Product name: JPlay
Cost: 99 euros. (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: September, 2011 and updated January 2016
I think, or at least I hope, that we have all by now realised that digital audio is just as subject to the influences of the playback system as analogue audio. In this review I'll step-aside from the controversy over digital cables and look at playback software.
It appears that with the arrival of computer-audio, we now have a whole new set of variables to go along with the ones in our hi-fi systems. Apart from the hardware, it appears that the operating system, and the play-back software can and does affect the quality of the music coming through the speakers. Of course, how large that effect is will depend on the quality of your hi-fi to reveal subtle changes. In my own experience, I have found that I prefer to use Ubuntu (when I can) for music played from a computer (actually it's played from some type of storage such as a hard drive, but the computer provides the means of getting from the storage to the hi-fi). This may be because there are a lot of processes in a Windows operating system that can adversely affect the music play-back. I improved matters with Windows XP by stripping back the operating system to the bare essentials but if you use the computer for other jobs, that isn't very practical.
You will hear different play-back software touted as sounding better or worse than the competition. Generally, I have found there to be little difference between the most popular programs such as Winamp, Foobar, and JRiver Jukebox, although a lot depends on how the computer is set up, and whether it uses plug-ins such as ASIO. So when TNT was contacted by somebody asking us to try playback software that they claimed took things a stage higher, I jumped at the opportunity to try it.
Now life is never simple, and after corresponding with the folks who produce JPlay, it transpired that to use their software to best effect, you need a computer running Windows 7, and preferably 4 gigabyte of RAM. The best I could offer was Windows Vista (on a laptop) with 2 gig but we decided to give it a try.
The program called JPlay has a small enough file-size to be sent by email, and installation is as straight forward as with any other software. My first problem was that I couldn't get Vista to see the music on my external hard-drive. If you are reading this Mr Gates, I would suggest that Vista is so poor as an OS that it is not fit for purpose, and you should offer everybody with it a free, or heavily discounted upgrade to W7! Anyway, for this review, I copied some test tracks onto a USB stick and then transferred them on to the hard drive of the laptop.
While I am on the subject of operating systems it should be stated that JPlay will not work with Windows XP (or earlier operating systems) primarily because they don't have what is known as large page support.
Using JPlay is fairly easy but be warned, it uses a very basic interface as the development and focus has been on ultimate performance rather than ease of use. I chose to choose music from a list in Windows Explorer, then move to the JPlay window, and then press the space bar which commences the play-back of the copied track. This worked perfectly for individual review tracks, and while you can copy more than one track at a time, how many you can copy depends on the size of allocated RAM, as JPlay first copies a track to RAM so that it is played from there rather than a moving hard-drive.
JPlay also has other features that are designed to get the very best play-back. One of those features is to put the computer into hibernate mode while the music plays. This shuts down all processes going on in the background so the computer can 'concentrate' all its resources on the music play-back. Unfortunately, on both the versions of JPlay that I tried, my laptop simply went into hibernation, and the music didn't play. Whether this is totally the fault of Vista, or the software I have no idea but apparently this mode does work on Windows 7.
There are a number of other settings that you can adjust in JPlay mainly by the pressing of a key that is listed next to the option. The key toggles the setting or option, so turning them on or off is quite easy.
So - how does it sound? Well I find all these tweaks/upgrades to a computer play-back system make quite small differences but in fairness, I must say that even with Vista I could hear familiar tracks sounding better defined, with more texture, and tighter bass. I used JRiver Jukebox as a benchmark and could clearly here the improvement when switching to JPlay. I was told by Josef at JPlay told that the performance is even better with Windows 7.
There's not much to add although I did make a few notes. First off I noticed that the performance with JRiver Jukebox was improved if I played the tracks from the USB stick instead of the hard drive. I have found that when using Ubuntu as well. So part of the improvement with JPlay is obviously down to it copying the music from the hard drive to RAM, although it is doing a lot of other tweaks as well. I look forward to the time when large solid-state hard drives are affordable, and we can store our music on those. But this review also got me wondering if we will see a computer and operating system created to exclusively play music.
Would I recommend JPlay? I have slight reservations about the cost seeing as it has a very basic interface, and limitations compared to the popular play-back software. Then again, people pay far more than the cost of JPlay for a cable that probably won't do as much to improve the sound quality. I would certainly suggest that as things stand, JPlay will be best appreciated by those who run Windows7 rather than Vista. But if you do run the latest operating system, and you want to find out how much more you can squeeze out of computer-audio, then why not download the trial version and try it for yourself? It's honestly quite easy to install and use.
Well JPLAY doesn't appear to be a 'here today and gone tomorrow' product. And judging by the number of audiophiles who I correspond with, and tell me that they have used (and like) JPLAY, it seems to be gaining a large number of fans. The guys at JPLAY have been kind enough to keep me up to date with each improvement that is made to the software, most of which are minor tweaks. But recently a much bigger step forward was made when JPLAY (V 4.2) was made to integrate with JRiver Media Center, (JMC) so I thought that it was time for an update to the review.
It had been a little while since I last used JPLAY, and when I set up my old laptop with the latest version of JPLAY Mini, I was pleasantly surprised at how good it sounded. However, I was keen to try it inside JRiver Media Center so I downloaded the free trial version of the latter, and had little trouble in setting it up to use with JPLAY. Having imported some music I found it much faster and easier to use than JPLAY mini. This isn't a review of JMC so I'll simply state that it is a very capable bit of software that will help you rip music to your PC, and well as play it. And it doesn't only do music, it also helps store and use picture files and video too. During my time using it for this review, it worked more or less flawlessly. You can try the full version of JMC for 30 days.
Once again I was impressed with the sheer level of detail when using JPLAY, and the focus of every element of the music, but particularly the tight bass. It really is a case of hearing things more clearly, lyrics, percussion (where it is much easier to identify individual hits) and spatial clues (so that the sound stage is better defined). As I played tracks through JPlay, it was a case of rediscovering many of them. In fact once or twice I thought that a track reminded me of how it sounded on a turntable!
My original complaint about JPlay not being easy to use was no longer justified. JMC offers all the usual tools such as play lists, random play, and search to make playback convenient, so apart from not having a remote control facility (and that can be overcome), I have no complaint about the user interface.
At the suggestion of the guys at JPlay, I then installed a trial version of Windows 8, as they claimed that JPlay sounded even better on W7, and better still on W8. Rather than dump my existing Vista set-up (as much as I would like be to rid of Vista), I put another hard drive in the laptop and installed W8 onto that. W8? Well indulge me in a bit of a rant - it sucks! First off it may well be OK to use if you are a clairvoyant. Not being blessed with such a gift, I even had to Google how to close it down. I accept that it's been built to be used with touch-screen technology, but even so, does it have to have such a naff user-interface for those of us still using a mouse and keyboard?
On the plus side, it was as I had been told, the music sounded even better using JPlay with W8 than it had been with Vista. I could probably have benefited from more than the 2 gig of RAM in my laptop but in fairness, everything that I ran, ran faster than it had done on Vista! Of course, for those using Vista, it is quite an outlay to move up to W8 (full version), and buy Media Center, but this is where you will get the best combination of sound quality and convenience. JPlay claim that JPlay Mini (the original basic version) sounds better than JPlay used with Media Center (presumably because there is less running) but it really was 'splitting hairs' on my system and I would favour the convenience of using JPlay inside Media Center for day-to-day use. Things are getting so good with JPlay that I am now wondering if I should change my Squeezebox/Slimserver set up. The only thing stopping me is the remote control issue as I am trying to keep wi-fi out of my home, so the Squeezebox still edges it in terms of convenience and I will possibly upgrade to the Logitech Touch. With two systems in two rooms, I am happy to run both!
In conclusion JPlay appears to move from strength to strength. It's never outdated because the cost of purchasing it includes all future upgrades. Integrating it with JRiver Media Center makes it much more user-friendly, so I can now strongly recommend it without my previous reservations. And remember, there's a free trial version if you want to see if it is for you. Also keep in mind that JPlay sounds better with Windows 8 than Vista - at least it did in my case. In case you are wondering, I'm told by JPlay that their software also sounds better with W8 than W7.
Just one caveat if you use a 32-bit operating system. There is a slight glitch where JRiver Music Center will only play two or three continuous tracks (when used with JPlay) before pausing. You then need to click on 'STOP' and re-start by selecting the next track. The guys at JPlay are working on this issue as I write. The problem doesn't happen with 64-bit systems.
The room at the recent Munich show used JPlay as the source and was voted as having the best sound at that show. I don't place a great deal of faith in such awards (and of course there were other factors involved) but a friend who attended the show also told me the same thing on his return.
The guys at JPlay have continued to send me the latest versions of their software so I thought that it was time to give them a mention again. Amazingly, each version improves on the last, but I noticed a real step up with version 5, and in particular the 'alternative' version that is optimized for Intel CORE processors. At the time of writing, I have just installed the 'alternative' version 6, which is running through Foobar 2000, on a Fidelizer optimized version of W8. I'm running out of things to say about JPlay, and although I would rate Fidelizer as the more important option for sound quality, JPlay takes things just a little bit further if you are looking to squeeze the absolute best from your computer playback system. Just a reminder that once you purchase JPlay, the updates are free.
The updates continue to come from the people behind the JPLAY software, and the current release is 6.2. When sent V.6.2, I was asked if I could listen to the JPLAY streamer set-up, so using a more modern laptop, I installed the necessary components, i.e. the Linn Kazoo software, and Minimserver. Kazoo is the software that allows us to select and play the music, but it does so through Minimserver, that converts FLAC (and other compressed music files) into uncompressed WAV files.
There has been an argument for some time that WAV files sound better than FLAC. So why would an audiophile not have all their music files in the WAV format? One reason is that WAV files are considerably larger than FLAC files, although that argument is of less significance as the cost of storage comes down. The other argument against WAV files is that they don't work well with tags, ie the information about the track name, number, artist etc. So what if we keep the files as FLAC format, but convert them to WAV format immediately before playing them? Well, that's what Minimserver enables us to do.
It wasn't too difficult to set up all the software although you will need to type in some (short) instructions to the Minimserver interface to set it up to convert the compressed files to WAV's. It will even convert MP3 files although it obviously can't recover the information that was discarded when the MP3 file was originally converted.
As I was using a new laptop for this audition, it was not possible to make a direct comparison with JPLAY when played back using Foobar2000. In addition, my older laptop benefited significantly from using Fidelizer (which I couldn't transfer to the newer laptop). And just to make it all a bit more 'different', the newer laptop was running Windows 10, an operating system claimed by some to sound better than Windows 8 that was used on the older laptop.
Taking all the above into consideration I would say that the newer laptop using the JPLAY Streamer set-up did down more detailed, and more focussed that the the older set up. The background was slightly 'blacker' too. That's no mean feat as the older laptop had the added advantage of the Fidelizer software.
There are one or two caveats though. I didn't find the Linn Kazoo interface at all friendly, and some features such as shuffle didn't work at all. I couldn't get Minimserver to convert and play 24 bit files. In some sessions the laptop 'froze' and a little investigation showed that the CPU usage was at 99.9%, with Minimserver using over 40%. To be fair, this may have been down to Windows 10 itself which was a fresh install, and probably not working to its maximum efficiency. There is so much going on with W10 that it didn't surprise me that I got problems from to time.
People seem to either love JPLAY or hate it. Those who have bought into it certainly can't complain that they are not getting value, as the product is constantly, and significantly upgraded (for free). It's still not quite a 'plug and play' system, and it is more suited to those who are computer savvy, and prepared to put in some work from time to time to get the very best playback quality. But from what I did hear using the JPLAY Streamer set up, the effort is worthwhile.
By the way, I am told that the sound is even better when using a two computer set-up, but as I do not have wi-fi, I was unable to test this for myself.
© Copyright 2011/2016 Nick Whetstone - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com