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Improving the sound quality of Qobuz, Spotify and Pandora

  • 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.

    Further information: Qobuz | WiMP | Equalify | Fidelify | HighEnd-AudioPC | JPlay | Sonic Studio

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. J river also offers its ASIO engine as an option for Windows playback using 3rd party software.

    2. For me, this is the biggest obstacle when I consider switching to some streaming service. Owning the music isn’t really necessary for me, but when I do own the music, I also have complete control over the playback. As soon as you use streaming, you are left with the tools that the service provides (or doesn’t provide, if you use Linux like I do!), and I don’t feel quite comfortable with that right now.

      • Are you aware that Squeezebox Server / LMS can run on Linux and that it accommodates plugins for many streaming services?

        • Yes, I’m starting to look at LMS and Squeezelite now, after reading what you wrote about it recently (thanks for the tip!). I’ve been a happy MPD user for years, but LMS etc is probably more future-proof.

    3. Of course OS users with PureMusic already have the playthrough features which sends the output of Qobuz to PureMusic’s DPad plug-in to thereafter process the signal just as you would coming in from iTunes – with memory play, user-selectable upsampling, possible plug-ins for room and speaker correction and more.

      Switching between my iTunes library and 16/44 Qobuz streaming in PureMusic is as simple as selecting ‘playthrough’ or going back to standard play. And on Windows even without JPlay, Qobuz offers options like default, direct, WASAPI and WASAPI exclusive mode all into the same output device -:)

      • Aha! Another data point – thanks Srajan. PureMusic is the one OS X player I’ve never really spent any time with, so good to know it offers a way for apps other than iTunes to tap its playback engine smarts.

        • Before Srajan gets in with a reply, know that I’ll be penning a further piece on this topic that will take a more in-depth look at PureMusic’s pass through feature. 🙂

    4. Good reporting! Thank you.

      Now, let’s keep it real for a minute. For a dude running Spotify on a new Windows 7 machine through a DAC that’s a step above entry level and a pair of Audioengine A2 speakers, how much sonic difference would WASAPI output likely make? (I don’t care about EQ.) For that kind of coin, I could get a better power cord or upgrade my interconnect. Where does the smart money go?

      • If I were you, I’d investigate the improvements of JPlay (using its trial version). If it makes non-Spotify content sound better, you know there are possibilities for streaming services. If you’re in a region that has Qobuz, you can pick off the JPlay driver in the output device selection box and see what that brings you too.

    5. I can attest that Spotify sounds astoundingly good (playing well engineered/produced material) when streamed using Squeezebox and output to a high quality headphone setup. I’ve been doing just that for over three years. I could never understand all the reports that Spotify sounds “bad” until I realized that the Squeezebox streams the Ogg Vorbis data “bit perfect” to the DAC, without any harmful processing by the host system. Recently I was going to send a Spotify playlist to a friend and knowing that it would be played using the Spotify web/browser interface I wanted to check how it come off. I was shocked at how bad it sounded. I then tried the Spotify desktop app and while it was quite a bit better it still did not do the music justice. I ended up not sending the playlist. It seems like the software solutions you suggest should achieve the same results and I’d recommend giving them a try.

    6. I’m probably one of the few that hasn’t hopped on the streaming bandwagon yet. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of it all, but I’m just unsure how much the lesser known artists/musicians are making from all this. A few musicians I know claim that streaming still makes them very little compared to vinyl sales and Bandcamp.

    7. SoundFlower (and its toolbar applet SoundFlowerBed) is another OS X virtual sound card solution. Its free, open source, and plugin-capable. I have only used it to record web conference calls (by routing the audio into Audacity on the fly), but I suspect it could probably also be used to reroute audio through an EQ app or DAC driver.

    8. I recently flew Perth to London return and despite the joys of a big seat and endless glasses of The Widow Cliquot’s fizz, I would have been well and truly stuck if I didn’t own all my music and have it on my Classic; I just have to have my own sounds and noise-blocking IEM’s to get through that one.
      Correct me if I’m wrong but I doubt I would have been able to stream to my device at 30,000 feet.
      I don’t imagine so.
      Anyhoo, if Apple does go the hi-res route with iOS 8, the next generation of Pods, Pads and Pones, sorry, Phones might well have improved ‘playback engines’ and then we’re all winners!

      • You can’t stream at 30,000ft but apps like Spotify and Qobuz allow for (walled garden) temporary downloads for offline listening. I use that feature all the time: download at home over wifi, listen on the bus.

    9. Darko – when looking at streaming and dubbing it the future of music, one should look at things from not only the consumers’ shoes but also the artists’. I agree that the writing is on the wall as far as consumer demand for streaming, it’s there in spades. There’s a problem though. Switching from current music consumption (purchase) rates to streaming takes another giant bite out of artists’ pockets. Artists get paid dramatically less when someone streams their songs than if the person buys and then plays their songs. Artists are a passionate bunch, and where there’s a will there’s a way…but there is a limit too. Streaming will make it harder for artists to create great recordings and put clothes on their backs and feed their kids. I recently heard an artist state that albums are becoming like ‘business cards.’ They’re a marketing expense – becoming increasingly harder to reap direct profit from. That’s a problem for all of us and one that we should all be concerned about.

      • Yup, I’m fully across the complaints of a small minority of artists and their arguments may well be valid (both morally and financially). However, it’s mostly record companies that own the catalogues and they get to call the shots as to when/where/how licensing proceeds. That’s why most of David Byrne’s music remains on Spotify despite his desires to have as much of his catalogue removed. Ditto Radiohead. I’m not commenting on the artist sustainability of these new listening models, merely that they’re set to become the main provider of music in people’s lives.

        Besides, with 18m songs on Spotify, that’s more than enough to quench your average listener’s appetite. The lack of a few key artists isn’t going to cause them to cancel their subscription, they’ll just get their Beatles (or whatever) fix from other sources (if they want it badly enough). Streaming will likely supply 99% of music demand in years to come because it’s so darn cheap: a month’s access to millions of albums for the same price as a discounted CD. What’s not to like with those numbers (from a consumer POV)? I just presently don’t foresee the number of anti-streaming artists gaining sufficient critical mass to slow this juggernaut.

        • I fully agree with your assessment. And it scares the hell out of me. Streaming will have a major negative impact on artists and the music industry as a whole by dramatically reducing revenues for artists and labels. All of us are in the high end (or HiFi) game because we love music. We need to look out for music ourselves by starting conversations about topics that matter – such as streaming will lead to far fewer artists having enough money to invest in high quality recording projects (the majors are idiotic for going down this path – giving up revenue and turning control over to startup web companies). While exerting all of one’s energy trying to swim upstream is useless, silence is irresponsible. I’m not calling you a bad person because of the content of your columns. I’m requesting that you address the bigger picture on occasion – specifically looking at the top of the food chain that feeds our passion – the recording industry. That industry has a direct and real impact on enjoyment of high end audio. It’s the ultimate source.

    10. So the streaming model according to Apple may be Beats headphone or IEM with a Lightning connector on the other end (and maybe even a DAC halfway up the cord). And we are all gonna stream off the web. I can tell you it won’t fly in Canada. We have access to only 2 major streaming services -Songza and RDIO, I guess because they must have made the grade on mandatory Canadian song content as reviewed by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission and everyone else failed to make the cut. The other problem is our internet and cellphone access is controlled by 2 monopolies and the prices for 3 GB’s of data per month will be $105 plus $25 for a streaming service plus 13% tax is over $1750 per year – so ain’t gonna happen here. I better stock up on iPod Classics.

      • I think you might be over-reacting… I use Deezer (usually through SONOS) in Canada. F0r $10/month I have my Deezer library accessible anywhere I go. I seldom go over my $50 per month download limit, only if watching too much Netflix.

    11. Does anyone know if Amarra SQ works in the way that the signal passes through the Amarra room correction module as well? If so, it will definitely be worth the extra US$30.

      • I’ll know more when they launch. I think room correction might be a bit much to ask for $30 but you never know. A full EQ is *definitely* included.

    12. Thanks for your answer. What I meant was that the new Amarra 3.0 will have IRC(b) room correction based on Dirac Live Room Correction, Then one could hope for that it will be possible to direct what goes in to Amarra SQ to Amarra 3.0 (or is Amarra SQ a part of Amarra 3.0?). For me the answer to this question will be important in my choice of room correction program since I want everything that goes from my computer to my dac to go through the correction filter. If the output from Amarra SQ cannot be directed to the Amarra 3.0 room correction program then I think I will prefer to purchase the Dirac Live Room Correction instead.

    13. ” 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)”

      Looks incredibly promising! However when I have tried to stream from Equalify (nestled within Spotify) to Jplay, it is not selectable within the Equalify output options – only hardware (i.e. my DAC, soundcard, etc). Has anyone else been able to stream directly to the Jplay driver from Equalify?

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