This is a hijack. Installing Amarra SQ or SQ+ on OS X creates a virtual sound output device in the System Preferences pane to which audio from any application can be sent and – fingers crossed – improved. The theory is simple enough: Sonic Studio’s audio engine is less CPU intensive than that of say iTunes or Spotify and it bypasses Apple’s Core Audio mixer – it’s bit perfect. The resulting sound is different, hopefully better.
This wishful thinking stems not only from the end user’s preference for SQ/+’s narrower headstaging and more forward midrange but also from the possibility that crackling distortion might present. Distortion that’s probably attributable to a lower spec-d CPU’s inability to keep up with demand for its clock cycles: two CPU-intensive apps vying for attention amidst a sea of interrupt requests doesn’t always play out as the audio software engineer intended. In this case, that’s Jon Reichbach of Sonic Studio.
Reichbach started with Sonic Solutions back in the late 1980s. In 2002, he purchased their pro-audio arm, Sonic Studio. With roots in the pro audio space, Reichbach coded the very first version of Amarra during one Christmas holiday break just so that he had something he “could hit play on at home”. That something was polished for the consumer space and Amarra has subsequently become one of the better-known audiophile-centric music players for Macintosh.
What to do if your SQ+ installation brings with a case of the crackles? Abandon ship? Not quite. If you’re a Tidal user, there’s a fresh option: Amarra For Tidal (US$40). Rather than run two applications, routing the Tidal’s audio output via SQ+ and out to the DAC, Amarra For Tidal dispenses with the Tidal application altogether.
Think of Amarra For Tidal as Amarra SQ skinned with an interface that can phone home to Tidal via its API; also along for the ride comes SQ/+’s EQ panel and audio processing engine. One application does the work previously handled by two: library navigation, song selection, playback controls, FLAC decoding, EQ and buffering.
Developed in conjunction with Tidal engineers, Amarra For Tidal puts everything under one roof. Say hello to a lower CPU overhead and a better fit for less powerful hardware hosts, a corresponding drop in the likelihood of crackling as well as the strong possibility of superior sound quality. Superiority not only over Tidal’s own app running solo but also a qualitative difference to the Tidal and Amarra SQ+ combo.
That’s how Reichbach himself hears it – and calls it: Amarra 4 Tidal > Tidal + Amarra SQ+ > Tidal.
Tidal’s OS X desktop app is in essence a web browser skinned to behave like a standalone desktop application. It doesn’t sound as satisfying as Sonic Studio’s offerings because the audio output has yet to be fully optimised by Tidal’s software engineering team. Improvements are apparently in the works.
We also know not if the Tidal app applies dither to reduce the audible impact of least significant bit rounding errors. According to Reichbach, dither helps software players sound less ‘digital’.
All this would be pontification and conjecture for the sake of it were it not for Amarra For Tidal sounding better than the native Tidal app.
Experience tells me that digital reproduction can be discerned via two fundamentals: 1) greater avidity – music sounds more alive, less diluted; and 2) less rigid, more reflexive dynamic suppleness. The latter I liken to giving one’s music collection a gym workout followed by a deep-tissue massage.
Amarra For Tidal sounds both more relaxed and more alive than the native Tidal app. The difference is subtle but definitely there. If you find digital too tense to listen to for more than periods, the Sonic Studio offering might deepen your resilience.
Of greater surprise is how different Amarra For Tidal sounds to SQ+ playing atop Tidal’s own software. Gone is the soundstage narrowing that might divide SQ+ listeners. Translating the audible differences between the three options looks like this:
Tidal: s t e r e o p h o n y
Tidal w/ SQ+: steREOPHony
Amarra for Tidal: s t e r e o p h o n y
I much prefer Amarra For Tidal to SQ+’s aural revisionism but readers are advised that the former isn’t all sunshine and flowers. For starters, Reichbach’s C-coded take on a Tidal app is quite a bit slower in pulling down cover art and search results than the Tidal app proper. The interface looks isn’t as polished as Tidal’s own either. That’s the compromise here: better sound necessitates patience with the green bar that indicates the Sonic Studio app’s communication progress with Tidal servers.
Aware of these issues, Reichbach is apparently already at work on an improved UI. The web-based overhaul is slated to arrive in a month or two; something our man from California promises will be “prettier and faster”. It’ll also be a free update to all existing users. No need to play wait and see if the itch to lift Tidal’s sonic performance has already struck. Scratch it with the 15-day trial. If Amarra For Tidal’s improvements tickle your fancy then it’s US$40 for the full Monty.
The biggest news I’ve saved for last: Amarra For Tidal is also coming soon to Windows, making it the first Sonic Studio application to break from an erstwhile OS X-only edict. I’ll be posting screenshots of the Windows version to the DAR Facebook page shortly.
Lastly, an iOS remote control app, schedule to drop in September, will mirror the forthcoming web-based UI. I’ve seen it and it’s a big improvement on Amarra For Tidal’s current look and feel.
Further information: Amarra For Tidal