Ryzen is finally with us and it is quite possibly one of the most anticipated chipset launches in years, with initial reports and leaked benchmarks tending to show the whole platform in very favourable light.
However when it comes to pro audio handling we tend to have different concerns over performance requirements, than tends to be outlined and covered by more regular computer industry testing. So having now had a chance to sit and work with an AMD 1700X for a week or so, we’ve had the chance to put this brand new tech through some more audio-centric benchmarking, and today we’ll take a first look at this new tech and see if its right for the studio.
AMD has developed a whole new platform with the focus based around improving low level performance and raising the “IPC” or Instructions per clock cycle figure. As ever they have been keen to keep it affordable with certain choices having been made to keep it competitive, and to some extent these are the right choices for a lot of users.
The chipset gives us DDR4 memory but unlike the X99 platform restricts us to dual channel RAM configurations and a maximum of 64GB across the 4 RAM slots which may limit its appeal for heavyweight VSL users. The is a single M.2. connection option for a high speed NVMe drive and 32 lanes for the PCIe connections, so the competing X99 solutions still offer us more scope here, although for the average audio system the restrictions above may offer little to no real downsides at least from a configuration requirements point of view.
One thing missing from the specification however that has an obvious impact in the studio is the lack of Thunderbolt support. Thunderbolt solutions require BIOS level and physical board level support in the shape of the data communication header found on Intel boards, and Thunderbolt itself is an Intel developed standard along with Apple backing. Without either of those companies appearing to be keen to licence it up front, we’re unlikely to see Thunderbolt at launch although the little to say that this couldn’t change in later generations, if the right agreements can be worked out between the firms involved.
Early testing with the drivers available to us have so far proven to be quite robust, with stability being great for what is essentially a first generation release of a new chipset platform. We have seen a few interface issues regarding older USB 2 interfaces and USB 3 headers on the board, although the USB 3 headers we’ve seen are running the Microsoft USB3 drivers, which admittedly have had a few issues over on the Intel boards with certain older USB 2 only interfaces so this looks to be constant between both platforms. Where we’ve seen issues on the Intel side, we’re also seeing issues on the AMD side, so we can’t level this as being an issue with the chipset and may prove to be something that the audio interface guys can fix with either a driver or firmware update.
Overclocking has been limited in our initial testing phase, mainly due to a lack of tools. Current windows testing software is having a hard time with temperature monitoring during our test period, with none of the tools we had available being able to report the temps. This of course is something that will no doubt resolve itself as everyone updates their software over the next few weeks, but until then we tried to play it safe when pushing the clocks up on this initial batch.
We managed to boost our test 1700X up a few notches to around the level of the 1800X in the basic testing we carried out, but taking it further lead to an unstable test bench. No doubt this will improve after launch as the initial silicon yields improve and having not seen a 1800X as yet, that may still proved to be the cherry picked option in the range when it comes to overclocking.
One of the interesting early reports that appeared right before launch was the CPUid benchmark result which suggests that this may shape up to be one of the best performing multi-core consumer grade chips. We set out to replicate this test here and the result of it does indeed look very promising on the surface.
We follow this up with a Geekbench 4 test, which itself is well trusted as a cross platform CPU benchmark and in the single core performance reflects the results seen in the previous test with it placing just behind the i7 7700K in the results chart. The multi-core this time around whilst strong looks to be sat behind the 6900K and in this instance sitting under the 6800K and above the 7700K.
So moving on to our more audio-centric benchmarks and our standard Dawbench test is first up. Designed to load test the CPU itself, we find ourselves here stacking plugin instances in order to establish the chips against a set of baseline level results. The AMD proves itself strongly in this test, placing mid-way between the cost equivalent 6 core Intel 6800K and far more expensive 6900K 8 core. With the AMD 1700X offering us 8 physical cores along with threading on top to take us to a virtual 16 cores, this at first glance looks to be where we would expect it to be with the hardware on offer, but at a very keen price point.
I wanted to try a few more real world comparisons here so first up I’ve taken the Dawbench test and restricted it to 20 channels of plugins. I’ve then applied this test over each of the CPUs we have on test, with the results appearing under the “Reaper” heading on the chart below.
The 1700X stands up well against the i7 7700k but doesn’t quite manage to match up with Intel chips in this instance. In a test like this where we’re not stressing the CPU itself or trying to overload the available bandwidth, the advantages in the low level microarchitecture tend to come to the fore and in this instance the two Intel chips based around the same platform perform roughly in line with each other, although in this test we’re not taking into account the extra bandwidth on offer with the 6900K edition.
Also on the same chart we see two other test results with one being the 8 Good Reasons demo from Cubase 8 and we tried running it across the available CPUs to gain a comparison in a more real world project. In this instance the results come back fairly level across the two high end Intel CPU’s and the AMD 1700X. The 4 core mid-range i7 scores poor here, but this is expected with the obvious lack of a physical cores hampering the project playback load.
We also ran the “These Arms” Sonar demo and replicated the test process again. This tests results are a bit more erratic this time around, with a certain emphasis looking to be placed on the single core score as well as the overall multi core score. This is the first time we see the 1700X falling behind the Intel results.
In other testing we’ve done along the way in other segments we’ve seen some of the video rendering packages and even some games exhibiting some CPU based performance oddness that has looked out of the ordinary. Obviously we have a concern here that the might be a weakness that needs to be addressed when it comes to overall audio system performance, so with this result in mind we decided to dig deeper.
To do so we’ve made use of the DAWBench Vi test, which builds upon the basic test in DAWBench standard, and allows us to stack multiple layers of Kontakt based instruments on top of it. With this test, not only are we place a heavy load on the CPU, but we’re also stressing the sub-system and seeing how capable it is at quickly handling large complex data loads.
This gave us the results found in the chart above and this starts to shine some light on the concerns that we have.
In this instance the AMD 1700X under-performs all of the Intel chips at lower buffer rates. it does scale up steadily however, so this looks to be an issue with how quickly it can process the contents of a buffer load.
So what’s going on here?
Well the other relevant information to flesh out the chart above is just how much CPU load was being used when the audio started to break up in playback.
AMD 1700X 3.8 @ GHz
64 = 520 count @ 70% load
128 = 860 count @ 72% load
192 = 1290 count @ 85% load
Intel 6800k 3.8 @ GHz
64 = 780 count @ 87% load
128 = 1160 count @ 91% load
192 = 1590 count @ 97% load
Intel 6900k 3.6 @ GHz
64 = 980 count @ 85% load
128 = 1550 count @ 90% load
192 = 1880 count @ 97% load
Intel 7700k @ 4.5GHz
64 = 560 @ 90% load
128 = 950 @ 98% load
192 = 1270 @ 99% load
So the big problem here appears to be inefficiency at lower buffer rates. The ASIO buffer is throwing data at the CPU in quicker bursts the lower you go with the setting, so with the audio crackling and breaking up it seems that the CPU just isn’t clearing the buffer quickly enough once it gets to around 70% CPU load at those lower 64 & 128 buffer settings
Intel at this buffer setting looks to be hitting 85% or higher, so whilst the AMD chip may have more RAW performance to hand, the responsiveness of the rest of the architecture appears to be letting it down. It’s no big secret looking over the early reviews that whilst AMD has made some amazing gains with the IPC rates this generation they still appear to be lagging slightly behind Intel in this performance metric.
So the results start to outline this as one of the key weaknesses in the Ryzen configuration, with it becoming quite apparent that the are bottle necks elsewhere in the architecture that are coming into play beyond the new CPU’s. At the lower buffer settings the test tends to benefit single core performance, with the Intel chips taking a solid lead. As you slacken off the buffer itself, more cores become the better option as the system is able to spread the load but even then it isn’t until we hit a 192 buffer setting on the ASIO drivers that the performance catches up to the intel 4 Core CPU.
This appears to be one section where the AMD performance still seems to be lacking compared with the Intel family be that due to hardware bottle necks or still not quite having caught up in the overall IPC handling at the chipset level.
What we also see is the performance start to catch up with intel again as the buffer is relaxed, so it’s clear that a certain amount of performance is still there to be had, but the system just can’t access it quickly enough when placed under heavy complex loads.
What we can safely say having taken this look at the Ryzen platform, is that across the tests we’ve carried out so far that the AMD platform has made some serious gains with this generation. Indeed the is no denying that the is going to be more than a few scenarios where the AMD hardware is able to compete and will beat the competition.
However with the bottlenecks we’ve seen concerning load balancing of complex audio chains, the is a lot of concern here that it simply won’t offer the required bang per buck for a dedicated studio PC. As the silicon continues to be refined and the chip-set and drivers are fine-tuned then we should see the whole platform continue to move from strength to strength, but at this stage until more is known about those strength and weaknesses of the hardware, you should be aware that it has both its pros and cons to consider.