Bitperfect audio players are very popular but which one is the best? Welcome back to the HB channel. In this show we’ll look at bitperfect audio players for the Mac. There are countless players available, ranging from free to pricy and from utilitarian to super duper library functionality. I started using software players years ago on a 2006 Mac Mini player and currently use a 2011 Mac Mini as music player. I have also used a 2010 MacBook Pro and a 2008 iMac.
All are equipped with SSD system drives. The newer Mac Mini uses a Western Digital 6 terabyte Thunderbolt drive, the others got their audio files over the network from the Mac Mini or a beefed up HP Windows Home Server. In the written review on theHBproject.com you can find all details. The reason I have not published a review sooner was that changes in the software came so frequently that by the time I had a proper opinion on a player, it was already updated again. So I gave up on reviewing but kept up to date on a number of players. Looking back, the evolutionary selection can be regarded as a kind of hands on review as well. But it’s not a review as I normally do. Initially there were two kinds of players: very basic and cheap players with horrible user interfaces and players that used iTunes as user interface with added status bar offering extra controls.
I’ll give you my story on players, but keep in mind that players that I disapproved with a few years ago, in the mean time, might be improved. Most players offer you a trial period so if you want to check it out yourself, do so. Two years ago BitPerfect by BitPerfect Sound Inc. was the first to leave the competition. This is a very affordable player, costing € 9,95 and I would have loved it for that reason. But it had a nasty mid range sound and didn’t have memory play. There is no trail version available. Decibel by S-Booth was the second to leave the race. It is a stand alone program and doesn’t require iTunes. The user interface is simple, some may like that others might not. But the reason to abandon Decibel was the sound quality which was clearly sub-par. The third one I dropped might surprise you: Amarra by Sonic Studio. I used two versions, the only difference being the higher sample rates made accessible or not. In the mean time there is a version that does room acoustics compensation and a version that plays Tidal.
The versions I used sounded refined and if nothing else had been around, I would still use Amarra. It sounds a little rounded, as if there was a slight high end roll off. But I didn’t find any evidence of that during measuring. Since I found several other players that sounded that little more sparkling, Amarra was dropped too. That left me with three players that sounded about equal: Pure Music by Channel D, Media Center by JRiver and Audirvana plus. Pure Music was disqualified since it fought with a video program that I need to use from time to time. Like Amarra and others it uses iTunes as user interface and, again, the sound is excellent. But I can’t keep buying updates of all programs only to keep up to date with all. So I kept using the two remaining: Media Center by JRiver, currently at version 21 and Audirvana Plus 2. Two totally different programs, neither needing iTunes, which is a plus for me since I have a very large music collection, including DSF rips of my 500 SACD’s.
ITunes will not do FLAC or DSD in any shape or form. Some programs, like Pure Music, lets you make aliases that trick iTunes in thinking FLAC and DSF files are AIF files. But it’s an extra hassle. Audirvana and JRiver simply work with all popular audio files. Just copy the files to the directory that hold the music and they are automatically indexed. Audirvana 2+ can work like Amarra and Pure Music and use the iTunes functionality for user interface. I believe that there was a disagreement with one of the other brands about a technology used – the aliases, if I remember well – that forced Audirvana away from using iTunes. Therefore version 2 also has its own, simple user interface. The left column lets you choose between the play queue and the library. The latter shows either all albums with cover art or all tracks. When in track view you can sort on any field that’s displayed. You can play music by clicking on it but if you want to add to the play queue, you need to drag the additional tracks to the play queue map.
You can easily search on a given track, artist, album or other field by entering the search string into the search field. Typing Command-I brings up a metadata editor that also has fields for composer, conductor, ensemble, soloist, instrument, style and period, making it perfect for classical music. You can have Audirvana oversample to the highest sampling rate your d/a-converter supports, using the incorporated Isotope 64 bit sampling rate converter. It can be set to do only power of two conversions, so kHz files are converted to 88.2, 1or 3kHz.
Whether that’s useful depends on your d/a-converter. Many converters will sound better when upsampling is done in the computer, but not all. Just try it and choose the best scheme. If it’s not audible either way, then who cares. Audirvana is also able to convert DSD to PCM for when your d/a-converter doesn’t do DSD. Furthermore you can use Audio Units plug-ins, the virtual equivalent of effects and reverb devices. A number of standard plug-ins are a part of OS X but all kinds of extra effects can be bought or downloaded for free. My advise: keep away from it if you’re serious about sound, unless you are very well educated in the field of filtering and absolutely need to filter out some problems.
A very nice feature is the system optimization set up. Here you can tell Audirvana what processes to halt during music playback: Spotlight, Time Machine and USB detection of new devices. Add that to the direct, exclusive and integer modes you can set in the audio preferences and you’re almost sure nothing stands between you and the music. It even supports multichannel audio, provided your setup can handle it.
When used together with iTunes, control from an iPad or iPhone can be done using Apple’s Remote app. For the stand alone Audirvana mode, control from the iPad was initially not supported but recently an app for iOS became available at € 9,95. Here again the simple structural interface and – like on the computer – it all works fast! Minimum requirements are a 64 bit Mac, Core 2 Duo or later, OS X or later and a minimum of 2GB of RAM I would recommend a minimum of 4 GB. You pay € 59 for a license, an upgrade from version 1 is € 31. A beta just became available that support Qobus, but there is no mention of Tidal. JRiver Media Center for Windows is one of the longer existing programs for playing audio, video and photos on a computer. Version 9 was introduced in 2003, before that the program was called Media Jukebox, which name now is used for a simplified free version of Media Center. Over time, the latter adopted to the demand for bit perfect playback of music too.
It’s a very versatile program with almost more features and hidden gems than Photoshop. A few years ago the program was ported to the Mac, leading to a program that felt very unnatural for a Mac user. Over time adoptions are made towards the Mac interface, but it is still an odd feeling program. But the sound is equal to that of Audirvana 2+ and Pure Music, provided all settings are done towards quality. It’s these settings that show you where it differs from Audirvana: about any property of the program can be personalized. Like with Audirvana, memory play, integer mode, direct mode, sample rate conversions, DSD conversion or DoP, these are all available. But there are also provisions to professionally ruin the sound quality, like song leveling and many DSP functions like parametric equalizer, Tempo & Pitch and other ‘advanced’ techniques. But then again, you can also set it up for quality lossless playback, it’s up to you. Just as many features are available for managing you music catalogue, even including a kind of command line for mass update.
I wanted to add DSD64 in square brackets to the album names of all DSD64 albums. A – not so simple – command line instruction did it for me in a jiffy. You can use Media Center ‘right out of the box’, with the exception of setting the audio output. Command-O – instead of the Mac standard Command-comma – brings you to the settings menu. In the left corner choose Audio and under Audio Device select your d/a-converter. Under settings choose exclusive access and integer mode. If your d/a-converter supports DSD over PCM, go to the bit streaming menu and select DSD.
Further down, under volume, disable volume. All other options in the Audio settings window are self explanatory, you can check them out later if you like. You can control Media Center from your tablet or smartphone using JRemote for iOS and Android. To do so, you must set the Media Network function in the option menu. It will produce a key that you have to enter in the app. Before I round up I would like to reiterate that this video is not a review like I normally do. I have tried to review the aforementioned software players the traditionally way but didn’t succeed. In stead I’ll give you my experiences with the players and my personal preferences.
I normally try to explain where a product finds its place in the market rather than what I like. If I had to review a Mercedes C Class and a BMW 3 Series, I would have only explained that a BMW is a more sporty drive and the Merc a more relaxed drive. And not that I prefer a relaxed drive, thus the Mercedes. Not so in this video.
I prefer the sound of Audirvana, Pure Music and JRiver over that of Amarra, but if you think differently, I understand. I don’t understand why they sound different, since they all claim bit perfect reproduction and they were all tested on the same hardware. I have also compared them against a Tentlabs modified Teac VRDS-10 to find Audirvana, Jriver and Pure Music to sound about the same. That might lead to the conclusion that Amarra doesn’t sound correct, but also that the VRDS-10 has the same ‘deviation’ as the other players. Point is that both sounds are free of typical distortion caused by audio equipment.
Which can not be said of BitPerfect and Decibel of a few years ago. Anyway, there remained two players as my favorites: JRiver Media Center 21 and Audirvana 2+. I often like the simplicity of the latter but not always, apparently, since I keep using JRiver from time to time. Especially when maintaining the metadata JRiver offers better options to, for instance, make sure Tchaikovsky is written the same for each and every track. Recently Roon was introduced that again ‘sounds’ the same as JRiver and Audirvana, but has unique navigation and metadata. As soon as I have come to grips with it, I’ll report on it in a separate video. So subscribe to this channel, follow my Facebook page or my twitter account if you want to keep posted. You’ll find the information in the description below. There you also find links to the written version of this report.
Questions can be posted below, on my Facebook page or on the contact page on theHBproject.com. And if you have enjoyed this video, please give it a thumbs up and tell your friends about it. I am Hans Beekhuyzen for the HB Channel, thank you for watching and see you the next time or on theHBproject.com. .
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