooted and accessed the server through the out-of-band console, I was getting out of memory errors galore.

The culprit?  A combination of MySQL, ClamAV and Amavisd.

After disabling ClamAV and Amavisd, I was able to stabilize the server, but the 1GB RAM VPS was still dangerously low on memory with 10-12 MySQL threads that I couldn’t clear.

So I took the unprecedented move to rebuild the server.  Two days later I am running fine again.  This time, I was a little bit careful of the installed services–with an emphasis on pruning unneeded services.

Hopefully I won’t ever have to do it again.

Tai

 

Goals for 2014

I’ve been thinking about 2014 and what, if any, goals I have.

For the past few years, I don’t think I’ve been focusing much on me as a person–there were other more concrete things that I could latch on like my family or my career.  They seemed right at the time; no ill feelings towards my choices to date.

With that, there are three things that I want to focus on:

  • health
  • writing
  • reading

Health

There is no doubt that I need to get my act together.  I’ve started Yoga (which is killing me) as a form of low-ish impact exercise.  Granted, there really isn’t any exercise that is low-impact for me.  I guess this is what happens when I’m 40 lbs weight. My goal is to do it consistently, twice a week for 2014. I swear, sometimes it’s like I’ve forgotten how breath.

I really need to pick up my racquet again and join a club.

Writing

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing is a very cathartic experience for me.  I simply do not do it enough.  Often times, I’m conflicted about the stuff I write and whether it has enough gravitas.  I need to get over that and open up.  My goal is to write once a week–and do it for myself. (Besides, it’s not like people are reading this).

Reading

You figure that working at an eReading place would make me read more–it does, but I need to be doing it more.  Much of the reading I do is throw away or work related (“KANBAN!”) or reading with my kids (The Geronimo & Stella Stilton series is getting much traction).  What I really need to do is escape and find those books that distract me and unshackle my mind to dream big again.

pfSense on Watchguard Firebox x500e

One of the odd things as I have moved up the food chain into (product) management is that I don’t have the opportunity to work directly on the products that teams build. Keeping a software roadmap cohesive across devices, apps, web and back end services is the challenge, maintaining a proper pipeline of requirements and ensuring proper sequencing is basically my job.

One consequence is that I find my hobbies veering into many varied build projects. HDTV over-the-air systems, networking projects involving pfsense and obscure hardware, xbmc front ends, esxi virtualization, just so I can build something.

The pfsense routers has been really interesting of late. Having just gotten it running smoothly using a thin client, I am now working on getting pfsense installed on an old Watchguard firewall. The amazing community of pfsense enthusiasts have really come together to get these devices up and running, with even the latest beta of 2.1.1 addressing minor issues with the LEDs.

The incredible thing with these boxes is that you can swap out the processor of with an ancient Pentium-M (circa 2004) and replace the ATX PSU with a DC-DC  picoPSU and get the power down to <25 W.  That’s the same as the thin client but with performance that rivals if not exceeds most Intel Atom powered systems!

pfSense performance on an HP T5720 Thin Client

Working pretty well so far.

Uses about 25 Watts (with USB enabled).

It handles unencrypted traffic flawlessly.

OpenVPN connections (using the AMD GEODE LX encryption block) via my StrongVPN account tops out at about 30 Mbits per second down. It is not as fast as my Pentium-M based laptop that was my original router (it could saturate my 45 Mbit down / 4 Mbit up no problem).

Overall, not too bad, but not sure if it was worth the hassle.

I’ll do a write up on how to setup StrongVPN on pfSense soon.

 

Installing pfSense 2.1 on an HP T5720 thin client

Update [20140123]: I’ve made a few modifications to the boot flags.  

I admit it. I’m a big fan of technology and I have been always fascinated with the FOSS movement.  When we renovated the house, I made sure to put Cat6e drops in every room. They terminate in my electrical closet in a Cisco Gigabit switch.  The switch is controlled by an old Pentium-M 1.7 GHz laptop that I repurposed as a router using pfSense.  My wireless needs are served using a Netgear WDNR3700 router with Gargoyle firmware installed.  It has been working well, but the NIC interfaces top out at 100 MBps each and I want to step up my Internet connection to the 150 MBps / 10 MBps connection offered by Teksavvy Inc.

Recently, I’ve been looking at a higher spec’d box for this.  I considered 3-choices:

  • Option 1: Intel Core 2 Duo / Quad based Small Form Factor PC.
  • Option 2: Intel Atom-based mini-itx system
  • Option 3: Embedded system

Option 1 is way over spec’d for what I need.  I would also need to buy at least 1 other card.  Total costs are about $200 CAD for a used unit. They are readily available from many used PC-shops around the area. The power consumption is probably around 40 W/hr.  Not great, but not significantly more than what my current setup uses 24 W/hr. They also accept a 2GB+ of RAM.

Option 2 is a completely new build.  Atom chips are low-powered, but well spec’d.  I can also add as much ram.  The power consumption is slightly lower (18 W/hr range) in day-to-day use, but the cost to put one together is much higher $400-$500.

Option 3 was really interesting, but the hardware seemed very esoteric.  As it happened, a user was selling such a box, already modified with additional RAM (1GB), an 8GB SSD Disk On Module (DOM), and 2-port Intel Gig-E NIC.  All for $60 plus shipping.

All options require a secondary monitor for initial setup. However, once the installation is complete and running, these machines can run headless.

Installing pfSense was no easy matter.  Most of these embedded systems run off a Compact Flash-to-IDE adapter…so it’s easy to access the card and copy the raw image through a USB CF reader.  In this case the DOM behaves more like a harddrive–moreover, it uses a standard 44-pin IDE connector, so the easiest way is to install using the LiveCD available at pfsense.org.

In addition to that, you’ll need:

  • External USB DVD Drive or USB key for the .ISO Live CD
  • USB Keyboard
  • Monitor

Steps

  • Connect Monitor, Keyboard, USB DVD Drive.
  • Open the BIOS screens to make sure that all options are enabled
    • (specifically USB Controller is enabled or your DVD Drive and Keyboard won’t work).
  • Boot using the pfSense LiveCD and conduct the standard install.
    • NOTE: When asked to partition the disk, choose NOT to create a SWAP drive

In the case of flash media, such as an IDE DOM or CompactFlash card, there is a limited number of writes that each sector can persist.  The goal of this installation HOW-TO is to create an embedded install from the LiveCD.  This loads pfSense into RAM and turns off local logging.

  • Select the standard kernel. (Selecting the embedded kernel does annoying things like turn off VGA, requiring you to access it through the serial console–and who has null-modem cables lying around.
  • Reboot.

The HP T5720 has a few peculiarities.  The BIOS implementation of ACPI doesn’t work which caused errors to fill the console ever 30 seconds.  Moreover, the bootloader wouldn’t detect the DOM as a boot drive.

  • When prompted by the bootloader, press the <spacebar> to pause the countdown and select the custom boot option (option #7) and enter the following:
$ set hw.ata.ata_dma=0
$ unset acpi_load 
$ set hint.acpi.0.disabled=1
$ set hint.apic.0.disabled=1 
$ boot

The system will boot.  You can set your VLANs and network interfaces for WAN and LAN.  You can even login via the web interface if you want as it starts serving up IPs if another computer is connected.

Finishing Up

In order to persist the bootloader, you’ll have to go into shell (option #8) and type:

$ /etc/rc.conf_mount_rw
$ echo "hw.ata.ata_dma=0" >> /boot/loader.conf.local
$ echo "hint.acpi.0.disabled=1" >> /boot/loader.conf.local
$ echo "hint.apic.0.disabled=1" >> /boot/loader.conf.local
$ /etc/rc.conf_mount_ro
$ exit

You’ll then need to switch the platform type specified in the /etc/platform from “pfsense” to “embedded”.  This will boot the embedded kernel, load pfSense pfsense into memory and make the filesystem read-only.

You can choose not to do this, and accept reduced reliability of the DOM device due to frequent writes.  Most of the DOM devices sold have wear-levelling built-in and larger DOMs have excess space. You’ve been warned. I would at least turn off or point to an external syslog.d instance if you have one.

Reboot.

Installing Packages and Updating

When you set your “pfsense” install to “embedded” you will need to change the install type if you want to install packages and / or update your installation of pfsense to a newer version.  You’ll need to switch the context back to “pfsense” in “/etc/platform”.

Steambox vs. the Incumbants (Xbox One, PS4)

[stag_intro]I was very pleased when Valve announced Steam OS, Steam Box and their new controller. In a year of console refreshes it struck me as the right defensive manoeuvre for Valve. [/stag_intro]

The computing power available in consoles far exceeds anything that people need. The move to general purpose x86 APUs to power the software experiences means that consoles will become an networked, general purpose device along side new smart TVs that every television manufacturer is pushing these days.  In fact, it looks like XBox One will at least be able to run a limited subset of Windows 8 applications.

ASIDE: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Xbox One runs a stripped down version of Windows 8

It’s clear to me that Valve saw a large opportunity to innovate and have been planning the foundations for this work for well over a year. They saw several trends and have capitalized on the opportunity in a big way:

  • Steam’s Big picture captured the emerging trend of HDTV PC gaming/computing.
  • The ever increasing number of console ports to PC meant existing gaming console hardware controllers could be used, and TV gaming great.
  • The hardware necessary to drive a sufficiently good 1080p experience is readily available.
  • Software like Plex, XBMC as front-ends for HDTV computing make the experience good.
  • The PC, as a form-factor, is in decline.
  • Hardware OEMS like Acer, HP, Dell, and Lenovo are pissed at Microsoft and desperatelywant out of the licensing deal.
  • Digital distribution of games is a reality

With High-Definition  TV panels becoming the main “information display”, it makes sense to enter the space.  However, unlike Netflix, with their excellent OEM distribution (basically any piece of hardware that can connect to a TV including Xbox, Wii, and Playstation), Valve lacks a hardware preload strategy.

Here’s the genius: With the average PC-margin hovering at around 3-5% net, OEMs looking for ways to reduce the licensing cost of the Windows hegemony.  Moreover, they are looking for ways to compete on margin and are more than happy to explore new form factors. ((If there is one thing I credit Windows 8, is that it has allowed OEMs to experiment with different computing form-factors / designs that I find appealing — like the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro or even the MS Surface Pro.)) A gaming console / media box makes sense, but most boxes (as characterized by the WD TV Live) are sub-$100 boxes. However, with Valve’s announcement of a royalty-free OS, high-margin catalogue of new releases and abandonware, you ave compelling platform offering with SteamBox.  I’m sure OEMs are more than happy to spend some R&D dollars towards the experiment.

With support by major hardware OEMs, it’s not surprising to see AMD and nVidia make progress on Linux only drivers–it’s the same hardware in the PS4 and Xbox One!

Here are my bets:

  • Valves strategy will play out over the next 3-years.
  • Microsoft will make their Xbox One experience available as a digital download–you’ll be able to run your Xbox games on your WIndows 8 PC.
  • PC OEMs will manufacture generic gaming consoles certified for Windows 8.x w/ the Xbox One Experience and Steam OS, but Valve will have the upper-hand because they will support game streaming to android and iOS mobile devices.
  • Game streaming from a single high-end PC to lighter / thinner clients will be norm by 2015.

It’s a Win-Win for Valve.  They’re platform is will be available on all the platforms that matter. ((I’m presuming that they are working on a way to stream Steam OS games onto Android or iOS.))

On to WordPress

I grew a bit frustrated with Octopress.  Too much work to keep multiple development environments in sync.  Then Apple broke my ruby installation in a recent Mountain Lion example.  So I decided to bite the bullet and install WordPress.

Not too sure how I feel about that.

My original reasons to moving to Octopress was that I could use the best text editor and get out of the hassle with updating my installation and focus on writing. I think that in the end, it worked, but the ever present config issues lingered.

In fact, I appreciate the web based interfaces for authoring and administration. Having it centralized and accessible from any browser is a bonus. In fact the only consistent client that I had was the locally hosted version on my VPS. Granted I had to use VIM to do all my authoring, but I suppose some would think that advantageous.

Tai