Amarra sQ

Amarra sQ, a DSP (Digital Signal Processing) engine, is designed to work with streaming services while bypassing Apple's Core Audio. sQ is for Apple OSX only and it costs $29.99. What it delivers is the ability to customize your music's EQ, employ various dither settings, and generally I found that it makes streaming services sound better. What more can you ask for?

I asked Jonathan Reichbach, CEO / Chief Engineer of Sonic Studio makers of the Amarra software suite, if he could explain a bit about what and why Amarra sQ does what it does:

Amarra sQ employs several design features to improve upon Core Audio. These are categorized into two categories, the DSP processing and the Amarra audio engine pipeline. In Amarra sQ we use our proprietary equalization which is recognized as a very high quality EQ. This is attributed to its minimal phase design and extensive topologies allowing for 7 different filter profiles including high and low pass, shelving, notch and parametric. In addition to the equalization is the application of our dither DSP code for re-dithering the audio signal after processing. The Noise Shaped dither and other forms are critical to producing a quality audio signal. Secondly, the audio pipeline is designed for efficient double precision operations that are designed in concert with the DSP for a low overhead solution. Lastly, our Sonic Stream driver is highly optimized to avoid any unnecessary processing.
Setting up Amarra sQ is a snap. Just download the free 15-day trial version, drag and drop the app into your Applications folder and launch. Go to the Preferences screen and select your output device, i.e. your DAC. The Input Device should be automatically set to SonicStream, the Amarra output driver.

From this Preferences screen you can also select from four different types of Dither including Rectangular PDF (Probability Density Function), Triangular PDF, Noise Shaping, and Rectangular with Noise Shaping. You can also select None. There's also a setting for the bit depth of the dithered output from Amarra to your DAC as well as the Frequency/Release which "...defines the crossover point where the dither is applied to the audio signal. The default value of 9000 Hz is best for general use. Release defines, as milliseconds, the amount of time before turning dither off after zeros or digital black is encountered at the end of a track." While I did try the different dither types, I did not hear a great difference between them and stuck with the default Rectangular PDF (for more on Dither, check out Wikipedia).

Switching to the EQ screen, there are sixteen preset EQ settings some designed for use with specific headphones, another for a MacBook Pro's internal speakers (yuck), Bass Boost, several music types, and Flat. You can also create and save custom EQs very easily by dragging the four colored balls around to your ear's content. Finally there's the gain level and Amarra recommends starting with this set to -15db and adjusting from there. I found a level of 0db to work just fine. Once I had everything set up to my liking, I went about listening.

Amarra sQ Sound Quality
Most of my time was spent listening to Amarra sQ with Tidal's lossless streaming service. I also spent some time listening to YouTube music videos, Soundcloud streams, Bandcamp, and Internet radio. In every instance Amarra sQ improved the sound by offering greater clarity, a more cohesive sound picture, and generally just a more naturally musical sound. Most of my listening was spent using the Flat Eq setting but I did play around with various filters and here the ability to customize the Eq of your music is certainly an appealing proposition when dealing with less than ideal sources.

If you find that streaming from Bandcamp always sounds a bit thin, for example, you can create and save a custom Bandcamp-specific filter. Nice. Are you plagued by annoying room nodes? Just filter them out. As far as the other options go including dither, I did not find that they provided much of a sonic difference, if any. But Amarra has certainly made it a breeze to play around 'till your hearts' content. I would say that the largest sonic benefits are derived from the use of equalization.

I have to admit to feeling a bit silly going on about a product and its features that any Mac user can try for free. As with all things audio, your mileage may vary but the improvements I heard were certainly not subtle especially with lessor quality sources. Amarra sQ's Eq is also inarguably a means to change the presentation of your streaming music, the only unknown in the equation being how much, or how little, Eq'ing you'll be happy with. There is no right or wrong answer.

sQ Indeed
If you spend any time listening to streaming services like YouTube, Spotify, and Tidal, you owe it to yourself to try Amarra sQ. And you can do it right now for free! I found that Amarra sQ added some serious levels of musical enjoyment to streaming services which is exactly what we're after, after all.

Download a free 15-day trial version of Amarra sQ here.

moosehunt's picture

How does this work / not work if you also use JRiver for playback of local content from a NAS?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
You would use sQ with streaming services and JRiver with your NAS.
Sjeb's picture

On my MAC Mini I had to go into system preferences and select Sonicstream as sound output device to use SQ with TIDAL, and then switch back to my DAC as output device to use JRiver, at which point JRiver was sort of fouled up especially on DSD tracks. Did I do something wrong or is it actually necessary to manually reset the sound output device every time? If the latter that is a pretty clunky solution and I'd just as soon go into Audio Midi and just manually set sample rate to 44 when using TIDAL. Or am I missing something?

stevebythebay's picture

I know Sonic only runs things on OS X but would they consider working with other platforms? As it is, I'm happy with consolidation of all my streaming, including local radio, to a Sonos. Given the clear quality of Amarra for playback, I've hesitated moving to non-Mac servers like Aurender. However, purpose built music servers will eventually overtake other solutions eventually.

As for some services, like Tidal, I abhor even the occasional drop out (Tidal may some day fix their servers or process of buffering).

lenbell's picture

or will this work with my iphone 6 plus?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
dallasjustice's picture

This is a mac only issue. Since one can't use an ASIO driver to loopback into a program like Jriver on mac for DSP.

Jriver 20 on windows has a WDM which loops the streamer output back into its DSP engine. I use Jriver's Convolver with Spotify and output to the DAC; just like listening to all my local files.

SFSpirit's picture

I use this on W8.1 JR20 and it's great. Very impressive. You can play Pandora, but use the JR20 rendering engine, neat!

Reed's picture

I loaded Amarra sQ over the weekend and gave this a try. I compared this to regular Amarra via AIFF files and my CD player. My system is fully balanced and I used the same cables all around. Feeding my Benchmark DAC2 D via USB, it was interesting that playback was virtually identical to much worse via the TIDAL app and Amarra SQ, compared to Amarra playing AIFF files of the same songs. It seems that the limitation is not the technology, but the source file.

My CD player always sounded better than both. However, the playback was impressive enough that I'm keeping my subscription. It would really be nice to add iPad remote control capability for the TIDAL app. I use my Apple MacBook Pro to mirror the MacMini display, which also works.

SFSpirit's picture

I thought you could simply use AirPlay from your iPad and have the AppleTV connected to your DAC? The files format is AIFF instead of FLAC in this case, I believe.

SFSpirit's picture

sorry this was to reply to Reed's comments.