Vox 2.0: A Minimalist Music Player that Needs Work
Lots of people love to hate iTunes, and many of them hanker for a “slimmer, lighter” alternative. I discussed the question of iTunes bloat in “Is iTunes Bloated?” (27 September 2010), so I won’t get into that now. One result of that feeling of bloat is a string of “minimal music players” designed solely to play music, and not to contain multitudes of extra features.
The free Vox 2.0, from Coppertino, is one such app. The company touts Vox’s “beautiful intuitive minimalist interface,” and the app’s capability to play audio file formats that iTunes doesn’t handle, such as FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. The new version of Vox offers gapless playback, one of the key features missing in earlier versions, making it useful for listening to live music or operas.
You can use Vox to play music from your iTunes library, or you can drag files to its window to create playlists, and listen to music from any location on your Mac or external hard drives. While it has good intentions, I find that Vox is big on design, but not so hot on function.
First, the design. I’m not a fan of white-on-black interfaces; I find them hard to read, and I find that they clash with the white backgrounds of other windows. But I can accept that many people find this type of interface to be sleek. Here’s what the Vox player window looks like in its minimal form, and when it’s expanded to its full size.
For quick access, you can set the Vox window to float over all other windows, and to stay in all Spaces — something that confuses the iTunes MiniPlayer, if you use iTunes in full-screen mode. Vox also places controls in your menu bar; a simple pause/play button, previous and next buttons, and a button to display the contents of the current album or playlist. You can also set hotkeys to play/pause, change tracks and raise or lower volume. Plus, a downloadable System Preferences pane lets you use keyboard media buttons, an Apple
remote, or buttons on headphones or earbuds to control Vox as well.
Vox’s iTunes integration can be problematic, however. I tested it with two iTunes libraries. With the first, containing around 4,400 tracks, everything went smoothly. But with my main iTunes library, currently around 63,000 tracks, performance was dismal. Whenever I launch Vox with the large library, the app tells me it is “Loading iTunes,” with a tiny orange progress bar that shows just a dot. It stays like that for many minutes, then switches to a longer progress bar. It finally loads my iTunes library after about 10 minutes, using 100 percent of my CPU during all that time (out of 400 percent, for four cores). Granted, I set Vox to update my library on startup, but you have to do that if you add music to your library
And what do you get from your iTunes library? You can view only albums; Vox offers no artist or genre view to drill down in the library, though it does have a search field. In that album view, you can sort (from View > Sort iTunes Albums) by artist then album year, by artist then album title, or by album title. Although Vox’s search is fast and finds text in any portion of a track’s metadata, it’s also currently quite unstable; searching my iTunes libraries caused a number of crashes during my test.
Vox can read playlists from iTunes, so if you have a large library, it’s probably better to make lots of playlists than try and find music by other criteria (composer, genre, etc.). It can play your iTunes playlists, though it took me a while to figure out where they were hidden: behind a musical-note shaped button in the source section of the interface — and even smart playlists. But if you base smart playlists on play counts or last played date, they won’t update after you’ve played music with Vox; it can read your iTunes library, but not mark songs as played.
What if you use iTunes Match, Apple’s $24.99-per-year cloud service? Vox can show only files in your iTunes Media folder, so all those songs in the cloud won’t appear. If you download them via iTunes, you’ll need to reload the iTunes library, by choosing Controls > Reload iTunes Library Completely.
The app also provides notifications when tracks start playing, through Growl or Notification Center, and with the latter, the notifications are better than those from iTunes, as they feature album art.
As far as playback is concerned, Vox offers a solid set of options, including gapless playback, crossfading, left/right balance, volume limit, and even a buffer size. There’s also an equalizer with presets available from the main player interface. More interesting, if not ultimately useful, is “hog mode,” which means that, if this feature is turned on, you shouldn’t hear any extraneous sounds. But I heard all the usual system beeps anyway. Similarly, Vox’s playback options also offer a checkbox for
Convert Stereo to Multiple Channels, which is supposed to “convert stereophonic audio in your headphones to binaural using Bauer DSP (BS2B) technology.” I didn’t hear any difference, listening with Beyerdynamic DT 990 headphones.
So who is Vox for? Primarily people who have either small-to-medium sized iTunes libraries and are overwhelmed by all the non-audio features of iTunes, or those who keep music files organized in Finder folders. Since Vox can play FLAC files, I find it works well to play many of the live concerts I have in that format. I would love to have Vox scan the top-level folder that contains all of these files and display them hierarchically by album, but it can’t; if I add that folder to Vox, it reads all the files and puts them in a flat playlist. You can save playlists as files, then play them by double-clicking, but that becomes ponderous when you’re used to having playlists organized in an app like iTunes.
For me, with an enormous iTunes library, Vox works well only when I manually drag files to its window. In most cases, that means one song or album at a time. It surprises me that Vox doesn’t let you choose a collection of nested folders to scan; that seems like an ideal way to access music not stored in an iTunes library.
While the free Vox 2.0 has good intentions and is easy to try for those who aren’t happy with iTunes as a music player, it’s not up to the demands of listening with a serious music collection. The problems with large iTunes libraries and the limited ways of accessing music from your computer mean that it won’t be replacing iTunes for me, and it would need some improvements in these areas before I could recommend it generally.
Wow, so much misinformation in this review.
Hog mode is not for getting rid of "extraneous sounds." BS2B is a well established technology that reduces listening fatigue when using headphones over long periods of time—not something you should expect an instantaneous result from.
The review covers a decent amount of ground, but it seems the only real complaint here is that iTunes integration is poor. That's fine, and is a good point. If you care about accessing your iTunes library via another app, perhaps look elsewhere. But if that's not how you listen to your music, there are all kinds of great features (many not discussed) in Vox and it's definitely worth checking out.
So much misinformation...
As for BS2B, it doesn't sound any different to me, even though I did listen for quite a while with headphones. I'm not sure I believe that something like that will make a big difference. But your mileage will vary. To be fair, Vox should have some help to explain what these features are.
My first post was a little more antagonistic than I intended. Regardless, yes, preventing dings is one effect, but the main intended effect is that you can prevent OSX from having to mix other sounds into the playback chain, which improves sound quality and fidelity. Check out the more in depth explanations of BS2B on headfi—it has a lot of fans and I can tell the difference (placebo?).
The main point I want to make though is that your main complaint is that Vox doesn't interface all that well with large iTunes libraries. This may well be the case, but the review came across to me as largely negative, without giving enough consideration to all the other useful features. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I can think of a lot of use cases besides yours, all of which would be well served by Vox. As I'm sure is obvious, I use the app and like it a lot.
All that said, I very much agree that it would be great if it worked with iTunes match. Unfortunately I think that's Apple's deal.
While I'm actually not surprised that it doesn't do well with a large iTunes library, that's not the biggest negative for me. I would use Vox if I could have it grab my entire live music folder and show each sub-folder as an album. The fact that it can't limits the use of the app. In this day and age, I can't be expected to manually drag files to a music player every time I want to listen to the.
I agree with the headline: Vox is excellent in some areas but severely lacking in others. It also has a few bugs, for example, stopping streaming in Radio after a while and moving to the next station, unbidden. Another problem is that it has a mouse-driven interface that's not suited to controlling remotely, but which requires direct attendance. Still needs more work; but it holds great promise. Enabling it to access media from other than the iTunes folder would make non-iTunes, NAS-located music collections available.
"Another problem is that it has a mouse-driven interface that's not suited to controlling remotely"
No, you can set hot keys, and you can use an Apple remote, control from headphones, etc., as I explain in the review.
It's true that you can set some hot keys, but much of the interface cannot be controlled except by clicking away with the mouse while sitting at the computer, and even there, IMHO some of the interface is not well worked out.
Try playing a whole album after searching for it -- provided Vox doesn't crash at the end of a search. If it isn't set up as a playlist, I couldn't find a way of doing it. Vox doesn't use the found items as a playlist, it reverts back to single-track mode after clicking on a found track. Very frustrating! Or am I missing something?
It's a good basic music/radio player in many ways, but I'd like to see more ability to control it remotely, which is often how I listen to music or streaming radio. Like many others, I don't like using iTunes, which has far too many functions that should be spun off into separate apps.
As Kirk said, you can install a add-on
And control it from a apple remote, headset and from keyboard as well which i prefer.
Vox 2.0 has also lost some functions that earlier iterations had that were quite useful, at least for those of us with specialized needs. Specifically, as a hobbyist/weekend warrior musician who often learns new songs by ear, I found the pitch shift function that used to be present in Vox to be very useful. Yes, you can do this with Audacity and commercial software like Amadeus (and likely with GarageBand, too, though I haven't looked for the reason that follows), but the fact that Vox is such a small and lightweight piece of software and also that it processed any changes almost instantly made it my go-to application for this purpose. This function seems to have disappeared with 2.0. Since 2.0 is still in beta, I'm hoping this functionality comes back (and will be contacting the developer to request that it not be lost). For now, I've downgraded back to an earlier version.
Nice article Kirk, at least showcasing an iTunes alternative.
Vox is a great player for those who organise music in the finder. And Vox does sound a bit better than iTunes (which seems to wrap music in cotton).
Unfortunately Vox doesn't sound nearly as good as Decibel or Fidelia. The two players have very similar sound quality. I'd support sbooth here first for two reasons. 1. Decibel has a single license across all your Macs while Fidelia is just two installs with obligatory deactivation (hello Adobe). 2. sbooth has given us open source Max, Rip, Play and it's great to be able to reward his hard work and get better sound at the same time.
Interesting reading the comments, I have had little success with frequent crashes, the support team have been helpful but without noticeable results.
Lately there seems to have been many updates so let's hope improvement follows, I do like the app but find it limited, I'll continue to use it daily for classical radio but even that has frequent dropouts and station changes.
The main problem with the new version (2.01) for me is that it 'calls home' when it opens. I use a separate network not connected to the Internet for music streaming, so the app can't phone home and hangs. Fortunately I still have version one. I really like the simplicity of Vox and as someoe else has said, this suits people who don't want iTunes organising their music. I stick to my own system of folders in the finder. That way I alawys know where the files are. Does anybody really have time to set up complicated playlists? i know I dont.