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Intel i9 7900X First Look

Intels i9 announcement this year felt like it pretty much came out of nowhere, and whilst everyone was expecting Intel to refresh its enthusiast range, I suspect few people anticipated quite the spread of chips that have been announced over the recent months. 

So here we are looking at the first entry to Intel’s new high-end range. I’ve split this first look into 2 parts, with this section devoted to the i9 7900X and some discussion of the lower end models as the full range is explained. I’ll follow up in the near future with a forthcoming post to cover the i7’s coming in below this model, just as soon as we have chance to grab some chips and run those through the test bench too.

There has been a sizable amount of press about this chip already as it was the first one to make it out into the wild along with the 4 core Kabylake X chips that has also appeared on this refresh, although those are likely to be of far less interest to those of us looking to build new studio solutions.

A tale of two microarchitectures.

Kabylake X and Skylake X have both launched at the same time and certainly raised eyebrows in confusion from a number of quarters. Intels own tick/tock cycle of advancement and process refinement has gone askew in recent years, where the “high end desk top” ( HEDT chips) models just as the midrange CPU’s at the start of this year have gained a third generation at the same 14nm manufacturing process level in the shape of Kabylake. 

Kabylake with the mid-range release kept the same 14nm design as the Skylake series before it and eaked out some more minor gains through platform refinement. In fact some of the biggest changes to be found were in the improved onboard GPU found inside of it rather than the raw CPU performance itself, which as always is one of the key things missing in the HEDT edition. All this means that whilst we have a release where it’s technically two different chip ranges, the isn’t a whole lot left to differentiate between them. IN fact given how the new chip ranges continue to steam ahead in the mid-range, this looks like an attempt to help bring the high-end options back up to parity with the current mid-range again quickly which I think will ultimately help make things less confusing in future versions, even if right now it has managed to confuse things within the range quite a bit.

Kabylake X itself has taken a sizable amount of flak prior to launch and certainly appears to raise a lot of questions on an initial glance. The whole selling point of the HEDT chip up until this point has been largely more cores and more raw performance, so an announcement of what is essentially a mid-range i5/i7 grade 4 core CPU solution appearing on this chipset was somewhat of a surprise to a lot of people. 

As with the other models on this chipset range the 4 cores are being marketed as enthusiast solutions, although in this instance we see them looking to capture a gaming enthusiast segment. The have been some early reports of high overclocks being seen, but so far these look to be largely cherry picked as the gains seen in early competition benchmarking have been hard to achieve with the early retail models currently appearing.

Whilst ultimately not really of much interest in the audio & video worlds where the software can leverage far more cores than the average game, potentially the is a solid opportunity here for that gaming market that they appear to be going after, if they can refine these chips for overclocking over the coming months. However early specification and production choices have been head scratchingly odd so far, although we’ll come back to this a bit more later.

Touch the Sky(lake).

So at the other end of the spectrum from those Kabylake X chips is the new current flagship for the time being in the shape of the Skylake 7900X. 10 physical cores with hyper-threading give us a total of 20 logical cores to play with here. This is the first chip announced from the i9 range and larger 12,14,16,18 core editions are all penciled in over the coming year or so, however details are scarce on them at this time.

intel-core-x-comparison-table

At first glance its a little confusing as to why they would even make this chip the first of its class when the rest of the range isn’t fully unveiled at this point. Looking through the rest of range specifications alongside it, then it becomes clear that they look to be reserving the i9’s for CPU’s that can handle a full 44+ PCIe lane configuration. These lanes are used for offering bandwidth to the connected cards and high speed storage devices and needless to say this has proven a fairly controversial move as well.

The 7900X offers up the full complement of those 44 lanes although the 7820X and 7800X chips that we’ll be looking at in forthcoming coverage both arrive with 28 lanes in place. For most audio users this is unlikely to make any real difference, with the key usage for all those lanes often being for GPU usage where X16 cards are the standard and anyone wanting to fit more than one is going to appreciate more lanes for the bandwidth. With the previous generation we even tended to advise going with the entry level 6800K for audio over the 6850K above it, which cost 50% more but offered very little of benefit in the performance stakes but did ramp up the number of available PCIe lanes, choosing instead to reserve this for anyone running multiple GPU’s in the system like users with heavy video editing requirements. 

Summer of 79(00X)

So what’s new?

Much like AMD and their infinity fabric design which was implemented to improve cross core communication within the chip itself, Intel’s arrived with its own “Mesh” technology.

Functioning much like AMD’s design, it removes the ring based communication path between cores and RAM and implements a multi-point mesh design, brought in to enable shorter paths between them. In my previous Ryzen coverage I noted some poor performance scaling at lower buffer settings  which seemed to smooth itself out once you went over a 192 buffer setting. In the run up to this, I’ve retested a number of CPU’s and boards on the AMD side and it does appear that even after a number of tweaks and improvements at the BIOS level the scaling is still the same. On the plus side, as it’s proven to be a known constant and always manifests in the same manner I feel a lot more comfortable working with them now we are fully aware of this.

In Intels case I had some apprehension going in that given it is the companies first attempt at this in a consumer grade solution and that perhaps we’d be seeing the same sort of performance limitations that we saw on the AMD’s, but so far at least with the 7900X the internal chip latency has been superb. Even running at a 64 buffer we’ve been seeing 100% CPU load prior to the audio breaking up in playback, making this one of the most efficient chips I think I’ve possibly had on the desk.

i9 CPU load

 

So certainly a plus point there as the load capability seems to scale perfectly across the various buffer settings tested.

RAW performance wise I’ve run it through both CPU-Z and Geekbench again.CPU-Z 7900X

Geekbench 4 7900X

GeekBench 4

The multi-core result in Geekbench looks modest, although it’s worth noting the single core gains going on here compared with the previous generation 10 core the 6950X. On the basic DAWBench 4 test this doesn’t really show us up any great gains, rather it returns the sort of minor bump in performance that we’d kind of expect.

DAWBench 4 7900X

However whilst more cores can help spread the load, a lot of firms have always driven home the importance of raw clock speeds as well and once we start to look at more complex chains this becomes a little clearer. A VSTi channel with effects or additional processing on it needs to be sent to the CPU as a whole chain as it proves rather inefficent to chop up a channel signal chain for parallel processing.

A good single core score can mean slipping in just enough time to be able to squeeze in another full channel and effects chain and once you multiply that over the number of cores here, it’s easy to see how the combination of both a large number of cores and a high single core score can really translate into a higher total track count, and is something we see manifest in the Kontakt based DAWBench VI test.

 

 

In this instance the performance gains over the previous generation seems quite sizable and whilst there is  no doubt gains have been had from change in architecture and that high efficiency CPU usage we’ve already seen it should be noted here that this is close to a 20% increase in clock speed in play here too.

When we test we aim to do so around the all core turbo level. Modern Intel CPU’s have two turbo ratings, one is the “all core” level to which we can auto boost all the cores if the temperatures are safe and the other is the “Turbo 3.0” mode where it boosts a single core or it did in previous generations, but now we see it boosting the two strongest cores where the system permits.

The 7900X has a 4.5GHz 2 core turbo ability of 4.5GHz but we’ve chosen to lock it off at the all core turbo point in the testing. Running at stock clock levels we saw it boost the two cores correctly a number of times, but even under stress testing the 2 core maximum couldn’t be hit constantly without overheating on the low noise cooling solution we are using. The best we managed was a constant 4.45GHz at a temperature we were happy with, so we dialed it back to all core turbo clock speed of 4.3GHz across all cores and locked it in place for the testing, with it behaving well around this level. 

It’s not uncommon for a first few batches of silicon on any new chip range to run a bit hot and normally this tends to get better as the generation gets refined. It’s the first time we’ve seen these sorts of temperatures on a chip range however and the is a strong argument to be made for going with either one of the top 2 or 3 air coolers on the market currently or defaulting to a water loop based cooling setup for any machine considering this chip. In a tower case this shouldn’t prove a problem but for rack systems I suspect the 7900X might prove to be off limits for the time being.

I’d fully expect the i7’s that are going to come in below it to be more reasonable and we should know about that in the next update, but it does raise some questions regarding the chips higher up in the i9 range that are due with us over the next 12 months. The has already been some debate about Intel choosing to go with thermal paste between the chip and the heatsink, rather than the more effective soldering method, although early tests by users delidding their chips hasn’t returned much more than 10 degrees worth of improvement, which is fairly small gain for such a drastic step. We can only hope they figure out an improved way of improving the chips thermal handling with the impending i9’s or simply return to the older soldered method, otherwise it could be quite sometime until we see the no doubt hotter 12+ core editions making it to market.

Conclusion

In isolation it looks fine from a performance point of view and gives the average sort of generation on generation gains that we would expect from an Intel range refresh, maybe pumped up a little as they’ve chosen to release them to market with raised base clocks. This leaves little room for overclocking, but it does give the buyer who simply wants the fastest model they can get out of the box and run it at stock.

The problem is that this isn’t in isolation and whilst we’ve gotten used to Intel’s 10% year on year gains over recent generations, there has to be many a user who longs for the sort of gains we saw when the X58 generation arrived or even when AMD dropped the Athlon 64 range on us all those years ago.

Ryzen made that sort of gain upon release, although they were so far behind that it didn’t do much more than break them even. This refresh puts Intel in a stronger place performance wise  and it has to be noted that this chip has been incoming for a while. Certainly since long  before Ryzen reignited the CPU war and it feels like they may have simply squeezed it a bit harder than normal to make it look more competitive.

This isn’t a game changer response  to AMD. I doubt we’ll be seeing that for a year or two at this point and it will give AMD continued opportunities to apply pressure. What it has done however is what a lot of us hoped for initially and that it is forcing Intel to re-examine its pricing structure to some degree.

What we have here is a 10 core CPU for a third cheaper than the last  generation 10 core CPU they released. Coming in around the £900 it re-balances the performance to price ratio to quite some degree and will no doubt once more help make the “i” series CPU’s attractive to more than a few users again, after a number of months of it being very much up for debate in various usage segments. 

So will the impending AMD Threadripper upset this again?

I guess we’re going to find out soon enough over the coming months, but one things for sure is that we’re finally seeing some competition here again, firstly on pure pricing but surely this should be a safe bet for kick starting some CPU advancements again. This feels kinda like the Prescott VS Athlon 64 days and the upshot of that era was some huge gains in performance and solid improvements being made generation upon generation.

The cost and overall performance here keeps the 7900X in the running despite its obvious issues, and that raw grunt on offer makes it a very valid choice where the performance is required. The only real fly in the ointment is the heat and noise requirements most audio systems have, although hopefully as the silicon yields improve and refine this will mature into a cooler solution than it is now. Its certainly going to be interesting to see how this pans out as  the bigger models start making it to market over the coming year or so and of course with the smaller i7 brethren over the coming days.

To see our complete audio system range @ Scan

 

Intel Broadwell-E – The New Audio System CPU Of Choice?

In our first benchmark update of the year, we take a look at the Broadwell-E range, taking over as the new flagship Intel CPU range. Intel’s Enthusiast range has always proven to be a popular choice for audio systems, based around a more established and ultimately stable server chipset, whilst still letting you get away with the overclocking benefits founds on the mid-range solutions, making this range very popular in studios up and down the country.

The previous round of benchmarks can be found here and whilst handy to have to hand, you’ll notice that results that appear on the older chart when compared with newer results obtained found on our 2016 results chart show a marked improvement when the same chips are compared side by side.

A number of things have lead to this and can be explained by the various changes enacted since our last round up. Windows 10 is now the testing platform of choice, offering a marginal improvement over the older Windows 7 build, this along with new drivers and firmware for our Native Instruments KA6 which remains our testing tool of choice as well as a newly updated DAWBench suite, designed to allow us to be able to test these new chips as the first round of testing exceeded the older version of the test!

If you do wish to compare with the scores on the older chart, we’re seeing a roughly additional 20 tracks when comparing like for like chips across both set of results, so it’s possible that if you have a chip that is on the old chart and not the new, then you may be able to establish a rough comparison by simply adding 20 tracks on top of the old chip result to give you a very rough estimate to allow some degree of comparison.

Leaving behind the old results and in order to establish a level playing field, I’ve set out to retest some of the older chips under the new conditions in order to ensure these results are fair and to allow for easier comparison, so without any more delay, let’s check out those results.

2016 CPU DPC Test Results
2016 CPU DPC Test Results

As normal we’ll dive into this from the bottom upwards. At the low end of the testing round up we see the current i5 flagship, the 4 core 6600K both at stock and overclocked. A modest chip and certainly where we’d suggest the absolute lowest point of entry is when considering an audio setup. Offering enough power for multi-tracking and editing, and whilst we wouldn’t suggest that it would be the ideal solution for anyone working fully in the box as this CPU would be likely to be easily maxed out by high performance synths, the is certainly enough power here to achieve basic studio recording and editing tasks whilst not breaking the bank.

Next up are the mid-range i7’s and the 6700T is first up, offering 4 cores and 8 threads this is the low power i7 option this time around and sits as you would expect between the i5 6600K and the full power 6700K. It’s performance isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s certainly hitting performance levels that we would have expected from a mid-range class leading 2600K a few years back, but with a far lower power usage profile. This is a chip that certainly has its place and we expect it to be well received in our passive silent specs and other small form factor systems.
The other 6700 variant we have here is the all singing, all dancing 6700K which is the current consumer flagship offering a unlocked and overclockable 4 core / 8 thread configuration. Popular in home recording setups and certainly a reasonable all-rounder its price to performance makes it a great fit for anyone looking to edit, process and mix audio, whilst not relying upon extremely CPU intensive plugins and other tools.

But what if you are? What if Diva and Serum and their ilk are your tools of choice, and CPU’s are regularly chewed up and spat out for breakfast?

Well then, the enthusiast range is the choice for you. Popular for just this reason, the chart outlines the amount of extra overhead these CPU’s can offer you above and beyond the performance found in the mid-range.

The 5820K and 5960X scores you see are the previous generations 6 core and 8 core flagship solutions respectively and certainly the ones to beat by our new entries.

The 6800K is another 6 core CPU along with the 6850K which isn’t shown here which directly replaces the last generation 5930K. As with the last generation, the key difference between the 6800K and 6850K other than the few hundred more MHz which don’t really offer much of an improvement as far as benchmarks go, is the additional PCIe lanes on offer with the more expensive chip. For roughly 50% more over the 28 lane 6800K edition, the 6850K offers up a total of PCIe lanes making it ideal for systems running multiple graphics cards, which may require up to 16 lanes each. For audio systems that only have a single graphics card however, the 28 lane chip will be more than adequate for most users and is certainly one place you can afford to cut corners an save money in the event that you’re not working with multiple graphics cards. All this as well as the keen price when considered against the performance found in the 6700K below it, perhaps makes the 6800K the best bang per buck option at this time.

The 6900K is a 8 core / 16 thread direct replacement for the last generation flagship 5960X chip and offers a sizable performance increase over the older CPU for roughly the same price. Not ground breaking but certainly an improvement for any outlay if you were considering the options around this price point.

Topping off the chart is the new high-end flagship 6950X which offers previously unseen levels of performance from the enthusiast class CPU’s and certainly offers reasonable performance for your money when compared against the dual Xeon setups that compete with it. With a £1400 UK street price at the time of writing it may appear to offer poor value when put up against the £500 cheaper 6900K, the is little else to touch this CPU for its price if you find yourself in need of the performance it is capable of offering.

Looking to the future the next high-end refresh will be Skylake-E although that isn’t due to be with us until sometime around the middle of 2017. KabyLake around the same time next year in the midrange promises some interesting features, namely X-point and the advances it’ll bring for storage which may even appear (we hope!) in the Skylake-E chipset around the same time. Either way you look at it, Broadwell-E is looking to be the high performance option of choice for the rest of 2016 and we’re sure will find itself powering many new studio systems over the coming year.

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Scan Audio Workstation PC Benchmarks 2015

Click here to view the 2016 update.

Time for our 2015 benchmarking update so that we can see how the performance figures are sitting currently for any users thinking of upgrading or replacing their DAWs this year and as our last round up was back in June 2013 this is certainly overdue. The reason for the delay and this having been on the cards for quite while now, is that between our last group test and start of this testing cycle the DAWBench suite itself has had a sizable overhaul under the hood with a few crucial changes.

The ever faithful Reacomp itself has in this period has seen a full 64bit re-write along with a new round of compiler testing thanks to the ever helpful Justin over at Reaper and in light of that we’ve seen the test reconfigured, to allow for the large number of tracks we’re seeing the newer platforms generate.

These changes under the hood however make our older test results invalid for comparison and as such resulted in us needing to do a completely new group test reound up, in order to ensure a fair and level playing field.

The testing done here is using the DAWBench DSP Universal 2014 build found over at DAWBench.com where you can find more in depth information on the test itself. Essentially it is designed around using stacked instances of a convolution reverb to put high loads on to the CPU and give a way of comparing the performance levels of the hardware at hand. Real world performance of VSTi’s varies from plug in to plug in, so by restricting it to a dedicated plug-in we have a constant test to apply across all the hardware we can generate a set of results to compare the various chipsets and CPUs available.

To keep the testing environment fair and even, we use the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 USB interface in all testing. Through our own in house testing we’ve established that this is a great performing solution for the price and in easy reach for new users wanting to make music. Whilst more expensive interfaces may offer better performance the important point in testing is to ensure we have a stable baseline and users of higher grade interfaces may find themselves receiving suitably scaled up performance at each of these buffer settings.

Scan 2015 DPC chart

 

  • Click to expand the DPC Chart

So taking a look at the chart the first thing to note if we’re working from the bottom upwards we see the inclusion of “U” series CPUs for the first time. The ultrabook class CPU’s are designed for lower power & low heat usage situations and found in some high end tablets and seem to be appearing in a lot of low end sub £500 laptop designs and NUC style small form factor designs currently. The 4010U itself is very common at this time, with this type of chip itself being aimed squarely at the office & recreational user on the go, making it perfect for doing some word processing or watching a movie although leaving it rather lacking in raw processing capability for those wishing to produce on the go. It does however stand up to being a suitable solution for putting together a multi-track and basic editing before saving type of setup if you require something for multi-tracking on the go with a little more capability than a more basic multi-track hard disk recorder.

Above it is the X58 stalwart i7 930 which was one of the more popular solutions from the very first “i” generation of CPU’s and one a lot of people are possibly quite familiar in more studio use as it did represent a sizable leap in performance on its launch over the older Core series of CPU. As such it is included as a good benchmark to see how the performance has improved over the last five years of processor advancement.

Next up is the other mobile solution on the chart. The i7 4710MQ is a quad core mid to high end laptop CPU solution and one of the most common chips found in laptops around the £1000 mark. Whilst it has a few more CPUs above it in the range, they have only marginal clock speed jumps and the price does raise up quite rapidly as you progress through the models meaning that the 4710MQ offers the best mobile performance bang per buck at this time and that has made it popular current option in this segment. Coming in around the same performance levels as the i7 2600k CPU which was the top of the range mid level solution a few years ago, it offers a decent performance level out on the road for when you need to take your studio with you.

The two AMD solutions are the top of the range for AMD currently. Historically over the past few years AMD has been falling behind in the performance stakes when it comes A/V applications and whilst the current CPU’s look to offer reasonable bang for buck at the price points they hit, the continued high power draw of the platform makes it less than ideal for cooling quietly which remains a large concern for most recording environments.

The 2600K & 3770K are both two more CPUs included as legacy benchmarks with both of them having been top of the mid-range segments in their respective generations. The 3770K was the replacement when the 2600K was discontinued and once more both are included to show the progression in performance increasing over the last few generations.
Coming back to the more current solutions both the i3 and i5 ranges from Intel have always been aimed more at the office and general purpose machine market with the i5’s often being the CPU of choice in the gaming market where GPU performance is often prized over raw CPU. The i3 4370 on the chart once the setup is assembled comes in cheaper than the AMD options and whilst running cooler offers poor performance to price returns for audio users. The i5 also comes in around the same price point as the AMD setups listed and once again it slightly under performs the AMD chip options but runs far cooler and quieter overall trading off a small bit of performance for being a more suitable package overall where the noise levels are a crucial consideration.

This takes us up to the upper midrange and quite possibly the most popular option for the home studio segment in the shape of the i7 series. The 4790S edition is the lower powered revision that is a popular choice in our passive case solutions, the performance hit is minimal as it is still capable of running at its 4GHz turbo clock speed in a well laid out case. Its big brother the fully unlocked “K” edition CPU above also runs well at its 4.4GHz on all cores turbo clock setting and can be pushed further with a bit of careful tweaking of the voltages, making it the best cost to performance solution in the midrange if not the best bang per buck overall.

Above the midrange we move on to what is commonly regarded as the enthusiast segment and one which we find prove popular in studio installs where the extra processing performance and memory capabilities can be made very good use of. Given the X99 platform has double the number of memory slots and is capable of using the higher performance DDR4 memory standard, this makes it the ideal platform for film and TV scoring work or any other type of work that is relying upon larger sound banks and higher quality audio libraries and are both good reasons on why this platform has become popular with studios.

The three current chips in this segment are the 5820K, 5930K and 5690X. The first of those two are 6 core (with hyperthreading) solutions with little to differentiate between them other than an increase in PCI-E lane support and bandwidth when using the 5930K. Whilst critical for high bandwidth video processing solutions the lack of PCI-e bandwidth doesn’t tend to impact audio users and both CPU’s overclock to similar levels, making the cheaper solution a respectable choice when putting together a 6 core setup.

The top of the range 8 core 5960X tops our chart with an astounding set of results especially if you choose to overclock it. The pricing on this CPU solution scales along with the performance level up from the midrange choices, but for those users pushing the limits processing wise, it still offers a great performance to cost ratio over the next bracket up which is the systems based around Xeon CPUs.

So lastly we’re on to the power house Xeon solutions are based around server grade hardware which allows a lot of memory and dual CPU configurations to be offered. Whilst popular in the past the cost and and limited benefits of the current Xeon platform and indeed sheer power offered by the more common desktop CPUs have made the Xeon solutions less popular overall.

The downsides of this platform is the lack of overclocking support and the reliance of using the more expensive EEC registered memory, although the trade off there is that if you absolutely require a lot of memory with 128GB options already available and 256GB option forthcoming, the really is no other platform more suitable for memory intensive work such as VSL, as that EEC memory standard allows you to use more higher capacity sticks on these server boards that are already flush with far more memory slots than their smaller desktop siblings.

Unfortunately along with the lack of overclocking, these CPU solutions will have a bigger impact on your budget than their more consumer oriented versions, meaning that you have to spend a lot more on server grade motherboard and memory sticks themselves in order to match performance wise what can be done with the 6 and 8 core solutions mentioned previously. On the other hand lately we’ve starting to see 14 & 16 core solutions come through and given that a pair of those can be placed in the system with the aforementioned large amounts of RAM, users of packages who do need as much performance as possible as least have this option to consider pursue when only the most powerful system will be able to do the job in hand. Hopefully we’ll be able to see some of those core heavy solutions in an update later in the year.

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