Media Player Q&A: Q8 Can different versions of the same OS sound different and if so why?
Jonathan Reichbach, President, Sonic Studio (Amarra)
Each version of an OS is the result of years of development and many many things can change. These changes can range from low level Core Audio changes to the actual hardware platforms that the OS is designed to run on. For example one change from [OS X] 10.5 to 10.6 changed how file transfers were scheduled and processed. This affected quite a few audio applications at the time. One of our challenges with each new OS or hardware platform is to fine-tune our software to match the computation with the computing environment.Damien Plisson, Founder, Audirvana, (Audirvana Plus)
Absolutely. The kernel level optimization has improved, first with the first 64bit versions, and now Mountain Lion makes another step forward, especially noticeable with Integer Mode.Tim Murison, Co-Founder & CTO, BitPerfect Sound Inc., (BitPerfect)
Yes, efficiency in the player is important for sound quality, but the player controls only half of the "signal path." The other half is the driver. Different versions of the OS have different drivers, some of these may be more efficient than others. In my opinion, the drivers in Mountain Lion sound the best yet on OSX.Stephen F. Booth, Founder and Developer, sbooth.org, (Decibel)
This is definitely possible. Although Core Audio on Mac OS X allows fairly low-level access to audio hardware, there is really no way to know exactly what the OS is doing under the hood. For example, audio quality could vary depending on how system volume control and mixing is implemented. Luckily it is fairly simple to configure Mac OS X for bit perfect playback.Jussi Laako, Owner, Signalyst, (HQ Player)
For players like iTunes or Windows Media Player that use the OS audio engine, it is common to have differences from version to another. Mostly due to changes in the OS audio engine processing algorithms.Josef Piri & Marcin Ostapowicz, JPlay (JPlay)
For audiophile players it shouldn't, since the player talks directly to the device driver. However, there can be again hardware dependent differences, since there may be differences in radiated noise patterns (EMI/RFI).
Yes, from our experience various versions of the same OS sound different, because they have different features; components, add-ons, drivers. Things that are not visible to user at once, but they're running in background taking valuable resources. The more components the OS uses, the slower it runs and, from our point of view, the worse it sounds.Jim Hillegass, Founder and CEO, JRiver (JRiver Media Center)
Yes. Windows XP doesn't offer WASAPI or Kernel Streaming, two high quality ways to address sound devices.Dr. Rob Robinson, Director of Engineering, Channel D, (Pure Music)
I take it that you mean that based on listening tests, one is able to detect differences between different OS versions. With that in mind, I believe differences are marginal to nil. However, validating this is extremely difficult because of needing to carefully account for all variables in such tests.
Everyone appreciates that one’s mood plays an important part in the enjoyment of anything - music listening, dining, athletic activity. I have seen Internet posts made within hours of the release of a new computer OS version proclaiming the sonic attributes of said OS. How is this possible? Is it guaranteed that one’s alertness, mood, physical state, etc. is exactly the same as before the OS was upgraded - that is, even on an hour to hour basis? It doesn’t seem reasonable to come to a conclusion like this so swiftly, when the differences can be so subtle. Besides, after installing a new OS version, particularly a UNIX based OS like the Mac OS, it takes several hours for the system to “settle” into its final operational state, because of the many background housekeeping processes that must run an initial time, taking their turns until the OS reaches a relatively quiescent state. Think of it as a kind of component break-in. So any conclusions made the same day a new OS is released seem questionable to me.
I would reckon that if a professional reviewer wrote a loudspeaker review that was based on only a few days worth, let alone a few hours worth of listening on some arbitrary day (the same day the loudspeakers were delivered?), that review would be criticized for a lack of thoroughness. Evaluating something that putatively changes the sound quality in an even more subtle way than differences between loudspeakers would seem to require rigorous attention to details.
The differences in sound character between different DACs are certainly more significant than OS versions, but that doesn’t stop different people from preferring different brands or models of DAC over another. So in the interest of musical enjoyment and happiness, can we call this a “no” and consider that the time spent fretting about this and performing OS installations and evaluations could be better spent relaxing and listening to music? We have gone through many iterations of computers and OS versions here, and from the listening chair they all sounded pretty good. I have never been motivated to downgrade an OS because of sound quality.