Software as a hi-fi system component

A vinyl spinning front end can be subdivided into a turntable, a cartridge and and a phono stage. Those taking things further still might specify a tonearm and/or power supply.

Optical disc spinners – CD, SACD, Blu-Ray – have the choice of one or two boxes. Would Sir prefer his transport and D/A converter under one roof or as separates? If two, which interface and cable would Sir prefer for interconnection?

Nowadays, digital audio isn’t restricted to shiny five-inchers. Even the most basic computer can read audio data from a hard drive and send it downstream to a USB-lassoed DAC or over the LAN to a network streamer.

Computers can be subdivided into two basic layers: hardware and software. Hardware carries out work according to instructions given by the end user. In between the end user and the hardware sits software.

For music playback, hardware choices can start with a household PC/Mac and end with more deluxe/bespoke solutions like those offered by Antipodes or Aurender. Separating them on sound quality comes down to which internal components have chosen. Those with lower electrical noise emissions tend to sound better because electrical noise can cause jitter in the computer itself and/or in the downstream DAC.

Whatever device we choose for computer audio playback, the hardware’s tangibility makes it easier to see (and feel) where our money went. We might picture the factory in which it was assembled and boxed.

Software’s battle for perceived value is tougher. Its lack of tangibility is compounded by our ongoing exposure to (seemingly) free operating systems and application software.

We might be less likely to conjure mental images of the work that went into a piece of software’s development: for many a consumer, hands on a keyboard doesn’t have the authenticity of hands building gear piece by piece. Apple and Microsoft pay their software developers and, for the majority of computer purchases, this development cost worms its way into the hardware’s retail price.

More often than not, an operating system arrives pre-installed on our computer purchase and its updates are made available as free downloads. Mac OS or Windows often feels like it landed in our lap for nothing even if $millions were spent on its development.

The same could be said of smart devices running iOS or Android. It often feels like we are being charged for the hardware but the operating system is ours for nought.

And rolled into almost every operating system is a complimentary music player and library organiser. Again, at no obvious charge to us.

How can third party audio software developers compete with free? They might design a nicer UI, broaden file format support or go deeper with library management features – or all three.
Less obvious to casual observers or computer audio newcomers is how software coders can elevate their app’s sound quality by reducing its thirst for CPU cycles and RAM, in turn reducing the amount of electrical noise generated.

Some developers like Audiophile Optimizer tackle this at the OS level by stripping away the desktop environment, unused drivers and services from Windows Server 2012 R2 atop which we run our preferred Windows music player app.

Rune (not to be confused with Roon), Daphile and Volumio are Linux-based operating systems each tuned to minimise hardware resource usage, lower electrical noise and provide better sound quality to the end user.

Similarly, Fidelizer shuts down unnecessary (for audio) Windows services and processes so that we might enjoy better sound from a handful of supported music apps. Talking of which…

Software developers can also optimise sound quality at the application level. JPlay and Bug Head emperor are two favourites among Windows users. Over on Mac OS, Pure Music reworks iTunes’ music playback engine and Audirvana offers additional (and optional) in-app library management. Some bring better sound quality to streaming services like Tidal (Amarra, Audirvana) and Qobuz (Audirvana again).

For Windows and Mac users, JRiver can play from the desktop over USB to a DAC (as per its rivals) but its competitive edge is perhaps with the UPnP network streaming that frees the PC/Mac from the hifi rack.

For those looking for desktop playback and network streaming wrapped in a more handsome GUI, one that’s rich in (automatically applied) metadata, there’s Roon. As one might expect from the Rolls Royce of music applications, a fatter wallet is required.

Those who offer elevated sound quality AND a superior interface can charge more than those who only offer one of the two. Add in support for network streaming and an additional premium can be justified. Everyone should get paid for their work, software developers included.

(Side note: bits are bits-ers can sit back and enjoy iTunes or whichever UX / library handler they find most agreeable and feel happy that they spent their cash elsewhere.)

This isn’t intended as an exhaustive list of software options for the would-be computer audiophile. More that numerous possibilities exist and at a range of price points. Pricing on the afore-listed software was purposefully omitted.

Some audiophile-aimed software solutions can be had for free (Foobar2K for Windows, Vox for Mac OS), others are charged out at everything from the price of a cappuccino to that of an entry-level turntable cartridge.

And like the performance differences that exist between cartridges – or cables or streamers – the sonic delta between Software A and Software B can often exceed that of a cable or DAC changeup; something for which many audiophiles wouldn’t think twice about shelling out. Is it not high time we saw computer audio software in the same light: as a system component like any other?


Before we get to the comments section, keep in mind that your financial circumstances and value perception might be very different to that of your audiophile neighbour. What you see as outrageously expensive, s/he might not. Project ye not.

Written by John H. Darko

John is the editor/publisher of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

51 Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. Another issue that devalues software even before you buy it is the fact that there’s no re-sale option. Once you’ve decided not to use a piece of software anymore because you’ve found something better, you’ve burned your money. I personally don’t think the US$500.- for Roon (for example) is too much for the product but it does make me think about how long I will be using it for. And I guess I’m not alone in this.

    • The other question you worry about with Roon is whether they’ll be around in five years. I agree that a $500 investment for a software system is reasonable if it provides something that’s important to you. But investing in the lifetime membership means you’ll need faith that they’ll be in business long enough for you to recoup your investment.

  2. Talking about software as a hi-fi component, why not mentioning room correction software? I do consider the Dirac Live RCS (stereo) sofware as the best and most spectacular upgrade – in terms of value for money – I have ever bought.

    • This wasn’t intended as an exhaustive list of all possibilities, but yes, Dirac’s DSP engine can introduce some fairly profound changes to SQ.

      • Dirac is an interesting case. I’ve been told they have no plans of implementing MQA, leaving companies like Theta not able to offer MQA.

        I myself can’t believe that is true.

        HQPlayer is also an interesting case, as him -Miska- like his SW to be a windows / Linux player. While Roon and many of its users is more interested in his filters and upsampling capabilities and that is what makes HQPlayer so unique. Which Miska of cause is not willing to sell. (Or Roon to purchase?)

        These things may or most likely will change in the future. I’m not able to see which direction yet. But even though I like MQA, I also like Miska very professional approach to MQA, and telling us it is not what it say it is.

        I hope one day him and Bob can meet and discuss what their SW does, or doesn’t. Still nothing wrong in trusting your ears.

        I think SW in hifi is just in it’s early stage. As with HW to support it. Like MicroRendu, Squeezebox (ahead if it’s time), SonicTransporter and several others.

        What make Wadia, and Esoteric as an example, so good before with their DAC’s, is now been taken over by SW you more or less can purchase or control yourself, and your upgrade is much easier.

        Auralic did a SW upgrade and made sonic improvements. So this an example the SW upgrades do make a difference.

        Makes me also wonder if Schiit is still has the same MQA attitude…..

        Is Linux preferred or do we need a Audiophile OS ? Or another standard….
        SonicOrbiter is an example where you are not allowed to access the SW, and as an example can not change or add an SSD yourself. (And their website does even not tell you).

        So many parameters, so much to consider, and we haven’t even start to discuss audiophile network, switches, virtual switches, wirtual computers doing your Roon and HQPLayer.

        And the worst scenario:
        Apple one day purchase Spotify or Tidal and/or Roon.

  3. In the linux based space, I would have expected Moode to be mentioned, given the continuous improvements being made available on a regular basis.

    • As per the above comment, this wasnt intended as an exhaustive list of options but highlight how not all audio
      Software sounds the same and that it should be considered seem as a component proper.

      Besides, I suspect most HQ Player folk use it as an upsampler – or do i have that wrong?

      • HQPlayer, Roon, microRendu, that was just an innocent reminder about a very well known option that someone else published here ahead of me and pointed out in a wise and informative way, giving some food for thought I could not find within the original article. No need to upsample the discussion any further.

        • I’m glad this article served its purpose in promoting discussion about the (perceived) value and efficacy of software in the playback chain. 😉

  4. “Software as a hi-fi system component” — great title. such a compact statement, so pregnant with meaning, especially for this ever changing audio world. So much to learn. What a fascinating, addictive time thief this hobby continues to be.

  5. If being able to read the liner notes of an LP is a strength of record listening; lossless streaming (Tidal HiFi) with great software (Roon’s metadata & AllMusic editorial integration) brings an unequaled listening experience.

    Hearing a great song for the first time is one of life’s great pleasures.

    Roon with Tidal HiFi makes this possible multiple times per hour.

    Use Roon to search Tidal’s library for a musician, group, producer, writer, etc. Within Roon’s search results, make a playlist selecting (Allmusic’s editorial) check marked albums/songs. Sit back and enjoy the experience.

    I could do what Roon & Tidal HiFi does by manually searching and gathering music; this pair of software has made the experience extremely pleasurable.

  6. Open source software also makes its contribution to the muddy waters of perceived value re. software. Just an observation, not a judgment.

    Like an awful lot of other people, I’m impatiently waiting the arrival of Roon Core Kit to experience the difference that makes with it’s focused, minimalist dedicated OS.

    • And even with Roon running on an open source OS like Linux (ie Core Kit), one still must pony up for a Roon subscription.

  7. I would add one more point to the competitive edge that JRiver provides. It has the best playlist features. For those that use playlists there is no other audio software that I’ve come across that gives the user so much creative control over playlists. You’re basically limited only by your imagination. Clearly Roon is the system that has everyone’s attention these days and it’s understandable. I’m a subscriber myself but I still use JRiver regularly because nothing else can match its playlist features.

      • There are lots of anticipated new features in Roon 1.3. One of the most interesting to me is the SONOS endpoint support. Anxiously awaiting a stable and much more feature rich Roon 1.3!

  8. It would be wonderful if manufacturers would also realize how important software development is to their products. Once your product uses software for its core functions, you are, in effect, a software company. Whether you want to be or not. Unfortunately “consumer audio” has a much better track record with this than either Pro or High End audio. The number of driver issues and worse slow updates when new OS are released is Abysmal. Not updating your computer to a new OS because some audio gear has driver issues makes us all incrementally less safe. It is 2017 if your product runs software before you add new features you should make sure that at a bare minimum it runs on whatever platform you support.

    • Agreed. And many hardware-come-software players fail miserably in reinventing the wheel. Often UIs are a mess and gapless plays back is but an afterthought.

  9. The problem with software in a hi-fi system is the literally endless tweaking it requires. Once you’ve optimized everything, which takes a lot of time in many cases, you are then forced to download a new version which may require additional tweaking, or too often contains bugs which then require yet more attention. Or you get additional capabilities you don’t need. Setting up my phono cartridge and tonearm was truly a pain, but once done, its good for years. Constant software tweaking drains away the time and energy for enjoying the sound. It doesn’t have to be this way, but this is todays commercial reality.

    • I think this largely depends on how comfortable one feels with computers. I have zero issues installing drivers and clicking check boxes etc.

  10. As I see it, the record industry wants their cake and eat it too. They want us to pay more for an intangible which costs them less to provide and has no resale value and no provenance. A large part of buying music experience for me was browsing racks in record stores. I actually like having a stack of records with liner notes to read. They act like they’re doing us a favor with the little they provide. But then wonder why the record business is dying.

  11. If you have a software/hardware combo that works, just turn off the auto update feature inside the OS. Presto, no more ‘upgrade’ bugs or incompatibility problems. If you use a dedicated computer for music, what’s it matter whether the operating system is a few years old; or the software? If you like the combo, lock it in just as you do with that cartridge and tonearm -:)

  12. As a retired software technical writer (Oracle, Sun Microsystems and many others) with arthritis, the issue isn’t how comfortable one is with computers, its how one wants to spend one’s increasingly limited time. Musical enjoyment can border on the ecstatic for me, and I think for other musically inclined people. Tweaking and technicalities at the keyboard never achieve such a level of enjoyment *for me* (and I suspect other arthritis sufferers) no matter how fulfilling they may be. And with age, pressing all those little buttons can become literally painful, while listening to music can remain ecstatically fulfilling at times. Eventually, with advancing age, other once geeky computer audiophiles like me may come to feel this way too, I think. And at some point, people will begin to expect even software to work properly from the get-go, just as we now do with once hobbyist-dominated automobiles. BTW, I use Bluesound software on NAD hardware with excellent sound and *relatively* little tweaking necessary.

  13. John: I just want to compliment you not just for your great writing, but for encouraging discourse about this subject.

    Unfortunately, writing about software isn’t perceived as being as glamorous as writing about hardware. It’s of course no surprise that if/when you see an audio magazine on a news stand, you’ll find a picture of some extravagant component or loudspeaker on the cover and not a screencap of, say, Roon. It’s just common sense – a screencap isn’t as eye-catching.

    In the past, you have written about how the cost of an entry-level turntable is not necessarily the cost of entry to “good sound”. I agree with this wholeheartedly. On the flip side, almost everyone already has a computer – so the cost of a source is already largely taken care of. Some people may even have an old computer laying around the house that could host one of the specialised Linux distros you mentioned. With this in mind, I think software may be one of the best bang-for-buck products in audio playback – even if doesn’t have the visceral appeal of a shiny box or mechanical object.

    If nothing else, a computer + USB DAC is a great place to start – and for most young people, it is where they start. This setup is also great because it provides a lot of flexibility for upgrades. Want multiroom? Does the idea of having small spinning fans in your listening room torment your audiophile psyche (critical listening only pls)? Your computer can give up its duty as source, but play on as the server. All you have to to is put networked player in the chain (everything from Raspberry Pi, to Sonore, to W4S-Sonos is affordable) and plug your old DAC into that.

    • Raspi 3 + DragonFly Black’s burden on the end user is time with setup and config, not cash. As you say, a great place to start.

  14. hate to say this but this area, while intriguing, equally confuses me.
    I just trialed Roon for a few months, and aside from their bio info while playing or suggested pieces, I didn’t find their $20/mo pricetag to be of value.

    admittedly, unlike many of you, my gig is not sophisticated:
    I am using just a windows laptop to play tidal hifi, my ripped cds, and some 24/192 flac…is daisy chained to a dragonfly red, or chord mojo or the ifi micro idsd and then to cans/iems…or to powered desktop speakers.

    …still hoping to find an affordable solution to get more SQ..also still open to exploring more of this software (read amarra is to release soon a windows version of their software).

  15. Sarajan writes,
    “If you have a software/hardware combo that works, just turn off the auto update feature inside the OS. Presto, no more ‘upgrade’ bugs or incompatibility problems…”

    Theoretically, yes, this works, and in fact its what I’ve done with Bluesound. But in practice as your software becomes more out-of-date you will find it increasingly difficult to get effective tech support. Generally, after two versions out, you will have to update to get support. It is unlikely that you will never need support, particularly as your music collection grows and playlists become very long. In addition, existing bugs (which are always present in consumer-level products due to time-to-market pressure) never get fixed using this approach. Software used in truly critical systems is developed using strict development methodologies (“Structured Development Methodologies,” as they are called) which are highly iterative and based on in-depth analysis and “deconstruction” of the task(s) to be automated before coding even begins. This is how the software used in weapon systems is developed. There will never be time to do this in a commercial setting as long as the focus is on adding new features and as long as hi-fi companies (which are almost all tiny with limited software expertise) are doing the development. A better approach, in my opinion, would be to have very infrequent updates whose focus was primarily bug fixes and performance improvements and which were entirely automated and invisible to the end-user. This is technically feasible, but not profitable. Third-party software developed by more experienced software companies is another reasonable approach that Harman-Kardon took several years ago with their DMC-1000 hard-disk music server, which used the QNX Neutrino embedded O/S and that worked pretty well. Unfortunately, those units are all apparently plagued with faulty hard drives (I own several). But no software updates were ever required. Yay!

    • Doesn’t Windows 10 now force updates down the throats of its users? I don’t think they can be turned off? Mac OS is only slightly better with its regular nag nag nag.

      • If you go into your network connection properties and redefine it as “metered”, that is reported to allow you to stop Microsoft updates.

    • Also important to mention that any computing device connected to your home network is a potential vector of attack, and those running out-of-date operating systems are usually the catalyst for a security fuckjob. All it takes is one device to compromise the security of all the computers in your home. If you insist on running software from yesteryear on your music dedicated computer, just please make sure it’s off the network, for the sake of every other device in your home/office.

  16. Like everything else, a complex issue. I have been using a microRendu for a while now and one of its features is the ability to run in various Modes. These modes rely of upstream servers/services. When I initially got the mR I preferred one mode, I then changed various PSU options which effected the sound quality …I now use LMS, which I find much better; I have not tried Roon.

    As always, a system is a synergy.

    The current Roon pricing model seems to me to be difficult for them in the medium term. The way that software producers normally deal with price & change is to charge an overarching fee for all changes ….until there is a major product release. I think that if Roon continues to move forward it may well be forced to change.

  17. “Tweaking and technicalities at the keyboard never achieve such a level of enjoyment *for me* (and I suspect other arthritis sufferers) no matter how fulfilling they may be. And with age, pressing all those little buttons can become literally painful..”

    Computer interfacing vision/eye ailments are exploding. Whole generations have now been raised spending much of their time staring at small digital displays. If one is to read most recent research on recommended maximum time spent looking at digital displays, one becomes aware that most of exceed it each and every day. For the young thinking about future careers with security and strong growth potential, perhaps consider those associated with not just arthritis but vision health as well. One of my friends, who is a dermatologist, has never been busier removing tattoos and caring for those with to much sun exposure. Lifestyle choices have big implications in later life.

  18. The problem with all of these conversations is no one is defining metrics with respect to performance. I suspect the overwhelming majority of well written playback engines offers equal levels of actual sonic performance all things being equal, i.e no bugs. Most of the value is in the software’s add-ons, i.e. broader hardware support, customizatiable filters, workflow, look and feel, etc. etc.

    Speaking of Roon: Roon is a fine example of something that is just way too overpriced IMO for what it offers. I really do think they need to think about consolidating their business and trying to convince TIDAL to put it under their umbrella (make it a TIDAL value add on essentially, have a $25/month membership which includes lossless streaming+Roon). That would make WAY more sense to me from a business perspective than the ridiculous $499 price tag it has today given ALL the alternative free streaming platforms you have today.

    • For me, the metrics are similar to that of streamers and digital audio in general – the better sounding apps more readily connote a sense of ease.

      I’m confused: are you saying all software apps sound the same, Alex? And that any audible differences can be attributed to bugs?

      Re. Roon’s expense. You read the final para, right? Clearly its expanding user base DON’T see it as overpriced for what it offers! You can’t – or don’t want to – afford it, fair enough, but I would assume the Roon guys have a better handle on their business perspective than you or I?

      • I’ll make two points here:

        I think software players do generally sound the same minus advanced feature sets like filter control or hardware modes (async vs. adaptive USB) where you really are playing with the bits or the timing of when they arrive in a very significant way (again, bugs or poor hardware choices, i.e. you are swapping while playing music).

        Right, that was my point about metrics though. Is Roon’s value add it’s work flow or streaming performance or both? (just as an example, I’m not necessarily picking on them) I’m just trying to get folks to think about performance as a question of metrics.

        Since I’m in the camp that bits are bits on my computer, for me, the performance metric might be look and feel or workflow (read: list management) but I’m not willing to pay $10/month for it.

        Side note: I also feel that their pricing models prevents them from reaching any kind of critical mass. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t even see the average audiophile paying a couple of hundred bucks to play music given the proliferation of built-in streaming support from a myriad array of devices. Soon every device, including DACs, will offer streaming support too. I know Roon is more than just streaming, but at the end of the day you listen to music, not read it (at least most audiophiles I know).

        Perhaps though their intention is to stay as a high-end, luxury playback engine. That’s fine, more power to’em! I have doubts though that will ultimately succeed this way.

        • “Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t even see the average audiophile paying a couple of hundred bucks to play music given the proliferation of built-in streaming support from a myriad array of devices.”

          Yes, lots of devices offer streaming support but the quality of their UX varies considerably. AURALiC’s Lightning is very good but a lot of them are very poor indeed. For me, very few even get within a whiff of Roon.

  19. Larry B wrote;
    “A large part of buying music experience for me was browsing racks in record stores…”
    Oh yeah, me too! Big time. Woody Allen apparently as well. There’s a scene in Annie Hall where he’s flirting with Diane Keaton in a old fashioned record shop while browsing albums. Great scene in a great movie, obviously paying homage to that world. You can still have this nostalgic experience in San Francisco at Amoeba Records on Haight Street. Was just there in October. Might not last much longer…No doubt in my mind that the soulless experience of buying music online has contributed to a decline in the business. Ever been motivated to flirt while you’re downloading?

  20. Anyone here tried Hysolid? Great sounding software for free. Doesn’t rip CDs and, as it doesn’t cache files before sending to the DAC, you probably need a decent PC to run it without glitches. However, sound quality is very, very good; in my experience, way better than JRiver, and competing with my voyager mpd setup.

  21. Interesting piece: I’ve used both Fidelizer and Jplay. Both have enhanced my listening pleasure considerably and the financial outlay is not too heavy.

    I would not say the same about Roon. US$499 is a lot of money. I took out a lifetime license based on the reviews and my initial listening. However, I now find now that on long tracks (movements) in classical music Roon tends to skip the last few (10-12) seconds routinely. This is unacceptable. In fact, finally, someone over at Roon has been able to reproduce the problem on their system. It’s taken a very long time for them even to acknowledge the problem. Basically, from my point of view, the program is not usable. If it cannot stream music without dropouts, it’s not up to snuff.

    I’m not too hopeful that this will be resolved. The Roon user forums are full of “hanging threads”, basically I’m assuming these are unresolved problems. The “non-transferable” license is a scandal especially when a sum as large as $499 is involved. Basically, the buyer is being asked to suck up the loss and move on. Not a great philosophy.

  22. For me the Main thing about doing Roon is to have your backup as a separate as roon puts its tags on your digital files so if anything happens and the company goes bottoms up you at least have your music in the original format that you started with and can then plan a different strategy from their

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *