Listening #103 Page 3
Which brings us to Amarra (v.2.1.1), from the pro-audio company Sonic Studio. It's perhaps the best known of these aftermarket music players, and the one that's gained the most ground with the high-end audio industry. (At Salon Son et Image, for example, the vast majority of exhibitors who demonstrated their gear with computer-music files did so using Amarra.) Amarra is also, by far, the most expensive of the three: $695 for the full version. (Amarra Mini, a stripped-down version with a 96kHz limit, is available for $295.) A trial version of Amarra can be downloaded at no charge; it will work for 14 days, although, after a certain amount of playback time, it punctuates the music with occasional silences.
Amarra was the most luxurious of the three, with memory play, user-adjustable equalization, a Playlist Mode that lets users bypass the iTunes song-selection interface altogether, full compatibility with native FLAC files, and a handy switch for comparing Amarra playback with iTunes playback. Downloading the Amarra demo was a more complex task than for the other two aftermarket players, with security procedures that befit its considerably higher pricebut Amarra's user interface is itself more sophisticated and confidence-inspiring, and its user manual, supplied as a .pdf file, is superb.
Unsurprisingly, Amarra sounded wonderfulat least the equal of Decibel, and with strengths that were categorically the same. The speed with which the Amarra playback engine could be disabled in favor of iTunes made for easy comparisons and distinct contrasts. Again, I wondered how I could have listened to my favorite recordingshappily!with all that gray sonic dust scattered in and among the notes. Amarra cleaned up the sound, smoothed out and extended the trebles, and presented my music files in a manner that sounded naturally detailed and consistently involving. Interestingly, Amarra had a somewhat different spatial presentation from the other two playback programs, with music seeming to emanate from a point farther from the listener. With some recordings that had the added effect of making the soundfield appear larger, as with DCC Compact Classics' excellent (and historically interesting) 1994 reissue of the Band's Stage Fright (gold CD, DCC GZS-1061). With that and other files, the Amarra spread the musicians out over a somewhat larger space, and presented the "air" surrounding them in a more gently realistic manner.
In fact, listening to Amarra play 176 and 192kHz music files through the updated Ayre QB-9, having applied to my computer-music system some recently offered tweaks (more on that in a moment), it appeared that I had reached the same performance heights as with the high-resolution, Ethernet-powered Linn Majik DS-I digital player. The NAS (Network Attached Storage) that I used for that review (published in the March 2011 issue) is no longer here in Cherry Valley, but in the weeks ahead I hope to purchase and download some of Linn's own hi-rez WAV files, which I hope will offer the basis for an enduringly interesting comparison . . .
In recent days, while I was in touch with Sonic Studio's Jon Reichbach on a different matter, I asked if he could explain why Amarra works so well. He said the answer can be broken into two areas: "how the computer is being used, and the underlying mathematical algorithms to ensure the best audio processing."
"We have spent a lot of effort to fine-tune how Amarra works with the Macintosh computer," Reichbach said. "A lot of this has to do with the fact we do all the I/O and all the processing and do not depend on CoreAudio for this. The second part is that we use double precision processing and specialized code to ensure we do the right thing. For example, how we handle rounding or conversion from [floating-point] to PCM are all hand coded."
Amarra's only real drawback would appear to be its $695 price: inarguably reasonable in light of the work Sonic Studio has put into it, undeniably high compared to that of the superb-sounding Decibel, in particular. Whereas the audio perfectionist often chooses between very different products from very similar companies, here the paradigm is inverted. My budget had an easier time accommodating Decibel, which impressed me so thoroughly that I bought it well before the demo period was up. The best $33 I ever spent.
Now I have my own copy of Decibel, and I have the Ayre QB-9 back in my system for at least a little while. That's all nice. But maybe there's more to be had.
I'm fortunate inasmuch as I can, almost at will, pick the brains of some key designers and experienced end-users: Charles Hansen, Alex Brinkman (also of Ayre), Steve Silberman (AudioQuest), and, most of all, Gordon Rankin (Wavelength), whose game-changing asynchronous USB controller software is one of the keys to the performance of his own and Ayre's D/A converters. Their advice could easily fill another column, but for now I'll pass on a couple of quick tips:
1) Don't plug your D/A into just any old USB socket and expect optimal performance. The sockets at the ends of your Mac keyboard are second-rate at best . . . but you'd probably guessed that already. More obscure is the fact that you can use your Apple's System Profiler utility to choose the best socket on your computer. With your USB D/A connected, open the Profiler, click on USB (under the Hardware heading), and look to see where your converter is listed. Ideally, it should have a high-speed USB bus all to itself; if not, swap around your other USB devices until it does. (If you have an external drive that's connected via USB, you may want to switch it to a FireWire port, if possible.)
2) Do whatever you canrearrange furniture, move your computer, whateverto keep USB cable lengths as short as possible. At more or less the time I received that advice, Joe Reynolds of Nordost called to tell me about his new Blue Heaven cable line. Sensing an opportunity, I asked to borrow the following: a 1m USB cable, a 5m USB cable, a 1m audio interconnect pair, and a 5m interconnect pair. You can see where I'm going with this, I'm sure: I compared the sound of my computer-music system with the long USB cable and short interconnects (with the Ayre D/A next to my preamp) against that with the short USB cable and the long interconnects (with the Ayre on a sturdy wooden table next to my iMac). The difference was subtle but audible, and clearly favored the setup with the short USB cable. By the way, I now have six different high-end USB cables in-house, all between 1m and 1.5m long; the Nordost Blue Heaven ($250/1m) is in the top three for clarity, musicality, and value.
In other words, everything matters. That'll get a sigh from some, while others will see it as a pleasant and not terribly expensive opportunity to experiment, learn, and have a little fun. Count me among the latter.