Sometime in 2011 I began thinking about the possibility of doing a review on high quality audio players for the Mac OS X operating system. Even though Windows users still represent a big part of Headfonia readers, I choose to focus on OS X for now because it’s easier to do as I use Mac myself, but also because for most developers, OS X seems to be the platform of choice when it comes to high quality audio playback.
The last few months, I’ve tried and tested the majority of available audio players for OS X. In total, I’ve tested a total of nine players: three from Sonic Studio (Amarra, MINI, and Junior), Audirvana and Audirvana+, Pure Music, Fidelia, Decibel, and BitPerfect. Comparative reviews are always difficult to do, especially when you have more than five different products in one article. After I started working on this article, I realized that it’s quite a crazy project to take on, but I realize that if I only did a comparative of three different products then it’s only a matter of time before someone come and ask “how does this compare to that?”. Many of these players offer such a rich level of control and customization, and it is beyond the scope of this review to try to cover every single function offered by each player. I realize that despite clocking in over 7,000 words, the article is far from perfect, but it’s been a crazy few months keep so finally I decide to publish this article and get on with working on more normal reviews. Anyway I hope you guys will find this to be helpful. There are a lot of things I missed in terms of covering each player in detail, but if you’d post it on the comments section I will try to fill them in.
I’ll start with the table of contents for those of you who want to skip a section or two.
Table of Contents
- General Facts About Audio Players – Page 1
- The Sonic Studio Players – Page 2
- Audirvana Free and Audirvana Plus – Page 3
- Pure Music – Page 4
- BitPerfect – Page 5
- Decibel – Page 6
- Fidelia – Page 7
- Common Settings Parameters – Page 8
- Classification, Final Thoughts – Page 9
- Appendix: The Concept Of Neutrality – Page 10
General Facts About Audio Players
I have had the chance to use these players with some very high end equipment and indeed the improvements I get from these players are good enough to warrant the purchase. True to the “garbage-in garbage-out” principle, the app you choose for music playback represents an important part of the “source”. Any distortion created at this level is going to be passed on to the subsequent components on the system, and so it’s very important to get things right.
Of course the whole “Is it worth the money?” question is going to be the first thing people ask. One thing I need to state before going to the reviews is that the sonic improvements that you’ll get from these audio players are very subtle. Undoubtedly the hardware quality is more important than the software, so a $300 DAC is still going to be better than a typical $100 DAC despite the player used on the computer. This is why the pricing of the players is going to be a big part of the decision.
For me, whenever I listen to a high end system, either for personal listening or for a review, I simply can’t go back to using standard Itunes. It’s like having used bad quality gasoline for your Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4. However, when I am playing music on my Fiio E17 desktop system, reviewing some $100 headphone, I probably won’t be so critical of what player I’m using, though again I still like to use BitPerfect for those occasions.
Another aspect that you need to realize is that the quality of the recording is always the most important aspect of any Hi-Fi system. Therefore a good recording stored as an MP3 and played in Itunes would still sound better than a 500 Megabytes, 24/384 WAV file of a crappy recording played in any of these audiophile players. The reality is that in every genre you’re bound to find more bad recordings than good ones, so it’s a good idea to know where in the quality scale most of your music stands. In fact, until you’ve learned to distinguish a good recording quality from a bad, I would advise against spending big money for a high quality audio player.
Some of the functions provided by these players yield bigger improvements (iZotope over Apple CoreAudio upsampling, device hog mode), but some others like dither settings are less so (to be frank I didn’t spend too much time experimenting with dither settings as I find their effects to be extremely subtle to my ears). Please also note that the same function may be worded differently on different players, but in essence they do the same thing (i.e device hog mode, exclusive access mode are essentially the same thing).
With some of the players, the additional functions you get are so good that they justify having the application for those functions alone, apart from the sound quality aspect (though you still need to consider if it’s worth to pay the price just to have those functions). For instance, if money were no object, I would get Fidelia with the FHX add-on just so I can have its crossfeed controls, or the Amarra player just for the brilliantly executed EQ controls.
Some people don’t like using Itunes at all, while others have all of their music organized on Itunes. While most of the players can work either as a stand-alone or paired with Itunes, the way the interface is designed makes some players more naturally inclined to be used with Itunes, or vica versa.