AMD's Opteron range of CPUs are popular with musicians and ready for 64-bit computing — so how does Inta Audio's Opteron PC compare with typical Intel machines?
We've reviewed numerous specialist PCs designed for music recording in the pages of SOS, but the Inta Audio machine that's the subject of this review is the first one we've ever been sent that's based around an AMD rather than an Intel processor. Not only that, but Inta have leapfrogged the popular Athlon and Athlon 64 ranges in favour of an Opteron processor, in this case a 2.0GHz 146 model. With 80GB and 200GB SATA hard drives for system and audio duties respectively, plus 2GB RAM and a CD/DVD writer, this is potentially a very powerful system, so let's see what's on offer.
Inta Audio have used the Chieftec Silver Fox ATX MIDI tower case, which can fit up to three 5.25-inch and two 3.5-inch drives on its front panel, with a handy pop-up panel halfway up that reveals one Firewire and two USB 2.0 ports — many tower cases place these right at the bottom where it's easy to tread on any devices or cables plugged into them, so this is a big improvement to my mind. A Sony 8x speed DVD-RW burner had been fitted in the topmost 5.25-inch drive bay, and while some other specialist music retailers are abandoning floppy drives altogether, Inta Audio score highly in my book by fitting a Mitsumi 7-in-1 USB Media Drive that not only reads and writes floppy disks, but also six different formats of memory cards (see 'System Specifications' box). This is much more convenient than USB external card readers.
Inside the case, wiring was extremely tidy, and all cables had been secured with a bead of silicon sealant as well as cable ties, to prevent them working loose by accident. Every bare panel had also been lined with Acoustipack foam, including both side panels, the top and bottom panels, the rear panel and even the bottom half of the front panel. All this foam covered both the air intake and exhaust vents, and the only places I could spot where cool air could enter the system were at the front through the small gaps between the various drive bays, while the only exhaust vent was on the PSU, although thankfully on this system a manly Taurus 500 Watt model had been fitted with a temperature-controlled fan. The ATI Radeon 9600 XT graphics card does employ a cooling fan, but in practice I couldn't hear it through the foam case linings.
Asus's SK8V motherboard is well regarded for its potential performance and stablility. Featuring VIA's K8T800 chip set, one 8x AGP and five PCI expansion slots, and with four DIMM sockets supporting up to 8GB of PC3200 DDR SDRAM memory, this board provides one Socket 940 to suit either one of AMD's Athlon 64FX or Opteron 100-series processors. Inta Audio had fitted an Opteron 146 with a clock speed of 2.0GHz. This model, launched about a year ago, has been targeted at musicians as well as game developers, animators and graphic designers, and should provide solid 32-bit performance when running with Microsoft's existing version of Windows XP, but holds out the prospect of even better performance when 64-bit computing finally arrives.
Four 512MB sticks of RAM had been fitted for a total of 2GB; although this means all the available slots are filled, it's significantly cheaper than fitting two 1GB sticks. Inta Audio completed this particular system with a 17-inch AOC monitor with plenty of options including portrait/landscape rotation, plus an Edirol UA1000 USB 2.0 audio interface, so no PCI cards needed to be fitted at all.
- Case: Chieftec BG01, Taurus 500W PSU with temperature-controlled fan.
- Motherboard: Asus SK8V with one Socket 940 for Athlon 64FX or Opteron 100-series processor, VIA K8T800 chip set running 2x800MHz front side buss, and four DDR DIMM sockets supporting up to 8GB of registered dual-channel PC3200/2700/2100 DDR SDRAM.
- Processor: AMD Opteron 146 2.0GHz Socket 940 with 1MB L2 cache, 4 times 200MHz front side buss.
- CPU heatsink and fan: Zalman Super Flower Cooler CNPS7000-AlCu with Fan Mate controller.
- Case silencing: Acoustipack foam lining.
- System RAM: 2GB of Princeton PC3200 CAS2.5 SDRAM, EEC registered, running at 2x 200MHz (400MHz data rate).
- System drive: Seagate Barracuda ST380013AS, 80GB, 7200rpm, Serial ATA.
- Audio drive: Seagate Barracuda ST3200822AS, 200GB, 7200rpm, Serial ATA.
- Graphics card: ATI Radeon 9600 XT series with dual-head support, fan cooling and 256MB RAM.
- Floppy drive: Mitsumi 7-in-1 USB Media Drive, supporting 3.5-inch floppy disks, Compact Flash type I/II, Microdrive, SD Memory Card, Multimedia Card, Memory Stick and Smart Media.
- DVD-RW Drive: Sony DW-U18A, ATAPI Ultra DMA 33 Mode 2 interface, 40x CD-ROM, 40x CD-R, 24x CD-RW, 12x DVD-ROM, 8x DVD+/-R, 4x DVD+/-RW, 8MB buffer.
- System ports: PS/2 mouse and keyboard, serial, parallel, RJ45 LAN, six USB 2.0, two six-pin Firewire.
- Keyboard & mouse: Genius KB-06X black desktop, black Logitech Premium optical wheel mouse.
- Installed operating system: Windows XP Professional Edition plus Service Pack 1.
For this particular system:
- Monitor: AOC LM727 TFT, black/silver, with 17-inch diagonal, 1280 x 1024 native resolution, 25ms response time, 140 degree horizontal and vertical viewing angles, analogue input connector, built-in multimedia speakers, adjustable height, pivot and swivel, plus optional rotation for portrait mode.
- Audio interface: Edirol UA1000 with version 184.108.40.206 drivers.
Given the amount of attention paid to silencing the case I fully expected this machine to run quiet, and I was right — this was one of the quietest systems I've ever reviewed, despite using a graphics card with its own fan. However, it's important to monitor noise levels in conjunction with temperature, since it's quite possible for a PC to become significantly noisier when run hard, or even overheat and cause stability problems.
I started by leaving the system ticking over for an hour or two in Windows using the supplied Asus Probe utility to measure its idling temperature, which eventually stabilised at 46 degrees Centigrade for the CPU and 39 for the motherboard. While slightly high, this didn't necessarily mean that the CPU would become incredibly hot when stressed, since this system includes a temperature-controlled fan in its PSU to provide increased cooling when the going gets tough. To provide some extra stress I ran Passmark's Burnintest (www.passmark.com) with the CPU running permanently at 100 percent overhead, both hard drives actively writing along with continuous RAM writing and verifying, and a constantly updating 2D graphics window. After two hours, temperatures had risen to a stable 59 degrees for the CPU and 42 for the motherboard sensor. This is an excellent result considering there's only minimal cool air intake and one exhaust fan (to keep noise levels down), although the fan did speed up and become slightly noisier when the CPU was run flat out, and Inta told me they have decided to no longer fit acoustic foam to the front panel. Not doing so will apparently drop temperatures by a couple of degrees without unduly increasing noise levels — this is also good news for anyone wanting to install multiple heat-generating PCI cards.
Inside the BIOS various devices had wisely been disabled, including on-board AC97 Audio, Instant Music, the Promise Controller, Game and MIDI ports. Since so few people use them, the parallel and second serial ports had also been disabled to release unique IRQs to other devices.
All the partitions were NTFS-formatted, and 5GB of the 80GB system drive had been split off and partitioned as a page file (in addition to one of 1GB Initial Size on the C partition), while the entire 220GB audio drive had been left as one huge chunk. I suppose this is the most sensible default setup, although personally I'd immediately create an additional backup partition on the 80GB drive for audio files, as most users are highly unlikely to require 75GB for Windows and applications.
I was mystified by the extra page file partition at the inside of the system drive, since if this additional space were required by the page file it would surely degrade Windows performance to have to leap to the other side of the drive to access it. However, Inta Audio told me that in their tests they had managed to run at least four more plug-ins using this approach before the system 'maxed out' when running a huge number of audio tracks and soft synths.
The AOC monitor provided excellent picture quality and the portrait/landscape feature would particularly please anyone who regularly works with page-based graphics, such as magazine and book illustrations and layouts. The ATI Radeon 9600XT dual-head graphics card also provides good upgrade potential for those who need even more screen real estate.
It almost goes without saying that Inta Audio had made all the appropriate audio tweaks to Windows XP, and disk performance was roughly on a par with most other systems featuring the popular Seagate Barracuda SATA 7200.7 series, offering up to a theoretical 283 simultaneous 16-bit/44.1kHz tracks with a 256k disk buffer — more than enough for most musicians. However, for me the most important aspect of this system was audio soft synth and plug-in performance relative to other types of CPU. Running the Cubase SX Fivetowers 2.0 test with a relatively high latency of 23ms (to measure only the plug-in and soft-synth components, and exclude the extra IRQ overhead when running lots of extra interrupts at low latency), the CPU overhead from plug-ins only (ie. with playback stopped) was 31 percent, and 50 percent when playing back both plug-ins and soft synths.
This isn't far behind Carillon's 3.4GHz P4C machine with hyperthreading enabled, which measured 29 and 47 percent respectively, and is clearly an excellent result for the 2.0GHz Opteron 146 CPU. In various 3D graphic benchmarks, which are often cited as a reasonable comparison with the requirements of audio applications, the 2.0GHz Opteron 146 is often seen neck and neck with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, so my initial tests seemed to bear this out.
However, once the latency had dropped to 3ms, the Opteron 146 machine began to lag behind by some 20 percent in the Fivetowers test, only narrowly beating my own 2.8GHz P4C PC. To double-check the audio performance with newer code containing all the latest optimisations, I also ran some checks with Waves version 5.0 plug-ins at low soundcard latency, which confirmed these findings — overheads for Renaissance Reverb and Trueverb, C1 Compressor/Gate, REQ6 and Q10 equalisation plug-ins were all just behind my own 2.8GHz P4C processor.
Confused by this apparent drop in performance after initially good Cubase results at 23ms latency, I acted on a hunch and removed the Echo Mia soundcard from my own PC, installed it in the Inta Audio Opteron and repeated all the tests. As I had half expected, while all the Sandra results and the 23ms Cubase latency figures were identical, the 3ms ones were significantly better, suggesting that Edirol's UA1000 or the USB 2.0 interface were imposing an additional CPU load at low latencies. With the Echo Mia the 3ms Fivetowers results were 32 and 54 percent in stop and play modes — this time putting them on a par with a P4C 3.2GHz processor as originally expected. Although the Waves EQ results were still about the same, the reverbs and compressors also got considerably better, in some cases equalling the Carillon P4C 3.4GHz.
What's more, the Opteron's memory bandwidth as measured by Sisoftware's Sandra was the highest I've ever measured at 5.3GB/second, which should certainly help in achieving high audio track counts for instance. It's certainly higher than Carillon's Intel P4C with 800MHz FSB, which tested at 4.8GB/second, and eclipses Red Sub's dual-Xeon model at 3.0GB/second, although the latter ran plug-ins and soft synths faster than any other PC I've tested to date. However, Sandra 's CPU Arithmetic benchmarks measured 9103 MIPS Dhrystone, 3101 MFLOPS Whetstone, and 4077 MFLOPS for iSSE2, while CPU Multimedia measurements were 18897 it/s Integer and 20262 it/s Floating Point, once again roughly equalling my own 2.8GHz machine.
Inta Audio have been brave in sending in a very different PC system for review, and I was very impressed by its high build quality and rock-solid performance. It's also one of the quietest machines I've tested over the last few years, and looks extremely smart into the bargain. I liked the handy Firewire and USB ports halfway up the front panel out of harm's way, and was particularly pleased with the 7-in-1 floppy drive and card reader. I would say that this 2.0GHz Opteron 146 PC provides audio performance roughly on a par with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4C machine, and should further improve when a 64-bit version of Windows is released, which proves that you can't judge by clock speed alone.
Unfortunately Opterons are currently quite expensive (the 146 model used in this system is still over £200), although I suspect they will drop in price as they become more popular. At my request Inta Audio kindly priced up a system with exactly the same basic spec and peripherals, but instead featuring a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor and Asus P4C800 motherboard, which came in at £100 cheaper, and they also have cheaper AMD64 systems on offer with less ambitious specs. If cost is particularly important to you then these alternatives might be more appealing, but I was nevertheless very impressed by the review system, and its huge memory bandwidth should benefit any musician who wants to run loads of everything. If you want to try something a bit different, I doubt you'll be disappointed!
- Performance similar to a P4 3.2GHz processor with most audio applications.
- Impressive build quality.
- Low acoustic noise.
- Massive 2GB RAM.
- Versatile DVD/CD writer.
- Generous 500 Watt PSU.
- Extremely versatile combination floppy/card drive.
- Slightly more expensive than an equivalently powerful P4 system.
Inta Audio are to be congratulated on producing a truly different alternative for anyone who would prefer an AMD audio solution with a bright 64-bit future ahead of it.