4 open music players compared: VLC, QMMP, Clementine, and Amarok

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4 open music players compared: VLC, QMMP, Clementine, and Amarok

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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

  1. Must be configurable to pass the music through unchanged to ALSA.
  2. Should have a good "smart playlist" feature.
  3. Should not force the user to always interact through playlists.
  4. Should provide a simple approach to cover art—use the embedded cover art, fall back to cover.jpg (or .png) in the music directory.
  5. Should show the signal level and effective bit rate as the music plays.
  6. 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.

VLC

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

Clementine

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.

QMMP

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.

Amarok

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.

Player Rate/
depth pass through
Smart playlist Queue option to playlist Embedded cover art or cover.jpg Signal level & effective bit rate Overall Organ-ization Total
Guayadeque 5 1 1 1 1 1 10
Quod Libet 5 0.5 1 0 0 1 7.5
Gmusicbrowser 5 0 1 1 0 1 8
DeaDBeeF 5 0 0.5 1 1 1 8.5
Audacious N/R - - - - - N/R
Rhythmbox N/R - - - - - N/R
VLC 4 0 0.5 1 0.5 0.5 6.5
Clementine N/R - - - - - N/R
Qmmp N/R - - - - - N/R
Amarok N/R - - - - - N/R

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.

Chris Hermansen portrait Temuco Chile
Seldom without a computer of some sort since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I have been a full-time Linux user since 2005, a full-time Solaris and SunOS user from 1986 through 2005, and UNIX System V user before that.

14 Comments

Personally I should use other criteria for such a test:

1) Can the software playback without use the crappy Linux ALSA sound system?
like "perfect bitstreaming" straight to your DAC? (so that the internal OS sound system is
bypassed)

2) can the software playback SACD-ISO's ? (also DIFF, DSD)

3) can the software playback DXD wav's?

4) is there a good (and fast) IOS, Android app?

5) is there a nice album art thumb nail lay-out available?

6) last but maybe most important what is the sound quality of the player?

Thank you for your comments zerrax. I'd like to point out a few things in response to some of your points. First, the album art falls into two of my categories: cover art and overall organization. Second, I see the Android app (at least, a client control app) as being more relevant when we speak of a music server (like MPD) running on a dedicated device. I'm thinking about how to deal with that environment and I don't think I will use the same six criteria. Third, at this stage I'm kind of a PCM / FLAC guy, so I haven't invested a lot of time in figuring out DSD; if I could only find something I wanted on DSD, I would convert it to a high-resolution FLAC format (and this has only happened once to me so far).

As to sound quality of the player, I have to confess I haven't approached that level of refinement yet; I'm basically at the stage of being satisfied with the player providing the bitstream (via ALSA) as-is to the DAC.

And as to avoiding ALSA (which by the way I don't think is crappy at all), I'm not sure how you would propose to get the bitstream directly out to the device. Could you elaborate?

In reply to by zerrax (not verified)

Because of this insightful review I have installed Guayadeque 0.4.1-0.14 beta x86_64.
This is the 1st that has managed not to crash in KDE. In the past I would do things such as simply moving the vu meters to the to of the window and it would crash, so I never gave it a chance.
This version at least is stable (so far).
I find the sound is cleaner with Guaydeque. So I'll keep using it and enjoy pure sound for a while.

Incidentally it still has stability issues. Yesterday, I ckicked on Stop at End, then closed Guayadeque. It crashed and generated a crash report.

Tried today to register at their site and it claims that "my humanity is suspect" because I can't figure out the answer to a rather stupid question: "the last 2 lettersof my favorite linux audio player + 3 letters". Sounds simple huh? No can give an answer they like. Oh well.

The sound is superior, so I'll keep using it.

Thanks for your comment, nEWconvert. I am really delighted to hear that Guayadeque meets your needs. Sorry to hear it crashed on you. I have had the occasional similar problem in the past. Consider running it from a terminal window to see what the problem is and filing a bug report!

Also very sorry to hear your humanity is suspect. I would have answered "qeabc" to that question and probably would have been equally spurned by the registration checker!

In reply to by nEWconvert (not verified)

QMMP -- qmmp-0.7.5 + qmmp-plugin-pack-0.7.5

"I could not determine any way to tell it which ALSA device to use,"

Okay so it is not immediately obvious and requires a little work, so lose a point for that, but selection of an audio output interface ALSA, Jack, Null, OSS4, or PulseAudio is possible if you have built the appropriate plugin .lib/qmmp/Output/libalsa.so

CTRL P to bring up Preferences, then click Plugins in the category pane on the left, then click the ALSA "radio button" to choose ALSA as output, then (and this is the important not obvious one), click the Preferences button at the bottom of the window pane.

This brings up a dialog window in which one can choose one of the available ALSA "soundcards" devices (including "hardware names" as well as "virtual devices" defined in asound.conf , plus selection of mixer card, and mixer PCM.

And if your laucnh QMMP from a terminal you can see lots of diagnostics and so can check if it is lying when it claims

OutputWriter: [alsa] 44100 Hz, 2 ch, s16le

It is very unfair that QMMP received "nul points" even though the desired ALSA output (or better JACK output) can be selected and the reviewer did not fully explore the preferences interface.

Thanks for the detailed instructions, J G Miller! I will give this a try and, assuming it works, upgrade my assessment in the next instalment.

In reply to by J G Miller (not verified)

We use QMMP on the farm. Why? It works, it works well, it sounds fine, and we really like the ability to have multiple play lists loaded at all times! I preload 7 play lists, one for each day of the week with the content I wish to listen to. The play lists, all hugging the bottom of the current list, are easy to select, easy to populate and change, and it's nice to be able to move tracks easily from one list to another. The fact that it is easy to skin is a bonus!

Thanks for the comment, LNXGoat! I admire someone who can decide what they want to listen to 7 minutes in advance, let alone 7 days!!!! But seriously, this is a great illustration as to why my important parameters may not be that important for someone else. I've yet to find myself in a position where I've been tempted to curate playlists.

I really appreciate you offering this alternative view; thanks again!

In reply to by LNXGoat (not verified)

first;
someone tell me which distro doesn't come packaged with pulseaudio sound server. other than maybe puppy linux and arch if you choose not to install it. why it is relevant to trash media players based on their ability to pass directly to alsa i view as not a service.
second;
you might want to x umplayer off your list; i read awhile back this media player is no longer supported. which is just another front end for mplayer...same as smplayer- its a front end for mplayer...so if you're going to do a review, why not just do mplayer?

Thanks for your comments, coolmuzikjock. For me, it's important to bypass PulseAudio because Pulse insists on resampling, as far as I can tell anyway, and I don't want my music resampled. I'm fine with Pulse dealing with other sound events on my laptop, but I have a nice DAC that I like to feed with the original bit stream. Therefore, a music player that doesn't provide this capability is not of interest to me, even though it might be lovely for all sorts of other reasons. I hope you don't think this constitutes trashing those players!

And, based on your recommendation, I have added mplayer to my list. Thanks!

In reply to by coolmuzikjock (not verified)

Have you tried daphile https://www.daphile.com/
It is a distribution to handle music. The problem is that it is not free (still need to convince the guy behind) even if it uses free software.

Thanks for your comments, OBROW. I took a quick look at the site and do not see why you say it is "non free". Certainly many of its components are free.

In any case if it is truly non-free, I'm afraid I cannot review it, because my column is all about open music players and related topics.

In reply to by OBROW (not verified)

Just stumbled across your site, it would seem that you have invested time in getting the best out of MP3 sound etc, is it possible for you to explain the best way to set up a computer to amp for media playback (mostly MP3), not too sure what ALSA is, or if i should be using it, am on Linux, have always just hooked computer to amp + speakers used what ever player floated my boat, and off we go....would love to make it all sound better though, hope this makes some sense? thanks

Thank you for your comments, Rob Smart.

I have certainly invested some time in this music hobby, though whether I am getting the best is open to (spirited) argument! But I'm pretty happy with it.

I think I have answered some of your questions in an earlier article I wrote on home music servers, ALSA, configuration, etc. Please take a look here:

https://opensource.com/life/16/1/how-set-linux-based-music-server-home

The only substantial change I have made since that article is moving from Volumio to Archphile. The music serving software is still MPD and I still control MPD mostly with MPDroid on my Android phone.

The nice thing about the chain I use (ARM-based dedicated computer, lightweight Linux distro, MPD with bit-perfect ALSA connection to inexpensive high-quality digital-analog converter all connected to the home stereo) is that it is easy to configure and use and sounds great, without burning a huge hole in the bank account.

Also, because the player is dedicated, its use and function is not affected by normal computing chores, conflicts with other software requirements, etc.

If you have any other questions after you read that article, please write back!

In reply to by Rob Smart (not verified)

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