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Old 29th July 2012, 10:12 PM   #1
Magz is offline Magz  United States
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Default Want to Buy a Laptop and sound card for Audio Measurements

Hello all,

I have a Tektronics oscilloscope and arbitrary function generator which I use for analysis of my builds, but I'd like to complement that with some PC-based measurement tools, such as frequency response, distortion, non-critical scope functions, etc. I mostly build tube-based audio equipment, but solid state creeps into the picture occasionally as well.

I have a budget of $1000 or so (somewhat flexible) to buy a laptop/netbook to dedicate to this purpose. I do not need fancy graphics, big high-resolution displays, 3D-video, killer audio playback, gaming et al - what I want is a small (to conserve bench space) "laboratory instrument" grade computer with the best sound card for measurement purposes that I can afford to stuff inside it.

So, can anyone help me in my quest for a "lab instrument" PC? What would be the ideal sound card to make audio measurements, with a wide frequency bandwidth so I can see down to 2Hz and up to 100kHz or so? One that can actually make and display a clean square wave would be nice. What would be the right small laptop to stick it inside? Windows-based preferred.

Any advice is greatly appreciated!


.

Last edited by Magz; 29th July 2012 at 10:14 PM.
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Old 29th July 2012, 11:06 PM   #2
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A laptop is probably not the best computer to make a test instrument. You cannot use internal soundcards (or the range is limited if you use PCMCIA) and you must use USB.

Better to try a fanless PC, WinXP, with (dual) atom core. fanless pc | eBay

This will allow you to use one of the high quality cards such as the Asus Xonar Essence or ATI Juli@.

While the soundcard's bandwidth may extend down to 2Hz, it will only run up to 96kHz.

A soundcard generated square wave will always have problems as the highest harmonic of 1kHz available is 64kHz so the the square wave will contain at most 6 harmonics and will have a wavy, not flat, top. Better to run a soundcard generated sine into a comparator and generate a square wave that way.
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Old 29th July 2012, 11:40 PM   #3
Magz is offline Magz  United States
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Thanks for the input.

I'd really like to avoid using a tower PC for this, as I want the portability of a laptop, and the ability to take my files with me wherever I go. Even in late 2012, are there no laptops capable of making good measurements using an internal soundcard? No one has come up with an aftermarket card that will fit into a laptop yet?

I have used TrueRTA on an IBM thinkpad in the past but that left a lot to be desired, and laptops have evolved quite a bit in the 4 years since then, so I was hopeful that perhaps I could work out a decent solution now.

Am I still SOL?
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Old 30th July 2012, 12:19 AM   #4
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This would not meet your specs for a test platform, but if you are doing strictly audio measurements, why not try REW (Room EQ Wizard) (free) with your choice of laptop and external sound box. For example, I use a 2008-era HP Compaq F762NR (Win XP), for sound interface I use
PreSonus | AudioBox USB
and a Behringer ECM8000 mic for measurements. Assuming you already have a laptop, or even a netbook, the additional hardware should cost you no more than $200 (USA prices). Of course, then you'll need to buy a parametric EQ to tame the peaks, and then you'll need to buy a.... and so on ...

Last edited by Soldermizer; 30th July 2012 at 12:22 AM.
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Old 30th July 2012, 12:22 AM   #5
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If you're determined to go with a laptop then look at the E-MU 0204 USB interface but note that it has a claimed 113dB input SNR as compared with 124dB for the Asus Xonar Essence.

I doubt that you can get a meaningful recommendation for a particular laptop as regards performance as a test instrument using internals or USB, pick one that has features desirable to you in the other uses that you envision. Or simply buy the cheapest you can find, it'll run a USB soundcard.

One factor possibly affecting USB sound performance is the quality of the USB power supply, so an interface with an external supply might be something you want to look for (I can't suggest one off the top of my head) or somebody might be prepared to suggest a particular laptop on that basis, but I would be cautious of any recommendation not backed up with test results.
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Old 30th July 2012, 01:04 AM   #6
Magz is offline Magz  United States
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Soldermizer View Post
This would not meet your specs for a test platform, but if you are doing strictly audio measurements, why not try REW (Room EQ Wizard) (free) with your choice of laptop and external sound box. For example, I use a 2008-era HP Compaq F762NR (Win XP), for sound interface I use
PreSonus | AudioBox USB
and a Behringer ECM8000 mic for measurements. Assuming you already have a laptop, or even a netbook, the additional hardware should cost you no more than $200 (USA prices). Of course, then you'll need to buy a parametric EQ to tame the peaks, and then you'll need to buy a.... and so on ...
Thanks. I already have TrueRTA 1/24 octave version for room measurements with a mic mixer board and Behringer mic, and I use that for room response measurement with OK results. I'm looking to be able to do better measurements on the electronics I build, however. When I had the aforementioned Thinkpad (work issued leased laptop), it was barely adequate; that has since been "refreshed" with an HP that is simply atrocious with the same software, and rolls off early at both ends even on a loopback measurement. So it's time to cough up some dough and buy something better for myself.

So maybe I should ask "what laptop with internal card could allow me to make reasonably good measurements". I have the scope and function generator for more critical work.
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Old 30th July 2012, 01:09 AM   #7
Magz is offline Magz  United States
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Quote:
Originally Posted by counter culture View Post
If you're determined to go with a laptop then look at the E-MU 0204 USB interface but note that it has a claimed 113dB input SNR as compared with 124dB for the Asus Xonar Essence.

I doubt that you can get a meaningful recommendation for a particular laptop as regards performance as a test instrument using internals or USB, pick one that has features desirable to you in the other uses that you envision. Or simply buy the cheapest you can find, it'll run a USB soundcard.

One factor possibly affecting USB sound performance is the quality of the USB power supply, so an interface with an external supply might be something you want to look for (I can't suggest one off the top of my head) or somebody might be prepared to suggest a particular laptop on that basis, but I would be cautious of any recommendation not backed up with test results.
Thanks. I'll look into that USB interface. Still wish I could find a good internal card solution, though, but maybe the tech isn't there yet.

Edit: the E-MU looks pretty good for the price, and may end up being the most workable solution, too bad it's one more box to fit on the bench...maybe I need to get better organized like my wife says...

Last edited by Magz; 30th July 2012 at 01:30 AM.
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Old 30th July 2012, 03:14 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by counter culture View Post
If you're determined to go with a laptop then look at the E-MU 0204 USB interface but note that it has a claimed 113dB input SNR as compared with 124dB for the Asus Xonar Essence.
I doubt those products are getting anywhere near these numbers. The Roland quad has a measured noise floor of -91 dB at 48Ksps (~5 to 20 KHz), and it's a very well respected product from a company that has been doing high end audio forever.

http://www.spectraplus.com/Downloads...TestReport.pdf
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Old 30th July 2012, 12:01 PM   #9
Magz is offline Magz  United States
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What about a PCMCIA or ExpressCard sound card, anyone have a positive experience using one of those for routine measurements?

How about something like X-Fi Xtreme Audio Notebook?

Amazon.com: Creative ExpressCard Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio Notebook-70SB071000000: Electronics

That would eliminate the extra box and still provide a better tool than an internal sound card, right?


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Last edited by Magz; 30th July 2012 at 12:08 PM.
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Old 30th July 2012, 01:54 PM   #10
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There's not many high-quality ExpressCard sound cards around. I bought an Indigo IOx, for the ExpressCard slot on my Sony Vaio laptop. The Indigo has a much higher noise level on one input channel compared with the other, and Echo did not even respond to my emails on the question. I can't be sure if the noise is associated with the Indigo card, as the ExpressCard format never took off in laptops as a Cardbus/PCMCIA replacement, so I don't have access to another laptop to try it. Neither of my USB soundcards show the noise problem though, so I guess it is a problem wth the Indigo.
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