This is a summary of some “primary” applications for Music Playback on the Mac (OS X and macOS, as well as some cross-platform applications … but I can’t comment on how the non-Mac versions are). “Primary” means it’s not a plug-in to something else and either plays music directly (with, or without additional features) or affects the audio of the system as a whole.
At some point I’ll likely review each of these applications in a more comprehensive fashion; this post is more to kick-start some discussion and comment on a few of the products I’ve used (and/or still use).
I will probably post something similar to cover various “secondary” applications, such as EQ tools, headphone correction, room simulation in the near future.
More information for each is available by clicking the links (product names/titles).
The purpose of this post is not to debate the “sound quality” of these applications - that’s a much broader, and far more controversial topic. The point here is just to catalog, and highlight, some interesting software choices for music replay.
A good while ago now, I did some basic testing with these applications to see if I could determine a sound-quality difference between them, as most of them claim to improve replay in some way or other. In BLIND testing I was not able to discern between most of them (your mileage may vary) – exceptions there are noted in the comments on the application/player in question.
This outcome wasn’t surprising as they all claim bit-perfect replay … so any other changes have to be down to something other than manipulation of the data … and the degree to which other factors can be influenced is HEAVILY dependent on the system in question.
Will play your local content, stream from TIDAL, Qobuz and from Virtual Vault. Minimalist, fast, native interface. System optimization to turn off unneeded-high-load services during playback. Configurable memory-play. Dual high-end resampling engines, with the ability to do on the fly conversion to higher bit rates and/or PCM->DSD conversion. And it’ll play native PCM or DSD content, with the option to convert DSD to PCM for non-DSD capable DACs.
High-quality resampling/format conversion is supported via iZotope and SoX.
Supports MQA unfolding for non-MQA DACs and MQA renderers, as well as auto-identification of DACs with full hardware MQA decoding.
Supports “Audio Unit” plug-ins for all manner of DSP, EQ and other processing, using both the built-in plug-ins from OS X/macOS as well as third-party/commercial ones.
This is particularly nice if you use Audeze headphones, as it provides a very simple and effective way to utilize their free “Reveal” plug-in.
Has metadata editing, library management, integration with iTunes, playlist creation and an optional remote-control app for smartphones.
I use this one personally, on my laptop, mostly for when I’m travelling (at home I use Roon). It’s very easy to use, sounds excellent, is stable, fast, and is under constant, active, development.
This IS a music player. It’ll play from local files and stream from TIDAL, has iTunes library integration and a very pretty interface. It can up-sample your content and do on-the-fly conversion from DSD to PCM (allows playing DSD files on a non-DSD capable DAC). Native DSD playback (via DoP) was “coming soon” when I tested it – it’s not clear from the site if that’s still “pending” or actually available (the UX says one thing, their feature list another).
It supports MQA unfolding/playback for non-MQA DACs and, of course, full-hardware MQA DACS.
And there is a nice EQ capability. In addition to the preset options, of which there are 15, you can also define your own custom EQ … a capability that is essentially the same EQ engine that you get in “Amarra SQ+”.
There’s an optional remote control app for iOS, and
Optional (cost) features include headphone surround-sound support and room-correction capabilities.
I’d have liked to use this player more. Unfortunately, it was extremely buggy and crash-prone. And while updates were coming quite quickly, it never got to a point where it was sufficiently stable and reliable before I gave up on it.
In blind testing I COULD tell a difference between Amarra vs. everything else (except SQ+). I suspect that the replay is not bit-perfect and it is in fact doing some processing. Whether that’s intentional or a bug I don’t know – since my belief is that the way I had it setup should not have been applying any processing. At some point I will have to test the output from it and compare it to the source data and see if this is the case.
This is not a music player, but an add on processor/EQ that acts as a virtual sound device, captures ALL the audio output from your Mac, runs it through its processing, and then sends it on to the actual audio device (DAC).
This is quite convenient, since it will work with any audio player application that talks to the OS sound interface (CoreAudio), including your favorite streaming clients.
The EQ capability is a high-quality full-parametric implementation and allows up to four points of adjustment to be specified (that’s more than most need). There are other adjustments, filters and controls beyond raw EQ, and a novel way to visualize what is actually being changed.
I played with this one quite a bit. It has an oddly pleasant effect on the sound.
The user interface is extremely pretty.
This is one of just two applications that I COULD tell a difference with vs. all the others in blind testing. This is down to it actually manipulating the sample data, as in this case if it’s not going to do that there’s not much point in using it!
I had some stability issues with this when I tested it, and as a result I stopped using it. It’s worth checking out if you need an EQ capability, want something that will affect ALL audio on your system or just want to experiment.
While this is a music player, it’s fundamental point is about high-quality replay while allowing extreme control over how digital music is handled . It’ll play all of the interesting lossless formats, including CDDA, FLAC, AIFF and DSD files.
It’s real point of interest for me is in its support for many types of digital filtering, format conversion, and up-sampling on the fly. The capabilities here are so rich that you can often up-sample to a point where your DAC’s internal up-sampling is no longer applied (HQPlayer’s own up-sampling and conversion is done with 64-80 bit floating point precision vs. the 32-bit common on off-the-shelf converters).
Filtering (be it conversion, resampling or noise shaping) in HQPlayer is also rather more sophisticated than what you’ll find on a typical DAC chip. A common “audiophile” DAC IC might have a couple of hundred taps in its filters, where as you can push that much further with HQPlayer.
It’s an excellent tool for exploring filtering and resampling at the highest levels available, though bear in mind the most sophisticated settings can require a massively powerful PC and/or require GPU-compute assistance!
The interface is a little basic, but the core processing can also be incorporated into the replay chain of tools like Roon, for a better overall experience.
Using different filter settings in HQPlayer often results in audible changes. You’ll have to judge for yourself which settings are “improvements”, but differences are generally discernible.
Attempting to list the feature set for this would take all day. It is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of capabilities. If there’s something useful you can do with audio, streaming, or even video, then it probably does it. The only thing I can think of that it doesn’t do is MQA decoding (and that might have changed by the time I’ve finished this).
It can be a music player, library manager, streaming client AND server, has myriad DSP and processing capabilities and manages huge libraries with ease and can be remote controlled.
You really have to go to the product site and explore this as the feature set is so vast.
While there’s not much it can’t do … getting it to do it is another matter. The program is so expansive that configuration is a nightmare of settings panels and options. Hundreds of them. It takes some concerted effort to figure out where a given feature is hidden, and more effort still to understand the effects of all the possible settings.
It’ll do things no other single product can do, if you’re willing to invest the time to learn it.
I keep it around because it is so flexible and capable that it’s a very useful tool for all kinds of scenarios. I don’t actually use it unless I have to, and don’t use it for music-replay-for-pleasure, because I have a strong dislike for the UX. But it’s one of those tools that’s worth having at some point, even if it’s not your main player application.
Self-described as “The music player for music lovers”, the focus is on your music. Perhaps it’s two best features are the ability to bring your local and TIDAL libraries together into a single, coherent, whole, and the “Focus” mode for exploring your music collection, the people behind the music, it’s history and how it relates to music in general as other works/artists etc.
The user experience is, in my opinion, the best out there. Whether on a computer or an iOS or Android device, the interface is fluid, beautiful and comprehensive. And you can have as many interfaces running on your setup as you want. Every computer, iPad and iPhone in my home has the Roon client installed on it, allowing control of everything, from everywhere.
And even as a “music player” (which is hugely selling Roon short), it’s very capable …
For one, It brings your local and TIDAL libraries together and presents them as a unified whole. This is different to applications like Audirvana+, which lets you access both libraries – but they’re kept entirely separate in the UI.
It offers DSP functionality, pre-sets EQ for Audeze headphones (based on the “Reveal” plug-ins), full parametric EQ, high-quality configurable crossfeed, on-the-fly format conversion (e.g. PCM to DSD), up-sampling and MQA software decoding.
Setup is very simple – and everything can be done on a single machine (that’s the default, in fact) or you can run an entire ecosystem that includes PC, Macs, iOS and Android devices (as well as options for Linux or NAS devices to run as the core).
You can play to network attached “Roon Ready” devices (some are streamers, other’s are DACs with embedded “Roon Ready” interfaces) and, of course, to any device that’s attached to a machine that is running the Roon software. Even Sonos units can be directly controlled from Roon, and show-up in the system automatically.
You are not limited by how many remote/clients you have nor how many devices you play to.
This one has a subscription fee for the data feed – and it’s not cheap, but if you’re a music-first audiophile I’ve found it to be very worthwhile. It, alone, has introduced me to (and made me BUY) more music, and driven more interested in the music already in my library, than anything else I can think of.
The only way to properly understand Roon is to try it. If you do this, wait until you have some time to explore it fully as there’s a lot in here, and if you don’t give “Focus” mode, and what it enables some serious time, you’ll miss out on a big chunk of what makes it interesting.
Roon is the primary way I, personally, interact with my music collection and TIDAL.
The easiest way to understand what Sonarworks “Reference” is, is to think about it as an EQ for your headphones that uses preset EQ curves to correct the response of a headphone to a neutral tuning. The EQ curves used are much more complicated (more points of correction) than those you’ll typically build with a manual parametric EQ tool, since they’re based on normalized measurements of many samples of a given headphone.
It supports over 100 models of headphones right now, with more coming on a regular basis. It’s intended for studio use (mixing), first and foremost, since neutrality is a key to doing that well.
The catch is that if your headphone is not on the supported list, then this software isn’t much use to you as you can’t usefully pick a “model that is close” and get the desired results.
You can also send your own headphones in to be measured and have a custom correction profile built for them. This is good if either your headphones are currently supported with an “averaged” profile, or you want one that’s as accurate as possible for the actual pair of headphones you’re using (since there’s always some unit-to-unit variation).
I use it for mixing/studio work. When “listening for pleasure” it very much depends on what headphone I’m using at the time. It absolutely transforms some headphones from “problematic” to “excellent” (e.g. Sennheiser HD800 I will not listen to without it), and in other cases it’s not such a good thing.
This works as both a plug-in to various music players and DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) and includes the “Systemwide” utility that lets you run ALL system-audio through the Sonarworks processing.
You can tweak the results to a certain extent, but this is not a user-driven EQ tool.
Think of this as the little-brother to “Sonarworks Reference”. It works in essentially the same way and the list of supported headphones is also similar (they’re generally the same, but the update schedules and bias is a bit different between the two products).
Instead of being a plug-in, True-Fi can either capture all system audio and process it, or it can be selected as a virtual sound card in your player application.
True-Fi also offers a couple of other adjustments … one for bass-level and another to compensate for age-related hearing loss.
I use this for listening with some headphones, typically on my laptop, such as the Sony MDR-1000X, among others (that one stands out because it’s an ANC-type headphone that I use in public work spaces from time to time).