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StoneWave Pro Studio i7 Workstation PC

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The Pro Studio i7 is meant for use as a digital audio workstation in a recording studio, and has the distinction of being Energy Star certified. StoneWave, an audio computing specialist, says it is very quiet, so we took it for a spin in our anechoic chamber.

October 12, 2009 by Mike Chin

Product Pro Studio i7
Workstation PC
Manufacturer StoneWave Productions
MSRP Starts at US$2,250

StoneWave Productions is a US system integrator focused exclusively on Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) and other electronic products for digital audio recording. Digital Audio Stations dominate audio recording studios today, whether they’re based on PCs or Macs, or monster racks of dedicated electronics that only huge commercial studios with mega-stars can afford. Analog audio recording with LP vinyl records as the final output is probably the only non-digital niche to survive in this industry. In amateur home recording studios, run mostly by musicians and their friends, Macs and PCs rule. Considering the current state of the commercial music industry, it’s likely that this decentralized "cottage industry" is the growth sector in audio recording.

What exactly is a DAW? It is a system to record, edit, and play back audio recordings using digital processing. In general, a DAW is a combination of multi-track recording software and high quality audio hardware — especially analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters — in a PC. Serious software and soundcard suitable for DAW use began appearing for Apple systems in the late 1980s, with equivalent products for Windows PCs coming a few years later.

The Pro Studio i7 sample that StoneWave Productions sent for us to review cannot be accurately described as a DAW because it came with no audio-specific software. The PSi7 also did not incorporate any audio recording hardware, other than the usual sound card integrated in the motherboard. This practice of calling a rack chassis PC a DAW is not uncommon among vendors of digital audio PC gear, however. To StoneWave’s credit, the hardware is serious enough for the machine to be considered a workstation. Cakewalk Sonar pro audio production software and hardware are also offered as preinstalled options on the order/configure page for the PSi7.

As its moniker makes clear, the Pro Studio i7 has an Intel i7 CPU— and a high-end motherboard from Gigabyte at its core. The PSi7 is promoted not only as a powerful platform for audio recording, but also for being Energy Star approved, eco-friendly and extremely quiet.


A 44-pound 4U box with rack mount handles, the Pro Studio i7 is a big PC by any standard.
StoneWave Productions Pro Studio i7 Feature Highlights
Feature & Brief
Our Comment
First DAW to be Energy Star approved (category C, workstation), 80 Plus Bronze Certified and RoHS compliant
None of these qualifications are unique. There are 47 products on the ES approved workstation list, at least 100 power supplies have 80 Plus Bronze efficiency approval, and most internationally distributed electronics are RoHS compliant, mandatory in the EU and parts of Asia. It’s only StoneWave’s claim of the PS i7 as a DAW which allows the use of the word "first".
Sleek, intelligent design with aluminum doors and steel SECC heat dissipating chassis built for the toughest of road and studio conditions
It is a nice looking, sturdy chassis. Unless the hot components are clamped directly or via heatpipes to the chassis, however, heat dissipation will come only from forced airflow.
Able to maintain a silent noise level due to its 0 dBA graphics card, 10 dBA Noctua fans and some of the quietest hard drives. We’ll find out.
Heart of the system is an Intel quad-core i7 cooled by a direct touch heatsink with dual 10 dBA Noctua fans, running an audio tuned XP or Vista OS.
OK, but an "audio tuned" OS sounds like marketingspeak.
StoneWave Eco-Certified to ensure long lifespan (min 5.7 years), less heat and greater efficiencies, saves you hundreds on your electric bill, and helps the Earth by reducing waste, hazardous materials and lowering carbon emissions.
The green claims are based on Energy Star approval, which require everything else. The product is not EPEAT registered.
Ultra Silence Kit – Fanless power supply and HDD ecnclosures
This is an option added to achieve the lowest noise.
StoneWave Productions Pro Studio i7 Specifications
CPU
Intel Core i7-920
Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R
Chipset Intel GS45 Express (ICH9M-E)
Graphics
ATI HD4350
Memory
6GB DDR-3 1333Mhz RAM (3x2GB)
Storage
– OS: 500GB WD GreenPower
– Audio: 1TB WD GreenPower
– Both drives in noise-reduction enclosures (part of Ultra Silence kit)
Optical Drive DVD±RW/CD-RW w/LightScribe
Chassis
Aluminum Doors, Industrial Steel SECC Roadworthy Chassis
Cooling
Xigmatek "Direct Touch" CPU Heatsink with SureLock mounting and 2 Noctua Silent fans at 10dbA. 2 Noctua Case fans at 10dbA
USB Ports
11 Total (8 Rear, 3 Front)
Firewire Ports
3 Total (2 Rear, 1 Front) TI Chipset
Expansion Slots
2x PCIe x16, 2x PCIe x1, 2x PCI, 1x PCIe x4
LAN
High Speed Gigabit Ethernet (on motherboard)
Card Reader
3.5" Combo Card Reader and I/O Bay
Operating System
MS Windows XP
Power Supply*
Fanless ATX (part of Ultra Silence kit)
Operating System
Vista Home Premium SP1 or Windows XP 32-bit
(Free Windows 7 Upgrade)
Dimensions & Weight* (amazingly, not provided; we measured)
w/ handles: 19"W x 21"D x 7"H
w/o handles: 16.75"W x 21"D x 7"H

44 lbs as delivered
* These items were not explicitly detailed in StoneWave’s documentation at time of writing. More details will be provided after we get under the hood.

NOTE: There may be discrepancies between the specifcation details reported here and the specs at StoneWave’s web site, because the company was making adjustments to the product even as the testing and review was being conducted.

EXTERNAL TOUR

The serious look and feel of the Pro Studio i7 continues throughout the product.


The blue doors are lockable.


Opening up the doors reveals a dust filter on the inside of each door, an optical drive, two HDDs encased in noise-damping enclosures visible on the left, and a full-featured multi-bay memory card reader. Some of the panels are vented, but the hole look too small to allow much airflow.


Left front details.


Right front details.


The side. Note that there are no feet; they are not needed when the unit is mounted in a rack.


Back panel – note FSP fanless power supply (similar to this PSU we reviewed a couple years ago), and a single 80mm Noctua fan on the back panel. A second Noctua fan is visible inside. The back 1/3 of the top panel is perforated; this has to be important for cooling airflow.

INSIDE THE BEAST

Opening up the Pro Studio i7 sample shows tidy assembly and wiring, and high quality parts.


Bird’s eye view of the interior.


Two 92mm Noctual fans are used in a push-pull arrangement on a small tower heatsink. The top bar is an extra brace for PCI slot devices, but it seems like overkill as there’s only the one relatively small video card, and the case is meant to be used in a horizontal position — gravity helps to keep the devices in place.


The heatsink looks like a Xigmatek mounted with spring-loaded bolt.


View from the back.


Right front details.

TESTING

Before the usual gamut of tests were run, some time was spent using the system, web browsing, and updating the Windows XP Pro installation that the unit came supplied with. It worked swiftly without any hiccups.

Measurement and Analysis Tools

The test procedure is to measure noise (SPL), key component temperatures, and AC power consumption at various loads. No performance testing was performed. The performance of an Intel i7-920 is evry well documented all over the web; suffice it to say that it should be up to tackling any digital audio tasks.

TEST RESULTS

StoneWave Pro Studio i7 Test Results
Test State
CPU*
GPU
HDD†
AC Power
SPL‡
Off
2.9W
Sleep (S3)
3.5W
Idle
40°C
52°C
30°C
93W
17 dBA
Prime95 + Furmark
90°C
72°C
39°C
237/250W
23 dBA
* The hottest of the 8 reported temperatures (4 cores, 4 hyperthreads)
† The higher of the two hard drive temperatures was reported.
Sound Pressure Level – measured 1m from front of case in 11 dBA anechoic chamber

The loudness level at idle and low load is low, and mostly broadband; thus, benign.


The overall level goes up by over 6 dBA@1m under full extended load. Overall, it can still be considered a very quiet PC.

Noise Analysis

The PSi7 is a very quiet PC in normal use. It is unlikely to be heard in any normal recording studio, even when no one is making any music. Not only is the level very low at 17 dBA@1m, the overall character is smooth and benign. The hard drives could be heard when seeking but barely when idle.

The 23 dBA@1m level was reached after more than an hour of extreme stress testing of both the CPU and the video card. The increase in noise was the result of the two fans on the heatsink speeding up in response to the heat of the CPU. At this intense load level, the overall noise is plainly audible in a quiet room. However, it is unlikely that any DAW in a simple record mode would see such a high load as our test of Prime95 and Furmark.

Power

The AC power consumed in off or sleep mode was very low. The 93W load at idle just clears the Energy Star requirement for a workstation of this class. It’s not low for PCs in general, but modest for a system of these components. There are two numbers for full load AC Power: 237W is the load seen when the stress test was first begun, and 250W was seen at the end, more than an hour later. This is fairly typical, the result of components heating up and becoming less efficient as a result, particularly the voltage regulators around the CPU on the motherboard, and the power supply unit itself.

Temperature

Both hard drive and graphics card temperatures stayed well within safe limits. The aluminum enclosures for the HDDs may have helped in this regard. The CPU temperature under load was too high, however. While no ill effects or instability was observed, 90°C is too high a temperature for comfort. You may recall that the back panel of our sample had only one 80mm exhaust fan. This means that the exhaust airflow was limited. Also, the open hole for a second fan next to the first could also act as a "short circuit" of air, causing outside air to be pull into the fan to be blown right out without any cooling effect for the hot CPU half a foot inside.

There’s some question about what is the ideal airflow design for a rack-mount workstation that’s meant to be used as a DAW. If it is really mounted in a rack that’s fully populated with other gear, then the only reliable source of cooler outside air lies at the front of the chassis. For such an application, the PSi7 sample reviewed here is not ideal, because most of the cooler outside air is obtained via the top panel, the perforated back portion which lies over most of the motherboard. On the other hand, if this rack is used discretely atop a desk, couuntertop or workbench, then the airflow design is perfectly fine, as long as the top panel is not blocked.

MP3 SOUND RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality,
digital recording system
inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve
listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original
WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
the review. Most of the recordings listed below were made with the mic at 1m distance.

For the most realistic results, set the volume so that the starting ambient
level is just barely audible, then don’t change the volume setting again while
comparing all the sound files. Please note that some of the recordings were made at 1m distance and others at 0.6m.

Comparative PC System recordings?

There are no other PC systems we’ve tested recently which could be considered competitive with the PSi7. However, for reference sake, here are some of the other systems we’ve recorded in the anechoic chamber, mostly much smaller, lower power and less capable systems:

  • Asus
    Eee Box B202 at idle, 18 dBA@1m and 14 dBA@1m (behind LCD monitor)
    — The recording of the Eee Box was made with the unit at idle, and the microphone
    1m away, first on a table in the hemi-anechoic chamber, and then mounted on
    the back of an LCD monitor, and the microphone 1m away from the front of the
    monitor. It starts with the room ambient, followed by the product’s noise. The acoustics of the Eee Box barely changes with load, which is why only idle noise was recorded; there’s virtually no audible difference at full load.

DISCUSSIONS & MODS

1. Taming the CPU

The high CPU temperature was serious enough to discuss it with StoneWave. This led, eventually, to a long delay in the posting of this review. Here’s a recent letter from StoneWave which summarizes the results of my conversations with them:

Hi Mike,

Thanks to your testing and advice we have made changes that will be effective the afternoon of 9-25-09 on our web site. We would appreciate if you can make mention of these changes made to the Pro Studio i7 in your review (perhaps in the end).

This is the new design of the pro Studio i7 effective 9-25-09.

1.We moved drives to the right and installed high airflow grills on all three bays on the left.
2.We covered the Top Rear vent holes with Acoustipack soundproofing. This cuts down noise that was coming through the Rear Top vent holes and allows cooler air to come through the new front grills. This also prevents hotter air escaping from the Top Rear vents from being sucked back in to the computer.
3.We installed 2nd Noctua Rear exhaust fan. This increased the air exhaust.
4.With these changes we ran PRIME95 for 1 hour and got the following results.
5.CPU – 65°C, Hottest Core 82°C (We did not stress the GPU at the same time)


New Design for pro Studio i7 effective Sept 25, 2009

CONCLUSION: Thanks to Mike Chin’s expert advice we cooled down temperatures on the Pro Studio i7 by approx 8°C on the Hottest of the 8 Cores when full stressing the CPU. The Acoustipack soundproofing cut known noise even further and now there is not an issue to do a full Rackmount enclosure blocking the Top Rear vents since airflow comes from the front now. StoneWave explains airflow in their manual and to keep left side Bays unobstructed, and if occupied you can remove the Acoustipack to allow Top Rear Airflow.

Regards,

Robert J. Stone
President
StoneWaveProductions

2. Energy Star Status

Another point of discussion concerned the question of Energy Star status. ES maintains a searchable database of all qualifying products. When I did a search for StoneWave products in July, the database turned up no hits. Why not? This is the reply that I received:

ENERGY STAR QUALIFICATION NOTES:

Concerning the New Energy Star 5.0 specification that Started July 1, 2009: StoneWave had all of its 4.0 Certifications before July 1, 2009 and were proud to be the first company in the US to have a qualified i7 PC. We were fully in Energy Star’s search engine. It is unfortunate for us, that only a few months of obtaining this, Energy Star changed to the new 5.0 Specification in July 1, 2009, they decided to NOT carry over any Companies in the Search Engine, are requiring a 5.0 Recommitment, and only to list companies in the Search engine that re-certified their products for the 5.0 specification. This is why we still show Certification under 4.0 and have a link showing a certified product, but do not show up in the Search Engine. As soon as we re-certify our products, then we will re-appear. This is going to take us a few months.

CONCLUSIONS

The StoneWave Pro Studio i7 sample reviewed here is indeed a very quiet computer. Given that the recording mode of any audio software is far less taxing than our lab stress test utilities, it is quiet enough to be in the same acoustic space where almost any type of music is recorded. Its noise footprint is small, and the character of that noise is smooth enough that the quietest notes of the music would surely render it completely inaudible. The build quality is very good, and the choice of components is intelligent and appropriate. The Intel i7-920 CPU and the Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R provide a solid high performance foundation for a DAW.

The amendments to the cooling setup made by StoneWave in response to our initial feedback appear to have brought the CPU temperature under load to a more acceptable level. Even so, 82°C for the hottest core is not a particularly good mark. While it is true that the SPCR test load is more extreme than any real-life application, we would still be happier with lower temperatures. A larger CPU cooler with a larger fan would probably achieve this without any increase in noise. In the space available, a big top-down cooler is probably the best practical option. But if the top crossbar was removed, a large 120mm fan tower style heatsink would probably fit as well.

While Energy Star certification might be good for marketing and PR, from SPCR’s point of view, 93W is still a fair amount of power for a PC to be drawing at idle. The power consumption is about what you’d expect of an i7-920 system with the chosen components, but it could be measurably reduced (possibly as much as 10%) with the use of an 80 PLUS Gold certified power supply (rated for 87~90% efficiency).

Finally, it’s nice to see a small company still in the fray; computing hardware is overwhelmingly dominated by giant brands. The Pro Studio i7 a good, practical product, ideal as a DAW for a home-based or small-business recording studio and fittingly made by a small specialist in the field.

Our thanks to StoneWave Productions for the review opportunity.

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