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Author Topic: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe  (Read 9555 times)

riparius

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ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« on: December 02, 2014, 07:11:58 pm »

Before purchasing MC for the first time several weeks ago, I had paid very little attention to the subject of audio drivers/standards/APIs.  Since purchasing MC, I've been researching the subject in an attempt to achieve at least a rudimentary understanding of the information that anyone interested in optimizing their digital audio system would need to know.  While my previous research into the question of whether there is an objective basis for favoring high-resolution audio files had yielded little more than a handful of digital dust, I expected that the best practices and facts concerning audio drivers/standards/APIs would be easily discovered and uncontroversial.  But, no . . .

Contradictory (or, at least, incompatible) views on this topic can be found on various websites and forums.  For example, the views on the JRiverWiki and this forum (I believe) generally favor the use of ASIO and WASAPI drivers.  On the other hand, the developer of foobar2000 says the following:
"Please note that this component [ASIO support] is meant for systems where ASIO is the only available output method. It is highly recommended to use the default output modes instead of ASIO. Contrary to popular "audiophile" claims, there are NO benefits from using ASIO as far as music playback quality is concerned, while bugs in ASIO drivers may severely degrade the performance."

And then there's this, from the Hydrogenaudio Knowledgebase article, "Bypassing Windows Mixer":
"Quality gains are questionable at least. In most cases the differences are irrelevant unless the output is digitally captured back and needs to be bit-exact for further processing."

Collectively, discussions of this topic on forums often seem to be an endless series of incompatible or contradictory "facts"—a situation that is perhaps inevitable, given the increasingly complex landscape of digital audio technology information—with little or no resolution.

I realize that for many veterans of these audio technology battles, the answer ultimately comes down to, "Experiment, then use what sounds best to you".  Nonetheless, I'm interested to hear the perspectives of members of this forum on this topic.  Assuming a user who has a system consisting of current, good hardware and software, and so is not constrained in his options, is there a consensus regarding best practices for optimizing Windows-based audio technology?  If so, what is it?  If not, what is standing in the way of a consensus?

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JimH

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Re: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2014, 08:12:42 pm »

Contradictory (or, at least, incompatible) views on this topic can be found on various websites and forums.  For example, the views on the JRiverWiki and this forum (I believe) generally favor the use of ASIO and WASAPI drivers.  On the other hand, the developer of foobar2000 says the following:
"Please note that this component [ASIO support] is meant for systems where ASIO is the only available output method. It is highly recommended to use the default output modes instead of ASIO. Contrary to popular "audiophile" claims, there are NO benefits from using ASIO as far as music playback quality is concerned, while bugs in ASIO drivers may severely degrade the performance."
ASIO drivers are normally supplied by individual manufacturers, so they are only as good as the manufacturer.  ASIO is normally a good choice.
Quote
And then there's this, from the Hydrogenaudio Knowledgebase article, "Bypassing Windows Mixer":
"Quality gains are questionable at least. In most cases the differences are irrelevant unless the output is digitally captured back and needs to be bit-exact for further processing."
That is an opinion.  Hydrogenaudio is a great source of information, but it also has a little attitude.
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mwillems

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Re: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« Reply #2 on: December 02, 2014, 08:22:53 pm »

A well-behaved ASIO driver will deliver the same bitperfect stream as a functioning WASAPI exclusive connection, but ASIO may do so at lower latency and with certain other advantages (some cards only support sample rate switching with ASIO, not WASAPI).  If an ASIO driver is working correctly it should sound identical to WASAPI (because both are bitperfect and both bypass the windows mixer).  Because both should sound the same and ASIO may sometimes offer technical advantages, the recommendation is to use ASIO if your ASIO driver works well.

Some ASIO drivers are not well-behaved, but it's generally pretty obvious when that happens; you'll hear static and dropouts and other flakiness, etc. with a bad ASIO driver.  But it's not as though WASAPI is immune to those problems; I've had sound cards where WASAPI output caused pops and crackles with any buffer settings, but the ASIO output was smooth as silk.  It really depends to a large extent on your specific device and how well its drivers work.  But what I'm describing is not subtle, it's generally pretty obvious when a driver is malfunctioning: if you're not hearing obvious drop outs or distortion, it's very likely that either method will provide the same bitperfect output (you can test for yourself if you're concerned).  

As to whether bypassing the windows mixer is an advantage or not, I suppose it depends on whether you listen to music with more than one sample rate.  The windows mixer resamples all audio to the same fixed rate, and it's resampler isn't a particularly good one (and can introduce audible artifacts).  You can change what the target sample rate is, but that's time consuming and you have to remember to do it before, say, watching a movie which typically has a different sample rate than CD music, etc.  ASIO and WASAPI exclusive also generally prevent system sounds from intruding on music, which I consider a big enough advantage on its own even if windows' resampling engine was perfect in every way.

For my part, I can't personally (in a blind test) consistently distinguish a bitperfect output from an output that's passed through the windows mixer (except in the case of a malfunctioning driver), but some folks can reliably hear a difference (especially when resampling is involved).  Bitperfect output is a "motherhood and apple pie" kind of issue; it's free to do and it's nice to know that your soundcard is getting exactly what was originally included in the music without unintended processing.

I realize that for many veterans of these audio technology battles, the answer ultimately comes down to, "Experiment, then use what sounds best to you".  Nonetheless, I'm interested to hear the perspectives of members of this forum on this topic.  Assuming a user who has a system consisting of current, good hardware and software, and so is not constrained in his options, is there a consensus regarding best practices for optimizing Windows-based audio technology?  If so, what is it?  If not, what is standing in the way of a consensus?

To summarize, what is "standing in the way of consensus" is that WASAPI exclusive and ASIO (when working correctly) deliver identical outputs so one cannot be clearly better than the other in terms of sound quality (although ASIO sometimes offers other technical advantages).  But because device drivers vary in quality, the two output methods do not always work identically and the answer of which is better in any specific case depends on the device and it's drivers and cannot be answered in the abstract.  
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glynor

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Re: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« Reply #3 on: December 02, 2014, 08:40:04 pm »

To summarize, what is "standing in the way of consensus" is that WASAPI exclusive and ASIO (when working correctly) deliver identical outputs so one cannot be clearly better than the other in terms of sound quality (although ASIO sometimes offers other technical advantages).  But because device drivers vary in quality, the two output methods do not always work identically and the answer of which is better in any specific case depends on the device and it's drivers and cannot be answered in the abstract.  

This.

100X this.
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Mustangjeff

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Re: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« Reply #4 on: December 02, 2014, 10:06:12 pm »

I've used Windows Media Center for years which doesn't make use of ASIO or WASAPI. 

Initially my computer was connected to my HT Receiver (Rotel RSX 1056) via optical digital because it didn't have HMDI.   Then I upgraded my Receiver to an Anthem MRX300 and connected my PC to the Receiver via HDMI.

My 7.1 system is running Vandersteen Audio speakers all the way around with a separate Rotel RB1080 amplifier driving the fronts.  For years I thought it sounded great, and that I couldn't do better.  Recently I replaced the HTPC and swapped out WMC with JRiver MC20.  My music is ripped lossless in both cases.  With JRiver my audio is set for WASAPI and bitstreaming.  I can tell a huge difference in sound quality between the two boxes.  No way I'd ever go back.

My thoughts:

The difference is obvious (at least for me) if your playing lossless audio through a high quality DAC, and listening to the music on a high quality system.  Believe me, I'm not your garden variety snake oil audiophile.  I don't believe in power cords that costing hundreds/thousands, speaker wire lifters, cables that cost hundreds/thousands, or that a green magic marker around the edge of my CD's will make them sound better.  I'm pretty pessimistic when it comes to evaluating changes in my system.

But..

You may not hear any difference at all if your playing 128 kbit MP3's music files through some small amplified speakers connected directly to the sounds card.
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recepky

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Re: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« Reply #5 on: December 03, 2014, 01:52:39 pm »

hi
I ve read all posts in this topic and I want to write something.

Actually if you have good source (DAC or soundcard) you can easily notice the difference between DriectSound output and ASIO output.
For me ASIO is the best, I can even notice the benefits of low DPC latency sound card drivers ( difference is like day and night, no exaggeration ), because most of the digital audio problem and fatigue digital sound resulting from bad timing (IMHO) which means you have to optimize master clock and playback sync of your digital device...

Since I have upgrade my soundcard TCXO clock and change official drivers with unified low DPC latency drivers, audio quality became 10x better.

And I don't understand why most of the audiophiles persist to use Foobar as a main playback software.
I have done several critical listening test with my setup using headphones and speakers, Foobar is not the best player for me.

JRiver MC sounds best, cPlay sounds second best with FLAC files, winamp v2.22 with KS out plugin sounds third best, but foobar2000 sounds lifeless and non-dynamic to me.
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kstuart

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Re: ASIO & Bypassing Windows Mixer - What to Believe
« Reply #6 on: December 03, 2014, 05:38:11 pm »


JRiver MC sounds best, cPlay sounds second best with FLAC files
This is also my experience.  JRiver MC is so much easier to use than cPlay, and plays so many other formats (like SACD ISO), that it is the obvious choice.

It is worth noting that many of these differences are very subtle, and differences between recordings are far larger.

PCs were not designed to do real time tasks, and so many of the subtle sound differences are related to compromises necessary to be an all-purpose device.
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