For the average Joe, the notion of owning music is slowly on the way out. There will always be those who want to grab a physical version of an album – most likely vinyl – or those who want the higher bit- and sample-rates from hi-res content providers like HDTracks and PonoMusic, but owning Redbook (16bit/44.1kHz) content outright is set to slide from mainstream consciousness. Why? Lossless streaming services are set to take over. Qobuz are the current trend-setters in this field with WiMP pulling up a close second. However, all that could change in the coming weeks if Apple delivers on its (strongly rumoured) lossless content provision via the iTunes store. Whichever way you skin the scene: digital audio consumption is on the cusp of some BIG changes.
With more and more people listening to music via a monthly subscription service comes an opportunity to optimise the sound quality of the associated software applications. The likes of JRiver, JPlay, Amarra, Pure Music and Audirvana+ are well established names for those wanting to enhance the sound of locally stored digital media but what about bringing similar coding smarts to make the likes of Spotify, Qobuz, Pandora and MOG/Beats sound better?
The Qobuz application allows the user to specify the desired output device but Spotify doesn’t…so let’s first consider two possible ways around this restriction before we get to the meat of today’s meal.
Equalify (Windows only) might have originally been intended as a 10-band graphic equaliser plug-in for Spotify but its bonus side-effect is being able to select a specific output device from within the application, something that Spotify’s desktop app doesn’t accommodate. Useful if you want to counteract a room anomaly or if you just enjoy the flexibility of EQ-ing your streaming sound.
Another (Windows only) app that’s been getting some traction on the margins is Fidelify. After a threatening to hit the deadpool last year, development is back on course with an official release imminent. For now at least, it’s strictly in beta where the usual caveats apply. Fidelify isn’t a plugin like Equalify but a fully functional client that taps the Spotify API. Its minimal interface suggests Fidelify’s aim is to function with lesser burden on the host PC’s system resources and therefore making it sound superior to the standard client. Again, the bonus of being able to select a specific output device means one can sidedstep Windows’ own bit-imperfect digital audio stream and go straight to Directsound, ASIO or WASAPI outputs.
The benefits of being able to select one’s own output device in Spotify or Qobuz really hits home when we consider JPlay 5 (€99), software that installs a virtual output device on your Windows PC. The streaming service app hands off the digital audio stream to the JPlay driver (selectable via either Equalify or Fidelify, remember?) and then JPlay parses its ones and zeroes direct to your hardware device (DAC). Neat, huh? The takeaway here is that JPlay doesn’t restrict you to improving the SQ of locally hosted media – it can improve the sound of any software application, including streaming services.
At Munich Hi-end 2014, Jochen Schaefer [above right] of Germany’s JPlay joined forces with Phil Hobi [above left] of Switzerland’s HighEndAudioPC to show off their combined software coding prowess. In the Qobuz booth both could be found fronting a PC running Windows 2012 R2, overhauled by Hobi’s Audiophile Optimizer (€100) with the Qobuz app running on top and outputting to Schaefer’s JPlay virtual soundcard; a real-world example of how far the user can take the sonic performance of this French company’s lossless streaming service (£20/month).
So far, so Windows. What about OS X?
A lot of noise was made at T.H.E Show Newport Beach 2014 about the imminent (June 17th) release of Sonic Studio’s Amarra 3.0 (US$189). Amarra has earned a formidable reputation as being one of the top three OS X music players to piggy-back your iTunes library, playing back its content with better micro-dynamics and tonal colour than iTunes’ own playback engine (which sounds washed out and grey by comparison). And like Audirvana+, Amarra can also run as a standalone audio player. The biggest news with its 3.0 release is the inclusion of DSD playback…finally! Other new features include 1) real-time sample rate conversion, 2) a new noise-elimination feature that they’ve named Amarra Clarity and 3) iRC(b) impulse response correction “designed to control bass anomalies in listening rooms”, clearly a fruit of their collaboration with those room-correcting Swedes Dirac.
However, for this digital audiophile, that wasn’t the biggest news to drop from California’s Sonic Studio. Not by a long shot. In a calm and quiet room on the 8th floor of the Hilton, Senior VP James Anderson walked me through Amarra (Sonic) SQ, an application that installs a virtual output device on your Mac to allow for full signal EQ as well – you guessed it – improvement of the sound quality of internet streaming services. Best of all, Amarra SQ will sell for US$30. Wallop! A must have for anyone serious about taking Qobuz’ or WiMP’s lossless streaming performance to the next level. Sonic Studio have promised to send me more details on this side-product prior to its launch (which Anderson says is “coming soon”).
As music library provision slowly shifts from local hosting to cloud, I suspect we shall increasingly more of these ‘virtual sound card’ applications. Playing Nostradamus isn’t usually my thing but subsuming myself in the world of hifi shows these past few weeks makes it easier to pick out emerging trends. Besides, observing the pricing of (lossless) streaming subscriptions is all that is necessary to see their guaranteed ascendancy — you can now rent access to a library of tens of thousand of albums on a monthly basis for the same coin as purchasing two or three albums outright. Streaming services’ popularity with the man in the street is set to EXPLODE and that means there’ll be increasingly greater demand from audiophile-minded folk seeking new ways to make them sound better/best. Audio playback engines from the likes of Sonic Studio and JPlay make that goal attainable.