Computer audiophiles using Windows 7 based music servers have a plethora of configuration and application choices for music management and playback. A quick look at Wikipedia's list of applications, Windows, OS X and otherwise, can overwhelm anyone. Over the years I've tried more operating systems and applications than I can remember. Many of these have show stopping flaws that rule them out as contenders immediately. Applications that can't play certain file formats or all required sample rates don't receive much attention from me. That was the case over one year ago with J river Media Center 13. I tried to play some of the Reference Recordings HRx 24/176.4 material and had nothing but problems. No doubt the problems could have been worked out, but with so many options available elsewhere I didn't see any reason to spend time with the application. Since this initial underwhelming experience J River has released Media Center version 14. In addition many colleagues in the industry have encouraged me to give it another serious look. One colleague even backed up his suggestion with measurements showing JRMC's playback bit transparency. I started to see the light at CES this year and realized it was finally time take another look at J River Media Center as well as time to get serious about Windows 7.
In January 2010 at CES I listened to a demo using JRMC 14 and was really pleased with the sound. JRMC was running on a Mac laptop with Boot Camp and Windows 7. I compared the sound to the OS X / iTunes partition on the same laptop and was surprised at how much better I like JRMC in that system. I was finally convinced I needed to take JRMC much more seriously. Shortly after arriving home from Las Vegas I arranged a meeting with the people at J river and started using the application exclusively.
My meeting with Jim Hillegas and Matt Ashland of J river focussed heavily on the audio capabilities of JRMC 14. The application itself can handle video, television, images, podcasts, and music among other things. I elected to concentrate solely on the music playback piece of the application as that's where my main interest lies and that's what Computer Audiophile is all about. After a brief tour of the J river office Matt and Jim lead me to a conference room where a music server with MC 14 was connected to a flat panel display. Jim was operating MC 14 via a standard Microsoft certified infrared remote control and the application was being displayed in Theater View. Right away I was surprised at how nice the interface looked and how available all the options were even though the traditional menus and buttons were absent. For example it was entirely possible to control music playback in several Zones from within Theater View. I expected Jim and Matt to exit Theater View to make changes or to send audio to different Zones, but that was not the case. I usually compare graphical user interfaces with iTunes and Apple's Front Row as they are the industry standard like it or not. The JRMC Theater View was actually easier to navigate than Front Row in at least one critical area. Anyone who has ever attempted to browse a music collection via Front Row has run into the nightmare that is scrolling through a list of hundreds or thousands of artists or albums. JRMC's interface is much better for browsing through an entire collection. It is simple to see a whole screen of album art and advance to the next set of albums.
After perusing the application's eye candy it was time to talk about features and audio quality. I began asking questions about the audio playback section and the difference between the available output options. After a couple questions Matt decided to draw a terrific diagram explaining how JR Media Center processes audio. Unfortunately much of the diagram contained J River's intellectual property and I have no desire to hurt the company by releasing any of the information shared with me. That said, I gained great knowledge into the applications inner workings and now understand what many of the options actually do to the digital audio output. More about JRMC configuration and output options will be addressed below. One feature that fascinated me was JRMC's Zone capabilities. In a matter of seconds Matt and Jim were sending audio around the J river office and controlling everything from a single JRMC installation on conference room music server. Creating additional Zones is a piece of cake. These Zones can consist of UPnP/DLNA players, sound cards, or different channels on a single sound card. More about my foray into Zones and sending different tracks to different DACs via a Lynx AES16 card a bit later.
When configuring JRMC the first time, outputting bit perfect digital audio should be every audiophile's number one concern. Before JRMC can do its thing Windows must be properly configured. There are numerous ways to configure Windows 7. Here is the way I configure my Windows 7 music servers. I prefer to set a built-in or onboard audio device as the default rather than my Lynx card or USB DAC. This eliminates a few sound degrading possibilities right from the start. Once I've "distracted" Windows by sending the default audio signal to a device I have no interest in using, I configure the pertinent audio device(s). I disable all enhancements via the sound device's Properties page >> Enhancement tab. On the Advanced tab I do things a bit different than most people. I set the Default Format to 24 bit, 48000 Hz (Studio Quality). This setting is only used in Shared Mode as opposed to Exclusive Mode. Shared Mode is not recommended for audiophile sound quality. The reason I set this to 24/48 is so I can easily see if I have misconfigured an audio device or application. If I've misconfigured either of these my DAC will display 48 as the sample rate no matter what sample rate I am actually playing on the music server. It's another easy way to spot misconfiguration and another level of security (state of mind) for bit perfect output. The other Advanced tab configuration options are standard and should be enabled by everyone seeking quality playback. I always make sure the two Exclusive Mode options are checked or ticked for those of you in the U.K. Allowing applications to take exclusive control and giving Exclusive Mode applications priority is a must. The last Windows related settings I check are the volume controls. As long as the device I am using has a hardware volume control I set every level on my computer to maximum, 100%, unity gain, -0 db, full blast, etc... The surfeit of volume controls on a Windows based music server can be annoying and seriously degrade audio performance if not handled correctly.
The major advantage of this is it eliminates one possible method of sending audio out through all the layers of the Windows operating system inadvertently. If a Lynx card, or any other device, is set as the default Windows audio device it is possible to bounce the audio signal through Windows, inadvertently convert the sample rate, and output a horrifically mangled audio stream without realizing things are misconfigured. The most common way this error occurs is by the user selecting DirectSound or Wave Out as the output mode within an application. These to modes can easily send audio to the default Windows audio device without Exclusive Control.
There are two critical pieces users must have in place to achieve the highest sound quality.
1. Exclusive Mode v. Shared Mode - Windows setting.
2. WASAPI or ASIO - Playback application setting.
The Windows operating system uses what's called Exclusive Mode and Shared Mode when handling digital audio. These two Modes affect how Windows and audio applications communicate with audio devices like USB DACs and sound cards.
Exclusive Mode is somewhat analogous to connecting a DAC directly to an amplifier. Exclusive Mode enables an audio stream to go directly to an audio device bypassing intermediate processing. There is no mixing of audio streams from other applications including Windows sounds. The obsolete KMixer from Windows XP gathers all digital audio streams converting them into one sample rate before outputting the homogenized stream to an audio device. This is similar to how other output methods handle audio with layers upon layers of operating system processing and possible manipulation. Exclusive Mode enables this direct access to the audio device but does not guarantee anything more than than this. It is one critical piece of the bit perfect puzzle. An interesting note about Exclusive Mode - Even though a device may be enabled for Exclusive Mode and an application is accessing the device appropriately some applications relinquish control of the audio device if the application is not the foreground process. According to J River, Media Center 14 only relinquishes control on the Stop command.
Shared Mode can roughly be compared to using a preamplifier between a DAC and amplifier. The preamp is there to handle multiple audio streams (among many other things). When a device operates in Shared Mode audio is sent from the playback application to a global audio engine where any number of effects may be applied before finally reaching the audio device such as a USB DAC or audio card. As explained below output methods such as Wave Out and DirectSound use Shared Mode.
Users who have a DAC that displays the current sample rate being fed from the music server can run an easy test to determine which Mode is in use. Simply play two tracks with different sample rates. If Exclusive Mode is in use the sample rate on the DAC should change. If Shared Mode is in use the Default Format (sample rate) that is set in the audio device Properties >> Advanced tab will be displayed on the DAC. If the Default Format is set to 24 bit, 48000 Hz (Studio Quality), playback of a single 16/44.1 track will provide a quick answer to the Exclusive or Shared Mode question as well.
Application Audio Output Modes:
This is the second critical piece of the bit perfect puzzle. Several playback application configuration options for outputting digital audio are available. The output modes listed below are how a playback application handles digital audio. The combination of hardware and software dictates what modes are available. For example, not all audio devices support standard ASIO output and not all playback applications support WASAPI output.
ASIO - Audio Stream Input/Output protocol was developed by the German hardware and software company named Steinberg Gmbh (Yamaha subsidiary). ASIO is a common method of sending audio from a playback application directly to an audio device such as a Lynx, RME, or ASUS audio card. ASIO is a protocol for low latency high quality digital audio. Manufacturers use the ASIO protocol to develop drivers enabling applications to output this low latency audio directly to the manufacture's cards. ASIO drivers achieve low latency through bypassing layers of the Windows operating system. (ASIO drivers are one method of bypassing the Windows KMixer on XP. Bypassing KMixer enables a bit perfect audio signal to reach the audio card.)
ASIO4All - Is a universal ASIO driver for Windows that enables almost any playback application to send digital audio directly to an audio device such as a USB DAC. ASIO4ALL is most common consumer audio systems where professional sound cards such as a Lynx and RME are not in use. These cards come with working ASIO drivers from the manufacturer.
WASAPI - Windows Audio Session API is similar to ASIO in that it enables audio to be sent directly to a sound device. Some refer to WASAPI as Microsoft's answer to ASIO. WASAPI first appeared in Windows Vista and remains part of Windows 7. WASAPI by itself is only a tool that software companies can use to enhance audio playback applications. Some applications do not use WASAPI. Currently J River Media Center, Foobar2000, and XX High End use WASAPI to send audio directly to the sound device. WASAPI enables these applications to take exclusive control over an audio device like a USB DAC or Lynx audio card as long as Windows is properly configured to allow Exclusive control of the device.
DirectSound & Wave Out - DirectSound and Wave Out are additional methods of sending digital audio output to a sound card or device such as a USB DAC. Neither of these methods currently bypass Windows Vista / Windows 7 mixers or the multiple layers of the Windows operating system. Severely degraded sound is possible using either DirectSound or Wave Out. That said it is possible to achieve bit perfect audio while using either method but it's not advised. Higher latency and difficulty maintaining bit perfect playback are two major drawbacks to using DirectSound or Wave Out.
J River Media Center 14 Specifics
Once the necessities above are addressed JRMC v14 is completely capable of audiophile sound quality. The critical configuration of Media Center v14 is done on the Audio pane of the Options window. Previous versions of MC14 call this pane Playback. Since JRMC 14 natively supports WASAPI it may be easiest to configure the pertinent audio output device using this mode. Enter the JRMC 14 Options window via the Tools menu at the top of the application. To use the classic MTV Cribs overused cliché, the Options window is "Where all the magic happens." Selecting the Audio or Playback pane from the left side of the Options window exposes the options audiophiles need. Enabling WASAPI is as simple as selecting the chevron to the left of "Output mode:" and clicking Windows Audio Session API (WASAPI). Readers with sounds cards such as the Lynx AES16 and AES16e have the option to use Lynx Studio's ASIO driver instead of WASAPI. The ASIO option will not be available if the audio device does not have its own ASIO drivers, unless, ASIO4ALL is installed. ASIO4ALL is separate software that is discussed later in this article. Selecting the ellipsis button to the left of "Output mode settings..." allows one to specify the audio output device to which WASAPI should direct the audio stream and adjust additional settings including buffers. Selecting the ellipsis button to the left of "DSP & output format..." appears like a wrong move for audiophiles. Fortunately the output format is the only concern on this screen, no DSP required. Some DACs require input of 24 bit digital audio streams. This does not affect bit transparency of the audio. To enable 24 bit output navigate to "Output Format" on the left. Identify the Bitdepth area on the right and select the chevron to the right of "Source bitdepth." The drop down menu will enable selection of 24-bit output and will automatically check the "Output Format" box to enable the option.
Other pertinent JRMC options are more user and hardware dependent.
Prebuffering by default is set at 6 seconds. The name is pretty self explanatory. Six seconds of audio are placed in the application's playback buffer before playback starts and throughout the whole track. I've had great luck using Lynx cards with this default setting. One USB DAC I've used required this setting to be at two seconds to achieve stable performance.
Playing files from memory instead of disk is a somewhat new option in JR Media Center. This is different than Prebuffering because because prebuffering places the audio into the application's buffer not just into memory. Playback applications use buffers as part of the playback process. These buffers are held in the computer's memory of course, but in a different way that this option to play the files from memory. Playing files from memory instead of disk is fairly similar to creating a RAM disk and placing audio files on that disk. This memory playback option works by copying complete files to memory before the application starts to process the file as part of its playback operation. Memory playback is differentiated from a "normal" playback mode in that it copies the complete file at once. "Normal" playback mode copies parts of the file into memory as needed by the application. Think of this "normal" playback as a flowing river as opposed to the start/sop waterfall that is memory playback. There is no accepted combination that provides the best sound quality. Depending on one's computer and audio system adjustments to these settings may result in differences from inaudible to playback dropouts to sonic superiority.
Prebuffering Only - Track is placed from the hard drive into JRMC's buffer as part of its playback operation. Configurable in seconds. The buffer exists in memory and can be considered a subset of the total computer memory.
Memory playback Only - Track is completely copied from the hard drive to computer's memory, not an application buffer, before JRMC begins playback operation of the track.
Prebuffering and Memory Playback Combined - Track is first completely copied to computer's memory then the set number of seconds are placed into the applications buffer.
The "Do not play silence (leading or trailing)" option is explained by J River as "If this option is selected, the program skips long portions of silence during playback. This is quite useful for hidden tracks or tracks with a lot of leading or trailing silence. This option may not be a good choice for classical music or other genres that contain long, intentional pauses in the middle of songs." I am not 100% certain but I am pretty confident this option, when enabled, hindered stable playback when using one specific USB DAC I've had in house. Based on the description of this option is really appears benign but my experience has been quite different. It's entirely possible that the DAC in use is more finicky than most at this point in time or a hardware / software combination just isn't clicking. I am not at liberty to discuss the manufacturer or model of the DAC. Readers shouldn't worry about their current DACs as this one is not currently available.
I recommend that readers with hardware that doesn't natively support or feature an ASIO driver download and install ASIO4ALL (http://www.asio4all.com/). ASIO4ALL is selected much the same was as WASAPI output mode is selected. In the same Audio Options window select the chevron to the left of "Output mode:" and click ASIO from the dropdown menu. Within the "Output mode settings..." option >> ASIO Settings window ASIO4ALL v2 should be selected. Users can select "Use large hardware buffers" is needed. I did not have any audio output when this was enabled in combination with a few different USB DACs. The one counter intuitive part of ASIO4ALL configuration is the initial setup. Some users have been able to access ASIO4ALL settings after selecting ASIO4ALL v2 within ASIO settings. I've consistently been able to access the settings by starting playback through JRMC first. This has been necessary for me in order to see the ASIO4ALL configuration window. This is by design and I agree with the reasons for this behavior. ASIO4ALL is not a program it's a driver and does not run on a computer unless specifically called by a playback application. Thus, it's not possible to access the software without playing a track in my case. Once audio playback is started a small green icon with a play symbol should be present in the Windows system tray (near the clock in the lower right corner). Selecting this icon opens the ASIO4ALL settings window. Make sure the proper audio output device is selected. I have not needed to adjust any of the ASIO4ALL specific settings via this software interface. Once the device is selected audio should immediately playback through this device. If not, simply close and reopen JRMC.
JRMC 14 includes really nice zone capability. Sending audio to different zones throughout one's home used be the territory of custom integrators only and was not an inexpensive endeavor. I don't think JRMC's zone capability is exactly equivalent to some of the more traditional zone systems for whole house audio, but it's a very nice option. Since I am interested in sound quality first and foremost I elected to use separate channels of a Lynx AES16 audio card for zoning. I successfully sent two completely different digital audio streams to two different DACs via channels one and two of the Lynx card. Playing the same track in different zones is nothing new and can be done by many different applications. JRMC goes beyond that capability by sending different tracks simultaneously to different zones or the same track is desired. A limitation of most sound cards including the Lynx AES16 is the inability to play multiple sample rates at the same time. This is because the crystal oscillator can't be in two places at once. I don't see this as a big problem for most people. Once I sent 16/44.1 audio out to two zones I felt required to push the limits if possible. I thought higher sample rates may be an issue for JRMC or my low powered music server. Fortunately playback of two simultaneous 24/176.4 audio streams didn't even make the application or the server sweat. Processor utilization rested comfortably at approximately 15% the whole time.
JRMC's zoning capability may seem like a solution in search of a problem for some readers. Personally I don't have the need for multi-zone listening. However, AES/EBU cables can be run substantial lengths without too much signal degradation. It's completely plausible some readers could run AES/EBU cables up or down levels of their home to take advantage of these zones. One zone for a dedicated two channel system and another zone running to a home theater system would be very nice. Even if multiple zones are used at the same time the capability does enable use of a single music server in a single location. This convenience should not be underestimated.
Creating & Configuring Zones - Creating zones is very easy. Under the Player menu on the main JRMC screen is Playback Options >> Zone Manager. Once in the Zone Manager the user selects the Add button, names the Zone, then hits the Configure button. From here the rest of the zone configuration is identical to the audio output options previously discussed.
Using zones through the JRMC interface is just as easy as creating the zones. Clicking on a zone in the left navigation tree enables selection of zone specific music. It's exactly the same as navigating JRMC without multiple zones. The only requirement is selecting the correct zone before selecting the music.
JRMC 14 also has a few different remote control options. The remote option I am most enthusiastic about is using a UPnP/DLNA mobile application similar to Apple's Remote app. I use PlugPlayer. It's available via the Apple app store for the iPhone/Touch and the more sizable iPad. In no way is this remote option as good as Apple's Remote for iTunes but it has a ton of potential. I found numerous quirks that frustrated me and required too much time on the JR forum to resolve. I do remain most optimistic however. A much more primitive remote interface can be accessed via the Media Server feature. Enabling the JRMC Media Server allows access to control the application with any web browser such as Safari on an iPhone or Google's Chrome via the Android OS or Windows Explorer via any number of Windows mobile devices. This interface gets the job done but it isn't pretty. It seems like a relic JR has left in v14 if for no other reason than, "Because they can." Like I mentioned earlier in this article JRMC is completely controllable via a number of infrared remotes. This will require a display for navigation but it gives users the traditional CD player feel of hard buttons. One remaining viable remote option is via the RiverMote application. the app requires software running on the music server and iPhone. RiverMote can control different zones, but a severe limitation is the inability to control music selection other than what's available via playlists. I believe this limitation is the result of a disagreement between J River and MelloWare. If MelloWare had complete access to JR's APIs complete control wouldn't be a problem. On the other hand is MelloWare used UPnP/DLNA protocol complete control wouldn't be a problem. I certainly don't place blame on either party.
Windows 7 and J River Media Center are a powerful music server combination. In fact both the operating system and playback application are now on the C.A.S.H. List as a recommended parts of a music server. When the utmost care is taken to configure the operating system and playback application the sonic quality can be truly stunning. Windows 7, more so than OS X, has many different configuration options to output audio but not necessarily bit perfect audio. At first Windows 7 can seem a bit overwhelming even for those with extensive Windows experience. There just isn't such a thing as Plug n' Play when it comes to high end audio and the absolute best sound quality. As long as people's expectations are set at a realistic level the original setup of a Windows 7 music server will not be an issue. Problems arise when people expect the world and quickly cry fowl when something doesn't go as expected. Those who stick to it will get beyond the fact they're even using a computer and will be enjoying great sound with an endless selection of music at their finger tips.