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I quickly contacted JPlay to obtain the full Monty for a formal review. If you’ve yet to get on the computer bandwagon, think of the differences between playback programs as equivalent to those between CD transports. iTunes is a mass-market Blu-Ray or CD player. JPlay might be a CEC TL0. Windows Media Player is akin to one of those no-name Blu-Ray players you see at Wal-Mart for $50. It’s that big of a difference. In a way playback software has replaced spinning silver disc transports. It’s worth noting that the Leading Edge room at the recent Munich High End Show which garnered best of show kudos from Audiobeat’s Roy Gregory and HighFidelity’s Wojciech Pacula featured JPlay.

JPlay was created by two music-loving software geeks, Josef Piri and Marcin Ostapowicz. In its basic mini version it is a stripped-down music player devoid of any fancy GUI. Its focus is entirely on sound quality. After a Notepad style window appears, you select between playback options via the indicated hot keys, copy the music files you wish to hear and hit the spacebar. That’s it.

If the plain vanilla non-GUI interface of JPlay’s mini does not float your boat and you’d rather stick with a more comprehensive media playback package, JPlay includes plug-in modules for Foobar, iTunes and J. River Media Center. I thus can still use JRMC for managing my media library but now when I initiate play, JPlay takes over playback completely. Instead of the Notepad-style window listing various hot key commands, now a JPlay icon appears in the system tray. Open it and a window appears showing the various settings. Keep in mind that you may note greater sonic improvements with the stripped-down JPlay mini as it has a considerably smaller footprint than any of the more comprehensive playback programs.

JPlay functions with Windows Vista, Windows 7 and the latest beta of Windows 8. It supports 16-bit/44.1kHz, 24-bit and 32-bit high-resolution files in WAV, AIFF, ALAC or FLAC formats. There is no support for any lossy formats such as MP3. There’s also support for gapless playback and seekbar. JPlay is available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. I received the 64-bit version.

If your DAC supports it, JPlay recommends using Kernel streaming as it offers lower latency and is the lowest audio-engine level in Windows. It’s also supposedly more efficient and requires less system resources than WASAPI. There are a number of key features in JPlay worth noting such as Full Memory Playback. Unlike most other players which load music files into RAM dynamically, JPlay loads the entire album/playlist to reduce hard disk access to zero - provided you allocate sufficient RAM to the task. JRMC uses memory playback too but does so dynamically and is capped at 256MB. Play any more than that and JRMC will have to re-access your hard drive to possibly affect the sound quality. Maximum System Timer reduces operating system latency by making Windows switch tasks at 0.5ms instead of the default 15.6ms. Maximal Priority Scheduling ensures uninterrupted flow of music data by running music playback at the highest possible priority. JPlay also runs as a Windows Service which means JPlay will access non-fragmented memory sooner than other programs and ensure priority on start up for optimum sonic results.

As mentioned above, there are several settings you can experiment with such as Buffer. Essentially use the lowest possible setting possible before you get ticks and pops. This will depend on your computer’s specs, your audio interface driver and the bit depth/sampling rate of the music files. For 16/44, I set the buffer to the lowest setting DirectLink, which sends samples one by one to the driver of my JKSPDIF. As far as I know this is the first program to allow for this. For higher resolution files I had to increase the buffer slightly or suffer the odd tick and pop. You can also program specific buffer settings for different sampling rates to avoid switching them manually prior to playback.

I found this feature to have a profound impact on sound quality. Interestingly, Josef pointed out in an email exchange that it is impossible to send one sample at a time to a DAC via USB even with 16-bit/44.1kHz (1/44100 = 23 microseconds) material. The lowest any USB DAC or USB-SPDIF interface can support is 1000 microseconds due to limits imposed by USB. Even the new USB 3 standard is limited to 250 microseconds. That still leaves 10 samples as the absolute minimum package one can send down a USB pipe at a time. Regardless of which USB standard your gear uses, its driver still has to buffer samples before shooting it down the wire. So one has to ask how feeding a USB driver one sample at a time can possibly affect sound quality. According to Josef, "it's a real mystery but the fact that most people report sonic benefits with smaller buffers just shows how little we know about computer-based music playback and why this exciting area still has some room to grow."