Not all music players are good enough for audiophiles. iTunes is a disaster when you’re a serious listener of classical music. Amarra is better, just like Fidelia. But in a league of its own is Audirvana Plus, a program that started life as an open source project. Audirvana Plus has some features not found in other apps that result in an unsurpassed listening experience.
Before I review Audirvana Plus, it’s perhaps best to briefly repeat why audio from a computer, even a Mac, never sounds good enough to please the demanding music addict.
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When you play audio on a Mac, it passes through the OS X Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) and is affected by a number of Core Audio “features” (you could also call these “filters”). Together they are responsible for how the audio will sound once it reaches your ears.
In addition, digital music playing on a computer is influenced by disk activity (while fetching the next part of the song, for example), system activity (Mail notifying you of new messages with a nice sound, or memory being grabbed away by another system process) and computer hardware noise. While you can make sure to turn off all apps that may alert you by using systems sounds, ruling out disk activity is a lot harder to do, and getting rid of computer hardware noise is only possible when wearing a headset.
We’ll come back to this later.
Audirvana Plus is a nicely designed music player — its main window looks like a CD player — with its own rather playlist capability. Audirvana Plus uses iZotope 64-bit SRC (sample rate conversion) as well as its MBIT+ sound dithering technology. These two are the gold standards in professional audio recording and playback.
They’re available when you need them, but of course it’s still better not to use any digital technology that alters your sound. With SRC, you can make sure not to upsample your music. With regards to dithering: if you set iTunes’ volume slider to 100% and set the volume either by turning the volume knob on your DAC or use the Audirvana Plus volume knob, you’re not dithering. Audirvana Plus’ volume knob is linked to your system volume, not to the iTunes one.
Audirvana Plus lets you play music by dragging files to its own playlist, but it can also run in integrated iTunes mode. In this mode, Audirvana Plus can be set to take over iTunes completely. The playlist is nice, but it isn’t a complete music management system the way iTunes is (or should be — that program has quirks of its own).
For my tests, I ran Audirvana Plus in iTunes Integrated mode. Furthermore, Audirvana Plus can handle all the audiophile formats that currently exist, including FLAC and PCM. It even supports DSD (DSDIFF including DST compressed, DSF, and SACD ISO images) with native streaming to supported DACs, or through high quality realtime conversion to PCM. Unfortunately, I couldn’t rip one of my SACDs for this review, simply because you need a SACD player to do so (Sony’s Playstation is said to be one), which I don’t.
I tested Audirvana Plus with a whole bunch of classical music ripped from my CD collection and from DVDs. I kept all music in its original format (44.1kHz/16-bit for CDs, 48kHz/24-bit for DVDs). Audirvana Plus switches between sample rates automatically, without interruptions or clicks.
How the music sounds with Audirvana Plus
Audiophile music players like Fidelia and Audirvana Plus have features that deal with disk activity and up to a point with other system activity as well. In Fidelia, for example, you can buy an option that puts the music player is “hog mode”. It will snitch all possible memory making it unavailable to other apps, and it will bypass as much of the OS as it possibly can. In Audirvana Plus, this mode is called by its generic name (exclusive access) and not a lot of fuss is made about it.
That is because there’s a second level called Direct Mode. In Direct Mode the Core Audio low-level processing of the audio signal is bypassed entirely. This resulted in a slightly better stereo image and sound stage than what I experienced with Amarra. Amarra sounded more muffled than Audirvana Plus too. That was also the case of Fidelia.
It’s the third level, however, that makes Audirvana Plus really stand out. Integer Mode, which is not available with all DACs (e.g. Duet) pushes the optimisation a level deeper, namely at the audio device driver level by feeding it with signal already in the device native format. Both the D1 and DragonFly were Integer Mode compatible.
The resulting sound was nothing short of breathtaking. The stereo image suddenly opened up, the clarity was all there, no more muffling at all. Only music. I could very clearly hear the differences in sound representation and characteristics between the DragonFly and the D1. More importantly, the music was close to what I remember it to be from 12 years ago when I still had a Musical Fidelity DAC/headphone amplifier connected to a Denon SACD player.
That’s an accolade if ever there was one.
Other Audirvana Plus features
Except for the best sound characteristics I have heard in years, and certainly the best of what digital music players can offer, Audirvana Plus has a couple of other nice tricks up its sleeve without you having to pay extra for the pleasure.
Audirvana Plus comes with full memory play with complete loading, decoding, sample rate and format conversion when needed before playing. Contrary to Amarra, you can set apart the amount of memory you want Audirvana Plus to own.
The “SysOptimizer” disables OS X background services potentially interfering with
sound quality. These include Spotlight (!), Time Machine, and even the detection of “iDevices” on the USB bus.
Another feature, which I personally found the explanation of confusing, is the ability to create proxy files in iTunes. These proxies can point to files in formats that iTunes can’t play. The goal is to join together the cataloguing capabilities of iTunes with the musical prowess of Audirvana Plus.
Finally, Audirvana Plus gets updated regularly. The next version is said to get audio filters for those who need or want them.