The Absolute Sound has never reviewed a piece of computer software. That’s about to change. Computer-based digital audio has now advanced to where it competes sonically with traditional media. But to achieve this ultimate level of fidelity requires not only state-of-the art hardware but also cutting-edge software. Currently the best and easiest way for a Mac-owning music-lover to optimize his iTunes playback experience is with the Amarra software package.
Amarra is a program that only works in conjunction with iTunes. According to its creators, Amarra bypasses all of iTunes audio processing and substitutes Amarra’s own proprietary audio algorithms in its place. This eliminates sonic degradations caused by iTunes sound processing. Amarra intends to preserve the best parts of iTunes—its database and ergonomic capabilities—and eliminate its sonic limitations. These shortcomings include automatic downsampling of higher-bit-rate music files (often to 44.1kHz/16-bit) and iTunes’ inability to support, process, and transmit bit-perfect versions of higher resolution files above 96kHz/24-bit. With FireWire DACs, such as the Weiss Minerva, Amarra allows playback of 172kHz/24-bit and 192kHz/24-bit files.
If Amarra’s only function were preserving the integrity of higher-bit-rate music files it would already be a potentially invaluable sonic tool, but as they say on all those late-night infomercials, “There’s MORE!!!!” Amarra also has a powerful and sophisticated three-band almost infinitely variable parametric equalizer, as well as automatic resolution and bit-rate adjustments. Plus it prevents snoring and eliminates back pains.
A Sonic Solution from Sonic Studio
So where did Amarra come from? Basically it’s a consumer implementation of professional recording software developed by Sonic Studio. Sonic Studio’s first products in the early 1980s were audio workstations for motion picture and recording studios. Its original “Sonic System” pioneered desktop delivery of Red Book CDs. Even today two out of every three commercially released CD titles are mastered using a Sonic Studio workstation. Sonic’s NoNoise noise-reduction system received both an Oscar and an Emmy for technological achievement.
In 2004 Sonic Studio released a native OS X application Sonic Studio-DDP, followed in 2006 by PreMasterCD, and in 2007 by SoundBlade. Amarra shares and draws on the work and technology from these professional applications.
Sonic Studio is understandably tight-lipped about the particular how’s and why’s of Amarra’s code. Hackers and computer geeks won’t find much on the Sonic Web site or in its technical white papers on how Amarra betters iTune’s and Apple’s own sound-processing systems. But the proof of this product’s attributes is in the listening. All Amarra needs to prove its worth is to better iTunes at sound reproduction.
If you play higher-resolution music files on a Mac, you’re probably familiar with what I call “the MIDI interface boogie.” Whenever you want to play anything that has a higher resolution or bit rate than 44.1/16, you have to open up the Apple MIDI interface control panel and change the MIDI output to match the resolution and bit-rate of the music file you intend to play. If you don’t do this, your Mac will internally downsample the file to 44.1/16 before sending it to your sound output device, even if that device supports a higher resolution. The Amarra program changes all that. Whenever you play a higher-resolution file through Amarra, it automatically changes the Mac’s MIDI interface to match the file’s maximum resolution and bit-rate. If you play a standard-resolution music file after playing a higher-resolution one, Amarra will change the MIDI interface back to standard resolution, as well.
Just as Amarra is designed to work exclusively with iTunes, it’s also designed to work optimally with particular hardware devices. Currently the list of approved audio interfaces includes all Sonic Studio hardware, Antelope, Ayre, Benchmark, Beresford, Empirical Audio, Lynx, Metric Halo, RME, Sonicweld, Wavelength, and Weiss DACs. Although most other USB and FireWire DACs will work with Amarra, they have not been officially sanctioned or tested by Sonic Studios for full compatibility. I’ve successfully used the HRT MusicStreamer and MusicStreamer+, Bel Canto DAC 3, April Music Stello, Devilsound, and Perpetual Technologies PA-1 DACs with the Amarra.