On Sunday, Oct. 23, we hosted a livestream in our Alpha Audio listening room. This time we juxtaposed audio software. As a baseline, we used Windows Media Player and consequently listened to Audirvana, ROON, JRiver and Foobar. The latter application is free, the other three are not. Finally, we also hooked up a Macbook Pro so we could compare it to the PC we used in the test. Were there differences? Well… read on!
For those of your who want to experience the entire discussion, we refer to the livestream. There we go into more detail about the differences and the software itself. This is a summary of the nearly four-hour livestream. Also, at the end of the livestream we will do some experimentation with a Macbook and a regular PC. Very interesting!
The test system
We want to change as little as possible in this test. Therefore, we set up a simple Shuttle mini-PC running Windows 10 on which we will install the software. This Shuttle mini-PC runs a single USB cable to our Sonnet Pasithea d/a converter which then goes to an ASR Emitter 1 amplifier. This amplifier drives our TAD Evolution Two speakers.
Cabling is – as you may be used to by now – a mix of YETI power cables with Driade Reference Flow speaker cable and Grimm TPM interlinks. The Isotek Aquarius delivers clean power to the Sonnet. But the Titan is not in use, as the ASR is battery-powered.
We use the Sonnet ASIO drivers to connect the Pasithea to the software. That gives occasional issues because sometimes the driver is not available. Weird. But that will not soon happen at home, since it is unlikely that you both run ROON Bridge and JRiver and Audirvana and Foobar.
For this test, we just close the software over and over again, but you will see we still have to fix some issues every now and then during the stream. There were three reviewers in the room. One (Jaap) switched the applications and thus knew what was playing. The other two did not know so it is a blind test.
Baseline – Windows Media Player
We start with Windows Media Player in standard settings. Front speakers are set to full-range in the driver. Windows Media Player frankly doesn’t make us very happy. It sounds rough, edgy and flat.The music seems boxed and undone of liveliness. Actually, we are inclined to shut this media player down so we can move quickly to the other software. This does not make us very happy….
The step from WMP to Foobar is a big one. There is a much more airy stereo image and more refinement and fluidity audible in the soundstage. Mammal Hands sounds more calm and rhythmic. The harmonics of the piano are more audible (more reverb too), making the whole thing feel much more real and we become more involved in the playback.
Stevie Wonder is also at it again … it is much more of a party than with WMP where our ears really hurt: what a mess! With Foobar it has largely disappeared, although we must say: the whole thing still feels a bit rushed…. How that’s possible is a bit of a mystery to us.
All in all, this is a serious upgrade. And that for exactly 0 euros. In short: a bang for no buck!
The next candidate is a software package from France: Audirvana…. a fun amalgamation of audio and nirvana.
Audirvana comes in two versions: Origin and Studio. The Origin version offers somewhat fewer features than the Studio version which does allow integration of online services. Unfortunately, the Studio version cannot be purchased as a one-time purchase; it only allows monthly or annual payment.
Both versions can be controlled with an app, though. By the way, Audirvana can also be controlled with other (UPnP) apps. In other words: plenty of options.
Audirvana brings the playback quality to a next level. Wow!… what a beautiful player this is! It performs better than ROON in this setup. ROON can be taken to the next level, but requires some tweaks and tricks. A “clean” audio PC with nicer hardware. Or perhaps a Roon Rock installation as an endpoint: that also sounds better in our experience.
But then, Audirvana will also benefit from some tweaking to the hardware and software. However, in this setup with just a simple install on a non-tweaked Windows 10, it simply sounds very very good and simply put, we are impressed and pleased. What a musicality Audirvana squeezes out of the bits and bytes of the audiotrack. This is hands down today’s test favorite. Bien joué!
We have been avid users of Roon for years. It is very nice software and practically unbeatable when it comes to user friendliness. For us audio-reviewers, it is ideal, because almost every player can be integrated which makes testing streamers very quick and easy: all stored playlists and services are available and there is a level playing field. Add to that a genius integration of meta-information and the excellent Roon Radio feature and you can see why we like it so much.
But if we switch from Audirvana to Roon, we must confess: Audirvana sounds better (juicier, if you will). Roon is just a bit more rough and less spacious than its French competitor. We really didn’t expect that. And we sincerely regret it somewhat, because now we know that playback in the Alpha Audio listening room can be even better … Well… that’s how it goes in this hobby!
Anyway: as said Roon can sound really excellent. It is a collaboration between the software platform and the hardware. When that works optimally, Roon sounds very good. Just look at the Grimm MU-1!
Then we come to JRiver. A package that has a lot to offer, even room correction! JRiver boasts many many options to adjust the settings. It makes the package a bit “nerdy” though. So beware…
Then the sound… Martijn called it a “hi-fi sound”. To me, it felt a bit like sharpening software for photos and video. JRiver puts more emphasis on detail, making certain things stand out more. It’s not that it completely pulls it out of balance, but compared to Audirvana, which focuses more on “coherence and flow,” it’s a noticeable difference.
JRiver does bring a lot of layering through this presentation. That’s impressive. It is also a matter of taste if you like JRiver’s sonic presentation We see a lot of disagreement in the live chat…. more than the experiences with Audirvana. The imaging is more forward-facing than with Roon that performs better in creating a convincing sound stage (and plays a bit more ‘laid back’). This may be due to the slight emphasis on detail and perhaps a little more high-energy (which brings out more air and a little more projection).
What’s really nice about JRiver is that it sets up its own ASIO driver that can also be used by other software. That’s a handy – and quite unique – feature that can be extremely useful! The only software package we know of that does that is JPlay which also has an ASIO driver that you can use in other software. So, for example, you could use the JRiver asio driver in Foobar or other players. Nerdy…? Sure… but fun!
Time for Mac
Just when we were about to finish the testing, we thought it would be a great idea to hook up a MacBook Pro M1 (via the same USB cable as the standard PC used today) and see what happens. This Macbook has Roon, Audirvana and Apple Music (the application formerly known as iTunes).
To cut a long story short; the MacBook Pro performed better than the standard PC. This could be the power supply, the operating system. But apart from Apple Music, Roon and Audirvana were outstanding. And again, we liked Audirvana more than Roon. The differences were comparable but with the Mac, everything sounded a level or two better, deeper, wider.
Four real players and the Windows Media Player as a baseline. Is there an audible difference in players? Yes… 100%. You can hear it for yourself in the stream and samples.
Which player is the best? That is a matter of taste, but we can conclude that WMP does not really sound good. Foobar plays much better; everyone can really hear that. It is and remains fascinating that all four players claim to play bit perfect and yet sound different. Bitpefect does not mean that everything is right. Other things must play a role.
Timing? Noise? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.