In my previous posts, I mentioned Windows 10 + JPLAY FEMTO give better sound quality (SQ) compared to Linux-based players I have tried. In this post, I share some of the steps required in setting Windows 10 for audio playback without using third-party tools such as Audiophile Optimizer and Fidelizer.
Why Windows 10 for Audio PC?
The phrase “Audio PC” here refers to DIY music servers / streamers based on desktop motherboards in various form factors including Intel NUC. While Intel NUC is a good start into Audio PC, better SQ performance is achieved with proper desktop motherboards using audio-grade power supply. Desktop motherboards also have flexibility in adding internal PCIe cards.
Microsoft stated that in Windows 10, the latency has been reduced to 1.3ms for all applications. Depending on the processor, the actual latency can be lower. On my Pentium Silver J5040 SoC with Turbo Boost disabled and CPU running at 2 GHz, LatencyMon shows the worst case latency is below 0.5ms, with 6.3 μs and 1.5 μs averages of process and DPC latencies respectively. Wow! This is just a Pentium SoC.
One major difference between Windows and Linux for USB DAC interface is that each DAC manufacturer provides driver(s) for Windows whereas for Linux, it uses generic USB Audio interface, normally through ALSA. I believe using dedicated drivers for a specific USB DAC is one of the reasons why Win 10 playback SQ is better.
Those with high-end DIY music streamers may add USB regen and network PCIe cards. Not all are guaranteed to work under Linux, but with Windows 10, if drivers are provided by the manufacturer, it shall work. The same is also true for motherboards.
Windows 10 Settings for Audio Playback Require Some Effort
Unlike Linux audio players where Linux O/S and the player software total size is not more than 4GB in size and can be installed headless, Windows 10 installation requires monitor, keyboard and mouse during installation.
Getting the best SQ from Windows 10 requires tweaking its settings, which include:
- turn off background apps and unnecessary startups
- adjust processor scheduling for best performance of background services
- set the power plan to performance
- disable power savings for USB port and storage drives (let them remain powered on)
- keep only what’s required for audio playback, and
- set Windows password
Please note that this is not a complete tutorial on Windows 10 installation since such information is readily available elsewhere. This is about changing Windows 10 settings for audio playback only and not necessarily 100% comprehensive. If I missed something really important, please send me message so that I can include it.
A USB thumb drive is required to create Windows 10 boot drive and another SSD is required for Window build. Let’s go through the steps.
Step 1: Download Windows 10 ISO
Download the latest ISO image of Windows 10 from the official Microsoft software download for Windows 10.
Under “Create Windows 10 installation media”, expand “Using the tool to create installation media (USB flash drive, DVD, or ISO file)”. The ISO can be downloaded and saved to a USB drive to be used as boot drive later.
Step 2: Boot ISO from USB drive and build fresh Windows 10
Make sure a blank SSD is installed to the Audio PC as destination for Windows 10 installation. The SSD content will be wiped out. I suggest using a small SSD for O/S and put music files into other separate larger SSDs. I normally select “Window 10 Pro”. The whole O/S takes no more than 40GB. SSD size of 80 to 120 GB is sufficient for O/S drive, but getting a small SSD below 250 GB may be difficult nowadays.
Please ensure a User Account / Name is set during Windows 10 build. This will be required later as we will set password during the last step.
Step 3: Install and Check Device Drivers
While Windows 10 tries to install all the necessary drivers automatically, drivers for motherboards, USB DAC, PCIe cards such as USB regen and network require manual installation. From Start, type and select “Device Manager”. An example screenshot is shown below.
In the above example, the driver for USB regen card which uses Renesas / NEC µPD720201 host controller has not been installed yet. After driver installation from manufacturer website, the Device Manager shows the following.
In general, if none of the device categories are expanded like shown below, it means all drivers were installed correctly.
It is important to install all drivers that come with the motherboard and it needs to be done first. Some drivers require Windows 10 restart after installation. The following two screenshots show drivers under Systems which are motherboard related after all drivers installed.
Drivers for USB DAC drivers, USB Regen and Network PCIe cards must be installed too. In the example below where USB DAC and USB Regen PCIe card drivers have been installed, after connecting USB cable between USB Regen card and the DAC, please check whether Windows can detect the USB DAC like shown below.
USB Audio device drivers come with its own Control Panel. Opening the USB Audio Control Panel can confirm successful USB Audio connection like shown below.
If USB Audio connection is not good, only the Status tab is available with “No devices connected” shown. It can be caused by no USB cable installed, USB DAC not powered on, or USB Audio driver issues. Sometimes turning off and powering on DAC can resolve the detection problem if all other steps have been done correctly.
Step 4: Perform Windows Updates
The ISO image downloaded from Microsoft website is typically a few months old. Before moving to the subsequent steps, perform Windows Updates until it shows “You’re up to date”. Multiple reboots will be required. This can take a long time depending on internet connection speed.
Step 5: Disable Background Apps
Windows 10 default installation comes with a number of apps which run in the background. These apps are not required for audio playback and need to be disabled. From Start, type and select “Background apps” (under System settings); the following screen appears. Check “Let apps run in the background” to Off.
Step 6: Performance Option
From Start, type and select “System” (under Control Panel). The Settings windows appear. Scroll down and select “Advanced systems settings”. The following screen appears. Select the Advanced tab. Under “Performance” select “Settings”.
The “Performance Options” windows below can also be directly accessed from Start by typing “Performance” then select “Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows” (under Control Panel), then select the Advanced tab. For “Processor scheduling”, “Adjust for best performance of:”, select “Background services”.
If system memory is 16GB or higher, uncheck “Automatically manage paging file size for all drives” and disable Virtual memory by setting “No paging file”.
Step 7: Power Settings
I prefer disabling both Turbo Boost and Intel’s SpeedStep in BIOS to ensure Windows 10 run at 100% CPU speed without Turbo Boost. You may have other preference. If Intel SpeedStep is enabled in BIOS, then the minimum and maximum CPU speed needs to be set in Windows. We will cover that later.
From Start, type “Power” and select “Choose a power plan”. The following screen appears. Select “High performance”. After installation is completed, we want Windows to run headless where the front power button will be used to shutdown the PC. Select “Choose what the power button does” to confirm the power button setting.
Ensure that “When I press the power button:”, Shut down is selected.
If Shut down is already selected, select “Cancel”, otherwise select “Save changes”. We are now back to “Choose or customize a power plan” screen. Select either one of “Choose when to turn off display” or “Choose when the computer sleeps”. The following screen appears. Please ensure “Put the computer to sleep:” is set to Never.
Save changes, then select “Change advanced power settings”. The following Power Options screen appears. Expand “Hard disk”, then set “Turn off hard disk after” Settings (Minutes): to zero.
Under the same Power Options screen, expand “USB settings” and disable “USB selective suspend setting.
The step below is required only when Intel SpeedStep is enabled in BIOS. Expand “Processor power management” and both Minimum and Maximum processor states. Set the desired CPU speed in percent.
Step 8: Disable Screen Saver
We will eventually run Windows headless with no monitor or tv screen connected. From Start, type “screen saver” then select “Turn screen saver on or off”. The following screen appears. Select Screen saver to None.
Screen saver needs to be turned off as it uses CPU and graphics resources and it may degrade SQ.
Step 9: Rename PC
During fresh Window 10 build, a lengthy weird name will be given to the PC. We need to change that to something we can remember. From Start, type “About” and select “About your PC” (System settings). The following screen appears. Select “Rename this PC”.
Enter a new name for the PC that we can remember and differentiate from the other PCs in the house, such as AudioPC.
Step 10: Enable Network Discovery and File Sharing
We may want to access the music SSD inside AudioPC remotely. We may also want to use Remote Desktop app to access the AudioPC when we are playing music, e.g. to set different DAC settings. From Start, type “Sharing” and select “Manage Advanced Sharing Settings”. The following screen appears. Turn on network discovery and file sharing, then save changes. If the music folder is in D:/Music, use File Explorer and share that folder with “everyone”.
Step 11: Enable Remote Desktop
This is required to enable AudioPC control from another PC or phone/tablet. From Start, type “remote desktop” and select “Remote Desktop Settings”. The following screen appears. Check “Enable Remote Desktop”.
I use Android tablet/phones and installed Remote Desktop from Google play store, an official app from Microsoft with the logo below.
Step 12: Install Audio Playback Software
Based on my own experience, I get the best SQ from JPLAY FEMTO. I highly recommend you utilize the 21-day free trial to test it on your own system. Download and installation instructions are available at JPLAY website.
Step 13: Set Windows Password
This is the last step. Press CTRL-ALT-DEL and select “Change A Password”. Enter a new password twice. Upon the next startup, Windows remains at the login screen with only the background services running resulting in better SQ. However, please note this method only works with audiophile playback software which run as background services such as JPLAY FEMTO and HYSOLID.
Before disconnecting Audio PC from monitor, keyboard, and mouse, please write down the PC name, User name, and password to be used later for remote desktop connection. It is recommended to test Remote Desktop and shared Music folder connectivity before making the Audio PC headless.
Windows 10 License / Product Key?
The official Windows 10 Client downloaded from Microsoft website works fine even if it is not activated, i.e. license not purchased (no product key). On the screen, it may show “Windows Not Activated” watermark or message. Personalization cannot be done which is purely cosmetic, and that is not required for Audio PC. Regular Windows Updates work fine as well.
More Advanced Method
For advanced users, a better way to customize Windows is to customize the original ISO. A good reference is available here and I will not elaborate further. Please note that this is not for beginners.
Good luck in your journey in getting the best SQ from Windows 10. If you have any comments, please leave it here.