Sonic Studio Amarra Software
Now that the phrase computer
audio is a permanent entry in the audiophile lexicon, whats the next step? In my
opinion, more high-resolution music must be made available to the consumer. Early adopters
of the DVD-Audio and SACD formats waited for the music industry to issue and reissue music
in the new formats, but it never happened to the degree it needed to. But then, music
companies rarely released new recordings in any format other than CD. Why should
this new computer-audio thing be any different?
The reason is the Apple iPod. The iPod has
changed the ways people listen to and store their music. According to Wikipedia, as of
September 9, 2009, more than 220,000,000 iPods had been sold worldwide. This means that
hundreds of millions of people now store their music collections -- at least, what they
listen to day in and day out -- on their computers. Those people, regardless if
theyre casual listeners or more sophisticated audiophiles, have already done most of
the hard work. We are a built-in audience waiting to be served better sound.
I store all of my music on an Apple MacBook
Pro laptop computer. I went the Mac route years ago, after many rides on the PC
merry-go-round that always ended in heartbreak. For my money, a Mac is a better-looking,
more reliable computer than a Windows-based PC. (Apple also has better TV commercials.)
From an audiophiles perspective, Apple s iTunes is great in that it can
provide a bit-perfect digital datastream -- and if youre concerned about sound
quality, bit-perfect is the name of the computer-audio game. A Mac is also pretty much
good to go straight out of the box, whereas a PC would need to be properly set up -- a
process that can be mind-numbing.
To get the digital data out of a Mac, Apple
provides three different outputs: Mini-TosLink, FireWire, and USB. The Mini-TosLink is
capable of outputting an audio file with resolutions up to 24 bits/96kHz. The FireWire
output is capable of resolutions all the way up to 24/192. Finally, the USB 2.0 output is
technically good up to 24/192 (as soon as there are devices capable of receiving this
resolution via USB).
This is where it begins to get frustrating.
The Mac doesnt let you immediately follow playback of a "Red Book"
(CD-quality) 16/44.1 track with playback of a 24/96 high-resolution track without your
having to shut down iTunes, open the computers Preferences menu, change the Audio
MIDI setting to the desired bit count and sample rate, then reopen iTunes. If you
dont do this, then the selected music file will be up- or downsampled, depending on
the files native resolution and the Macs MIDI settings. For instance, if you
play a 24/176.4 track right after playing a CD-quality track, the Mac will output 16/44.1
instead of the tracks native resolution of 24/176.4. Resetting the Preferences
breaks the flow of listening to the music and means you have to perform a process that
takes at least as much time as removing a CD from a player and inserting a new disc --
which defeats the convenience of a computer-based audio system.
Apple has not designed their Audio MIDI to automatically
change sample rates because they dont want a single program, even their own iTunes,
to be in charge of the audio output device. In the world of Apple, the goal set for the
operating system is complete synergy, which is why they designed it to allow multiple
applications to simultaneously send digital audio to the same output device. If iTunes
were allowed to control and automatically change the sample rate of the output, some audio
applications would crash. As complete synergy is the main reason buyers choose Macs over
PCs to begin with, this possibility is unacceptable to Apple -- to the chagrin of
Enter Sonic Studios Amarra
computer playback system ($995 USD). Amarra is software designed to work on an Apple
computer that makes the lack of an automatic sample-rate converter a problem of the past.
Regardless of the resolution of the track you choose, Amarra automatically switches to the
tracks native sample rate and sends that digital datastream to your D/A converter.
The software also provides advanced dither settings and digital volume (as set through
iTunes), plays all high-resolution PCM formats up to 192kHz, uses iTunes for compressed
and rights-managed music, integrates with Apple Remote and iTouch, and currently supports
the Snow Leopard, Leopard, and Tiger versions of Apples OSX operating system.
When I contacted Jon Reichbach of Sonic Studio to take a look
at the Amarra software, he provided me with a link from which to download the software to
my Mac. When I started it up, a warning message told me that the software would operate
only in Demo Mode because the computer hadnt found an iLok Security Key, a USB thumb
drive that stores the Amarras user license. Reichbach had set up a user account for
me, but the iLok hadnt yet arrived. The iLok is available for $39.95 from the iLok website.
Until the key arrived, I listened through the Amarra
software in Demo Mode, in which there are periods of silence during a track and the
sample-rate converter works up to only 24/96. For the most part, this was OK -- I
didnt have a FireWire DAC on hand that could handle sample rates higher than 24/96,
and the infrequent silences lasted only a few seconds. When the iLok arrived, I downloaded
the Amarra license from iLoks website, inserted it in my Mac, and was ready to go.
The Amarra audio engine takes the place of the iTunes
engine to completely control a Macs digital audio output. On the computer screen,
Amarra opens a small screen along the left side of the iTunes interface. At the top left
of Amarras onscreen interface is a Power On button, and at the top right is an EQ
Off button. Under those is a small info box that states the type of sound file (AIFF, WAV,
etc.), whether or not its in stereo, and its sample rate. Under that is listed the
DAC being used (in my case, a Bel Canto DAC3). Finally, theres a readout for track
time, buttons for Play, Forward, and Back, and a readout that shows the levels of the
right and left channels.
I could still fully navigate my music library via iTunes,
but Amarra doesnt currently work for those who use Front Row, an Apple program that
lets you browse the media on your Mac from across the room. Nor does Amarra currently work
with Apple Lossless files, though Im told an update will fix that omission. To
navigate iTunes, I used the Remote application, available for download to iPhone or
iTouch, and found it much quicker than Front Row.
Although its the main reason most people will buy
Amarra, simple and automatic conversion of sample rates is not the softwares only
feature. While listening to several tracks, I asked my girlfriend to help me in an A/B
test. To avoid affecting the soundstage, she sat well behind the Rockport Technologies
Mira speakers, and clicked the Power On button to toggle between Amarra and iTunes. (The
preamplifier was a Simaudio Moon P5.3, the power amp a Classé CA2200.) I discovered that
Amarra affects the sound in positive ways.
I carefully listened to several tracks of the new
remastering of Neil Youngs After the Gold Rush (Reprise 517936-2), and noted
a slight difference in "Birds." About halfway through the song, Young repeats
"Its over . . ." a few times. Through iTunes, his voice had a little
grain; through Amarra, the grain was gone, leaving Youngs voice sounding smoother
and more natural.
Another track that demonstrated improvements was
"Delia," from David Johansen and the Harry Smiths (SACD/CD, Chesky R
470334), which Id downloaded from Cheskys HDtracks website. "Delia"
begins with acoustic guitar accompanied by bongos, and the latter have always been the
focal point for me because of how realistically they "appear" in my listening
room. Through Amarra, the skins of the bongos seemed a bit more fleshed out. The image was
just as precise as through iTunes, but the slap of the percussionists hand was
rendered with a little more impact. The differences were subtle, but thats what
audiophiles pay big bucks for.
Why does Amarra sound better than iTunes?
Sonic Studio began in the mid 1980s as Sonic Solutions,
which designed computer workstations for motion-picture and recording studios, major
record labels, and high-end mastering facilities. They claim that more than half of the
CDs commercially released have been mastered on a Sonic Solutions workstation, and in
those nearly three decades, Reichbach has repeatedly been asked "Why does your
workstation sound better than brand Xs?"
After many years of asking questions
of his engineers, Reichbach finally learned that its all in the math. His
explanation sounds simple but is far from it: Not all algorithms used to process audio
signals are equal. Some add more noise than others, and its the careful attention
they pay to these algorithms that makes Amarra sound better than iTunes. The workstations
based on Sonic Solutions algorithms back in the 80s laid the foundation of the
Amarra software available today.
The Amarra software provides a few other goodies that can
make your audio system sound better. One of these is a single-band equalizer that can be
used to boost a dip or reduce a peak created by room modes. The EQ settings are accessed
by clicking the EQ button to the left of the Power On button at the top of the Amarra
interface. From there you can adjust up to three frequency ranges. Select the frequency
you want to treat, adjust the Q (bandwidth relative to the center frequency), then adjust
the attenuation up or down to address a peak or dip.
I found this useful. When I first received the Amarra
software, Id just refinished my listening room and was fine-tuning the frequency
response of its interaction with my speakers, but there was still a sharp dip at about
120Hz. I sent a screen shot of the response to Reichbach, who asked one of his engineers
to analyze my graph and recommend an EQ setting for me: raise the null a few dB, just
enough to fill in that hollow spot. It worked great. While the measurements told me that
it hadnt entirely eliminated the dip, it sounded natural and completely
transparent, and thats whats important -- and something I cant say about
Then theres the Dither setting, accessed via the
Windows dropdown menu at the top of the Macs screen. Click on Preferences and a
screen pops up asking if youd like to "Enable dither on playback." When
Dither is added, a lower apparent level of noise is achieved by adding more noise
to mask whats called quantization error, an artifact of converting an analog audio
signal to digital. The added noise is introduced in a random manner that masks the
patterns of the recordings nonrandom quantization error.
As the years go by and I collect more and more
high-resolution recordings, I wont want to have to get up from my seat to change my
Macs MIDI settings every time I follow a hi-rez track with a "Red Book"
track, or vice versa. Sonic Studios Amarra software solves that problem, but it
doesnt stop there. Amarra sounds better than Apples iTunes, and includes some
features that can make your entire audio system sound better than it ever has. Its
built-in EQ can tame a nasty bass peak that has been obscuring fine musical details, and
its Dither settings can make a so-so recording sound just a little bit better.
Is all of this worth $995? For me it is. That may sound
like a lot to spend on a computer program, but in high-end audio, $995 isnt all that
much. If youre using a Mac as your hi-fi audio source, then I think Amarra is
must-have. But dont take my word for it -- go to Sonic Studios website,
test-drive the demo version,
and decide for yourself.
. . . Randall Smith