Player Wars: Pure Music v Amarra

The Case Against iTunes

Life is different with an Apple. I suppose that I should know as I have three on my desk, another in the living room — and there’s an Apple TV in there, too. I guess you could say that I just got sick of doing Windows. ;-)  I have not always been a fan, though, but I think it was OS X that did it for me. And all that aluminum. Yeah. Mmmm. Good!

Anyway, I’ve been fiddling with computer audio -based playback for some number of years. First, through a sweet PS Audio DL3 DAC that I had modded by Cullen Circuits. Then, this year, I upgraded both my DAC and my interface for it after spending just a bit too long on the Computer Audiophile forums. Hanging out there, I noticed right away that a great many folks there loved Apple hardware (the computers, anyway) but hated Apple software. Apparently, iTunes was terribly flawed. It was, in a word, unlistenable. What was preferred, almost universally, was a little program called Amarra, from Sonic Studios.

Amarra, which just released v2.1 this week, has been the “gold standard”. And by ‘gold standard’, I mean ‘brick that computer audiophiles use to bludgeon the unenlightened’. As one of the sad clueless, I was promised all manner of goodness should i dare explore the wonders. I was promised better sound staging, truer fidelity, deeper bass response, a less harsh treble, a sexier tube-like mid-range, lower jitter, and a huge return on my taxes that year.

How could I resist?

Well, long story short, I didn’t. I called up Sanjay over at Ciamara in NY and ordered me up a copy.

A Not-Quite Love Story

Now, I should mention at this point that Amarra is not cheap and it’s a software package. Just software. At the time, it retailed (at that time) for $1500 a pop. OUCH. While I was debating if it was even possible that a software package even could make half of the claims made on it’s behalf even audible, the price dropped to $995 — and Sonic Studios then announced a “Mini” version, with a much more affordably price of $395. By lucking out, I managed to get another $100 off due to a holiday promo, so I soon had a $295 copy of Amarra Mini on my desk, along with the USB key-fob from iLok with my license on it. In the year since I made my purchase, Sonic Studios has lowered the regular price on Mini to $295, and also lowered the “full version” to $695.

Now, if I were reading this, my first thought would be: WTF could be worth almost $300 (or $700!)??? And answering that would be hard, because I honestly almost sent this product back to Sanjay at least 50 times during that first month. I really, truly could not hear any difference between Amarra and iTunes. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing. So, what gives?

Well, before we get there, let me tell you what your purchase these days is supposed to get you. First, in case you didn’t already know, Amarra is a playback engine. According to The Inner Elite, Amarra is supposed to bypass certain portions of the Mac OS that render playback suboptimal. I’m not going to go into any details on this because I’ve also heard via rumor and innuendo that Amarra Mini actually isn’t doing any of that, but that’s another topic.

Here’s the feature list for Mini:

  • Supports up to 96 kHz sample rates
  • Automatic Sample Rate Adjustment
  • Double precision EQ presets
  • Native FLAC playback and conversion
  • RAM based CACHE playback

(The “full version”, by the way, includes support for up to 192kHz sampling and the ability to pull playlists without using iTunes at all. Pretty nifty).

The “killer ap” for Amarra is, and has always been, #2: Automatic Sample Rate Adjustment. You see, iTunes does support playback of high-resolution audio files. But iTunes will not actually change the Mac’s actual output resolution from whatever it happened to be to what your file actually is. AudioMIDI, a native Mac OS utility, does that. Or, rather, it will allow you to do that, provided you then close and reopen iTunes after each and every change made in AudioMIDI. As you can probably surmise, this is not user friendly. If you have a playlist that has the audacity of including several files with multiple sample rates (44.1kHz and 96kHz), you’re going to have to close iTunes before any change, alter the settings in AudioMIDI, and restart iTunes. Repeat as necessary. Failure to do so meant that the Mac would automatically down-sample all high-resolution files. Anathema!

Amarra makes that problem go away.

The other stuff isn’t all that interesting, IMO, but I suppose the one exception is RAM-based playback — that is, the ability to load the music, or even an entire playlist, entirely into RAM for playback (and therefore not use your hard drive at all), is said to actually increase fidelity somewhat dramatically. Well, that’s the theory. My own experiences were ambiguous.

I’m still not sure why. I spoke to a rep at RMAF this year and explained some of my experiences. He seemed a bit surprised at my underwhelming level of enthusiasm but did ask me if I had upgraded my Mac. I had, and told him what I’d done. I could see the “aha!” moment when I talked about the the upgrade from HDD to an SSD. Apparently, with an SSD, the benefits might be … attenuated. He offered that many had reported that Amarra would mimic the benefits of adding RAM and/or an SSD, so perhaps that’s why my experiences weren’t unequivocal. Maybe he’s right?

For me, the 96kHz limit for Amarra Mini wasn’t an issue, given that around that time I also tried out, and fell in love with, a Legato from Analog Research Technologies. Sadly, that little ultra-performing USB-S/PDIF converter only supports Redbook output, so Amarra’s high-res sample-rate changing actually proved relatively worthless to me less than 30 days after that 30-day return window expired. LOL. Such is the way of things, no? Anyway, this past spring there simply wasn’t a lot of high-resolution files in my library, so missing out on that 2% wasn’t much of a heartbreak.

I’d read dozens of accounts of how Amarra totally transformed the way folks enjoyed their computer audio systems. I, it seemed, was not to be one of them. Again, I couldn’t tell any difference at all.

Time passed.

I returned to Amarra sometime in the Spring when I switched back from my Plinius-driven Totem Shaman speakers to an Ars-Sonum-driven pair of Merlin VSM-MMe speakers. On a whim, and in an effort to make as many changes at as humanly possible in as short a time frame as I could, I flipped Amarra on.

And there it was. A difference.

I was playing some really great Rudy Van Gelder remasters of Sonny Rollins, some Diana Krall (apparently getting my audiophile groove on), some Norah Jones, and some Jem (I’m eclectic, what can I say). It was this random selection that convinced me that Amarra was, in fact, sounding different from “naked” iTunes.

The thing I noticed: on many recordings, iTunes sounded bright (by comparison), edgy, thin and a bit muddled. Amarra Mini cleared all that up. The shift was subtle, but audible, and more so with better recordings. Things just seemed more clear, more real, more textured, more present. Not much of an improvement, mind you, but certainly audible.

So, I naturally started using Amarra exclusively for playback — even though I was only playing Redbook files, due to having the Legato in the chain. But then I got an M2Tech EVO from Tweek Geek, and I was finally able to see what Amarra could do for me with high-res files.

Well, lets just say that the result was (at least a bit) anti-climatic — I got more of the same, but no fireworks or anything. Yes, with Amarra, the playback was in all ways better as I’ve already described, but the effects were still very subtle. Minor tweaks, if you will. Audible, pleasant, and I was happy to have them. Worth $300? Ahh, err? Maybe?

I have to admit here that the effects of Amarra were less than the effects the Legato had. In a head-to-head comparison between the Legato and the EVO, I preferred the Legato but in many cases, that difference was minor. The difference between using Amarra Mini and not was far less than the effects on playback of using the Legato over the EVO.

In a sad turn of events, my EVO went back to Tweek Geek due to some issues I had with drivers. I just couldn’t get the stability out of the unit that I wanted, and playback with the Legato was simply easier, more reliable (probably because of it’s OS X-native drivers) and frankly sounded better. But before it went, I downloaded a demo of Channel D’s Pure Music.

Enter The Music

Pure Music has become another darling of the computer audiophile crowd. So much so, that many of my friends and associates over there are now using it as their standard playback engine. This is probably for a couple of very straightforward reasons.

  1. It’s cheaper.
  2. It doesn’t use iTunes.
  3. It’s stable.
  4. It sounds good.

From the top — Pure Music, now at version 1.65, is $130 and that gets you the whole she-bang, not some dumbed down or crippled version like Mini is to “full” Amarra. That is, you get the full range of sample rate support, as well as sample rate switching, up to 192kHz. Score!

As with Amarra, when you open Pure Music, the program also opens iTunes. You’re then able to get all your playlists and whatnot straight out of the familiar iTunes interface — you select what you want to hear and press play. Unlike with Amarra, which zeroes out the volume on iTunes (presumably to tell you that playback is happening in Amarra and not iTunes), Pure Music doesn’t even let iTunes play along. Hit ‘play’ and it’s Pure Music that will play — iTunes looks like it’s just hanging out, as if you missed the ‘play’ button or something, yet the music has now started playing. Interesting.

One issue I have noticed is how Amarra and Pure Music start up and shut down. Pure Music is a very graceful partner, with quick start ups and quiet shutdowns. Amarra, by contrast, seems to take longer to load and takes way longer to shutdown (at least prior to 2.1, but this seems to have been fixed). Shutdown iTunes instead of Amarra and Amarra goes into a death spiral you have to Force-Quit out of. Pure Music simply shuts down.

I get no clicks or pops with either player. I do get dropouts — with both. They’re occasional, and even though I’ve tweaked my new MacBook Pro music server pretty good (no Spotlight indexing, no wireless, no Bluetooth, &c), but the dropouts do happen, just not often, so it’s a relatively minor nit. I had more issues with Amarra before I started using the “renice” command to bump Amarra’s priority with the OS kernel, but since then, Amarra has been a great house guest. I suspect that Pure Music would appreciate similar treatment. Not familiar with renice? Here’s the procedure:

  1. open a terminal window
  2. start “top”
  3. find the pid of coreaudio and itunes
  4. remember PID_ITUNES and PID_COREAUDIO
  5. quit “top”

Then, type the following:

  • sudo renice -20 -p PID_ITUNES
  • sudo renice -20 -p PID_COREAUDIO

Both of these players sound good, and as I mentioned, audio playback via either is to some degree improved over using iTunes without them. Not huge, but some.

As for a comparison between them, well, what’s to say? I have not noticed any significant difference between playback using Amarra over playback using Pure Music. Others have, however. Case in point, forum buddy Ted_B says that that Amarra presents a small mid-bass bump, but that Pure Music is more neutral, and that’s why he uses the latter. I didn’t hear that, but then, another forum member reports that this has been corrected in v2.1, and now the difference appears to be the size of the sound stage. All I can say is that I think they “sound” the same, so the only thing I can say with any confidence is this: expect your mileage to vary.

At this point, given the lack of difference between the performance of the two players, I really see no reason why anyone would choose the far more expensive Amarra (or Amarra Mini) over Pure Music. I know where I’d be spending my money if I hadn’t already purchased Amarra.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are now several free (free is good!) music players, such as cPlay, AyreWave and Audirvana, that are offering much of the same sample-rate switching features and purported sonic improvements. The consensus is still not in as to whether these free players are going to be able to surpass their pay-ware competitors — most of the early adopters seem to feel that there’s still some catching up to do — but it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on them.

All in all, this is another one of those niches that I still wonder that Apple hasn’t killed yet. A simple tweak to iTunes to allow better manipulation of AudiMIDI functions and most of these software players go right out of business. But it seems the mighty Apple is uninterested. At least for now.

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