Amarra is available in two versions, a full program for $995 or the Amarra Mini for $395. The less expensive version eliminates several key features, including the ability to play music files above 96/24 resolution and EQ adjustments; it also has a far simpler graphic interface. But for many potential owners, Amarra Mini will deliver most of the sonic advantages of Amarra at a far more attractive price.
Amarra offers free demos of either program. The demos have all the features of a fully operational program except that they insert several seconds of silence every 30 seconds. When you purchase the Amarra program, Sonic Studio sends you a USB dongle/key that goes into one of your computer’s USB connectors. With the key inserted you have a fully functional program. If you remove the key Amarra reverts to demo mode until the key is re-inserted.
The Sound of Amarra
During the first three months that I used Amarra I tried at least a half dozen “builds” of the software. Each newer version added some features and eliminated some reported bugs, but in truth Amarra never achieved what I would consider “ready for prime time” status until the latest version 1.1. With this iteration, Amarra finally supports Apple Lossless files and Apple’s latest 10.6.2 “Snow Leopard” operating system. Being able to play Apple Lossless files is critical for many users, especially those who’ve been using iTunes for more than a few years. Most of these “legacy users” have the majority of their music in Apple Lossless format. At least three-quarters of my own 160GB music library is in Apple Lossless format. Having to re-import such a large amount of music just so I can listen through the Amarra interface, regardless of how good it might sound, was not an option for me. I suspect that many iTunes users will feel the same way.
The Amarra program has evoked some very passionate dialog on the Internet. Amarra’s more adamant critics called it: “The sonic equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes.” They claim it does nothing whatsoever to the sound of their systems. Supporters counter that the differences that Amarra makes are nothing short of extraordinary. Rarely have I seen a product that elicited such polar responses. So…is Amarra the lady or the tiger?
When I first began using Amarra, I found myself siding with the flat-earth bits-is-bits naysayers who found Amarra produced no sonic benefits whatsoever. As a card-carrying high-ender, I was troubled to find that I could not reliably hear any difference between iTunes and Amarra during A/B listening sessions. I used Amarra with a variety of DACs including the Bel Canto DAC 3, April Music Stello DA100, High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer+, Devilsound DAC, and Perpetual Technologies PA-1. No matter which DAC I used, I couldn’t discern any differences.
The first time I heard a difference between Amarra and iTunes was when I used Bel Canto’s 96/24 interface box coupled to its DAC 3 with 96/24 source material. When I used my own original 96/24 WAV master files of Boulder Philharmonic concert recordings, Amarra began to reveal its sonic potential, presenting a more fleshed out and dimensionally convincing rendition of the entire soundstage. The spaces between the rows of instruments were more readily apparent as were the reflections from side and back walls.
But it wasn’t until I started using the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp with Empirical’s OverDrive and the Weiss Minerva DAC that Amarra showed a more decided advantage over iTunes. Even with this hardware the differences weren’t dramatic, but they were pervasive, consistent, and noticeable. The improvements in three-dimensional depth and soundstaging that I had first heard through the Bel Canto 96/24 DAC 3 combo were more pronounced through the Empirical Off Ramp 3. Also these improvements were not limited to 96/24 material. Red Book 44.1 and Apple Lossless files were equally improved.
For the ultimate test of Amarra’s sonic abilities I created some 192/24 files using Audiogate software from my own DSD masters of the Boulder Philharmonic. I was delighted to discover that they sounded better through Amarra than they did when Audiogate performed its own on-the-fly downsampling. Again the sonic differences were primarily dimensional. The amount and clarity of spatial information increased. I also noticed additional low-level details and micro-dynamics. String and woodwind section subtleties during the quieter passages of my latest recording of the Boulder Philharmonic performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique were easier to hear. The downside of this increased low-level detail was that minor intonation differences in the strings were more apparent.