Mini Review: J River Media Center (also how to use it as an audio output for Windows Media Center (and others))

Mini Review: J River Media Center (also how to use it as an audio output for Windows Media Center (and others))

A few months ago I was pointed to J River Media Center as a potential fix for an audio issue I was having. I had changed my connection from my Media PC to my old Panasonic Receiver from using an SP/DIF to using individual analogue phono connections for each of the 5.1 channels. Whilst this allowed me to play the high sample rate audio files I wanted to try without any down-sampling it had a huge disadvantage in that it bypassed all of my receivers processing including its bass management. As my front speakers are small units not capable of producing very low frequencies this is something I rely on to pass the low frequencies to the Sub-Woofer. Without it everything was really lacking bass depth.

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Enter J River Media Center (I’ll call it JRMC for convenience.) JRMC is a media player built from the ground up to have great audio. It supports bypassing the Windows Mixer and talking directly to the Sound Driver using  a vast array of technologies including ASIO and WASAPI  (there is a really good explanation of all these as part of J RIver’s comprehensive Wiki /  FAQ http://wiki.jriver.com/index.php/Audio_Output_Modes) and is capable of Bit Perfect output.

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It also has built in a very impressive array of  high quality Digital Signal Processing – obviously using these is not going to give Bit Perfect sound but some are so advantageous as to make that a non argument in my mind. For me the Room Correction option that allows me to adjust the relative delays and volumes of the speakers precisely and. yes, also allows me to set that all important Sub-Woofer cross-over is just brilliant.  One thing to note here even when I switched back to using SP/DIF I found myself turning off my receivers Bass Management and using JRMC’s instead as it is far more precise. In fact JRMC can do virtually anything a good receiver can do so if you had a good Power-Amp your PC could become your Receiver and Pre-Amp.

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One reason this article has taken a while to come out is that I have done extensive double blind testing to prove that the immense improvement in Audio Quality I was hearing using J River wasn’t just down to placebo effect of it being something new. That testing has shown that I , and others,  can clearly hear and identify when JRMC is being used to play back music as opposed to Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center or even VLC.  That is all double blind testing can prove but subjectively we also all agreed that JRMC sounded not just different but better.

I would be remiss not to mention that JRMC does a lot more than just audio. Much like Windows Media Player or ITunes it offers full media library management including music, video and pictures.

Its Video support is definitely worth mentioning – using its own Red October technology JRMC takes all the fuss out of media playback by automatically downloading an managing codecs for you http://wiki.jriver.com/index.php/Red_October

This means it can play back virtually any unprotected video file you can throw at it.

It goes one step beyond iTunes and Windows Media Player by also offering TV. This is somewhat limited at the moment, being in my opinion no where near as good as say Windows Media Center’s TV support,  but  JRMC’s TV Support can really only get better and I am certain it rapidly will. Indeed the whole of JRMC seems to continuously get better with new releases almost weekly often offering up features that have only been discussed in their excellent user forums a few days before.

One thing where JRMC already excels is in it’s playlist support. Quite simply the rules based Playlist generator is second to none. Combined with excellent meta-data handling this is the first product that has ever made it possible for me to generate a playlist of all my music with only music – no spoken word – no languages – no podcasts and to remove any duplicates. Very powerful stuff.

Another thing that JRMC has spot on is it’s DLNA support which is fantastic with great support for transcoding on the fly to allow virtually any source to play on any client – there are some limitations still and it is a shame that the DSP options do not yet work on DLNA streams.

This brings us on to what I consider JRMC’s killer feature – the support of Zones. Any audio output device can be a Zone including any DLNA device on your network. JRMC allows you to play a different playlist on any Zone or to link Zones and play the same play list on all of them. This latter works fantastically and can be used to produce synchronised multi-room output. This works best if you use a multi output card to feed your other rooms. Using DLNA devices introduces quite a bit of lag although JRMC does allow you to adjust the synchronisation between the zones.

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This is really powerful stuff (see http://wiki.jriver.com/index.php/Zones)  and almost allows you to do your own Sonos equivalent. Of course Sonos has always had one huge advantage over most competitors in its simplicity of control. JRMC can counter here too. J River’s excellent support of third party developers has led to a plethora of third party remote control apps for JRMC. You can get them for iPhone, iPad, Android and, to please TDLMobile’s Jason Coombes, even Windows Phone. The API has allowed these app developers to produce really slick applications which can fully control JRMC even down to what is playing on what zone. Recently most have also implemented the ability to stream to the device from JRiver. I’ll spotlight one of these – JRemote for the iPhone/iPad this is truly an app of beauty. Very similar in layout to Apple’s Remote app for iTunes but infinitely more powerful. It is incredibly responsive never lagging even with a ten thousand title collection.

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With all these wonders (and they are wonders) you might be wondering why I still would want to use Windows Media Center (WMC). Is it because WMC has a  10 foot interface. Well truth be told JRMC has its own 10 Foot interface known as Theater View. Whilst not as pretty, to my eyes, as WMC this is pretty powerful and offers some really nice features like Artist Images being displayed as you play music. Where JRMC falls down at the moment is that it hasn’t had the same attention to detail on preventing screen burn-in (or to be more accurate in this day and age image retention) as WMC. As a plasma user with a set that is very susceptible to image retention this is a pretty big issue for me. Indeed it was this issue, and the fact I love the integration of MyMovies into WMC, that prevented me moving to JRMC as my main Home Theater PC interface.

Using WMC for music though simply fell flat after using JRMC and I had to find a solution. I also am a big Spotify user and I needed a way to play that using the JRMC playback engine as well (JRMC does natively support some internet audio sources including SHOUTcast and Last.Fm but not Spotify (at least not yet))

Fortunately JRMC does provide a rather fabulous feature known as WASPI Loopback. Basically this is a poor man’s virtual soundcard. To use this you need to open live://loopback as the source in a JRMC zone then anything played to the default windows sound card will also be played to the Sound card associated with the zone in JRMC using all of JRMC’s wonderful Room Correction etc.

Of course this could get messy if the device you were playing to in JRMC was the the same one windows has as default. Fortunately I have two sound cards in my setup – an Asus Xonar PCI card which is what I have connected to my receiver and an internal card which isn’t connected to anything at all. So what I currently do is to set the internal card as the Windows Default Soundcard but have a zone in JRMC point to my Xonar card. As long as I play live://loopback in JRMC on that zone all sounds played in windows be they from WMC or Spotify will be played to the internal card (which is of course silent) and then magically be played by JRMC out of the Xonar with proper bass management.

I’ve tweaked this setup a bit for convenience. I have a playlist with live://loopback in it which is the default for the Xonar zone and I also have JRMC run at start-up in its service mode which hides it in the system tray. I also have JRMC set to autoplay the last playlist on startup. This way when I reboot the Wasapi Loopback is always ready to go and makes Windows Media Center and Spotify sound simply great.

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I really love the fact that JRMC have thought to include this feature – although they do still class it as experimental and I know are looking at improving it. One caveat on this setup – JRMC has another pretty wonderful feature which allows you to encode any source to DolbyDigital on the fly but unfortunately at the moment this does not work with the Waspi Loopback feature. I asked a question about this issue in J River’s Interact forums and got an almost immediate reply from Matt one of the developers – superb customer service.

I can reproduce it not working too well when it’s encoding to Dolby Digital for output.
For now, I think this is just a limitation of our loopback system.
With that said, I’m hoping to come back to loopback / line-in in the not too distant future and fix the rough edges like this and make the features easier to find and use.

All in all I’m hugely impressed with J River Media Center and when combined in this way with my preferred 10 foot interface this truly the best of all worlds.

It should be noted that this write up is based on J River Media Center version 17.  www.Jriver.com The current price is $49.98 and in my mind is really worth it but no need to listen to my mind there is a free trial so you can test it out for yourself.

 

In the meantime I have no hesitation in awarding JRiver Media Center

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