To the computer audiophile, the convenience of having millions of tracks at your fingertips has always been hamstrung by quality issues. With the rise of Tidal and its lossless capabilities, streaming has really gotten a second look as a more legitimate source. Its appearance at audio shows is becoming more frequent (even if its use is often hidden from public view). So as with most intentions associated with the audiophile hobby, it should come no surprise that eventually steps to squeeze more fidelity out of this high-potential cloud-based service should come to market.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
Even in the early days of Spotify, it was subtly apparent to anyone who took the time to compare that the interface/device had great influence over the end game output of the service. As any seasoned audiophile might guess, headphone jacks from mobile devices didn’t rank very high on that top 10 list of listening options. Many may have perceived the wide array of upgraded pay-for-it bandwidth options from companies like Pandora and Spotify were plausible for casual listening but nothing so special to write home about in terms of critical listening. But even with these low ceilings it appeared that if mobile devices where the most quality challenged, computer sources were less so. And of the available options on that platform, a native player provided substantial improvements over the web-based browser in many instances. When Tidal launched, the company’s intent to be an “everywhere” product was obvious. Every platform and every device they could clear was optioned from the get go. Now filtering though those options to get the very best combination has just become a little more ambitious. While I would still contend that Airplay (to an Apple TV) from a mobile device with Tidal as a source produces notable improvements over other ATV app possibilities, the implied charge of the reviewer nags the question “how far down the rabbit hole can we go?” Controlling the 1s and 0s a little closer to the foundation couldn’t hurt, as could a direct lifeline to a high-end DAC. The current atmosphere surrounding digital playback appears a little more receptive towards software (in terms of incremental sound quality improvements) than say… upgrading your Ethernet cables. It seems to make logical sense in the mind of many audiophiles that something so close to the preparation of the digital files might offer the opportunity for some wiggle room for an uptick in fidelity. And so it has been with my experience. Software like Audirvana Plus and Sonic Studio’s Amarra can add a pinch of life, vibrancy and intimacy to digital files. They don’t really act as a miracle cure for flat lining, low-bitrate atrocities, but they can make a good recording just that much better. Sonic Studio has also released an all-purpose streamer-cleaner called the Amarra sQ a year ago that promised to improve any digital output via an outside application. Amarra for Tidal takes all of these elements and collects them together with its own interface in a one-stop shop for musical enjoyment.
Installation for the application was easy enough, you simply have to plug in your Tidal login information into the settings tab to get things going. Like most audiophile playback software (and even the free Tidal player), you can select your output device directly from the application. Beyond a two tiered “buffer size” variable, the rest of setup options are kept quite straightforward. The overall layout of the main interface is similar to the current version of the vanilla Tidal player but also adds some welcome changes. The color scheme feels a little more “Adobe Lightroom” and the left hand column includes an easy to access settings link. The horizontal stacking of the layout does feel a little more intuitive by comparison. I did find that clicking into almost any new page or playlist requires a small wait while things download (both images and playlists). A helpful green download bar appears to show some your progress for any given action, however a little less drag time wouldn’t hurt the overall user experience. One of the biggest additions to the game here is the inclusion of EQ. Access to the straightforward interface is available from the main page and includes a visible reminder letting you know what (if any) options have been selected. The EQ presets allow for an interesting selection of pre programmed EQs for headphones as well as custom options, you can even save unlimited personalized curves to your hard drive to reload later. The cross section of headphones chosen for the presets left me scratching my head a bit (NuForce NE-700?) but the inclusion of “Mac Laptop” and “Apple Earpods” definitely peaked my curiosity. The laptop setting definitely leveled out the mid-centric and thin sounding speakers from my Macbook Air but occasionally the pre assigned boost around 200hz was too much for the little speakers to handle. It was really a problem however; the curves can easily be adjusted with an user-friendly graphical interface. The customization here is important and fun custom feature to have, however for critical listening I left the EQ setting off during my sessions.
For some reason when I contemplate mid range tone, texture and detail I find myself inexplicably drawn to Diana Krall’s I Used to Love You But It’s All Over Now. The isolation of the of the intro’s vocals are accompanied by only a single guitar melody and allow for a serious look at the way Diana’s voice is sculpted by the gear. When comparing Tidal’s standard issue player loaded onto my MacBook Air to the Amarra player not only was it easy to pick out more detail, but also the sense of air around her voice seemed subtly more real. The husky bite of breath through windpipes range truer and felt intimately closer to the ear. In fact, in addition to this rich clarity, the entire sonic canvas felt closer. For a visual representation, imagine a highly intricate landscape image hanging on the wall. From a distance you could photoshop in more reds, blues, tweaking the saturation, contrast and the like. Well-executed amps, DACs, and speakers/headphones can all do this to a certain degree with appealing outcomes. Granted too much sonic fiddling will leave you with an unrealistic result, but a well-done presentation can mean the difference between lifelike vibrancy and the drab resonances of a foggy window. What Amarra for Tidal gives you is that “first row” presentation. It moves the canvas closer to your ear. No overdone semantics for the sake of grabbing your attention, just smooth, intimate listening that is so important to that last 10% of quality for systems that are capable of revealing it. Based on that position alone the software update appears to hold its own as an respectable upgrade for Tidal.
A comparison to a 24/96 version of the same song on the server seemed to edge out the streaming service by just a hair. A little more definition, a little more relaxed presentation stretched the sonic appeal of the high res Flac file ahead, but not by much. Now whether to credit that edge to the player or the file’s resolution is more of wager than I would like to bet on, but needless to say I would love to hear the Amarra software plugged into a 24/96 stream however pie-in-the-sky that may be at our current juncture.
The economic breakdown of the Amarra offering is surprisingly value driven when you consider the price of its immediate surroundings. The cost of a Tidal subscription is $19.99 month ($16.99 if you prepay 6 months) for the premium HD version. The cost of the playback software from Amarra is currently $39.99. For the price of two months of subscription you can afford the software. In those terms the Amarra upgrade appears immediately worth the cost, based on the upgrade is quality that I witnessed. The reality seems to be that if you are willing to invest in the premium cost of the service, this premium player should be set well in your sights to optimize that investment. This of course assumes you aren’t on a standard definition package, which if you frequently read this site and have already chosen Tidal over the other streaming services its fairly safe to say that you haven’t. That $39.99 will effectively marry you to the Tidal service however. If we push sound quality aside for just a moment and look elusively at the Tidal experience, it isn’t without its faults. I have heard some truly amazing playlists from Spotify, their music curation seems to be one of its most endearing qualities along with a solid UI. Tidal has playlists, but they often leave me with the feeling that an algorithm slapped them together rather than a real person (with good taste), although I seriously doubt this is the case for the featured “recommended playlists”. Search on Tidal can be a little tough and go but you will eventually find what you are looking for. I did experience a repeated issue where the wrong list of songs loaded for the Diana Krall album and I had to resort to searching for the song by name instead. Most of these examples can be worked out with a little debugging and amount to no more than minor complaints. At its core, the player satiates the needs of its intended consumer.
The proposition for an easy-to-access, all-in-one Tidal & Amarra interface is fully realized with this new software. Aside from a few small bugs, the promise of Amarra sound quality injected into one of the best streaming services available continues to take the music source to a new level. With a revamped interface and special bonuses like custom EQs, it is easy to see the value to the digital audiophile in having a nearly limitless collection of music to listen to. While the allure of this convenience has always been subject to a major decline in quality, Amarra for Tidal quietly closes this gap from a chasm to a crack for a price that roughly equals two months of service. In short, if you care about quality and you are already a subscriber to Tidal, you most definitely need to download the free trail for a listen. For those of you contemplating taking the plunge into an all-you-can-eat arrangement for you music for the first time, Amarra + Tidal does not disappoint. Based on what I have heard it is the best option currently available on the market for this type of service. Highly recommended.
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- Product - Sonic Studio's Amarra For Tidal
- Price - $39.95
- Product Page - Link
Source: MacBook Air
DAC: Auralic VEGA
Headphones: Audeze LCD-3, HiFiMAN HE-560, JH Audio Layla (Universal), JH16 (Custom), Beyerdynamic AK T5p
Cables: AudioQuest Victoria, Zu Mission RCA Mk.II-B, ALO SXC 24 2.5mm to 2.5mm balanced
About The Author
I’m a recovering musician turned audio reviewer. I currently manage and write reviews for Audio-Head.com and freelance with several other publications. I love tech and the tools of music, especially the ones involved in reproduction. After I finished my undergrad degree in business I went to the local community college and got one in photography, which was way more fun. I like it when people have unbridled enthusiasm for something and I have the utmost respect for individuals who try to create, even more for those who are good at it.