In August 2016, I wrote about about why I like the Guayadeque music player, and then I used the six characteristics that seemed most important to me to evaluate other music players: Quod Libet, Gmusicbrowser, DeaDBeeF, Audacious, and Rhythmbox. Kind readers offered quite a few other interesting suggestions. Up for consideration in this installment are VLC, Clementine, QMMP, and Amarok.
Criteria I use
- Must be configurable to pass the music through unchanged to ALSA.
- Should have a good “smart playlist” feature.
- Should not force the user to always interact through playlists.
- Should provide a simple approach to cover art—use the embedded cover art, fall back to cover.jpg (or .png) in the music directory.
- Should show the signal level and effective bit rate as the music plays.
- Should present good-to-great overall organization, layout, and performance.
As in previous testing, I’m going to give five marks for perfect performance in the first criteria, and one mark each for perfect performance in criteria 2-6.
For this testing, I used my AudioQuest DragonFly and two albums that can be purchased from Linux-friendly download sites: Linn Records’ recording of Mozart’s Requiem, at 96kHz/24 bit, and Edameme’s album Ochre at 44.1kHz/16 bit.
Configuring VLC is interesting. In my experience, changes to the audio pipeline require a restart, which was not a big deal once I was aware of it. To get VLC to pass the music through to ALSA unchanged:
Tools | Preferences | Audio Output module: ALSA audio output Device: AudioQuest DragonFly, USB Audio Direct hardware device all software conversions
I didn’t really want to use all software conversions, but when I selected without any conversions, I could neither hear any music over the device nor did the bit-rate indicator on the device (even with restarting).
I did confirm that VLC was playing back at the original bit rates, by looking at$ cat DragonFly/stream0 AudioQuest inc. AudioQuest DragonFly at usb-0000:00:14.0-1, full speed : USB Audio Playback: Status: Running Interface = 1 Altset = 1 Packet Size = 588 Momentary freq = 96000 Hz (0x60.0000) Feedback Format = 10.14 Interface 1 Altset 1 Format: S24_3LE Channels: 2 Endpoint: 1 OUT (ASYNC) Rates: 44100, 48000, 88200, 96000
Similarly, the 44.1kHz files played back at their native sampling rate, although it seems at 24 bits. Still, I’m not extremely happy about having to enable some mysterious “software conversions,” so I’m going to give VLC a mark of 4 here.
As for the other marks, VLC doesn’t seem to have a concept of a music library. Rather, I can open music files or directories of music files and save them as playlists. I can also open playlists that I’ve saved.
Therefore, I’m giving VLC 0 for smart playlists, 0.5 for not forcing me to always interact through playlists (because I have to navigate the file system to select music, rather than a list of my albums), 1 for cover art (VLC seems to read the cover.jpg file in the music directory just fine), and 0.5 for good-to-great organization (navigating the file system, again, which means I see my list of artists but can’t, for instance, sort by album name). As to signal level and effective bit rate, I love those VU meters and other visualizations, but I can’t see how to get effective bit rate directly from VLC, so I’m giving it a 0.5 here. Total = 6.5
Wow, I really wanted to like this one. First impressions were extremely positive. A very nice looking user interface, ultra-rapid scan of my library, tons of online music sources, but no obvious way to configure it to talk to my DragonFly through ALSA. I found this thread that seems to support such a sad state of affairs. Therefore, I didn’t continue with its evaluation. No rating.
Reminds me of XMMS, but again, I could not determine any way to tell it which ALSA device to use, so I didn’t continue with its evaluation. No rating.
This may be due to the default configuration in my distro, but the only audio playback device available in my Amarok install is PulseAudio Sound Server. I see in the configuration documentation that I should expect to find an alternative for ALSA, but there doesn’t seem to be any such thing in my repositories. This forum thread seems to indicate that Pulse is required. So I didn’t continue with its evaluation. No rating.
Music player review summary
Here’s a summary of the players I’ve tried and their scores on my criteria.
depth pass through
|Smart playlist||Queue option to playlist||Embedded cover art or cover.jpg||Signal level & effective bit rate||Overall Organ-ization||Total|
The remaining players on my to-review list, which were kindly suggested by readers, include:
More musical recommendations
A great (inexpensive) headphone amplifier
I own a few headphones and in-ear monitors: AKG 701, Grado SR 80, Shure SE 215, and Etymotic HF 2. The Grado, Shure, and Etymotic units work just fine with my various music-playing configurations, but the AKG units are known to be somewhat difficult to drive, and my experience agrees with that.
Douk Audio Hifi 6J9
Recently I stumbled upon an article on Sound & Vision about an inexpensive headphone amplifier called the Nobsound NS 08E. The article is quite positive about the unit, and the price, US$ 50, is certainly attractive, so I decided to buy one.
For whatever strange reason I could not order the same unit under the same name, but rather found it sold online by a vendor in Hong Kong under the name Douk Audio Hifi 6J9. The vendor promised the unit, including shipping, for some US$ 45, so I ordered one. It duly arrived and is now sitting atop my digital-analog converter and making sweet sounds into my AKG headphones. Obviously, with its two 6J9 tubes installed, this is not a unit to throw in the laptop bag, but the AKG units are far too big to be portable in any case.
The Nobsound is really oriented toward connections with devices with low output (such as cell phones, for instance), so I had to install Rothwell Attenuators between my pre-amplifier’s tape outputs and the input of the Nobsound. But now I have a unit that actually drives the AKGs with plenty of headroom. Connected directly to my pre-amplifier’s headphone output, the AKGs really need to be set at 60% of output to be at a comfortable level for listening, and honestly they can sound a bit thin in that configuration. Whereas when connected to the Nobsound, the lower registers have a bit more warmth and loud passages sound completely unstrained—and quite loud—with the volume control set at 9-10 o’clock. The cynic in me says the NS 08E tonal colorations fortuitously offset the AKG 701 tonal colorations; the practical person just sits back and enjoys the wonderful music.
And sitting here right now listening to Amadou and Mariam’s Sénégal Fast Food on this wonderful combo, I believe I should suggest interesting music available on Linux-friendly sites (or at least on CD).
More music from Linux-friendly sources
I really like Johann Sebastian Bach’s music in general, and I really really like the Solo and Double Violin Concertos, performed by Andrew Manze, Rachel Podger, The Academy of Ancient Music on the Harmonia Mundi label, which I have ripped from a CD I bought at the Harmonia Mundi store in Grenoble, France. (I actually bought quite a fistful of CDs there in 2006 and 2007, but that’s another story.) Lately, I’ve also been enjoying Bach’s Cello Suites, performed by Richard Tunnicliffe on Linn Records. As far as I have been able to determine, Harmonia Mundi does not sell downloads directly to the buying public, whereas Linn Records does (and as I’ve mentioned before, Linn’s site is Linux-friendly—no nasty download bloatware required).
Harmonia Mundi, on the other hand, seems to be promoting the purchase of its music through iTunes. Well, that’s not going to happen for me. But I see it is available for purchase in FLAC format at Presto Classical in the UK, in my own currency, no less! This looks like a site I need to explore further.
Those whose tastes run more toward modern, and who liked what they heard during the recent Olympic coverage in Rio de Janeiro, might enjoy giving Labiata by Lenine a try. I wasn’t able to find a place to buy this album as a FLAC download—the link on Lenine’s site didn’t work—but the CD seems to be available for purchase online at the obvious location. I like modern Brazilian music a lot, but I have to say my tastes run more toward edgy Lenine than smooth Sergio Mendez, although this version of Mas Que Nada as freshened by the Black Eyed Peas is a lot of fun.
There is a long tradition of North American musicians being inspired by South American musicians. Someone I am currently enjoying is Quantic, alias Will Holland. Although Will originally hails from Worcestershire (in the UK), apparently he is now based in New York. He spent time in Colombia, and that experience particularly influences the album Magnetica, available on the Linux-friendly Bandcamp site. I confess I have a copy of this on vinyl, the ultimate open media. In fact, maybe I’ll put that on right now—seems like a good moment to wrap up this month’s column.