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Hi-Res Music Playback Software Comparison

by Ryan Mintz August 14, 2013
Hi-Res Music Playback Software Comparison

Hi-Res Music Playback Software Comparison

Choosing the right audiophile playback software can be a daunting task. While audible differences can occur in going from an entry-level software like iTunes to one of the audiophile playback engines mentioned below, the transition between high-end software boils down to a preference between real cherry flavor and artificial cherry flavor. It should also be mentioned that with a properly designed and optimized music server or HTPC, the sonic benefits and differences between operating systems and playback software shrink and selection most often can be made based on form and function. However, the differences in supported file formats, file management systems, user experience vary greatly.

The Case for Specialty HiFi Software

One of the main concepts behind high-end playback software is to aid in the elimination of background processes and improve the ability of non-real-time operating systems to process real-time audio information. Simply put, you want the operating system to focus on audio and not useless services, and you want the audio signal to reach the computers output with as little handshaking as possible.

...some people will hear a tremendous difference while others will not.

Because many operating systems can be optimized outside of playback software, the benefits of these audio applications may diminish. This doesn’t mean they make no difference, it just explains why some people will hear a tremendous difference while others will not. There are lots of layers here, and I’ll talk about them more in-depth in our upcoming optimization guides.

Before diving into the software comparison, I need to address bit-perfect playback. There are three camps here. Conventional wisdom states that in order for a system to be bit perfect it must act as a pass-through device, not altering the digital data in any fashion through the use of matrixing, DSP, or other means. The idea behind this is to say the output is exactly the same as what was put in. This idea is supported by the camp's theory that bits are just bits and that digital is just ones and zeros, so if a one is a one and a zero a zero the data has passed un-fooled around with and is thus bit perfect. This means that all bit perfect signals should be created equal.

The second camp states that bit perfect means that the bits are exact, but jitter may still be introduced. When doing something in non-real-time (running an application) bit-perfect is applicable because the data are buffered and sent in packets that are just resent if there are any errors (otherwise you would have applications crashing constantly). Audio, on the other hand, is real time. Bit perfect implies that the data and sample rates match, it does not mean jitter isn't introduced within those same sample rates.

Author's Opinion on Bit Perfect Playback

Finally the third camp, my camp, gets two paragraphs because it's my camp and I'm writing this. Let's all start by agreeing that audio is a real-time process. Even if an application loads data into memory for processing, everything before and the whole operation after is a real time operation. Real time processes in a computer take the form of a square wave, specifically a pulse width modulation. This pulse width modulation is an analog representation of what we conceptualize as a digital signal and is created by voltage in the power supply. This PWM signal has both amplitude characteristics and timing characteristics. The timing, or duty cycle, along with the amplitude determine the frequency response of that square wave. A computer is made up of billions of transistors, all switching very quickly to changes in logic (mathematical algorithms created by the operating system and software). Based on the input voltages, logic switches create a new version, a duplicate, of the square wave (either theoretically identical or altered). That new version of the square wave is also created from power in the power supply. Because audio is real time, there is no error correction that can be done to this square wave, any resulting wave form IS your music.

Looking at the concept of bit-perfect, it's arguably impossible to have bit perfect playback in a real-time system because there are no bits. If the power supply introduces noise or there is jitter on the square wave this results in a square wave that is not identical to the original. Because the square wave is an analog signal it is still susceptible to noise and distortion. A square wave, however, reacts a little differently than its sine wave counterpart. Jitter is an alteration of the duty cycle, when that jitter hits the digital interface chips, a DAC for instance, that jitter is seen as an amplitude error and creates an alteration of the frequency response. Amplitude distortion itself is created by noise voltages that either add or subtract from the amplitude of the square wave. This introduces harmonic content into the square wave that shouldn't exist in the music. The square wave may still resemble a one or a zero, but it contains additional frequency content. So as far that bits are concerned, it's bit perfect, but with additional harmonic content that shouldn't be there.

So, high-end playback software works to buffer the audio signal and keep as much of the processing in the non-real-time zone (memory playback) as possible. The next step is to create as few duplications of the square wave as possible and get it to the computer's output as quickly as possible so as to avoid the introduction of jitter and amplitude errors. All of the software below is bit perfect, the camp you pitch your tent in shouldn't affect the software you wish to use, just how you choose to integrate it into your system

JRiver Media Center

OS: Mac and Windows

Price: $49

Audio Capabilities: Standard audio formats plus FLAC, WAV, DSD

Video Capabilities: Blu-ray (now on both mac and windows) streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and multichannel A/V formats

File Management: Self contained database with significant automatic organization and custom tailoring. Custom Playlists. Music stored locally, on external HDD, or NAS.

jrmc albums

First up is JRMC (as the cool kids call it). It sports a sleek, easy-to-use interface, various GUI adjustments, and a settings menu with more options than a Vegas buffet line. It can play anything and offers access to a very powerful DSP engine.The feature set and sound quality improvements in this software make it a significant leap up over its windows media center alternative. The addition of ASIO, Direct Sound, Wasapi, and Kernel streaming is a big bonus over entry-level playback software. They have also integrated a memory playback feature, which was a big selling point on higher-end software available. For barebones enthusiasts this software may pack too many options, too many settings, and too much freedom. The good news is if you don’t want to mess with settings you don’t have to, it pretty much plays right out of the box. A similar (and free) alternative is Foobar2000, which has several plugins and nearly identical sound quality. The interface isn’t as nice and it’s not quite as easy to use, but many folks dig it. For an audio-only alternative you can check out CPLAY, which is simpler, open source, and sounds a little better too.

Ratings:

User Interface: 10

Customer Support: 9

Subjective Sound Quality: 8

Video Quality: 10

Trial Offered: YES

JPLAY

OS: Windows

Price: $129

Audio Capabilities: Standard Audio Formats plus FLAC, WAV, DSD

File Management: Utilizes JRMC Database organization or standalone playlists.

jplaysettings

JPLAY is a relatively new introduction to the audiophile playback software market. Piggy-backing off the Jriver or Foobar2000 interfaces, it allows for use of the excellent file management of JRMC, but with improvements to sound quality.

This is an enthusiast level software, is a bit of a process to set up and tedious to use, but represents the most technically intelligent software available. If any software makes a difference, it would be JPLAY, but many people have claimed that it does not offer improvement over JRMC. In my test system I run a very high-end PC-based music server and the differences between JRMC and JPLAY were subtle, but I felt that I could hear them. Many of the optimizations that JPLAY does to the system I had already done manually (giving both JPLAY and JRMC Standalone an edge to begin with). There is a balance between folks claiming it to be revolutionary and other folks claiming it makes no difference (as is so often the case in the high-end marketplace). My recommendation is that the software makes sense, but you might want to try the trial version and see if it meshes well with your system. Of course if you plan to use it with JRMC it will require a JRMC license as well. JPLAY’s strength comes from its ability to isolate itself from the operating system. Setting itself up as a windows service allows it high priority thread access and when running, JPLAY disables background services to eliminate IO operations so that the only thing being worked on during playback is your music.

They have a slew of standard features including memory playback and direct sound, but integrating the software as a system activity is something unique to JPLAY. For more advanced users, you may choose to go the dual PC route, which involves using a processing PC and a Music PC separately to play back audio. In this setup the processing PC does all the heavy lifting and the music PC is designed to be ultra low power, low noise, and simple to output a streamed audio signal. To me this seems counter-intuitive to want to add a second computer to the signal path, but it is evidently a critical improvement to be made when using the JPLAY system.

Ratings:

User Interface: 6

Customer Support: 8

Subjective Sound Quality: 10

Trial Offered: YES

XXHighEnd

OS: Windows

Price: $96

Audio Capabilities: Primary audio formats plus FLAC, WAV

File Management: Standalone database, managed and organized manually by file folder.

xxhighend screenshots

XXHighEnd is a good-sounding software if you can get it to work. It requires a fairly powerful computer to get the most out of it and requires a fairly lengthy setup that may extend past your trial period. If you have the muscle, there’s a lot of potential here.

With that said, this is one of the more tweaky playback software programs. Being able to adjust page size, latency, and utilize memory playback make it a software that has a lot of potential. The software can also do some fairly sophisticated digital filtering algorithms. This is paramount when using the software with the Phasure DAC, which relies on the XXHighEnd software to operate.

The GUI is purposefully minimal and high-contrast. The volume is a lossless DSP-based volume, and there are some cool unknown features like phase alignment that claim to greatly improve the sound. The phase alignment is a unique feature to XXHighEnd and one that sets this apart, as long as your amps aren’t DC-coupled. To learn more, check out the Phasure website.

Personally it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I prefer a little more versatility in my playback software, like DSD support. But this software and JPLAY are top contenders for the best playback software and sound very similar. XXHE also plays standalone, which gives it a bonus point in my book. Simpler is better.

Ratings:

User Interface: 5

Customer Support: 8 (tons of resources on the forum)

Subjective Sound Quality: 9

Trial Offered: YES

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Recent Forum Posts:

Bucknekked posts on July 14, 2017 14:47
bullitt5094, post: 1193808, member: 82593
Your DAC counts too! A PC sound card or an internal DAC in a receiver will not get it done. ifi makes some excellent, reasonably priced DACs. Feed it with USB from the motherboard.
“An internal DAC in a receiver will not get it done”. I'll call B.S. on that statement.
I just upgraded my AVR and it contains an internal DAC that's as good or better than most DAC's you could purchase as standalone units. Based on what criteria would you base a statement like yours?

The job of a DAC is simple: convert digital information to analog audio. Period. Add in no DSP capabilities, no sound coloration, no artifacts of any kind. A properly functioning DAC is colorless, tasteless and ordorless: you can't tell its there. That's the mission of a DAC: simply take 1's and 0's and make little waves out of them.
MuchoReverbo, post: 1197559, member: 82578
Whether or not you can benefit from an external DAC definitely depends on your system. With my hi-end AVR I didn't experience any improvement but can see why you might on lower-end AVRs. The article linked above is dead-on as far as I have experienced.
MuchoREverbo
I think your reply here is much closer to the pin: you may or may not get any benefit from an external DAC depending on what you have. I just upgraded from a nearly 10 year old DAC/AVR and notice no difference at all in sound quality. If an existing DAC is not functioning properly, you may indeed see an improvement. If an existing DAC is part of a piece of equipment that's coloring the sound due to setup or defect, again you might see improvement. But that's not apples to apples.

I feel a gigantic rant coming on so I'm gonna sign off this thread and listen to some soothing tunes.
MuchoReverbo posts on July 11, 2017 23:42
Whether or not you can benefit from an external DAC definitely depends on your system. With my hi-end AVR I didn't experience any improvement but can see why you might on lower-end AVRs. The article linked above is dead-on as far as I have experienced.
djreef posts on June 21, 2017 07:17
bullitt5094, post: 1193838, member: 82593
READ THIS: Not with your system, apparently. I can certainly hear a difference in mine. And I've backed that up by blind tests with my favorite test equipment… my Wife and Daughter who both have zero knowledge of the signal path and bat hearing. But believe everything you read on the internet that suits you.

You need to video this and youtube it.

DJ
bullitt5094 posts on June 20, 2017 22:47
READ THIS: Not with your system, apparently. I can certainly hear a difference in mine. And I've backed that up by blind tests with my favorite test equipment… my Wife and Daughter who both have zero knowledge of the signal path and bat hearing. But believe everything you read on the internet that suits you.
rojo posts on June 20, 2017 21:18
bullitt5094, post: 1193808, member: 82593
Rip CDs using dbpoweramp in FLAC Lossless. Play with JRiver. Your DAC counts too! A PC sound card or an internal DAC in a receiver will not get it done. ifi makes some excellent, reasonably priced DACs. Feed it with USB from the motherboard.

Read this: Do you need a DAC?

Most likely not.
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