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An evolving journey - DIY Surround on a Mac

DownUnderGazza

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#1
Hi all,
Blumlein 88 (@Blumlein 88 ) recently posted this: "If we could do software Dolby and DTS decoding in say VLC, we wouldn't need this overpriced under-performing gear. Decode into a digital stream and shoot it to an 8 channel pro interface and onto amps. Great performance for relatively peanuts." anthem-mrx-520-avr

His post was in response to yet another poorly performing AVR, not that just integrated AVR's perform badly under Amir's objective analysis, their PrePro rarified cousins seem to as well.

While many options exist for our Windows HTPC brethren, us Mac users are less well served.

What I think I'm looking for:
-- To use my Mac Mini as the hub and centre of my living room media
-- The ability to watch UHD 4K Netflix and iTunes 4K content and decode audio to at least 7.2 Dolby, I no longer use physical media
-- A single remote volume control, integrated bass management and ideally Dirac correction for each channel and for the room
-- Support for my custom bi-amped active front L&R speakers, currently driven by MiniDSP's DDRC-24 and Matrix-Digital IcePower amps
-- Adoption of the humble but stellar JBL LSR305 as surround and overhead speaker
-- Balanced TRS/XLR or even AES connections to all the surround channels

I have used and honed my speaker / room correction skills on DEQX in the past (wonderful piece of equipment), currently use MiniDSP DDRC-24 for crossover and Dirac correction duties (highly recommend), and have purchased SonarWorks Reference to experiment with and use True-Fi for headphones.

What I've learnt so far:
-- Dolby Surround decoder - it seems that Apple's OS already supports built-in Dolby Digital Plus (https://developer.dolby.com/platforms/apple/macos/os-support/)
-- While some sort of support is promised by Apple for Dolby Atmos in Catalina, so far it looks like use of an AVR is assumed
-- Decoding DTS seems to require professional level plug-ins (AU, VST etc), last I looked expensive and designed for professional use not consumer convenience
-- Surround decoders, these exist but are mainly aimed at Content Creation and encoding rather than decoding
-- Apple's Audio MIDI Setup allows channel allocation through an external multi-channel audio interface, but doesn't handle bass management or time alignment, this utility will also aggregate multiple audio interfaces to build up channel count if desired
-- Rogue Amoeba's Looper allows patching AU (Audio Unit) plug-ins into the signal path, so could be used for basic parametric EQ and delay / alignment duties, maybe even bass management, last I checked it doesn't support multi-channel processing
-- External USB or Ethernet Over-the-Air TV receivers do exist, I have an old Eye-TV (https://www.geniatech.eu) but will replace it with a Home Run when it dies (https://www.silicondust.com)
-- MiniDSP make great stereo and multi-channel correction / crossover devices, I have a couple including the DDRC-24. I'm contemplating the SHD. But none of their devices do any actual surround decoding although they will do bass management and correction / alignment duties on an already decoded audio stream.
-- Apple's planned "Side-car" seems to promise a single remote surface on an iPad for control purposes (https://www.apple.com/nz/macos/catalina/features/)

Given the abysmal performance of the AVR / PrePro surround decoder, I'm thinking of adopting something like the MiniDSP U-DIO-8 (https://www.minidsp.com/products/usb-audio-interface/u-dio8) as my surround audio interface. (https://www.stereophile.com/content/music-round-93-minidsp-ripping-sacds).

The huge gap from that I can see so far is in the whole consumer convenience, WAF (Wife-acceptance-factor) simplicity for a single interface / remote control.
Can an un-trained someone step up and use the system? Turn it on, select media, get the right decoders loaded, change the volume???

This is where JRiver's Media Centre comes in (https://jriver.com).

It seems to offer the integration, media selection, decoding, bass management and correction / alignment support needed.
Trouble is, for whatever reason, I haven't got past the initial download of a demo version to try out.

Has anyone else had more success?
Will it provide that one-stop ease of use for an untrained person to be able to use?
 
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#3
If you want to go the HTPC route, you are much better off with a small form factor PC (not even just a NUC but a matx or mini-itx with expansion flexibility) with Windows running rather than MacOS. This is not a Windows vs Mac thing, I use Macs and Hackintoshes for all my non media work. Just that the available software options are so much better on Windows.

I have a Windows PC as a HTPC for stored media (video and audio content). The video is handled via MPC-BE using MadVR renderer with a Nvidia graphics card with HDMi 2.0 that gives better video on a 4k monitor than any receiver or pre/pro doing video processing. It is like the difference between using room correction and not using it. You can get fantastic UHD HDR rendering without having to buy a very expensive TV to get the right tone mapping.

The audio is decoded with LAV decoders that work with MPC to generate LPCM for all surround formats (except the metadata enhanced formats like DTS:X and Atmos, these have to be decoded at whoever is doing the DAC conversion). LAV decoders allow good control of the sampling rates and bit depths you need. The LPCM channels are then fed into VoiceMeeter Banana virtual mixing console. This gives me the ability to do the equivalent of multiple zones for audio through the network and to split the audio paths for different kind of processing with good control on resolution and bit depth to prevent any resampling.

Stereo music goes an optical out of the motherboard to a Paradigm PW link with ARC room correction via direct mode to avoid any Windows processing. All digital so far. The video surround sounds are sent to the HDMI as multi-channel PCM out with direct mode again. I use Equalizer APO that integrates with VoiceMeeter and feed it the filters generated by REW for all speakers for multi-channel room correction. This can also be sent over USB instead of HDMI if necessary. This can be fed to an external DAC + power amp or a pre/pro and power amps.

A universal remote maps the keys to all the PC based playing (MPC-BE responds to Windows Media Center remote codes) as well as control TV and amp.

Media library is controlled by Kodi as a client of a media server elsewhere and I have configured Windows to bring up Kodi full screen on boot up without having to see much of any Windows at all. Including a custom screen for the BIOS.

Content with DRM go straight through to ensure HDCP compliance so I still need something downstream that has AVR like functionality with decoding capabilities and DAC for this content. Streams come via smart TV apps and don’t involve any room correction at the moment. Working on it.

Doing all of the above with a Mac (even as a flexible Hackintosh build) would be next to impossible.
 

Blumlein 88

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#4
If you want to go the HTPC route, you are much better off with a small form factor PC (not even just a NUC but a matx or mini-itx with expansion flexibility) with Windows running rather than MacOS. This is not a Windows vs Mac thing, I use Macs and Hackintoshes for all my non media work. Just that the available software options are so much better on Windows.

I have a Windows PC as a HTPC for stored media (video and audio content). The video is handled via MPC-BE using MadVR renderer with a Nvidia graphics card with HDMi 2.0 that gives better video on a 4k monitor than any receiver or pre/pro doing video processing. It is like the difference between using room correction and not using it. You can get fantastic UHD HDR rendering without having to buy a very expensive TV to get the right tone mapping.

The audio is decoded with LAV decoders that work with MPC to generate LPCM for all surround formats (except the metadata enhanced formats like DTS:X and Atmos, these have to be decoded at whoever is doing the DAC conversion). LAV decoders allow good control of the sampling rates and bit depths you need. The LPCM channels are then fed into VoiceMeeter Banana virtual mixing console. This gives me the ability to do the equivalent of multiple zones for audio through the network and to split the audio paths for different kind of processing with good control on resolution and bit depth to prevent any resampling.

Stereo music goes an optical out of the motherboard to a Paradigm PW link with ARC room correction via direct mode to avoid any Windows processing. All digital so far. The video surround sounds are sent to the HDMI as multi-channel PCM out with direct mode again. I use Equalizer APO that integrates with VoiceMeeter and feed it the filters generated by REW for all speakers for multi-channel room correction. This can also be sent over USB instead of HDMI if necessary. This can be fed to an external DAC + power amp or a pre/pro and power amps.

A universal remote maps the keys to all the PC based playing (MPC-BE responds to Windows Media Center remote codes) as well as control TV and amp.

Media library is controlled by Kodi as a client of a media server elsewhere and I have configured Windows to bring up Kodi full screen on boot up without having to see much of any Windows at all. Including a custom screen for the BIOS.

Content with DRM go straight through to ensure HDCP compliance so I still need something downstream that has AVR like functionality with decoding capabilities and DAC for this content. Streams come via smart TV apps and don’t involve any room correction at the moment. Working on it.

Doing all of the above with a Mac (even as a flexible Hackintosh build) would be next to impossible.
Friends don't let friends do Windows.

Maybe Linux, but not Windows.
 

DownUnderGazza

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#6
Wow, @audimus , that’s one impressive set up, and I agree it’s not possible to do all that on a Mac. Thanks for sharing, much appreciated.
While I agree it’s not a Mac vs Windows thing, for myself, I’ve decided to stay within the Apple walled garden and ecosystem. It’s one whole layer of complexity I don’t wish to add to my life if I can avoid it. Hence this post.
 

Blumlein 88

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#7
Wow, @audimus , that’s one impressive set up, and I agree it’s not possible to do all that on a Mac. Thanks for sharing, much appreciated.
While I agree it’s not a Mac vs Windows thing, for myself, I’ve decided to stay within the Apple walled garden and ecosystem. It’s one whole layer of complexity I don’t wish to add to my life if I can avoid it. Hence this post.
I think the reasoning for your wish to stick with Apple makes some sense.

And lest I be labeled a brand zealot, I worked with Windows for many years, was certified by Microsoft professionally for a few years, and used Windows and Linux only until a couple years ago. I only recently decided Mac did usually make things simpler for most owners. True most complaints about Windows can be handled by a knowledgeable person, but the same is true of Linux. And though it didn't seem that hard to me, I have to look at experience of people I know and work with. You have these mini disasters with Windows that most people don't know how to deal with which re-occur over and over. Put those people on a Mac, or friendly Linux or even Chrome boxes (for some with minimal needs) and all that clutter goes away. With Mac and Chrome you pretty much don't hear from them anymore, and with Linux you'll sometimes hear from them about how to do something.

So I literally steer friends and acquaintances away from Windows unless they have a specific unique need. I even help them when they need it if they don't listen to my good advice.

So for DownUnderGaza, I think suggesting a NUC running Windows is almost certain to end up making him unhappy. Windows does have the most extensive software/hardware combinations so it is a shame it isn't handled better for consumers that don't wish to become computer specialists. But for someone comfortable with Mac suggesting Windows is in my opinion and experience not good advice all things considered.
 
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#8
I've done HTPCs for years... they were great until they weren't. It's funny, I work on all 3 OSes (well if we're counting different distros then many more of course), but I have to agree with @audimus on that. Closest maybe KODI via LibreELEC - but even then more problematic in some areas than Windows.

On the other hand, I haven't had one currently for over two years and couldn't be happier - Oppo 203/205 to the rescue. Streams everything from the NAS with as good if not better support for everything, and since you've got both analog and digital outs supporting muti-channel it's a done deal.

Nothing wrong with the idea, but IME it's just never as functional (of which simplicity is a factor) as a good firmware based solution. With the expenses involved in all of the various devices, driver, etc. - I just figure the source side it better handled by a purpose-built device. Add a miniDSP DDRC-88A to any BDP with network interface and file decoding for at least MPEG2/MP4/MKV/AVCHD - and you've got your preamp plus Dirac for a full receiver capability under $2K. Of course, it also plays all optical media video or audio... so all sources in one - and all DSP corrected at that. Many (Oppo also here) have an HDMI input as well - if you want to hook up an Xbox or something from time to time.

Possible with a Mac/PC? Sure. Cheaper, easier, more reliable? Maybe, no, not in my experience. I'm happy with this and I've not gone the DDRC-88A route - just HDMI to my 8801A for the moment... but when I redo my theater later on this year - that's the plan (subject to change if @amirm finds something amazing in the interim).
 

DownUnderGazza

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#9
Thank you to both @Blumlein 88 and @audimus for your helpful suggestions.
By way of clarification, my original degrees were in Comp.Sci, so i know my way around the various OSes. I also worked professionally in the IT field for more than a couple of decades, and baby-sitting Windows is something I no longer wish to be part of. That's a personal choice which does tend to go against the facts and reality of the situation.
FACT: Windows is vastly superior in terms of the options for a HTPC, no question, no dispute.
FACT: Linux is getting pretty close, almost close enough.
FACT: Mac's are constantly hamstrung by Apple's limiting options in terms of what they'll support etc. No argument here from me.
But, I like the walled garden I have at home with HomeKit smart home integration (highly secure point-to-point device encryption), AirPlay streaming anywhere for audio and video, and the (mostly) trouble free running of all my devices.
My interest here is what I can do and manage within the choices I've made.
If that helps others who have made similar choices then great!
 
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#11
@digicidal - totally agree, nearly purchased an Oppo 20X for just those reasons... but I hesitated too long and missed out.
Now I'm reluctant to buy into devices from a company that's shut up shop.
Yeah, I really wish I'd purchased 4-5 of them when I had the chance... grabbed two however. I think I'll probably cry when they die - but they're built pretty well, so hopefully not for awhile. I'd be really hesitant now... paying a premium for used gear with no easy repair channel... not for the faint of heart.

It's not easy finding a BDP with analog outputs but they do exist... none as straightforward and feature-rich as the Oppos I'm afraid.
 

DownUnderGazza

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#12
Some more thoughts.

-- I love that I can leave Spotify running on my Mac Mini server and via Spotify-Connect can control it from anywhere. I've not tried to do DBT on Spotify's 320kbs vs my Apple Lossless library, but honestly it's good enough to call up any music that comes to mind and for me to relax and enjoy it.

-- I dislike that my LG UHD 4K Dolby Vision TV running the WebOS Netflix app can receive and decode Dolby Vision video, but that my 2014-model Mac Mini connected to the same TV cannot!!! It seems that with Catalina and a 2019 Mac, including the new Mac Mini, will change that...
I understand that the limitation is the crappy Intel integrated video GPU on my older model Mac Mini. But Apple, a full 2019 Mac is required for this task when my 3 year old LG TV manages fine??? (I know deep breath etc)

-- Maybe I should just give up on the crazy Surround Sound Codec wars and accept that for most of my needs (not wants), Dolby Digital Plus is actually good enough.
 
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#13
Sadly the state of AVR performance is largely due to how much worse most of the alternatives are... which lets them continue to get away with just barely "good enough". :confused:
 
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#14
I'd love to ditch my AVR and use a Mac-based setup, it would be even better if I could expand it to as many outputs as I want, and use FIR filters on each output. Of course, a nice clean UI to run it all would be the cherry on top.

I've thought about tossing a MacMini into an xMac Mini Server with an HDMI capture card. Then capture the video with OBS, with NDI and the NDI/OBS plugin you can output the video from the same computer, or have a second computer on your network as the NDI destination. You could send the audio from OBS to an output device like a MOTU. On the way to the output device you could run the audio through AU(clunky but VERY capable) or any number of DAW's. This would get you everything in a relatively low power/heat and compact(2RU) package.

I'm a live event video guy and have used NDI and OBS on events. It's a solid software combo. I just don't know how well it handles surround sound decoding, or HDR video. I have a Mini and 1080p SDR capture device laying around. I just don't have a multi channel output device to test with.
 

DownUnderGazza

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#15
I hear ya @LumbermanSVO, I really do.
Remember Apple's "Front Row"? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Front_Row_(software))
Oh for something that simple to sit in front of all media and be easily remote controlled?!
Maybe JRiver's Media Centre is exactly that?

I'm familiar with OBS and NDI, I've played in this space for live gig streaming and hope to have a crack at Resolume VJ'ing sometime with live video feed mixed in! If you have the expertise then of course go for it. Personally, I find it a little too heavy duty for a no-fuss home set up.

MotU are great audio interfaces, I too am tempted, especially as I could use the TRS outputs to feed my JBL LSR305's etc.
A cheaper alternative might be this from MiniDSP: https://www.minidsp.com/products/opendrc-series/opendrc-da8
It has enough processing power to accept some FIR processing on its channels, plus it's half the price of a MotU.
 

Sal1950

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#16
Been on Linux for close to 20 years now but I'm for sure no guru.
I played with the HTPC idea on and off a few times but the older I get the less appealing the idea is.
HTPC's, no matter the OS, have to be a labor of love, all you do is work on the damn things. Either thru the desire for upgrades and improved functionality or because something broke. And break it does often. App A has an update that breaks app B, but you can't fix it because it requires a library that conflicts with app C. on and on and on. :mad::mad::mad:
No thanks, I want to use my gear, not work on it till 5:30 am, three nights in a row. Just remembering it makes my brain hurt. LOL
Whatever the performance short comings, just give me a good piece of hardware or two, and let me play my music and watch my videos. :D
 

DownUnderGazza

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#17
@Sal1950:
No thanks, I want to use my gear, not work on it till 5:30 am, three nights in a row. Just remembering it makes my brain hurt. LOL
Whatever the performance short comings, just give me a good piece of hardware or two, and let me play my music and watch my videos
Totally with you on this front, which is why, for now, my LG TV is connected via Toslink to my Matrix-Digi Mini-i Pro (current iteration here: https://www.matrix-digi.com/en/products/316.html). It has a single remote control, although 'only' a 9018 DAC it performs very well.
The compromise step is that I then run the analogue out into the analogue input on the MiniDSP DRC24 Dirac correction processor. Not ideal. I'd prefer the theoretical purity of staying digital for as long as possible. But again it works.
 
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#18
FWIW, PowerDVD (Windows only unfortunately) can operate as a multichannel software decoder, sending BR/DVD's
data stream directly to the analog outputs of an RME Fireface UCX - works very well. I tried with a Motu 8D but only 2-chan playback so appears to be exclusive to the RME devices.
 

audimus

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#20
Thank you to both @Blumlein 88 and @audimus for your helpful suggestions.
By way of clarification, my original degrees were in Comp.Sci, so i know my way around the various OSes. I also worked professionally in the IT field for more than a couple of decades, and baby-sitting Windows is something I no longer wish to be part of. That's a personal choice which does tend to go against the facts and reality of the situation.
FACT: Windows is vastly superior in terms of the options for a HTPC, no question, no dispute.
FACT: Linux is getting pretty close, almost close enough.
FACT: Mac's are constantly hamstrung by Apple's limiting options in terms of what they'll support etc. No argument here from me.
But, I like the walled garden I have at home with HomeKit smart home integration (highly secure point-to-point device encryption), AirPlay streaming anywhere for audio and video, and the (mostly) trouble free running of all my devices.
My interest here is what I can do and manage within the choices I've made.
If that helps others who have made similar choices then great!
Make sense based on requirements. You really have to look at a HTPC at several levels of need/requirements.

Level 0: Every device is a HTPC. A streaming app runs on it and you use built in features of that app for functionality and choose a platform that you are most comfortable with. The various streaming apps or smart TV apps interacting with the hardware via the network is sufficient. Most of these apps are available on most platforms (except perhaps Linux).

Level 1: A single app that unifies your media and provides playback features. Kodi/Plex/Emby for HT or specialized software like foobar/roon for music running on a platform you are comfortable with works fine. This level would satisfy more than 90% of use cases. I was running and happy with Kodi as my main media center on a Linux box connected to the TV for years. Apple is best for this if the app with the features you want exists on it, followed by Windows and then Linux which needs a bit of tech involvement even for using the app let alone the platform.

Linux is a very bad platform for HT as X11 is very outdated and its architecture sucks for future video rendering progress, combined with several driver issues unless you use AMD cards. Its replacement is not ready for prime time yet. You tear your hair out for things like screen tearing and having to find the right settings hidden depending on whether you use Intel or nvidia or AMD graphics. Pulseaudio was never well designed for high quality audio and resamples everything. Alsa is too painful to work with trying to figure out what your pci device ids are etc.

The above apps “just work” on Mac or Windows.

Level 3: This is when you grow your needs beyond level 1 where a single vertically integrated app is no longer sufficient and your requirements span multiple use cases from music to movies and distribution inside the house is important. This is what the AVR along with Sonus/Roku, etc target where you don’t have to worry about the platform at all because it is hidden. The features are provided by tight software/hardware integration. Apple wants to be in this space but has not been really that good and so does not provide much more than Level 1 or anything that cannot be done much more simply by an AVR and an Apple TV/Roku/Chrome/Fire/etc. Most people use some combination of the two. Even Kodi can be a sink for AirPlay now as most new AVRs. So just Kodi/Emby/Plex on a mac mini or on an nVidia Shield might be enough for your purposes in the Apple ecosystem.

Level 4: This is the hobbyist/enthusiast level where the level 3 equipment is too limited for extracting the best audio and video. This is where my kind of setup comes in. Obviously, this needs a lot of tinkering and getting hands dirty. Not for everyone. Linux and Apple are not even in play here given the lack of necessary software but the results are several degrees above what the other levels can do for combined music and movie consumption.
 

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