JRiver Media Center Software Reviewed

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JRiver Media Center Software Reviewed

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JRiver-Media-Center-Review-coverflow-small.jpgIt wasn't too long ago that the thought of having your music and movies all available at the touch of the button was something out of science fiction. Then came the iPod and streaming video. However, when it came time to enjoy those same music and movie files in their full, native resolution(s), well, only the super rich could afford that. For the better part of the last decade, if you wanted to enjoy your music and/or movie library in its full glory, complete with cover art, metadata and more, there were but two ready-made solutions: Meridian Sooloos for music and Kaleidescape for movies. Both are incredibly expensive and both are marketed almost exclusively to the higher-end markets, leaving us 99-percenters out in the cold. Not anymore.

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The truth is that music has been able to be enjoyed in its full quality for years now. iTunes and even Windows Media player will play back lossless audio files with little drama. It's fair to say iTunes has become something of the standard, or at very least the most popular of all media-serving software, but iTunes' Achilles' heel has always been video. iTunes video sucks and, odd as it may sound, Apple has never bothered to fix it. If anything, they find ways to make it worse. Now, you PC users out there are probably shouting at your screens saying things like, "Media Center PC has been around since the Dark Ages!" And you're right. Microsoft has been ahead of the curve in terms of giving consumers the option to store and stream their content for years. However, Media Center PC never really exploded in the same way that iTunes has and, as a result, didn't really change the way we enjoy our content in the manner I'm sure its creators originally hoped it would. But that's not to say that Media Center PC has thrown in the towel or given up. No, Media Center PC is alive and well and marching forward under the watchful eye of a very dedicated fan base that spans the globe. Like the OS Unix, Media Center PC has become a sort of programmers' paradise, with countless versions and/or adaptations of the software available online, often for free.

I recently made the switch from Apple to PC. The result was that my entire Apple TV library was tossed out with the bathwater in favor of something entirely PC-friendly and full-resolution. Again, music has never really be the issue as it relates to iTunes, unless of course you purchase your music via iTunes; for me, the issue was always iTunes' lack of support for anything higher-quality than SD. Yes, I know iTunes will technically rent or sell you HD video, but as with YouTube and/or any online-based HD content, it isn't really HD you're watching. I can make a single pixel high-definition, so long as that pixel is 1920x1080, which is how I feel many of the online video services view the term HD when selling it to their customers, i.e., you and me. Thus began my investigation into suitable media center or jukebox software. My requirements were simple: DRM-free, universally compatible music files with bit-for-bit quality Blu-ray and DVD streaming, all neatly organized with metadata and K-Scape/Sooloos-esque functionality. For the better part of two months, I experimented with a variety of software solutions, ranging from the stock Media Center program to XBMC, before ultimately settling on JRiver's Media Center software.

JRiver's $50 media center software is unique among all of the aforementioned solutions, in that it uses the same basic structure as Microsoft's stock Media Center software, but expands upon the framework, making it more inclusive, higher-performing and even slicker-looking. JRiver is PC-only at present and is compatible with Windows 2000, XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Home Server. The program itself isn't too taxing to any system, which is no doubt why JRiver doesn't really list hardware compatibility, outside of a list of operating systems. Chances are, if your current PC can run any of the aforementioned operating systems, then it will be able to run JRiver, too. Just to be sure your system is up to snuff. JRiver extends new users a 30-day trial period before you have to fork over $50 for a one-time license. Another nicety is that JRiver doesn't water down their software during that 30-day trial period, giving you full functionality throughout. It should also be noted that, if you wish to employ JRiver on multiple Windows machines, the $50 license fee is only good for one computer at a time, meaning multi-computer households would have to spend $50 per computer for all to enjoy in the JRiver functionality. In my home, this meant spending $100; $50 for my Media Center PC and $50 for my office computer. Although, JRiver states that the single license can be used on all the computers that are "yours."

Because so much of JRiver's compatibility is dependent upon your computer and/or its internal cards, be it graphics or sound, there isn't much that the program won't do in terms of playback. For example, because most modern (and not so modern) PCs have native DVD support, including support for Dolby Digital and/or DTS soundtracks as standard, JRiver supports it as well. Same for two-channel and most multi-channel music tracks. For formats that aren't so mainstream or at least not included as standard, for instance Blu-ray, JRiver can be made compatible via third-party software or by downloading the required drivers. For instance, my PCs all have Blu-ray drives in them, but the ability to play back Blu-ray movies as I would in a standalone Blu-ray player falls to programs like PowerDVD 12 ($49.95). Having PowerDVD or similar installed allows JRiver to then play back Blu-ray discs by using the associated software's functionality in the background. Those looking for support for Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio would have to check their sound or video cards for compatibility. If your card(s) will do it, or at least pass the signal via bitstream to your receiver or AV preamp, then you're good to go. Otherwise, JRiver does default to multi-channel PCM. Basically, so long as your sound or video card is up to snuff, or you keep up to date with the latest drivers of your choosing, JRiver is as future-proof as they come for both audio and video. While JRiver's ability to play virtually every disc-based format is great, it's not really the software's primary function or focus.

I turned to JRiver because I didn't want to have to pop a disc into a tray any more. This is where the program really starts to flex its muscle: as the front end to a network attached media setup. When pointed at the right source, be it hard disc or folder(s), JRiver will automatically catalogue, organize, scrape for metadata and supply cover art to both your music and video collections. While this may seem like no big deal, since iTunes does the same thing and Media Player is a close second, I assure you it is. iTunes is great at being a jukebox, so long as you're willing to work within the parameters of what it deems appropriate, which for two-channel music isn't bad. However, when it comes to movies, you're locked into iTunes-purchased titles only. If you rip your own .mp4-compatible movies for iTunes, you'll also be responsible for that file's metadata and cover art, too. Not so with JRiver. To make things even cooler, it will catalogue multiple file formats located within the same drive or folder(s), but keep the end user experience all the same. For instance, say you have a few DRM-free .mp4 movie files from an existing iTunes library, but you also have .ISO files in full HD quality resting on the same drive. JRiver will scan the files and place them in your video library, complete with metadata and cover art, as if they were the same file type. That's really cool. Furthermore, if you configure JRiver properly, you can effectively turn it into a drop and rip solution for both music and movies; just like K-Scape, only without having to store your discs on a network-attached vault. Again, for obvious legal reasons, I cannot show you how to do this; I can only tell you it is possible. Another nice thing about JRiver's ability to work with virtually all file types is that it can easily be called upon to convert them to other formats as well. For example, if I want to take my movies on the road, I can convert the .MKV file to a more tablet- or portable-friendly format, say, .MP4, right from JRiver. You can also then have that file sync with your handheld device or tablet, much in the same way you would a Mac via iTunes. In fact, you can even export your content, music and movies so that they are iTunes/iDevice-compatible.

But wait, there's more.

JRiver also has higher AV manipulation capabilities beyond straight playback. When run on a properly-equipped PC, JRiver can take the place of an AV preamp, for it has controls and functionality for not just volume, but also speaker and bass management, as well as two levels of parametric EQ. Again, many of these features are tied to your PC or its attached cards' capabilities, but nevertheless, the functionality is present. For example, one of the hot new iTunes add-ons circulating among the shows and AV press is Amarra. Amarra is an "audiophile approved" solution to what many deem our download or digital music problem. I'm neither here nor there on the matter, but a lot of people do use Amarra and enjoy it, so it's worth a look. One of the big features of Amarra for those who use it is its ability to upsample, re-clock and then play back your music via your computer's internal memory, rather than its hard disc. This is said to improve fidelity. I only phrase it like that because I have not personally tested or spent any meaningful time with Amarra, I'm only going off of what friends and fellow AV colleagues of mine have said. Amarra in its least expensive form retails for just under $50, though for much of the functionality described above, you'll have to shell out $189 or more. Not so with JRiver, as all of the above features are available as standard inside the program's higher AV control and playback options.

It would be next to impossible for me to break down every option and feature available to you inside JRiver with a single review. For more information on JRiver or to read about some of its finer details, please visit our forum.

How_To_HTPC.jpgThe Hookup
Installing the JRiver software is easy and trouble-free. You first have to download the .exe file from JRiver's website and then simply follow the onscreen instructions. The whole process, once downloaded, takes only a few minutes. For the purposes of this review, I installed the JRiver software onto my newly-built HTPC, which you can read about in detail here.

My HTPC uses an AMD FX processor sitting on an AMD-compatible Asus motherboard. It is equipped with 8GB of memory, along with its own discrete GPU from NVIDIA, despite my Asus motherboard also having HDMI connectivity. I'm a big proponent of discrete GPUs, which is why I equipped mine with a GeForce GT520. In terms of hard disc space, I run all my programs off a 500GB internal drive, with an additional 1.5TB internally for miscellaneous files. The bulk of my media library is stored on Western Digital MyBook Live drives; one is 1TB, the other 3TB. Total storage capacity of my music and movie collection currently sits at around 5TB and growing. On average, a single TB will hold 30 full-res Blu-ray titles (minus their special features and menus), with the average file size of each falling between 25 and 40GB. In comparison to my previous media serving system built on an Apple platform, the file sizes are roughly 12 times larger than their iTunes-compatible .mp4 counterparts, so obviously storage is a major consideration.

With JRiver installed on your HTPC, you can begin configuring it for your needs, beginning with importing your media. By going into the File/Library/Import menu option, you can then aim JRiver at the requisite drives, folders or files you wish it to catalogue for you. Prior to do this you should, at least with movies, have all your films individually labeled and placed within their own folders of the same name. For example, if I ripped Battlechip from a Blu-ray disc using the freeware MakeMKV, the resulting .MKV file would then be re-named Battlechip.mkv and placed into folder named Battlechip. That folder would then be placed in a master folder labeled, for instance, movies. Doing this type of file management will speed up the import process and keep things clean, assuming you have an existing library, of course. If you're starting from scratch, you can simply tell JRiver where you want it to rip and save your files, and it will carry out the task(s) automatically. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a control freak, so I actually prefer to rip my movies first and then import them into JRiver later. Yes, I know this adds a step or two to the process, but it's how I prefer to do it, at least with movies, DVD, Blu-ray or other video content.

Once you've pointed JRiver in the right direction, it will begin to do its thing, which has as much to do with your network speed as it does your Internet connection, for while JRiver is importing files from your NAS drive(s), it's also finding the corresponding data for each file on the Internet. Depending on the size of your library, this process can take anywhere from mere seconds to several hours, and it's best to let it finish before proceeding. When finished, you'll notice two things right away: on the file management side, all those individual folders you created will now be populated with .xml files (metadata) and .jpgs (cover art), while the JRiver program itself will look decidedly iTunes-esque. Seriously, if you've been a user of iTunes since Day One, the default or Standard View of JRiver will seem second nature, right down to the color scheme.

The Standard View is all about functionality and, in my opinion, ideal for those using JRiver on a desktop setup, as I do in my office. There are, however, other views, all of them customizable, that can be saved and retrieved or used exclusively, depending on how you choose to set things up. You can even re-skin views, meaning change color palettes, backgrounds, etc., in order to further differentiate your JRiver from its stock configuration. This is also how you can get JRiver to look less like Media Center or iTunes and more like Sooloos and/or K-Scape. It's also a lot of fun to play around with and a way for JRiver users to interact, for once you've created a look, you can share it with friends or other JRiver customers.

In terms of audio/video settings, JRiver does a very good job at getting those correct straight out of the box. However, if you wish to take advantage of its higher functions, such as its upsampling, re-clocking and from-memory playback, then you'll need to venture into the program's Player/DSP Studio or Player/Playback Options menu. From there, you can configure a barrage of different settings, ranging from upsampling to channel levels, parametric EQ, headphone crossfeed, room correction and more. Again, there is so much functionality packed into JRiver that it would take me the better part of a year to dive into and write up everything with equal focus. I've owned JRiver now for six months and I'm still discovering things about it that I didn't know the day before. It's proving to be as much fun to play with as it is to use.

JRiver-Media-Center-Review-Gizmo-music.jpgIn terms of control, you have several options, ranging from ho-hum to, "Your friends will think you're rich." For starters, you can easily navigate and control JRiver via an attached keyboard and mouse (yawn), which in my opinion should only be used when doing behind the scenes file management or adjusting playback settings. For those considering JRiver as the front end of a two-channel system, especially if you like Sooloos, may I suggest picking up a new all-in-one PC with a touch-screen for a couple hundred bucks and using JRiver that way. The control or remote in this setup would be the screen and your finger, which is a lot like Sooloos, if I'm being honest, only your setup would most likely cost less than an Oppo player would, let alone tens of thousands. There are also wireless USB dongle-based Media Center remotes you can use; I bought one off the Internet site Newegg for under $10 and it does the trick nicely. You could even use the remote in conjunction with having a touch-screen PC if you so desire. My chosen means of control rests with the JRiver app. The JRiver app, or Gizmo as it's called (don't ask me why), gives you full control over JRiver, including cover flow for both music and movies on your smart phone or tablet, provided both are connected to your home's wireless network. The app even lets you stream your content to your handheld device, as opposed to viewing it on your computer or HDTV screen - very cool. The app works via a unique key, so it's possible to sync it to multiple JRiver clients or JRiver-equipped PCs for a whole home control solution. Did I mention it's free? Oh, and it's only for Android-equipped devices - sorry, Apple users. However, there are third party apps like JRemote and MyRiver that will work with iOS devices.

As for my associated gear outside of my HTPC, my AV preamp was the Integra DHC 80.2, my amplifiers Crown Audio's XLS 2000 and my speakers Tekton Design's Pendragon, with Noble Fidelity L-85 LCRS in-ceiling speakers for rears. All electronics were connected via Monoprice cabling. For display duties, I used my Panasonic 3D plasma, as well as my Anthem LTX-500 D-ILA projector. For remote duties, I used both my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx and my newly-acquired Google Nexus tablet.

This performance section is going to be a bit different than what I'm used to writing, since much of what JRiver does is allow you to surf, catalogue and stream your network-stored media. It does have some playback options and features, which I'll discuss, but given the space that I have to devote to this single review, there are going to be some features that go unmentioned - my apologies in advance.

Read about the performance of the JRiver Media Center on Page 2.

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