THE VALUE PROPOSITION IN COMPUTER AUDIO: front end software
The three party software system is now firmly entrenched in our culture. And, per a recent AS poll I posted, there’s been some serious change in platform preferences and practices among computer audiophiles over the last 7 years. Half of all respondents in the 2012 poll favored Mac. About 35% preferred Windows, while a scant 13% favored Linux. My 2019 poll results showed that a majority of respondents had no single platform preference and selected a platform independently for each system component and/or use.
In the 2019 poll, 23% used Mac for all of their audio functions, 19% used Linux exclusively, and 16% used only Windows (an even statistical split). One very interesting finding to me (and the only number that’s statistically different from the rest in this small sample) is that a majority of respondents now have no single platform preference - 39% used multiple platforms in their systems, selecting each because they thought it was the best for its intended use.
Of even greater interest is the finding that player choice, based on SQ alone, is statistically split evenly among users of all 3 major OS platforms and those who hear no difference among similar players on different platforms. If there’s a trend, it’s toward Linux (35% vs 16% each for Win, Mac, and no difference heard) – but it’ll take a larger sample to confirm this impression. One very important factor I was unable to address is whether respondents actually had more than one platform so they could make real comparisons in their own systems and settings. So we don’t know how and on what criteria these preferences were determined.
Given the clear lack of consensus on computer audio front ends (i.e. players and packages that include them), I thought we’d take on a player comparison next and evaluate the many open source players available to us. As this is a series on finding value in audio, we’ll be looking only at freeware and a few very low cost alternatives. Comparison of freeware with Roon, JRMC etc seems a bit unfair to me, although some open source packages do rival costly software and hardware players for SQ and are viable alternatives for even the most serious audiophile on a budget.
For 10 points, does anybody want to guess how many open source music player programs are available right now for download from internet sources? And for the 20 point toss-up, guess who’s nuts enough to try to evaluate and compare most of them? Of course, the $64,000 question is whether any is good enough to make you as happy as the known and loved fee-based software and hardware players. And for those seeking the best value in audio as they define and determine value for themselves, this begs the question of whether fee based players are worth their cost compared to open source and freeware / shareware alternatives.
For the last 8+ months, I’ve been finding, downloading, and wringing out dozens of software players for Windows, MacOS, Linux and variants on a farm that includes about 2 dozen devices on several platforms powered by ARMv7, ARMv8, 32 and 64 bit Intel and AMD CPUs as old as a 2005 Toshiba Satellite U205-S5034 laptop and as new as a 2018 HP running Win10 v1903 and a Raspberry Pi 4 with 4 G of RAM. I’ve put the same players on multiple platforms (when available for them), including ChromeOS, Win10, Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, OpenSUSE, Arch, Puppy, Slackware, Raspbian, OSMC, OpenELEC, LibreELEC RISC, JEOS platforms that come with embedded players, and macOS Mojave on VMWare.
I’ve evaluated what I consider to be the most important aspects of each, including download, installation, configuration, library management, user interface, flexibility, aesthetics, and (of course) sound quality. I did try to load and play DSD on all. I did not test them for MC use, although many will do 5.1 or better.
For those who need a quick fix, the 10 point answer to my opening question is “at least 50.” And the $64k answer is that you can get a truly fine player that sounds as good as the big boys for no more money than you choose to donate to the development team. Although all do not feel the same way, I certainly get value for money in the additional features available from Roon, JRiver etc – but I’d be very happy using and listening to most of the players discussed here if it were my lot in life.
I’ll say up front that no player / music manager package I’ve yet found meets all my needs and fulfills all my desires. I want to stream my own music (or, at the very least, music of my choice) to me wherever I am, with both top sound quality and full functionality / data display, which eliminates most. I love liner notes and background info on the music, performers, composers, setting, etc. I love detailed info on the recording itself, with comprehensive credits. I also love looking at album jackets, so I don’t like players that won’t display my library as a wall of cover art. As a liner note junkie, I like to have more information available to me than any open source player I’ve found will display, with the exception of Jajuk. As it’s easier every day to find comprehensive information and album art on the internet with very little effort, I could easily and happily live with any of several right now.
When set up and configured properly on well constructed platforms, most of these players are interchangeable for sound quality. But differences abound in ease of installation, configuration and use. The best are not far behind some costly darlings, and most will gather and direct your files to your processing and amplification devices with excellent fidelity. You don’t have to spend a cent to be able to listen to truly excellent sound.
BASIC PLAYER INFORMATION: There is a Wikipedia page here with a pretty good and (as far as I can tell) fairly accurate set of comparison tables of 40+ music player programs, most of which are currently available. Although many are very similar to each other, almost all have at least one differentiating feature you could very well love or hate. I was more than a little surprised to find a few that look like re-skinned versions of the same player, but library presentation and ease of management vary greatly among them. I strongly recommend that you download and try at least a few to find “them you loves & them you hates”.
As these are all open source, all it takes is time and effort to plow through them. But, as I’ll describe shortly, the amount of effort to install and configure them varies greatly from one to another. Some are more network-friendly than others, especially on Linux platforms. As usual, I’ll lay out the paradigm on which this review is based up front, because there are so many alternatives and options for each and every piece of audio software.
THE FACTS, ASSUMPTIONS, AND EXPECTATIONS IMPLICIT IN THIS WORK
- This review is based on out-of-the-box software – no tweaks, no twists, no addons. I made no effort to modify, extend, or otherwise alter the functionality of the players as provided by their sources, both because comparisons would no longer be based on stock packages and because it took me months to do what’s described herein. There are ways to make many of these do more than their creators intended and/or included. Many plugins, patches, etc (e.g. Wavpack) can add serious functionality – and I’ll get to them in time. This article is a basic guide to what you can expect from most popular open source or inexpensive proprietary players.
- There are far more players, platforms, hardware, configurations, options, versions, variants, triumphs, tribulations, random events, preferences, deal breakers, and unknowns than one person could ever explore in a lifetime. This review took many months. It’s far from perfect, but I hope it’s a useful contributor to a baseline fund of knowledge, from which we can all explore new frontiers and share what we learn.
- Every reader undoubtedly knows something that I don’t and thinks, feels, or hears something that has never crossed my personal radar screen. Please share your responses, knowledge, thoughts, experiences, and feelings so we can all benefit.
- I downloaded, installed, configured, and operated each player exactly as the source instructed.
I looked at most configuration options only if I thought they were significant, of general interest, and available for most players, e.g. re-skinning.
- I did explore truly unique & noteworthy 1-off features or options I thought were important
I used the same source files, file server, & playback systems to evaluate all players & platforms.
- The same WD MyCloud Mirror 4T NAS was used as a mapped drive on Windows and as a file share mount (fstab line item) on Linux.
- No files were downloaded to any player.
- I used typical operating system versions and configurations without modification.
- I made no effort to modify, upgrade, or improve on what you see and get from the source.
- Windows installations were done using MSI packages whenever available.
Mac OS installations were all done on Mojave as a virtual machine on Linux as VMs.
- This is not a great way to use these players. Neither VirtualBox nor VMWare could deliver the speed and operational smoothness necessary to match native platform installations.
- Boxes (a fresh approach to virtualization on Linux) was no better, although I ran out of patience by the time I got to this evaluation and suspect it can be made to work better.
- I cannot imagine using virtualization for daily audio on the freeware platforms available today (VMware, VirtualBox, Boxes etc) on a basic computer. I may eventually build a serious box and try a more aggressive approach to virtualization, but there’s no benefit for most audiophiles.
Wine was used to run Foobar, MusicBee & other Windows-only programs on Linux boxes.
- Wine works pretty well and is certainly usable for audiophiles with software and hardware that will allow bit perfect playback. But unless you simply have to have a particular Windows-only player, I can’t imagine why anyone would use Wine for audio.
- For Linux distros, the included package manager was used (via the software installer if included and usable) for installation of each player obtainable from an accessible repository. Otherwise, Linux player packages were downloaded directly and installed via command line. Wine installed all exe files.
- GUIs were used for all players and platforms that had them. Command line players were managed both in terminal and via SSH, using Putty for remote terminal access.
Collective A-B comparisons among SBC players and platforms were conducted using a 7.1 Pioneer Elite receiver with Wolfson 24/192 DACs and 4 HDMI inputs driving Rogers LS3/5as and a Yamaha 8” powered sub.
- SPLs were matched for 4 players at a time with both A and C weighting, using reference tones as well as timed peaks on program material.
Unstructured comparisons of SBC players were done by setting each up on a separate 16G microSD card with Debian Stretch, played through the same Raspberry Pi 3b+ driving an SMSL SU-8 v2 DAC into a Prima Luna Prologue Premium power amp pushing Focal 726 tower speakers in our 28’x13’x7’6” living room.
- For reference, Roon Bridge was also installed on each SD card, and the SMSL DAC has a Chromecast Audio JRiver zone on the optical input.
- I used RealVNC for desktop access to all processors running programs with GUIs.
- Most of the freeware players are open source, although a few are not or are limited without buy-up.
- Most provide bit perfect playback at stated resolutions with ALSA (Linux) or WASAPI (Win).
MEET THE PLAYERS!
As you can easily see, there’s little to distinguish many of these players from each other. There are a few basic GUI layouts, each serving as a default for one group and being an option for many others. Most of the displays can be customized to some degree, with color schemes and panel layouts being the most common embedded options for appearance. Sound quality is also interchangeable per format among most open source players whose back end audio engines drive ALSA (Linux) or WASAPI (Windows) and can be configured for bit perfect, no frills playback of supported formats. See the detailed comparison table for specifics.
We studied, downloaded, installed, configured, listened to, rated, and compared 31 of the most popular players available today on one or more of the platforms for which they’re provided. We listened to each on at least 2 of our reference systems and A-B-C-D’ed many in batches of 4 on the same system with level matching. We used 16/44.1 & 24/192 FLACs plus DSD files of jazz, blues, classical, folk, rock, and bluegrass on both commercial recordings and our own live 24/192 wav recordings of our own band and instruments. These include a Yamaha G1J grand piano, National Tricone resonator guitar, multiple electric and acoustic archtop and flattop guitars, ‘57 Fender P-bass (Fiesta Red for those who care), and Lee Oskar diatonic & chromatic harmonicas. Amplification included a Vox Nighttrain 5W class A triode guitar head into a Raezer’s Edge 10” cabinet, ‘68 Fender Vibrolux, Trace Elliot Elf bass head into Mesa ported 12” cab with EVM, and a Fender Blues Deluxe.
We ranked each numerically from 1 to 5 on eleven major functions, with 1 being the bottom of the scale (worst / hardest / least desirable / weakest, etc) and 5 being the top. The functions are download, installation, configuration, library management, web streaming (radio, WAN access etc as one category), system requirements, art & info availability & display, user interface, flexibility, uniqueness, and sound quality. We timed the process of accession, download, installation, configuration and file opening from first click to first note of playback.
These are the top players based on mean numeric ranking (4 or greater):
With scores of 5, the top ranked players for sound quality alone are (in alphabetical order) Cantata plus MPD on Linux, Daphile, DeaDBeeF on Linux, Foobar2000, Kodi, Moode, MusicBee, Pine, RuneAudio, Volumio and Vox. Each of these was set up and configured for bit perfect play of the same source material.
Music player software does many things, each of which can vary in importance to any one of us from irrelevant to essential. Only you know what you need and what you’ll trade off to get it. This table of specific features may help you break a tie:
THE REST OF THE STORY
Here’s the complete comparison chart of all 31 players:
(click to view full PDF)
CHOOSING AMONG THEM
Most of the GUIs are similar enough in appearance, feel, content, and function to make choosing among them more effort than it’s worth. Basic skins are either light grey / white or dark / black, and many of the layouts and graphics are so similar that they might well have come from the same designer. The default graphics for Moode and Volumio have little to differentiate them from each other:
The same can be said for an entire group of others, like DeaDBeeF & Guayadeque -
or MusicBee and Dopamine -
The only way to make an intelligent, reasoned decision is to download and try each of the ones with the features you simply have to have, e.g. DSD, MC, desired drive options (USB, optical etc), great album art & info displays, etc. You’ll love some of these players, hate others, and almost certainly find at least one with which you can live happily ever after - at least, until the buying bug bites
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
There are many considerations in choosing an audio player for computer use, including
What computer will you use?
- One you already have
- A new one you plan to buy or build for multiple uses, one of which will be audio
- A new one you plan to buy or build as a dedicated audio player
How complex do you want your system to be?
- One box solution (player, server, etc)
- Computer front end with NAS or other remote server
What are your player access needs?
- None – player to DAC to audio system at one location like the old days
- Remote control only on LAN with mobile app
- LAN – multiple endpoints / renderers on a home network
- WAN – access to home server to stream remotely
What program sources will you access?
- Local music files only
- Web radio
- Other internet streaming sources
- Video material
What kinds of music files will you play?
- High resolution FLACs
What kind of computer will you use?
- x86 etc
- ARM based, SBC
- What operating system will you use?
- Do you tend to stick with something you like for a long time or change around a lot?
Hopefully, this article will have helped you understand open source player options and what might work well for you. We’re finishing up a similar piece about operating systems, including multiple Linux distros, current and legacy Windows and Mac OSes, plus a variety of options for Raspberry Pi etc. This includes a discussion of ways to optimize, tweak, and monitor computer audio playback along with some of the open source tools you can get to do these things on any platform. After that will come a hardware comparison and a piece on small speaker alternatives that offer great value along with great sound.
While waiting for the next piece, many of you will find great pleasure in downloading and playing with some of the players we just discussed. You have nothing at all to lose and a lot of fun and knowledge to gain. Experiment with plugins. Reskin a player. Change drivers to see if you can hear a difference – on Linux, try Jack vs ALSA and play with PulseAudio. On Windows, you have WASAPI and ASIO to start with. There’s a whole world of new knowledge waiting for you if you try. I can pretty much guarantee you that what you learn and how much fun you have will be proportional to the effort you put into it. Enjoy!