20 Audio Applications To Enhance Your Music Listening Experience
Invariably, whenever I meet fellow computer audiophiles at audio shows or dealer events we always ask each other what the other is using. Depending on the context and location, asking someone what they are using might have illegal undertones or lead to a nice conversation about audio systems. I enjoy hearing what everyone is using for both hardware and software. For the most part people seem to have a good grasp of the hardware options available. When the conversation turns to software I am usually a little surprised by how many people have never heard of some very popular applications. It's like some people selected iTunes or MediaMonkey back in 2007 and have never wondered or cared about anything else available. There's nothing wrong with that approach and it's an approach I often suggest for hardware. If one is happy with his system, there is no need to make a change. Software just seems different though. Maybe it's the comparatively low price or rate of change and feature enhancements that leads me to think people should frequently snoop around for ways to enhance their listening experience through software.
On the other hand, I run into many computer audiophiles who either own or have tried more applications than I knew were available. That's the fun part for me, learning what people are doing and picking up a link to a new application. What follows is my attempt to introduce you to a new application or two or three, as well as introduce the unlearned to some of the applications many of us have been using for a while. The focus of this list is media playback applications. I've left out many of the great utility apps, CD ripping apps, UPnP apps, mobile apps, and operating system optimization apps because each of these are a topic in and of themselves. Plus, you may be surprised to find out I had to pare this list of playback apps down to twenty from a much larger list. There are literally hundreds of applications available just to play music from one's computer. Some of the apps below are full featured media playback and management apps while others are audio only players built for simplicity. There is no way to rank these players because in a way they are works of art. Engineering and user interface design decisions result in products that please some people and turn off others. Even when discussing the sound quality of different applications, it is a disservice for me to rank the applications because as soon as one part of my playback chain changes the results may change. For example, if I elect to upsample audio playback using HQ Player into DAC ABC today and give HQ Player a ranking based on the outcome, the ranking may be meaningless when using DAC XYZ. Plus, there is no way a single person can test all the variables of each application against its competition and against a large set of hardware. Rankings would get ridiculous with awards for best PCM to DSD app (realtime) (OS X), best PCM to DSD app (offline) (Windows), best PCM to DSD128, or DSD256, etc… This list is a starting point. I hate to say it, but each reader will need to do a little work on his own to find the application that meets his needs sonically, featurewise, and aesthetically. Anyone who tells you otherwise is misleading you.
Here is my list of 20 audio applications to enhance your music listening experience.
iTunes - This is the 800 lbs. gorilla used by hundreds of millions of people. They can't all be wrong can they? Of course not, software is a personal choice. However, I'm guessing most iTunes users don't know about the other music application options. iTunes combined with Apple's Remote iOS app is a compelling solution for many people. Users should take note that iTunes alone may not lead to the most satisfactory listening experience because Apple hasn't enabled the application to switch sample rates on the fly. In addition, iTunes lack of native support for FLAC and DSD may be showstoppers for some users. I personally think iTunes has become more awkward to use and less intuitive with the last few full version updates.
Compatibility: OS X, iOS, Windows
Good: Price, looks pretty, integration with iTunes Store
Not so good: Lack of advanced features, no native FLAC or DSD support, sample rate issue, default CD ripping settings are lossy
JRiver Media Center - Based on my experience I believe JRMC is the audiophile standard most used by serious enthusiasts. Even people who run other applications for specific playback needs frequently use JRMC in addition to the other apps. The combination of feature set, tablet remote control, and ease of use (compared to other apps) is unmatched. Like all applications there is a learning curve with JRMC if you want to take advantage of its powerful features, but it's not the steepest. If you like to poke around to figure things out yourself and can use forums to get questions answered, JRMC is a great match for you. The tablet remote control app JRemote is one of, if not the, best in the business. JRMC supports so much it's hard to list it all here. For example, almost all relevant file formats, PCM, DSD, multi-channel, UPnP server/renderer/control point, full library management and metadata editing, CD ripping, file conversions, WASAPI (Windows), ASIO, resampling, convolution, parametric equalization, room correction, dynamic range analysis, theater view, and on & on…
Compatibility: OS X, Windows, Linux
Price: $39.98 - $69.98, JRemote $7.00 - $9.99
Good: Richest feature set, continuous development (nightly updates available if needed), best remote app for iOS and Android
Not so good: Desktop user interface a bit dated, upsampling options could be improved for users who prefer this output style
Website: JRiver Media Center
Roon - From the founders of Sooloos, Roon is like no other desktop audio app on the market. On many levels, the user interface and experience is far ahead of all applications on the market. The ability to browse one's music collection of local files intertwined with lossless music from TIDAL is unmatched. Roon also features the richest metadata of any desktop application. It enables the user to view the people involved with creating the music, at the track level, and to link to other material in one's library. For example, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready is listed as a guitarist on its albums. If his name is clicked Roon displays other albums he was involved with such as Mad Season, Temple of the Dog, and Neil Young's Mirror Ball album. Roon is for people who don't want a Sooloos for whatever reason, and who want a little more sleek and immersive user experience than what's offered by all other applications. Many features are in the works for Roon including the implementation of its RoonSpeakers network audio protocol that will enable Roon to stream music to many third party components over Ethernet or WiFi. Roon isn't for the person who wants full control over all aspects of his metadata and what appears in the user interface. Roon also doesn't enable users to get nearly as geeky as JRiver Media Center. The current Roon remote control experience is really good on Android. The iOS version is due out any time and should mirror the desktop app just like the Android app mirrors the desktop app. In addition to an application, Roon must be viewed as a service because it costs $120 per year. Like all other software on this list, a free trial is available.
Compatibility: OS X, Windows
Price: $120 per year, $499 lifetime
Good: User interface and immersive experience unlike any other desktop application, TIDAL integration, metadata
Not so good: No UPnP support, more expensive than other apps, a bit like Apple with fixed design user can't change, fewer audio output options than other apps
Audirvana Plus - Known as A+ by many computer audiophiles, Audirvana Plus has grown from an extremely simplistic, yet advanced, player into a player with library management. Ever since its release A+ has been more about sound than anything else and the latest version with library management continues this focus. the library management isn't primitive, as it enables editing of metadata, but it's far from advanced. On the other hand the playback options are fairly advanced. Support for PCM and DSD has been a stalwart for A+ and one reason why it's used by several manufacturers at audio shows. Advanced options such as exclusive mode, direct mode, integer mode 1 & 2, DSD to PCM algorithm options, advanced parameters for sample rte conversion with iZotope 64 bit SRC, and support for Audio Units all within a couple clicks are main reasons why the more enthusiastic enthusiasts select A+. Currently there is no remote control capability unless used in iTunes integrated mode, then the Apple Remote works as A+ handles the audio output. An iOS remote is said to be in the works as well as support for the Qobuz lossless streaming service.
Compatibility: OS X
Good: Simplistic interface, advanced audio output options, decent metadata editing, DSD (DSF, DSDIFF w/DST, SACD ISO)
Not so good: Library management is far from full featured and a touch awkward to use compared to other apps, playing full albums is easy but mixing and matching music from several albums to play next on the fly is awkward
Website: Audirvana Plus
MediaMonkey - To be honest I haven't seriously used MM in years because I switched to JRMC for this type of application. Back then, whenever I ran into an issue that MM couldn't handle I tried JRMC and everything worked great. After a while I just stopped using MM. However, for most users MM may be the only thing they need because it supports most file types and WASAPI for bit perfect output. In addition Vents Media offers a free version of MM that supports almost all the features of the paid Gold version. Beyond the basic features for PCM playback and library management I think MediaMonkey falls a bit short. For example, in JRiver Media Center I wanted to append the letters DSD to the album name for all my DSD albums. I was able to do this with a few keystrokes in JRMC. Speaking of DSD, MM currently doesn't support DSD although DSD is supposed to be coming in MM version 5 (feature 0012458). I don't know if this is native DSD playback and / or DoP. The user interface to MM isn't what I consider sufficient for enjoyable browsing or managing a complete library. That said, I encourage people to try the free version.
Compatibility: Windows, Android
Price: Free, $24.95 - $49.95
Not so good: Remote control options, user interface, feature set
Amarra - Sonic Studio's Amarra comes in four versions, Amarra HiFi, Amarra, Amarra Symphony, and Amarra sQ (soon to be five with Amarra for TIDAL, and possibly more (Windows, iOS)). Amarra HiFi is the most basic version as its main purpose is to add the Sonic Studio Engine to iTunes. Using Amarra HiFi in conjunction with iTunes as the library manager enables auto sample rate switching not found natively in iTunes. As you move up the line from Amarra HiFi to Amarra and Amarra Symphony more features are added incrementally. From realtime sample rate conversion and playlist mode to Impulse response Correction and advanced four-band mastering EQ. It's possible to use Amarra and Symphony as standalone players, but depending on one's listening habits the experience may not meet the needs of those seeking fuller library management. Amarra was the first audio application to work with iTunes enabling auto sample rate switching and has built a loyal following since those early days. The foundation of the sound engine comes from Sonic Studio's professional mastering product soundBlade. Amarra sQ is a different animal altogether in that it features EQ presets for headphone models, genres, and computers and it's able to accept audio from nearly any streaming source such as TIDAL, Spotify, and YouTube for processing. The benefit of Amarra sQ when playing audio through my MacBook Pro speakers is awesome and makes listening without sQ a nonstarter.
Compatibility: OS X
Price: $29.99 - $649
Good: Makes iTunes usable, price range, sound quality enhancements, DSP
Not so good: No native DSD or DoP support, tied to iTunes for real library management
Pure Music - Channel D's Pure Music is another application that works in conjunction with Apple's iTunes. iTunes is the library manager and PM is the sound engine. This enables auto sample rate switching as well as many other options such as Streamthrough for Qobuz, YouTube, etc…, realtime SRC, 64-bit upsampling, Audio Unit plugins for room correction and parametric EQ, and 64-bit Adjustable 2/3/4-way Crossover with time alignment and adjustable minimum phase filters among other things. Pure Music supports FLAC and DSD playback through iTunes, but users should know adding these two types of files to iTunes is a little different process from the standard way music is added to iTunes. PM supports playback of DSF and DFF DSD files at both DSD64 and DSD128. Pure Music also works with the Apple Remote iOS application controlling playback within iTunes. PM may be more feature rich than competitor Amarra, but it's also a bit more complex. Thankfully, there's a free trial available for download and an extensive troubleshooting section on the website.
Compatibility: OS X
Good: Makes iTunes usable, sound quality enhancements, DSP
Not so good: The 1990s called and wants it's user interface back
Website: Pure Music
BitPerfect - BP is the simplest app on this list. It's main purpose is to enable auto sample rate switching in iTunes. Like the previous two applications, BitPerfect is used in conjunction with iTunes. Unlike the other two apps BitPerfect is very much out of the way. In fact, users barely know it's running as it rests in the top bar of OS X by the time. Options in BP include memory buffer size, integer mode, sample rate conversion methods, dither, and setting maximum sample rate / bit depth. This is seriously a simple program if all one is seeking is auto sample rate in iTunes and possibly a couple more options.
Compatibility: OS X
Good: Price, simplicity
Not so good: Nothing
HQ Player - Jussi Laako's HQ Player is an application that can bring out strong feelings of love or hate in many computer audiophiles. Users seeking an app with built-in library management and / or an intuitive interface usually look at HQP for a few minutes and run the other direction. However, somewhat savvy users willing to read the extensive 37 page user manual and put on some patience may be rewarded with some of the best DSP options available in a desktop audio application. The main feature of HQ Player is its extensive Digital Signal Processing. For example, there are 16 different user selectable options in the filter / oversampling section (none, IIR, FIR, asymFIR, minphaseFIR, FFT, poly-sinc, poly-sinc-mp, poly-sinc-shrt, poly-sinc-shrt-mp, poly-sinc-hb, sinc, polynomial-1, polynomial-2, minringFIR, and *-2s. There are also 16 options in the noise-shaping / dither / modulator section. A quick scan of the Computer Audiophile forum shows many CA readers using HQ Player to upsample audio to DSD64, DSD128, or even DSD256 for output to a DAC. HQP can also output audio over one's network to an HQ Player Network Audio Adapter. NAA is a piece of software that identifies itself as an audio output device, selectable from within the desktop version of HQP, and accepts streaming network audio. this is much more powerful than AirPlay although the concept is somewhat similar.
Compatibility: OS X, Windows, Linux
Good: Terrific DSP options, endless user selectable options for audio output, network audio adapter
Not so good: Primitive user interface and user experience, very steep learning curve, no library management
Website: HQ Player
XXHighEnd - Peter Stordiau's XXHighEnd gives computer audiophiles a similar feeling to HQ Player. Many either love it or hate it. XXHE isn't for the faint-of-heart. I believe it's the most confusing user interface on the market. That said, it's one of the most powerful pieces of software available. A claim to fame of XXHE is its DSP-like features that output bit perfect audio losslessly. According to XXHE, "Volume can be 100% reconstructed into the original data. For the proprietary (not ringing !) Arc Prediction Upsampling/Filtering counts the same, and again the same applies to Phase Alignment." And, claims for the, "only (and proprietary) "losless" digital volume control in the world." Users who like options will like XXHE's selectable sound engines and near endless tweaking options. The XXHighEnd website features hundreds of pages of instructions and information about getting the most out of this software. Technically savvy users may find this intriguing and want to dive right in. On the other hand, if you're looking for aesthetics, ease of use, and want to just sit back and listen, you may want to pass this software up.
Good: Endless user selectable options for audio output, claimed lossless DSP-like features
Not so good: The 1800's called and want's it's interface back (sorry Peter :~))
JPlay - This application takes a much different approach to computer audio playback than the aforementioned apps. JPlay's main purpose is to tweak the PC's settings from an IT perspective rather than through DSP like other apps, and to accept the audio output of more full featured apps. For example, when using an app like Foobar2000, the user selects the ASIO: JPLAY Driver as the audio output device. This routes all audio through the JPlay audio engine. Software adjustments within JPlay include a selectable bit perfect playback engine that changes the amount of RAM used, CPU and I/O priorities, and according to JPlay a hibernate mode that, "eliminates dozens of OS jitter-inducing processes & hundreds of threads, providing best possible sound quality." Playback through JPlay only must be done through its JPLAYmini interface. All other uses require a more full featured player. A very popular way of using JPlay, and perhaps the most extreme use, is to use a two PC system with audio PC and control PC. The main list of this type of setup is to run all the intensive processing on the control PC, sending only the audio for playback to the audio PC.
Good: A different method of looking at sound quality optimization
Not so good: requires a third party "main" application for music management and selection (JPLAYmini excluded)
Decibel - This is a minimalist playback application that handles the most popular playback formats and became popular years ago as one of the few apps capable of auto sample rate switching on OS X. Decibel can be awkward for users with large libraries as its navigation options are nearly nil. The most current release of this app was in 2015, but the feature set has remained nearly unchanged since its introduction. Decibel isn't a bad player, it's just very simple (intentionally) and not feature rich.
Compatibility: OS X
Not so good: Lack of features such as metadata editing library navigation options
Vox - This app is pretty simplistic and aimed at hipsters, but has an awesome feature that can't be underestimated. This feature is called Loop. Loop enables users to synchronize their entire music library to the cloud. This sync includes lossless and high resolution music of 24 bit / 192 kHz or higher (no DSD currently). All music stored in the cloud is then available to stream to the OS X version of Vox or the iOS version of the app. In a way its a personal version of Tidal HiFi. A neat feature that's not usually included in minimalist type apps is the display of file type, bit rate, bit depth, and sample rate of the currently playing track (whether streamed from the cloud or not). Despite its simplicity I use Vox once in a while.
Compatibility: OS X, iOS
Price: Free OS X, Free iOS, Loop $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year
Good: Nice looking interface, simple to use, cloud storage and streaming of most sample rates
Not so good: Library management nonexistent, hard to navigate large libraries
Fidelia - I used to use Fidelia when it first came out, but it has since been passed up by many other applications with similar simple interfaces and better feature sets. Fidelia offers support for audio tools (AU plugins) such as equalizers and compressors ini addition to an FHX add-on component for headphone processing (crossfeed). One feature offered that most other simple apps in this class don't offer is a nice iOS remote control. Due to the desktop interface's minimal library management I find selection of audio much better from the iOS application. Certainly not a bad app, but has most likely fallen off the radar due to lack of development progress in recent years.
Compatibility: OS X
Price: Fidelia $19.99, Advanced Add-0n $49.99, FHX add-on $49.99, Remote $9.99
Good: Simple to use and get bit perfect audio output quickly, nice remote control for iOS
Not so good: Limited library management, tough to navigate desktop app with large library
Foobar2000 - If I have to explain this one to you, the chances are high you won't be that into it. Foobar2000 is extremely flexible and can do nearly everything most full featured apps can do, but the interface is difficult to say the least. Its default view is primitive, but the downloadable components enable the user to extend the capability of the app immensely. If you like geeky software this could be your thing. If you're a maverick this could be your thing. If you like free software this could be your thing.
Good: Price, extensibility though components, flexibility, potential
Not so good: user interface, complexity, awkward library management, support through Hydrogen Audio forums
Note: I have not used the following applications extensively or some at all. Thus, the limited comments about each player.
THE PROGRAMS BELOW ARE LISTED IN THE HOPE THAT THEY WILL BE USEFUL, BUT WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY. THE LIST IS PROVIDED "AS IS" WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PROGRAMS LISTED IS WITH YOU. SHOULD THE PROGRAM(S) PROVE DEFECTIVE, YOU ASSUME THE COST OF ALL NECESSARY SERVICING, REPAIR OR CORRECTION.
AlbumPlayer - Used by the YFS guys on their servers and at audio shows. Appears to work well when I have used it in their rooms over the last few years.
Price: $32 - $58, Remote $17
Tamahawk - The poor man's Roon! This app has neat integration with online services such as Spotify, Beats, YouTube, and SoundCloud. it's possible to search one's own local library and the online services at the same time and view the results together. Pretty cool app, but somewhat primitive when it comes to heavy use.
Compatibility: Windows, OS X, Linux, Android
MusiCHI - A suite of applications (Player, Ripper, Tagger, Library Manager) that are billed as "The ideal HiFi software solution for your digital music." This app is tailored for Classical and Jazz in its displaying of metadata and library navigation.
Price: $21 - $55
Swinsain - I've never used this app. According to the developer, "Swinsian is a sophisticated music player for Mac OS X with wide format support, folder watching and advanced tag editing and designed to be responsive even with the largest libraries."
Compatibility: OS X
MusicBee - I've never used this app and I wanted one addition (decent) app to complete my list of 20 :~)