OS X Audio Players: Amarra, Audirvana, Pure Music, Fidelia, Decibel, and BitPerfect.

osx_audio_players

The Sonic Studio Players: Amarra, MINI, and Junior

Note: Recently Sonic Studio have updated their pricing scheme so now it’s Amarra Hifi ($49), Amarra ($189), and Amarra Symphony ($495). The new pricing is definitely more competitive than the previous one, while retaining the same Amarra good sound and redistributing the features. They have also added some new features that previously weren’t available with the versions I used for this review, such as automatic sample rate switching, and independent playlist creation. I expect the sound quality will remain the same as it’s basically the same Sonic Studio optimization engine being used. I  will update the article to reflect the changes as soon as I have enough time to evaluate them. 

Sonic Studio offers three different players: Amarra ($695.00), MINI ($295.00), and Junior ($99.00). The flagship Amarra is probably the most well-known player in the High End Audio circle, but its  $695 price tag is going to be out of reach for the majority of us. As we are mostly concerned with sound quality, it’s good to know that all three versions share the same sonic engine, so you’ll get the same sound with the $99 Junior as you do with the $695.00 Amarra. The full list of differences between the different players can be found in the table below (from Sonic Studio’s website), but the ones that stand out for day to day use are:

  • The maximum sample rate support: maximum limit on the sample rates of the files you can play (96kHz for Junior, 192kHz for MINI, and 384kHz for Amarra).
  • Cache playback (playback from memory/RAM, minimizing jitter associated with hard disk-based playback).
  • Custom EQ on MINI and Amarra (the ability to create a custom equalization curve).
  • And custom Playlists (the ability to play music from a playlist independent of Itunes — good for FLAC files).

The most obvious difference between the three players are the supported sample rates. The flagship Amarra supports up to 384kHz, MINI up to 192kHz, and Junior up to 96kHz. Additionally, the flagship Amarra also has support for DSD to AIFF conversion, Vinyl restoration (with the addition of Amarra Vinyl), Amarra’s Full Sonic EQ (more on this later), High Resolution Precision Metering, and last but not least is the ability to have a dedicated window to list songs in your playlist (yes, you only get a playlist window with the $695 version).

I think the differences in feature between the three versions are not incredibly crucial. Say we’re looking at Junior in comparison to MINI and Amarra, the only feature I would miss is the Amarra EQ (the Junior’s EQ piggyback to the Itunes’ settings), the ability to create custom playlists for my FLAC files and the Cache Playback feature which allows you to play music from memory. But even then I think I can live without Cache Playback, and I definitely have no need for the more advanced functions of the Flagship Amarra such as Vinyl Restoration, High Resolution Metering, and DSD to AIFF conversion.

Use and Operations

Prior to the release of the latest version of Amarra 2.3.3 (4344), and MINI 2.2.3 (4290), I struggled to use them on a day to day basis, mainly due to software stability and bugs issues. The latest versions however are a big improvement and most of the issues have been remedied. I talked to Ralph from Sonic Studio and he also mentioned that they are currently working to improve the user manual as well.

Before we continue, I’d like to note that I didn’t spend a lot of time with Junior, and was mainly using both MINI and Amarra.

My impression is that these players were designed mainly for operation with Itunes as the library management software. Upon first launch, the Amarra/MINI would be launched together with Itunes, but instead of playing with the standard Itunes engine you have the Amarra engine doing the work. Volume level and track selection can be done either from the Amarra/MINI or Itunes, and you also have an option to have the Amarra/MINI panel to be dock alongside the Itunes’ window.

You do have the ability to create your own playlists, both with MINI and Amarra, but certain things like the lack of the playlist window in MINI, and the fact that the playlist are not saved automatically upon exiting the application (you need to either save/load the playlist manually, or create a new playlist every time you start up the player) make it less preferable to use them as a stand alone player.

The settings on the preferences panel are very simple and don’t require a lot of configuration, although for people would like to have more control this can be seen as a limitation. Basically you have four sections in the preferences, most of which don’t really need any tweaking:

  • Launch Settings: Generally a lot of these settings concern the pairing behavior with Itunes.
  • Playback Settings: Mostly for tweaking the amount of memory allocated for playback cache. Personally I find the default 512MB number to be good.
  • Dither Settings: I’d leave this at default.
  • Processing Settings: Full Sonic EQ gives you the ability to go all out on equalizer settings (only available on Amarra). Pure Gain and Hard Limit? Honestly I don’t know what these do.
Amarra EQ

If there is one single feature that I love with MINI and Amarra, it is the included EQ function. The EQ that comes with MINI and Amarra is by far the best software based EQ I have used. With the flagship $695 Amarra, you have an option to take the EQ game a step further with the Full Sonic EQ option that gives you even more control over the default Amarra EQ, but in practice I find it to be too complex for the average casual user, me included. Even though Junior is listed as having the same Amarra EQ function, it only applies pre-set settings from Itunes’ EQ, making it very limited for some real EQ use.

The Amarra EQ gives you three sets of parameters to alter the equalization curve similar to a classic parametric style EQ. Originally intended to correct room acoustic problems, the Amarra EQ function is helpful for headphone users who find a particular frequency spike/dip to be annoying.

Three control parameters are given that mimic a traditional parametric EQ:

  • FREQ is the particular frequency you want to adjust (Range: 11Hz to 21.475kHz).
  • ATTN is how much you want to raise/lower that particular frequency (Range: -24dB to 24dB)
  • Q is the range of frequency to include in the adjustment. If you are familiar with bandwith on the usual parametric EQs, Q is Amarra’s way of implementing bandwith in a slightly non conventional way. For casual users, this is the gist of it: say you want more vocal presence and are applying some boost to 1kHz a lower Q will let that boost bleed more to the higher and lower frequencies, while a higher Q will do the opposite. (For the more technical users: Q is described as the resonant frequency divided the bandwith, Q supposedly provides a more intuitive way of controlling bandwith. Since it is in an inverse relationship with bandwith, lower Q number gives wider bandwith, while a higher Q gives a narrower bandwith. )

There is a certain conservative attitude when it comes to the way Sonic Studio approaches the design of Amarra and MINI. For instance, consider these two situations:

  • You have a bunch of files on your playlist with mixed sample rates: 44.1kHz and 96kHz. With some of the other players, you can either choose to switch the internal DAC sample rate to follow the files, so you can have the DAC running at 44.1, then to 96, then back to 44.1 and so on. Or, you can have all the files upsampled to 96kHz and run the DAC steady at 96kHz. Now, my experience is that I’ve always get better result from upsampling all my 44.1kHz files to either 88.2 (order of two upsampling) or 96kHz, than playing the files at their native 44.1kHz rate (please leave the upsampling debate out of this).With Amarra/MINI, I don’t have the ability to do upsampling on the fly. Instead, Amarra would give you a new window where you can create new, resampled versions of the files (using the iZotope engine), then you can play those files instead of asking Amarra to do it on the fly. Sonic Studio’s reasoning is simple: upsampling on the fly provides inconsistent quality since the load on the CPU would affect the conversion engine. Fair enough, except that not only is the entire process cumbersome, but now I have to provide double the storage space (for 88.2kHz) to store my music (or triple if I still keep the original 44.1 version).
  • Device hog mode. Most of the other players give an option that gives your audio player exclusive access to the DAC, meaning your web browser and the other apps don’t get to use the DAC. Having exclusive access is good since your audio player gets an uninterrupted line to the DAC (though on some cases it would be annoying since Youtube videos get played over the external speaker), hence better quality playback. But no, you don’t get this with Amarra and MINI, since they imagined that the computer would mostly be used strictly for audio playback (maybe that’s true in a high end computer-based speaker system, but I know that headphone users multi-task all the time with their computers).

I don’t think that these conservative decisions are a big deal breaker for someone considering purchasing the player, especially if pure sound quality is what you’re concerned with. It’s just something that I’d like to mention from a reviewer’s perspective.

I’ve started using Amarra way back I think some 2 years ago, and even up the version before the current latest version, I still consider the software to be buggy and unreliable (honestly this review would’ve been very different had it not for the latest revision). However, the latest version of both MINI and Amarra are very good. According to Sonic Studio, they’ve been getting a lot of feedback from the users at Computer Audiophile, and that has helped them to get Amarra up to its present form.

Some of the terminology used in the features (i.e “Q” on the EQ parameters) are still not very user friendly, and the manual hopefully can be rewritten with the average home-audiophile background in mind.

Sound Quality
The Sonic Studio players rank as the best sounding players in my book. They have the blackest background, the fullest body, the deepest soundstage, and it’s the sound that I keep coming back to every single time. If not for its price, the Sonic Studio players would be the player I go for every single time. It simply had the best sound.
On less resolving systems, the Sonic Studio players may not be able to flex all its strength, but one thing that’s always noticeable is how they manage to have the best bass presentation down to the lowest lows. The other side of the coin, however, is that on less resolving systems, I tend to like an airier presentation from say Pure Music or Fidelia, as it helps to create a more spacious sound than the darker sounding Sonic Studio players.
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  • Søren

    Mike, I a bit confused (because I don’t know this stuff).

    You talk about better than Core Audio up sampling but don’t most USB DAC’s require the output to go via Core Audio?

    Also all those advanced features confuses me, I thought it was really a matter of the decoder of the audio file (FLAC, MP3, …) decoding the format correctly and simply sending this information bit perfectly/correct to the USB and let the DAC do the magic? So my question here, should any player that will decode the files correctly not be as good as any player when it comes to sound quality as it it is the DAC that does the stuff?

    Thank you

  • Timthemailman

    One thing amazes me most about all of these audio players (I have four of them installed on my iMac): Every music file in my iTunes library sounds so different through each player. A live concert Beethoven cd file sounds too harsh with my AudirvanaPlus but sounds more full and “present” on my PureMusic. But MacCartney’s “New” sounds warm and rich with the Audirvana! That’s the fun of it!

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Fun yes, but are we sure we want standard players to change the sound?

      • Timthemailman

        Well, L, considering that properly engineering a recording is a long forgotten art, I do alter what I listen to just a little. And, yes, I admit these players do color the sound, so do dacs and tube amps (and headphones!). But I don’t have the budget for Audese (?) and $20,000 dacs. Also, my mac doesn’t offer Integer mode.

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          I can see where the different sound from software comes in useful. thanks for making me see that. but on the other hand, like Dale, I think there should be at least one “mode” that sounds the same on all players

          • Timthemailman

            L, I’m late for work, but I’ll get back to that tonight. Thanks!

      • dalethorn

        It bothers me that different players sound so different. A music player has to have a default tuning? I don’t get it at all.

        • Timthemailman

          Each of these players has default settings which are designed by the engineers of each company and results in the signature sound of each. A lot of complicated engineering! Dale, I just wanted to get a truer sound from my files and the makers of these programs claim they can deliver that. Upsampling for example. And less CPU usage. My biggest gripe is that the PDF owner’s manuals in many cases don’t really explain the settings as the author of this article can attest.

          • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

            That actually in impressive, like they don’t know their own software :)