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We’re gonna JPLAY in the sunshine!

A holiday in the sun. It’s what many of us dream of after months and months of the nine to five. The aim? To rid ourselves of the stress and tension of modern life. We might take a week by the pool in Thailand or two weeks hiking in Switzerland.

However – wherever – we choose to unwind, we to hope to return to our daily lives feeling rested; still ourselves but looser of joint, with less tension in the shoulders, more relaxed. When we feel as good as this, life seems to come more easily.

Digital audio isn’t all that different. Poor sounding rigs sound nervous and tense. There can be a hardness in the treble or a rigidity with micro-dynamics reflexiveness. This can lend The Blue Nile’s “Stay” a little too much stridency or make Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls” sound a tad thin or cause us to soon tire of Merck’s intense IDM mixes.

An AudioQuest DragonFly Black hooked into a basic Mac or PC cannot hope to sound as effortlessly easeful as a high-end streamer pushing ones and zeroes into an Aqua La Scala MKII.

Better setups sound as they have spent time by the pool, sipping cocktails, enjoying the occasional massage and soaking up the sun. With decent hardware, music seems to flow more easily. In other words, music sounds better rested. Vacationed, even. Remember the V-word — we’ll be coming back to it.

Aural satisfaction doesn’t fall entirely to the D/A converter but also to what we feed it – streamer/server – and how – digital cables. I know this because of many years of listening experience – and not just the theory that informs product engineers’ intent to lower jitter and electrical noise.

DACs, streamers, USB cables, S/PDIF cables – even Ethernet cables – they all make a contribution to how smooth/rough, uptight/relaxed, easeful or not is the audible result. String several better sounding digital audio products together, each one adding single digit performance, and they sum to a larger, much better sounding whole.

Roon with JPLAY.

The audible differences between network streamers and/or servers don’t only fall to their hardware configurations but also the software installed. The very same PC running Windows 10, optimised by Microsoft for the user experience and NOT digital audio sound quality, is unlikely to sound as good as a Linux distribution that has.

Audible differences can be also be heard at the application level. As previously argued on these pages, playback software should be seen as as a component like any other. Catch up on those thoughts here.

For music playback software, choice matters. On an 11” Macbook Air running OS X El Capitan, I like the sound of Roon quite a bit. Thing is, I like Audirvana+ a little bit more. The latter’s overall gestalt sounds a shade more easeful and tonally richer.

On functionality and UX, the scales tip heavily in favour of Roon. Both apps do Tidal and library management but only Roon does network streaming. Only Roon has the extensively hyper-linked meta-data layer (that spans Tidal). Only Roon has the interface that demands to be touched. If only Audivarna+’s well-vacationed audible vibe could be spliced into Roon. Hold that thought.

Alas, Mac OS (formerly OS X) isn’t where the touchscreens live. For hands-on computers (not tablets) that run desktop apps we look to Microsoft. For Roon playback over USB AND a touchscreen interface, I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (i3 1.5Ghz, 4GB RAM, 64GB SDD). It runs Windows 10.

My Intel NUC also runs Windows 10. Adding a touch screen monitor doesn’t require expensive third party drivers. Support for getting hands on – quite literally – is baked into the OS.

With the NUC USB-lassoed to a music library HDD and Vinnie Rossi LIO DAC module to operate as Roon server and endpoint, the Windows machine can’t quite compete with the Audirvana+ v3.0’s summer holiday-d sounds running on the 11″ Macbook Air. That’s as I heard it through KEF LS50 loudspeakers and the Sennheiser HD800S headphones.

How to elevate the sound quality of the NUC?

Kazoo.

Enter JPLAY (€99) – playback software that wears a number of hats in the Windows world.

Developer Marcin Ostapowicz explains: “JPLAY is a highly optimized playback engine. It does not install its own USB drivers. JPLAY Driver is the playback engine. It’s [appears to the OS] in the form of a driver, because this way it can be easily integrated with any software player or any app that has support for ASIO output.”

“But JPLAY is not only JPLAY Driver. It is also JPLAYStreamer which is our own implementation of the OpenHome standard and essentially converts a PC into a network renderer/streamer.”

“There is also the minimalistic JPLAYmini which is a standalone player with text GUI and basic features, but it sounds pretty damn good.”

Let’s get started. Installation of JPLAY is like any other Windows app: wizard based.

“I recommend choosing ‘Alternative Intel CPU version’ in the installer if you’re going to use a NUC. Also, I recommend you to tick ‘optimize for SinglePC’ option in the installer if you’re not going to use dual PC mode,” says Ostapowicz via email.

[Side note: according the the JPLAY website, Dual PC Mode is for serious audiophiles where two PCs connected via LAN sees one PC fully optimised for music playback whilst the other handles playback control – beyond the scope of this review.]

JPLAY settings are accessible from the system tray. On this our man from Poland says, “For output settings in the settings panel I recommend you choose KS (Kernel Streaming), Engine UltraStream and DAC Link at 40Hz, which should sound good and work fine with most of the DACs on the market. PC Buffer at 10s and the rest of the settings at default.”

With JPLAY installed and the LIO DAC set as the output device, I started with JPLAYMini and worked backwards through the other operational modes.

Select one or more files in Windows Explorer (or other music playback app), hit copy (Ctrl-C), pull up the JPLAYmini window and hit the spacebar. Music! The interface might be a no frills affair – only good for those with keyboard and mouse – but the sound…? More easeful in its delivery than Roon. Less rigid in its joints than Foobar.

JPLAYmini.

For smartphone or tablet control we move to JPLAYstreamer and OpenHome. With JPLAYstreamer already running on the NUC as our endpoint, server and control apps must be optioned.

For file serving I went with Minimserver as per JPLAY’s recommendation — and although well detailed on the JPLAY website, installation is a long way from a one-click deal: install Java; install Minimserver and configure it so that FLAC and DSD are converted to .wav ready for playback; install FFMPEG for (optional) ALAC, AAC and MP3 file support.

Whilst Minimserver carries out its initial library scan we point its output at JPLAYstreamer. For playback control, JPLAY recommend Kazoo for iOS, Windows or Mac OS but for Android, BubbleDS Next gets the nod.

Running on my iPhone, Kazoo tells Minimserver which files to pass on to JPLAYstreamer for handoff to the LIO DAC module’s USB input. Here we have a control/playback triangle, just like Roon. One that can be executed across a home network but in my setup both Minimserver and JPLAYstreamer sat on the same device: a NUC and, later, the Surface Pro 3.

JPLAYstreamer’s playback is gapless and Kazoo (on an iPhone 6S Plus) proved responsive enough. One can even browse by folder – nice. However, next to Roon, its UI looks positively archaic: no meta-data layer, no radio, no pulling up long forgotten favourites. Jumping between connected artists is done in one’s head, not the app. Oh – Tidal integration is only available to Android BubbleDS Next users.

But the sound….oh my. Like JPLAYMini before it, easily superior to Roon and Foobar. Once again, JPLAY makes digital audio sound properly vacationed.

Foobar with JPLAY.

Foobar and I have history. It was my music player of choice before decamping to the Apple world for what would turn out to be a ten year stint (before returning to a Microsoft desktop in 2016). You can do crazy things with Foobar thanks to its component-based modularity but I prefer the stock standard install for its simple GUI, super-fast load time and ease of use: right click on a folder full of music files and select “Play with Foobar 2000”. What could be easier than that?

With the ASIO component installed, JPLAY’s superior sounding playback engine can be introduced to Foobar. Select JPLAY from the dropdown Foorbar’s list of output devices. Foobar talks to JPLAY. JPLAY talks to the LIO. Here we note improved sound quality (over stock Foobar) but it’s not quite the equal of JPLAYstreamer or JPLAYmini.

Do you see where we are going next?

JPLAY can spruce up the sound of any Windows app that supports ASIO. (And there’s ASIO Bridge for those that don’t). Think of ASIO as kinda sorta similar to Direct Mode on a Mac: the playback software talks to the hardware directly, completely bypassing the host operating system’s audio layer.

Roon with JPLAY.

Windows desktop audio apps that support ASIO? Hello Roon. Welcome back – we’ve been expecting you.

Roon on the NUC and music library HDD directly attached via USB means server and endpoint on a single machine. Here the output device is set as JPLAY; Roon talks to JPLAY. JPLAY talks to the DAC.

With the LIO USB input/driver causing (thus far unresolved) compatibility issues between Roon and JPLAY causing the latter crashing on playback push, readers are advised to make use of the JPLAY’s trial version to verify DAC compatibility before purchase. The trial version does not expire but splices gaps of silence into the audio stream.

LIO aside, I experienced zero issues running Roon in tandem with JPLAY and into the Aqua La Scala MKII Optologic, Devialet Expert 200 and PS Audio DirectStream. The DirectStream and Expert 200 seemed less susceptible to JPLAY’s charms than the La Scala MKII Optologic which enjoyed quite the uplift.

So too the Resonessence Labs Concero HD which ultimately interceded as USB-S/PDIF converter between NUC and LIO.

A fresh USB hookup necessitates a fresh set of Windows drivers. Once installed, JPLAY was set to talk to the Concero which in turn sent a S/PDIF signal onto the LIO. This sounded more easeful than having Roon communicating directly with the Concero HD. JPLAY was once again doing something. Something good.

The Blue Nile’s stridency, as heart on “Stay”, is dialled back. With Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls”, stepping out of the shadows comes evidence of a fuller fat tonality. Altogether easier listening for that 70 minute Merck mix.

Note: the JPLAYstreamer/Minimserver maintains a slight edge over Roon/JPLAY when it comes to micro-dynamic avidity.

Zooming out — with JPLAY in play, the performance gap between NUC (as Roon Endpoint) and Sonore microRendu is narrowed. So too the gap between an Audirvana Plussed Macbook Air and the same NUC. These findings were confirmed by the Surface Pro 3. That’s interesting, no?

The upshot is that a Windows machine loaded with JPLAY’s nicely vacationed sound doesn’t force us to let go of Roon. Although we can if want to. We can have our cake and we can eat it.

Readers are reminded that this isn’t an exhaustive detailing of all that is possible with JPLAY or similar software. Or a PC. Or a Mac. It’s coverage of a slice in time. One that hopefully encourages you to investigate further. The free trial makes that a matter of handful of clicks for anyone with sufficient curiosity.

For listeners, like me, who see its value, JPLAY is a digital audio upgrade offering more significant impact than your average digital cable. Another single-digit delta to bolster the sum total contribution of one’s digital front end.

Moreover, hearing it in tandem with US$99 AudioQuest DragonFly Black makes the case that JPLAY (or software like it) should come before a DAC upgrade; for Ostapowicz’s code makes Windows machines whole. JPLAY shows us more of what our DACs are capable of.

Further information: JPLAY

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

33 Comments

  1. Hi John,

    It’s been years since I have experimented with JPlay; I was not aware of JPLAYstreamer, for example. Thanks for taking the time to run through several setup scenarios and sharing your experience!

    Like you, I prefer the sound of Audrivana Plus to Roon when running the entire app on a single device (eg., my Macbook Pro at work). I think we have also both found that to get the best sound (and most flexibility) out of Roon requires going all-in with Roon’s recommended distributed architecture (https://kb.roonlabs.com/Architecture).

    When you compared the three tier JPlay configuration to Roon, I didn’t see you mention if Roon was running on a single device or also setup with core, bridge, and remote each running on separate devices. It would be interesting to know how JPlay and Roon compare when using the same three device configuration.

    Thanks for another great post. Cheers.

    • You: “When you compared the three tier JPlay configuration to Roon, I didn’t see you mention if Roon was running on a single device or also setup with core, bridge, and remote”

      From the review text: “With the NUC USB-lassoed to a music library HDD and Vinnie Rossi LIO DAC module to operate as Roon server and endpoint…”

      So – single device. 🙂 If I’d gone with separate devices, someone would have asked “Why didn’t you use the same single device?!”.

  2. John,

    Why did you vacate the Mac?

    I use RoonServer on my MAC Mini and as you know requires zero drivers to function properly. That makes my Mac Mini a perfect solution! I connect that to my DC powered AudioByte Hydra Z that outputs a AES signal for my Yggy. My Mini is powered through converting it to 12 volts DC instead of AC which is powered by a LPS for a totally black background.

    Thanks for the article though!!!…

    Larry

    • Larry – didn’t vacate the Mac, just broadened my horizons. Besides, as per the piece, the Windows world is where the touch screens are. That makes Windows machines better suited to Roon.

    • I have not – as always, everything that I did is included in the review.

      Roon will be sending me a NUCLEUS when they have one.

      • looking forward to that nucleous review…hope you can also get your hands on an (i5 or i7) sonic transporter, too, for more comparisons.

  3. JPLAY sure looks like an addition I would enjoy, for sonic reasons. I’m currently running Roon on a Mac Mini so I would need to migrate over to a NUC.

    I’m a big fan of Amarra and really wish I could use it with Roon but I’ve not been successful getting Sq+ to work even with some help.

    Hopefully, more sonic options are ahead of us!

    • What’s the issue with SQ+? I was considering writing about that sometime this year.

      • I’ve been using Amarra and SQ+ for a few years and prefer the sound over other engines. It has an uncanny way of dealing with hardness, especially glare that I find is a problem in a lot of classical music (70% of my listening).

        SQ+ works flawlessly with Apple Music (iTunes), GMP, Spotify, and the TIDAL desktop app (except for MQA tracks). However, when used with Roon, a consistent pattern of dropouts occurs during playback. Almost sounds like skips, maybe 100 per minute. The drops tend to begin a minute or two after a track begins.

        I’ve tried it with two systems, both Mac OS, using all the different configurations people in various forums have recommended and I opened a ticket with Amarra but no success.

        Amarra’s tech support is responsive and had me try a few different settings both in Roon and in SQ+ but problem existed. BTW, others have reported the same issues but I think the Roon/SQ+ pairing is an edge case and not really worth the resources at Amarra to resolve (Sonic Studio is a great company).

        I have to remind myself that SQ+ is designed for streaming apps whereas Roon is local, network and streaming.

        So, I still want to use Amarra SQ+ with Roon but, for now, it’s not feasible.

  4. I really appreciate this review based on listening vs theory. I’ve tried a lot of options for Windows, Ubuntu, and Raspberry Pi. I’ll be downloading Jplay ASAP.

      • On my Windows 10 Laptop with iFi nano iDSD LE USB DAC, Jplay Mini is for me a big step up in SQ from Foobar. Ripped CD files, hi res flac and even mp3 files (converted to wav with ffmpeg) sound better. Also Spotify via Fidelify is improved. I feel less distant from the music – more immersed in it.

        I like how the screen goes black when the music plays reminding me to get my mitts off the keyboard, close my eyes and listen.

        Anyone tried Fidelizer with Jplay, I’ve read they work together?

  5. Very interesting for Windows users. Can you recommend a Linux distribution with digital audio sound quality optimization? Cheers.

    • I am using Volumio with a raspberry Pi and am quite happy with the sound quality. It is a Linux based distribution dedicated only to music streaming, so no additional services running. The eventual SQ is quite dependent on which I2S card you are using with the RPI though (hifiberry, Allo, Audiophonics, etc). This can be a DAC or digital coax output .Volumio supports most of them. Some of those also feature dedicated reclockers.

      Rune, Pi Musicbox or Moode offer something similar and also have their fans. Personally I like Volumio best. To me it has a good interface, developers are quite active to continually improve it and it supports a high number of I2S add ons, lots of which provide sound quality of a high priced DAC at a fraction of the price.

      For all of those one does not need to be techy person to get them running 🙂

    • In addition to Johns selection of audiophile linux, which is really a nice distro,
      Daphile is fantastic. As it is configured and operated via HTTP, it doesn’t *require* Linux/bash skills. It also runs on a wide rage of minimalist hardware e.g, Atoms, way up through i7’s. It is available as a downloadable ISO. https://www.daphile.com/

      Other options include rolling your own on any number of de minimus Linux distributions like ARCH, Damn Skinny, Lubuntu (not a typo), Pixel or Puppy linux. However, you will need some Linux/bash scripting Fu and some patience to make it do what you want. Attention is also required in matching desired player software to base distro. Not every player runs equally well or at all on Centos, Debian, Arch, etc. YMMV.

  6. “makes the case that JPLAY (or software like it) should come before a DAC upgrade”

    Heed-worthy words for many of us prone to wallet crunching upgrade-itis. Software, in most cases, offers less of a hit on the pocketbook than hardware. Sometimes we forget the basic offerings of the invisible in the distracting presence of the shiny new thing.

  7. I guess you have not tries the creators update to Windows 10. It brings a better USB subsytem and only WASAPI drivers need apply. I am using it currently (with JRiver 22) and it sounds as good as a dedicated Linux system I have – Daphile. This update is a huge boon for any audiophile using WIndows 10. My WIn 10 machine now sounds the same as my Daphile system and that is great.

    ASIO drivers were a stop gap measure for the Windows environment. Now that MS has it figured out, try again.

    • You are correct. I have not yet tried Creators. I believe it has only just started rolling out and only to selected users.

      • Hm, pretty sure I was able to find a link to download easily, but I forget where it was provided (and yes, legit, not torrent or anything).

    • Could not agree more. USB audio may be late to the Windows ecosystem, but it is long overdue and not having to rely on ASIO driver support is better for everyone. Like Botrytis, my Daphile on NUC is now easily equaled by my win 10 on NUC. Also, my Brooklyn and Simaudio Dacs have fewer niggling performance/mystery noise/pop issues in Windows. (Both NUCs are i5 gen 6). Both NUCs now sound fantastic on a wide range of material playing on my office/near-field system or my dedicated high end system. Nice. If you are using a compute source for audio, OS probably shouldn’t be a governing factor going forward. Powershell or Bash?

    • Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes to the Creator’s Update. Not sure why this seems to have been ignored by audiophiles. The USB update provides a very big improvement in sound quality IMO. It is a must.

  8. On a windows machine feeding a PS Audio Stellar DAC I was able to detect echo on the drum I didn’t hear before on Gescom’s Go Sumo

    • This is with JPLAY? Whatever the software, you get a round of applause for name-checking Gescom! Well played, Good Sir.

  9. Jplay vs. Stock audio drivers in Roon, sorry I didn’t elaborate more. Was a little shocked. I didn’t think there would be much difference, but it’s night and day. Best $110 I’ve ever spent.

  10. Tried Jplay in the past, but never used it for long period. To me best affordable streamer is raspberry pi\hifibarry digi +\Max2play OS. I am using it as roon end point. Like it more than microrendu and Aries mini

    • Hi, What power source you are using with this set up? Is the power supply connected directly to the digi+ or to the pi through the micro USB? Have you also tested the sound quality in this set up without digi+ and through the USB output directly to the dac? I am also using pi 3 with ipower and with Max2play but with USB output. I am very interest to have an understanding of the improvement that the digi+ might bring into the picture. Many thanks.

  11. Agree with everything you say about JPlay. I’ve been using it since version 4.0 back in the Paleolithic period. 6.2 is their latest version and it is superb. Windows, Audiophile Optimizer and JPlay; Roon for streaming Tidal, JPlay mini for the CDs and downloads.

  12. John,

    Thanks for a great review.

    Which did you prefer sonically, mini player or the minim server option?

    Joel

    P.S. I wish you would check out Bughead Emperor. The player is remarkable.

    • I’d say the Miniplayer had the edge but it’s a bit of a wild guess as I was more focussed on how the Minim/Mini compared to the Roon setup.

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