A Brief Profile of Audirvana Plus
But it's all right now, in fact it's a gas
As audiophiles, we tend to think in terms of tangible things like records, CD's, even our digital downloads are stored in "files" which is really a metaphor for the collection of 1's and 0's that up, say, "Take Five" in 24/176.4 resolution by Dave Brubeck. Then of course there's all the equipment like preamplifiers, amplifiers, speakers, and all the cables plus, well, let's face it, lots of boxes, each of which does something relatively specific; however, once you introduce a computer into the system (in my case a Mac mini) you get into this very intangible world of software. It's not even that the software is an add on, like a Shakti stone, it's what makes the computer run and remains central to the music reproduction process. So it's no surprise that different music processing programs sound different. Even as a former software engineer, I felt surprised at the difference in sound between Amarra, Pure Music, and Audirvana Plus. Unfortunately I had to stop using Amarra a long time ago because of stability problems with the program. Those might have been fixed, I don't know. This isn't a "shoot out" between music processing programs. This is really a profile of one that I've learned to like very much, Audirvana Plus.
As much as I like Pure Music—and I still use it for certain things—a friend recommended that I try Audirvana Plus because of its simplicity and sound quality. It took a long time for me to get around to it because (a) I'm slow to change, and (b) I got caught in the trap of thinking in terms of hardware and was considering getting some Cardas or Transparent interconnect cables for my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Series 2 DAC to make the sound of the digital music server richer, warmer, and more analog-like. After much hemming and hawing, I finally downloaded Audirvana Plus onto my Mac mini, taking advantage of the fifteen-day free trial. The first time I tried to play a download, it hung and did so with many of my recent acquisitions. Without really thinking the process through, I sent an email to Audirvana Plus support, and Damien, the developer behind it, who's just as nice as all of these folks, got back to me asking for debug information, which is very easy to gather in Audirvana Plus. After looking at the debug information and not seeing anything suspicious, he asked for a sample of one of the files that wouldn't play. So—in order to minimize the size of the attachment—I sent him the first track of The Well Tempered Clavier performed by Schiff on the ECM label and downloaded from HDtracks.com at 24/44.1 resolution.
In the meantime, it occurred to me that I had only VERY recently started downloading files directly in ALAC, and that most of my collection had started in FLAC and been converted to AIFF by Amarra, or to ALAC by Pure Music. So I tried playing a very early Linn download that I had stored in AIFF, specifically My Oracle Lives Uptown by William Orbit at 24/44.1. It actually worked perfectly and I deduced—after confirming the analysis of the file that I sent Damien—that Pure Music was committing some sort of error in its conversion from FLAC to ALAC (Apple Lossless). Damien promised to develop a workaround so I didn't have to reconvert my FLAC files; but, in the meantime, I had quite a bit of older files in the AIFF format, and at least one very new one that I purchased in ALAC from HDtracks.com, specifically the 24/176.4 download of Time Out that I mentioned earlier. I also played the 24/96 download of Raising Sand by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant, converted from FLAC to AIFF in Amarra back in the early days of HDtracks.com. In all cases, I have to confess that I found the music very engaging, much warmer, richer and more analog-like. I had always assumed my Alpha Series 2 to have a lean sound; however, I think it's just very neutral and what I was hearing was the signature sound of Pure Music and iTunes combined.
Although it's possible to use Audirvana Plus as a standalone player, I had initialized it in "iTunes mode" meaning that, like Amarra and Pure Music, it tapped into the iTunes database and drew its files to process from there; and I have to say the integration is really flawless. Even the Apple Remote App works flawlessly with Audirvana Plus; and, although I originally thought of the Audirvana Plus user interface (based on a CD player) as a little bit clichéd, I came to really like it because of its simplicity and very intuitive nature. Like Pure Music, Audirvana Plus can play DSD files either directly, if your DAC supports it, or through real time conversion to PCM. It also does memory play where the files are loaded, expanded if necessary, and processed all in RAM before going into, in my case, a Sonicweld Diverter HR USB-to-S/PDIF converter. It's just that the setup is so much simpler and the results are, well, much more musical. I don't know how it does it (and of course the sound shaping algorithms are proprietary and secret); however, it DOES support direct and integer modes even under Mountain Lion by, I assume, bypassing Apple Core Audio completely. It shows a profound understanding of how the Apple hardware and software works, and the results are really quite stunning. For the first time in a long time, I found myself really happy with the sound of the music server and not questioning for cables or looking at all tube analog DAC's.
After about two weeks, Damien got back to me with a Beta release of Audirvana Plus 1.5 (specifically 220.127.116.11) and I was able to play all of the files on my LaCie RAID drive. I spent the better part of a day sitting on my couch listening to all sorts of music, just following one album after another, mostly controlling the process with the Remote App on my iPad, which, again, integrated flawlessly with Audirvana Plus and iTunes. I liked it so much that when my trial ran out I just paid the $74 to have a full license, which allows me to run Audirvana Plus on two different computers as long as I don't do so simultaneously, rather than approaching Damien for a professional discount. It's really hard to describe the sound except to say that it sounds like I got a different DAC. It's really that much of a difference. It's really important to understand that this is far beyond a tweak; it changes the listening experience, making it much more positive and intimate like a good vinyl record. It's on the order of changing cartridges, in this case going from Lyra to Koetsu. There's nothing wrong with either one; but at least the original Koetsu Rosewood Signature had a very warm and engaging sound that still allowed the music to sing through. I wouldn't call it euphonic, just a bit more romantic.
I also (think) that I can hear more of a difference between recordings with different resolutions with Audirvana Plus than I can with other sound and music processing programs. So, as an example, 24/192 downloads sound substantially better (better imaging, better soundstaging, a more natural sound) than 24/96 downloads; and although I don't use it, it can upsample. I can't say I hear that much of a difference between ALAC and AIFF files, perhaps because everything gets loaded into RAM and processed first by default anyway; so, in principal at least, the bits should be the same. I'm currently listening to the 24/192 download of Waltz for Debby from HDtracks.com, and it sounds very excellent, very natural timbre on the piano, good deep bass definition, a very sweet treble, and—as mentioned—a certain quality of richness that I don't normally associate with the music server. I wouldn't say it sounds like vinyl, and I've never heard a real master tape of a commercial musical recording, but it does sound like a very good, very high end CD player if not a bit better than that. So it's definitely a step in the right direction. I wish I'd been using Audirvana Plus when I evaluated the Mytek DSD-capable DAC. I might have had a very different reaction to it. I still plan to use Pure Music, and I need to swing back and revaluate Amarra eventually; but, for now, I'm settling on Audirvana Plus as my new standard. I can't think of a higher compliment.