The Absolute Sound has never reviewed a piece of computer software. That’s about to change. Computer-based digital audio has now advanced to where it competes sonically with traditional media. But to achieve this ultimate level of fidelity requires not only state-of-the art hardware but also cutting-edge software. Currently the best and easiest way for a Mac-owning music-lover to optimize his iTunes playback experience is with the Amarra software package.
Amarra is a program that only works in conjunction with iTunes. According to its creators, Amarra bypasses all of iTunes audio processing and substitutes Amarra’s own proprietary audio algorithms in its place. This eliminates sonic degradations caused by iTunes sound processing. Amarra intends to preserve the best parts of iTunes—its database and ergonomic capabilities—and eliminate its sonic limitations. These shortcomings include automatic downsampling of higher-bit-rate music files (often to 44.1kHz/16-bit) and iTunes’ inability to support, process, and transmit bit-perfect versions of higher resolution files above 96kHz/24-bit. With FireWire DACs, such as the Weiss Minerva, Amarra allows playback of 172kHz/24-bit and 192kHz/24-bit files.
If Amarra’s only function were preserving the integrity of higher-bit-rate music files it would already be a potentially invaluable sonic tool, but as they say on all those late-night infomercials, “There’s MORE!!!!” Amarra also has a powerful and sophisticated three-band almost infinitely variable parametric equalizer, as well as automatic resolution and bit-rate adjustments. Plus it prevents snoring and eliminates back pains.
A Sonic Solution from Sonic Studio
So where did Amarra come from? Basically it’s a consumer implementation of professional recording software developed by Sonic Studio. Sonic Studio’s first products in the early 1980s were audio workstations for motion picture and recording studios. Its original “Sonic System” pioneered desktop delivery of Red Book CDs. Even today two out of every three commercially released CD titles are mastered using a Sonic Studio workstation. Sonic’s NoNoise noise-reduction system received both an Oscar and an Emmy for technological achievement.
In 2004 Sonic Studio released a native OS X application Sonic Studio-DDP, followed in 2006 by PreMasterCD, and in 2007 by SoundBlade. Amarra shares and draws on the work and technology from these professional applications.
Sonic Studio is understandably tight-lipped about the particular how’s and why’s of Amarra’s code. Hackers and computer geeks won’t find much on the Sonic Web site or in its technical white papers on how Amarra betters iTune’s and Apple’s own sound-processing systems. But the proof of this product’s attributes is in the listening. All Amarra needs to prove its worth is to better iTunes at sound reproduction.
If you play higher-resolution music files on a Mac, you’re probably familiar with what I call “the MIDI interface boogie.” Whenever you want to play anything that has a higher resolution or bit rate than 44.1/16, you have to open up the Apple MIDI interface control panel and change the MIDI output to match the resolution and bit-rate of the music file you intend to play. If you don’t do this, your Mac will internally downsample the file to 44.1/16 before sending it to your sound output device, even if that device supports a higher resolution. The Amarra program changes all that. Whenever you play a higher-resolution file through Amarra, it automatically changes the Mac’s MIDI interface to match the file’s maximum resolution and bit-rate. If you play a standard-resolution music file after playing a higher-resolution one, Amarra will change the MIDI interface back to standard resolution, as well.
Just as Amarra is designed to work exclusively with iTunes, it’s also designed to work optimally with particular hardware devices. Currently the list of approved audio interfaces includes all Sonic Studio hardware, Antelope, Ayre, Benchmark, Beresford, Empirical Audio, Lynx, Metric Halo, RME, Sonicweld, Wavelength, and Weiss DACs. Although most other USB and FireWire DACs will work with Amarra, they have not been officially sanctioned or tested by Sonic Studios for full compatibility. I’ve successfully used the HRT MusicStreamer and MusicStreamer+, Bel Canto DAC 3, April Music Stello, Devilsound, and Perpetual Technologies PA-1 DACs with the Amarra.
Amarra is available in two versions, a full program for $995 or the Amarra Mini for $395. The less expensive version eliminates several key features, including the ability to play music files above 96/24 resolution and EQ adjustments; it also has a far simpler graphic interface. But for many potential owners, Amarra Mini will deliver most of the sonic advantages of Amarra at a far more attractive price.
Amarra offers free demos of either program. The demos have all the features of a fully operational program except that they insert several seconds of silence every 30 seconds. When you purchase the Amarra program, Sonic Studio sends you a USB dongle/key that goes into one of your computer’s USB connectors. With the key inserted you have a fully functional program. If you remove the key Amarra reverts to demo mode until the key is re-inserted.
The Sound of Amarra
During the first three months that I used Amarra I tried at least a half dozen “builds” of the software. Each newer version added some features and eliminated some reported bugs, but in truth Amarra never achieved what I would consider “ready for prime time” status until the latest version 1.1. With this iteration, Amarra finally supports Apple Lossless files and Apple’s latest 10.6.2 “Snow Leopard” operating system. Being able to play Apple Lossless files is critical for many users, especially those who’ve been using iTunes for more than a few years. Most of these “legacy users” have the majority of their music in Apple Lossless format. At least three-quarters of my own 160GB music library is in Apple Lossless format. Having to re-import such a large amount of music just so I can listen through the Amarra interface, regardless of how good it might sound, was not an option for me. I suspect that many iTunes users will feel the same way.
The Amarra program has evoked some very passionate dialog on the Internet. Amarra’s more adamant critics called it: “The sonic equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes.” They claim it does nothing whatsoever to the sound of their systems. Supporters counter that the differences that Amarra makes are nothing short of extraordinary. Rarely have I seen a product that elicited such polar responses. So…is Amarra the lady or the tiger?
When I first began using Amarra, I found myself siding with the flat-earth bits-is-bits naysayers who found Amarra produced no sonic benefits whatsoever. As a card-carrying high-ender, I was troubled to find that I could not reliably hear any difference between iTunes and Amarra during A/B listening sessions. I used Amarra with a variety of DACs including the Bel Canto DAC 3, April Music Stello DA100, High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer+, Devilsound DAC, and Perpetual Technologies PA-1. No matter which DAC I used, I couldn’t discern any differences.
The first time I heard a difference between Amarra and iTunes was when I used Bel Canto’s 96/24 interface box coupled to its DAC 3 with 96/24 source material. When I used my own original 96/24 WAV master files of Boulder Philharmonic concert recordings, Amarra began to reveal its sonic potential, presenting a more fleshed out and dimensionally convincing rendition of the entire soundstage. The spaces between the rows of instruments were more readily apparent as were the reflections from side and back walls.
But it wasn’t until I started using the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp with Empirical’s OverDrive and the Weiss Minerva DAC that Amarra showed a more decided advantage over iTunes. Even with this hardware the differences weren’t dramatic, but they were pervasive, consistent, and noticeable. The improvements in three-dimensional depth and soundstaging that I had first heard through the Bel Canto 96/24 DAC 3 combo were more pronounced through the Empirical Off Ramp 3. Also these improvements were not limited to 96/24 material. Red Book 44.1 and Apple Lossless files were equally improved.
For the ultimate test of Amarra’s sonic abilities I created some 192/24 files using Audiogate software from my own DSD masters of the Boulder Philharmonic. I was delighted to discover that they sounded better through Amarra than they did when Audiogate performed its own on-the-fly downsampling. Again the sonic differences were primarily dimensional. The amount and clarity of spatial information increased. I also noticed additional low-level details and micro-dynamics. String and woodwind section subtleties during the quieter passages of my latest recording of the Boulder Philharmonic performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique were easier to hear. The downside of this increased low-level detail was that minor intonation differences in the strings were more apparent.
During my sonic journey from doubter to convert, I kept asking myself, “Why does Amarra only make a difference with some setups and not with others?” My hypothesis is that a system must have adequate resolution and a sufficiently modern USB (or FireWire) interface for Amarra’s ministrations to be audible. While it might be considered an extreme position, Amarra serves as a crucible for a computer-based Mac system. If you can’t hear a difference with Amarra, your system isn’t good enough.
To give you an idea of just how revealing a well-set-up Amarra system can be, near the end of my review Locus Design sent me its latest Nucleus USB cable to replace the Polestar USB cable I had been using. Being something of a cable cynic, I was nonplussed to discover the Nucleus lowered background noise when I was listening through Amarra. When I tried the same A/B test using iTunes, I couldn’t hear any audible differences between the Nucleus and Polestar cables.
Amarra Is Swahili for Icing on the Cake, But First You Need a Cake
So should every audiophile with a Mac-based computer music system run right out and buy a copy of Amarra software?
Er, no. Unless your hardware is up to snuff, you will quickly discover that Amarra doesn’t seem to do anything to improve the sound of your system. First, you need components with sufficiently low noise and high resolution to make the differences between Amarra and iTunes audible. If you don’t already own one of the units on what currently is a pretty short list of Amarra-supported USB or FireWire DACs, put your money toward one of them instead of toward Amarra. Think of it like this: If you want to run an entry in a horse race, you need to buy the horse before you hire a jockey and trainer.
Once you have assembled hardware that lets you hear Amarra’s sonic ministrations making an audible difference, I am confident you will discover, as I did, that Amarra is an indispensible part of any state-of-the-art Mac-based computer-audio system. If you want to hear how good a Mac-based system can sound, you have to use Amarra. In the end, it’s that simple.
SonicStudios Amarra Software
Hardware Platform: Apple Macintosh OS 10.4, 10.5, 10.6 with iTunes
Price: Amarra $995, Amarra Mini $395
Sonic Studio LLC
330 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.?Suite A
San Anselmo, CA 94960-2552?
Source Devices: EAD 8000 Pro CD/DVD player and transport, CEC TL-2 CD Transport, MacPro model 1.1 Intel Xeon 2.66 GHz computer with 14 GB of memory with OS 10.6.2, running iTunes 8.2 and Amarra 1.1 music playing software
DACS: Bel Canto DAC 3, April Music Stello DA-100, Perpetual Technologies PA-1, Weiss Minerva DAC, Empirical Audio Overdrive DAC, Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3, Bel Canto 96/24 converter box
Preamps: Reference Line Preeminence One B passive controller
Amplifiers: Bel Canto S-300 stereo amplifier, Edge Electronics AV-6, Accuphase P-300 power amplifier, Modified Dyna St-70 amplifier, April Music Stello Ai 500
Speakers: Joseph Audio Pulsars, ATC SCM7s, Paradigm S1s, Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, Role Audio Kayaks, Earthquake Supernova mk IV 10 subwoofer
Cables and Accessories: Locus Design Polestar USB cable, Locus Design Nucleus USB cable, PS Audio Quintet, AudioQuest CV 4.2 speaker cable, AudioQuest Colorado interconnect, Empirical Audio Coax digital cable