JCAT and JPLAY
As an avid experimenter in Digital Audio, I am always on the lookout for something new to test. When Chris asked me to look at JCAT and JPLAY, I thought it was a great idea.
So, where to begin? The first step was to co-locate Xeon Server with the Kii Three's and to line up all the accessory software and hardware. Server, Two Power Supplies, External Hard Drive, MDF Platform, DACs, Headphones. Screen, keyboard, mouse, software; Oh MY! Ready for the first two parts of this play!
JCAT NET Card FEMTO
“A High Tide Lifts All Boats”
Step Zero — install the JCAT cards into the server. I thought about trying a PCIe riser. I just did not feel right about adding that to the mix. So I modified the back of the case and the short card bracket to "fit."
I have two network runs to the Living Room, one Cat 5 cable, and one Fibre cable. Both cables go directly to my main Ubiquity Switch. When the server was in the system, I had previously been using the Sonore OpticalModule with significant effect. For either my NUC or the Xeon box, I just left it inline. I used direct ethernet to the switch from the server for these tests, and my server is running Euphony OS with Roon and the Stylus-EP endpoint software.
Swapping between the Motherboard Ethernet ports and the JCAT NET Card tighten things up a LOT. Imaging stabilizes, and there is more clarity in all of the music. There is a better bass extension and the soundstage locks in better. The JCAT NET Card FEMTO might just be a "King Tide." In the GOOD sense!
JCAT USB Card FEMTO
“Clearing the Waters”
As many of us have found, we need to pay attention to the interfaces between our computers and our music playback system. In this case, I am using USB. My current system is to use the SoTM tx-USB Ultra. When using the NUC or the Xeon, my SoTM just has to be there. Enough about them, let's swap between the MotherBoard USB port and the JCAT USB Card. So how do they compare?
I am starting with just the standard USB out of the motherboard in the Xeon box. The imaging is ok, but everything is blurred or veiled. Cymbals, Drums, all the little details are smeared over with something. For several months I have been using the tx-USB Ultra to get the crud out of the USB interface. Swapping the USB cable from the SoTM to the JCAT was very interesting. With no break-in, there is something special going on here. After 48 hours of running, the difference is much more apparent. The veil is lifted. There is a different sound signature than the tx-USB Ultra. The JCAT USB is richer, maybe more mellow. Yet the details and the highs are there. With both JCAT cards in the system, there is something about vocals that is more "human."
After a few more days of running with both cards in the system, there is no question that I have better sound than ever before with this single computer system. Everything is better, staging, bass extension, less treble glare!
The JPLAY software is a set of Windows services that run best on Windows 10 or Windows Server. For my testing, I went with Windows 10 Pro.
With Windows 10 installed, I decided not to use my NAS I put a drive on the server!
I am very used to Roon as a music playback system, so this is a step sideways. JPLAY FEMTO needs a UPnP control point. I am using MConnect HD on the iPad and BubbleUPnP on a Samsung Tablet.
One of the first hurdles was getting album art from JPLAY FEMTO. With Marcin's help, I found that there is a setting I had to change in the Windows Registry, which, while not an ideal way to have a user set up their system is the only way to fix this. I also had to make sure to clear the cache on BubbleUPnP! There is help on the forum, but that makes it very hard to find things. Here is the thread (LINK).
Out of the box, I feel that I am putting myself at a disadvantage here. There is an M.2 NVME SSD in the machine. The OS is not designed for Audio! Finally, I have done no other optimizations to Windows 10.
To save yourself time and stress, read the Jplay manual online. I was not smart enough to absorb it, and I bothered the folks at Jplay too much.
JPLAY has three playback modes, Classic, Xstream, and ULTRAstream. You need to use USB Audio Class 2.0, but not the Microsoft built-in as this one doesn't support Kernel Streaming. ASIO is also supported, but KS is the recommended output in JPLAY with the highest level of optimizations.
When I first started testing, I used the Windows 10 provided driver for the Kii Threes. This driver is a Windows Audio Session API driver that does not do Kernel Streaming for JPLAY FEMTO. It is only able to operate in CLASSIC mode. I finally found that the Windows 7 driver for the Kii speakers was in an odd place on their website that I did not see before! After installing that driver, I now have Kernel Streaming mode working.
The Berkeley Alpha USB has a driver, but their documentation says you do not need it for Windows 10. With JPLAY, you have to install it for Kernel Streaming.
Listening to and Operating JPLAY FEMTO:
Over about a three week period, I conducted several listening sessions two marathon JPLAY days. And finally, a Windows / Euphony day.
Listening and switching back and forth, making notes — the differences between JPLAY and Audirvana Marathon Session mirror previous experience. JPLAY still seems to have something interesting about vocals. It is subtle but interesting. Audirvana is different; the vocals are not the same, not unpleasing mind you but different. The staging and instrument locations are significantly better in Audirvana.
I had considerable trouble during the review switching back and forth between the two playback systems. I had to reboot the server multiple times. I had to run a remote desktop to manage the computer.
A quick note about JPLAY FEMTO Hibernate Mode, it ticks up the sound quality a bit. Also, there has been a couple of problems doing that switching where I had to reboot the Windows machine as I lost control. "Hibernate is not guaranteed" in this configuration.
Just running the Xeon machine with Windows 10 without USB or Network improvements is disappointing. Muddled!
Let's Add in the Hardware:
When you purchase the JCAT NET Card, there is documentation on how to configure the drivers for Windows. I started without that config, just to see. After going through the 8 pages of the provided network setup document and adjusting for the differences in the V 25 of the Intel network driver, I did find some more improvement is the sound. It is not worth doing an A/B or going back to test more. I would say that the clarity improved; NICE!
The next step was to switch over to the JCAT USB Card. The combination of both cards and the JPLAY software changed the character of the sound out of the server. So with the identical hardware, the comparison between using Euphony and Roon to Windows and JPLAY, the character of the Windows system has changed rather dramatically.
Yet the same character of the software players comes through. Audirvana presents a better sound stage and a tighter bottom end. There is still something appealing in vocals on Jplay, but the soundstage is spread out.
In closing, the JPLAY system setup is a little different and requires some Windows lower-level knowledge than say Audirvana. The various UPnP control point apps are a bit finicky and annoying, to put it mildly. It has been a couple of years since I have used a general-purpose OS for Music Playback. I used to run a Mac mini as my music server. I found then and was reminded during this review of how much I do not like trying to keep macOS or Windows safe and up to date.
The other area of concern for me is the almost overwhelming User Interface and data management system that is Roon. A couple of folks who have listened to my system feel that BubbleUPnP and MConnect HD are primitive and not intuitive. Others are used things like BubbleUPnP. I miss the speed and flexibility of Roon being able to move between streaming services and local music. The fast search and UI/UX in general.
JPLAY FEMTO Software and Microsoft Windows are just not for me.
I noted before the worry about ongoing driver support for DACs that only have Windows 7 ASIO drivers now that Microsoft has ended support for that OS. This is a near term issue.
There is an undeniable value in the JCAT hardware. Both cards do their job VERY WELL. If you are building a custom hardware system for music playback, you should put the JCAT cards on the hardware build list!
I thought that this review would be simple! So many things got in my way or did not work right. It was a comedy of errors and confusion. It was a fascinating process that got frustrating a couple of times. Thanks to @Marcin_gps at JPLAY for all the help and going the extra mile!
- JPLAY FEMTO software — 149 € (LINK)
- JCAT NET Card FEMTO — 435 € (LINK)
- JCAT USB Card FEMTO — 435 € (LINK)
Some of the playlists I used:
- @austinpop dCS Bartok Review playlist
- Audio Consultants play list
- Kii Audio - Spring 2019
- Pitchfork 2019 Best
My server hardware
- Audiophile Style Profile (LINK)
- SoTM tx-USB ULTRA
- HDPLEX 400 Power Supply for Server
- Allo Shanti Power Supply for the JCAT Cards
- External USB Drive powered by the HDPLEX 400
- IFi USB 3 cable for Hard Disk
- Moon Audio Silver Dragon USB cables for DACS
- Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha USB
- Mogami 3080 AES/EBU cable
- Puritan Audio Laboratories PSM158 and Power Cords
- Kii Three Speakers with BXT modules and Kii Control