The below was written in June 2015; I've just opened a blog here so decided to move it over to the blog.
Here is a report detailing my experiences of building a customised CAPS. Hopefully this will benefit others who are thinking of also building a machine for themselves - or at least provide some entertainment Before I start I would like to thank all those that helped me on these forums, especially Hifidelit and also Larry from HDPLEX; and of course Chris for blazing the way.
This project started with the demise of my last CAPS (CAPSv2) which I had purchased ready made a few years ago. For some reason a chip or 2 on the mobo fried, so I either had to replace the mobo or start a whole new build. I had been very happy with the sound of the CAPSv2, though there were one or two things that I had been thinking of improving anyway. The first thing was an issue I had been experiencing with some kind of electrical "noise" in the system. This had manifested initially in a very high pitched noise from the internal beeper (fixed with a drop of glue), and then through the VGA video output with some kind of flickering/banding effect on the monitor. No matter what I tried, I couldn't fix the video issue. So I was keen to have a clear video display and ideally with a digital output rather than VGA. The second issue was power - the CAPSv2 was never meant to be a powerful machine, though the lack of power was often noticed with things slowing down, even browsing through my music collection. So I decided to go for a new build.
After doing a fair bit of reading and research, as well as getting help from these forums, I settled on the following build:
Case: Streacom FC5 Evo WS
There were a few reasons that I went for this case. I wanted something a bit larger than my old Origen M10 case, to give a little more flexibility inside. It was a better size on my music rack. It was a fairly solid all-aluminium case and looked pretty good too. The heat dissipation properties as reported were good - it uses a heat block over the cpu with 4 copper pipes fixed to the side of the case. The FC5 Evo is a re-designed version of the original FC5. There is now a further update called the Alpha, though the improvements were not substantial enough for me to justify the extra cost (see below). There are not many alternatives in this area; HDPLEX seems to be the main alternative, and there is A-Tech Fabrication also though these are hard to find in Europe and more expensive. What cinched it for me was a reasonably priced unused FC5 Evo that I managed to find on Ebay.
Mobo: Asus Z97 Gryphon
The mobo choice was probably the hardest for me, as there seems to be little information about in terms of choice for an audiophile build. The Streacom site lists a number of motherboards that are suitable, though the list looked a little outdated. The FC5 case has the benefit of accepting both mini-ITX and micro-ATX motherboards so that widened the search a bit. The Asus Z97 Gryphon ticked the boxes for me, and there are companies online (e.g. CooltechPC) that report successfully using it with the FC5 case. It's a micro-ATX board and is LGA1150 compatible.
CPU: Intel Core i7 4770T
This chip offers the combination of high power with a relatively low TDP (45W). It is quad-core 2.5GHz with 8MB of L3 cache, and has integrated Intel HD 4600 graphics. I know it is quite powerful for a music PC, but - I wanted to use the Roon software which is quite graphics-intensive (Roon recommend a reasonable spec), and I might also use the machine on occasion for light gaming (emulation), for which the Intel integrated HD 4600 should suffice.
Fairly standard choice here I think with the Crucial 2 x 4GB DDR3 1600.
I'm using the same SSD as in my CAPSv2; the OCZ Vertex 2 60GB.
HDPLEX linear PSU 100W (with 160W VA R-core transformer), with HDPLEX 160W DC to ATX converter.
SOTM SATA noise filter (as used on previous CAPS). 24" Asus ProArt monitor from previous build. PCIe firewire card with PCIe flexible riser card.
Building the machine
Here is how the build went, along with some pictures.
The motherboard, boxed:
The Streacom FC Evo case:
The inside of the case, with the power button chip on the left and the USB3 card on the right
The mobo with the armour:
The mobo without the armour:
Notice the heatsinks which cover the VRMs. I was a bit worried that these would interfere with the cooling pipes.
The CPU in the socket:
The cooling block on the CPU; heatsink is definitely in the way of the pipes:
So my initial thought was to try and bend/mould the heat pipes over or around this heatsink. I got a few longer heat pipes to allow this and some pipe benders. Unfortunately, this process was a lot more difficult that I had thought. The heat pipes are quite bendable in the areas where they are straight, though at the parts where they are already bent or twisted, they are extremely difficult to bend by hand. From this pic you can see that there was a bit of bending to do, especially as the ends had to remain flush with the respective heat sinks:
Ultimately, this did not go well:
So, what I had to do was remove this heatsink. From what I had read online, this heatsink is not necessary and the temperatures tend to be pretty low without it on. It was fairly easy to remove with a few screws. So, with the heatsink removed, here is the mobo in the case with the heat pipes in position as a dry run:
All fits quite well now. With the heatsink removed, fitting the cooling system wasn't too difficult. I applied a thin layer of thermal paste to the CPU, fitted the block (which also had thermal paste in the grooves), fitted the pipes to the block and fitted the other end of the pipes to the case (also with thermal paste between the pipes and the case blocks. With the thermal paste, cover and connecting screw in place:
Now for a slight break and a fast forward. I connected the rest of the things up; the 2 RAM strips were in place, the power supply hooked up - 19V output from the HDPLEX linear PSU going to the internal DC to ATX converter with the 24-pin from the DC to ATX going to the mobo and the 4-pin to the extra CPU power slot. Power button from the case hooked up to the mobo. SOTM SATA noise filter in place and powered via 5v rail. All external connections hooked up.
So with some trepidation, I prepared to fire up the system for the first time. Part of me wondered if it might not start, and.....it didn't. Damn. What happened was that one LED lit on the mobo, but nothing else; no POST, no BIOS beep, no output to the monitor, nothing. The LED that lit was the power standby LED, and it was a constant green. No other onboard LEDs lit or even flashed.
This is where a fun week or two of troubleshooting began. I learnt a lot and a went through most of the basic suggestions that I came across; checking all connections, checking compatibility of the components, checking the CPU was sited properly with no bent pins, trying the RAM in the different slots, updating the BIOS, resetting the BIOS, removing all components, breadboarding, trying different video outputs etc etc. Frustratingly, nothing whatsoever made any difference. On discussion with Larry he thought it might be the DC to ATX that was fault, so sent me a replacement one...though same problem.
When I spoke to PC-people about it, they all laughed at my PSU and said that 100W was far too low powered and that most machines use at least 500W and more if it's a powerful machine. I explained that it was just a music server with SSD and no video card though was still advised by a number of sources that the problem was likely the power. So, I bought a cheap 500W standard ATX power supply, and hooked it up. No difference. Damn. Looking into it further, I wondered if it was because the cable going to the PSU power slot was 4-pin though the receptor was 8-pin. I tried an adapter; no difference. I noticed that the mobo didn't seem to have any internal beeper and thought great - maybe if I connected up a beeper then I would at least get a BIOS error code. I got a beeper, connected it up and...no beep. Not even a squeak. On further discussions I was advised that the extra PSU I had tried was possibly too poor (it was only £15), so I bought a better and more powerful Corsair one to test. No difference.
By this stage I thought that it must be the mobo or the CPU that was faulty, though had read that this was fairly uncommon. I returned the mobo as faulty and received a replacement, hooked it all up and....IT WORKED!! Hallelujah. At least, it booted to BIOS. So must have been a faulty mobo. I wondered if I might have damaged the first one in any way, but I didn't see any damage to it. Anyway, on with the build; all hooked up with the new mobo (with mobo heatsink removed):
The DC to ATX:
And ready to go:
So, with everything connected including the SSD which had been freshly formatted and ready for a new Windows installation, I go for the first-time power up, planning to install Windows off a USB drive. Power on....boots to BIOS. SSD not recognised. Pooh. Turn the machine off, check the connections, power on again...same problem. Hm...why isn't the SSD being recognised by the BIOS? I'm thinking that it's probably a power issue, and hook up the external ATX power supply to the SSD, rather than the 5v rail from the HDPLEX PSU. And...BIOS sees the SSD! Great. But...something wrong with the HDPLEX linear PSU? On discussion with Larry, I checked the 5v PSU output with a multimeter, which was fine at around 5.07v, and checked the end of the molex cable (which was connected to the PSU via another adapter cable, which showed a voltage fluctuating between around 0.1 and 0.2v...so likely a problem with one of these cables. Larry sent me a replacement, I hooked it up, tested it, and...5.07v! Great. So, hooked up this cable to the SSD via the SOTM filter and fired up the machine again and...STARTS! Woohoo.
So installed Windows 10 from USB flash drive (developer preview). But, during the installation process, the SSD disappeared from the BIOS again on occasion. I read up on this but couldn't find a reason. All the cables seemed to be connected properly. It only seemed to occur on restarting the system - the system never just failed, or the SSD never stopped working when the machine was running. So I figured it was something to do with the startup process. A restart of two usually fixed it. So I managed to continue on with the installation. Windows 10 installed fairly easily, and the PC was hooked up via ethernet, though the internet connection was extremely temperamental. The default homepage of Bing.com loaded each time, and the search brought results, though hardly any webpages would load. One or two would, some were very slow and then without pictures, and some just timed out. I couldn't suss this at all and wounded if it might be some bug to do with the preview. After trying a few things I decided to do a reinstall with Windows 8.1 Pro 64bit.
Windows 8.1 installed OK, and I went on to install and update the necessary drivers, install a few apps and disable a few services. I installed Roon and began scanning my library...finally we are getting there -
Hooked up the DAC via firewire cable, installed the DAC drivers, set the DAC in Roon...hit play and....ahhhh. Music. So the story has a happy ending.
There are two outstanding issues that I am still working on. One is a slight transformer hum. On discussion with Larry (great customer service), he sent out another HDPLEX linear PSU in case there was a problem with my existing one. Same hum/buzz though. I've put the PSU on separate rubber isolation feet though same problem. You can hear it just the same if you pick up the unit. It's not loud by any means - though easily heard with the ear a foot or two away from the PSU, and once you hear it, you can continue to as you move away from the PSU. The listening position is around 12 feet away from the PSU though I can just about detect it from there. So currently I'm getting some longer cables so that I can shift the PSU into a cabinet that's next to the hifi rack. I've already tried the unit in there and I think that pretty much makes the noise undetectable from the listening spot. The second issue that I'm still working on is that the SSD still intermittently disappears from the BIOS on starting up the machine. More often that not it starts fine. I'm not sure what I'll do about this. So a work in progress, but I'm very happy with it now, with a noticeable improvement in sound on my previous setup too.