My quest for a Linux audio player


By Peter Enseleit 

Before evaluating the Linux audio players, I considered what I wanted from them. I listen to MP3 and Ogg Vorbis music files, CDs, MP3 streaming Internet radio stations, and podcasts. Someday I may also want access to FLAC music files, RealMedia and Windows Media streaming radio, iPod compatibility, and Windows audio file formats (WAV, WMA, and ASF).

My test system is a Toshiba Tecra 9000 laptop with an Intel 82801CA-ICH3 sound card. I use Ubuntu Dapper Drake 6.04, GNOME, and the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA). Dapper Drake is still a beta release of Ubuntu, which may have led to some of the instability I witnessed. I confined myself to looking at the audio players I could find included within the Ubuntu APT software repositories.

Several of the players model themselves after popular music players on other platforms. I tested three that take their cue from WinAmp and five that resemble iTunes, along with several players with more original interfaces.

WinAmp-style players

The applications in the first group of players have a small, usually skinnable user interface with three windows available: one main window with audio controls, one Graphical Equalizer window, and one Playlist window where you can manage your list of music. Music management is usually limited to a single playlist at a time.

XMMS refused to play WMA and ASF files; the application froze when it reached these files in the playlist. In fact, the ASF file froze my whole GNOME session. XMMS would play my streaming MP3 radio station, but not streaming RealAudio or Windows Media radio stations. It has only a single playlist to manage your music, which seems old-fashioned compared to some of the newer audio players around now.

Beep Media Player‘s source code was forked from XMMS, and indeed it looks and feels just like XMMS, but with an updated Gtk interface. It would not play my .flac, ASF, or WMA files, and would not play my CD. The only radio station it played was streaming MP3. Music management is limited to a single playlist at a time.

I added my list of files to the Zinf audio player’s playlist and started to play them. As soon as it encountered a WMA file Zinf crashed. In fact, it seems that any unsupported files it encounters causes a crash. My mono MP3 and my MP3 podcast came out scrambled, as did my sample WAV file. Zinf also crashed when I tried to play a CD or change the skin. It played my streaming MP3 radio station but not the Windows Media or RealAudio stations. The only file format it liked was Ogg Vorbis.

iTunes-style players

The next group of players follow iTunes’ style, and usually have fairly extensive media management facilities. Some are capable of burning files to CD, sharing music over a network, downloading song lyrics, and displaying album art.

Rhythmbox has good music management features, modeled on those of iTunes. It keeps a library of all your music files, and offers the ability to add and edit playlists, Internet radio stations, and podcast feeds. After installing all of the GStreamer plugins I could find, it played all of my files and my CD without a problem. However, it would only play only my streaming MP3 radio station and not the Windows Media or RealAudio stations. Rhythmbox supports iPod playback only, and it recognized the iPod attached to my computer as soon as it fired up. It supposedly supports sharing files over a network, but while iTunes on my Windows box at work did list my Rhythmbox share, it was unable to list its contents. Rhythmbox also claims to have the ability to write tracks to CD, but I couldn’t test this because my laptop doesn’t have a CD burner.

Muine did not recognize my WMA, ASF, or FLAC files, and I could not play music from CD or any of my radio stations. It only has a single playlist for music management.

Quod Libet did not recognize my WMA, ASF, FLAC, or WAV files, and could not play Windows Media or RealAudio radio stations, or my CD. However, I was impressed with Quod Libet’s extensive music management facilities. It lets you subscribe to podcast feeds, manage Internet radio stations, and manage playlists, and provides an iTunes-style paned browser and search facilities.

Banshee would not play my WMA, ASF, or WAV files, and I could not play any of my Internet radio stations. On the plus side, it supports writing tracks to CD and sharing files over a network. I was able to see my Banshee shared files and play them with iTunes. It also supports iPod playback and synchronization.

amaroK can be displayed with a WinAmp or iTunes-style interface. It would not play my WAV, FLAC, ASF, WMA, my mono MP3, or my downloaded podcast MP3s, and it would not play my audio CD. While moving through my playlist with these file formats included, it froze. It supports iPod playback and update and detected my connected iPod upon startup. While amaroK is feature-rich, I found it to be buggy and not reliable enough for my everyday use. That’s too bad, because if it were less prone to freeze and crash, amaroK would have been in my top three, thanks to its extensive music management capabilities and other features, such as downloading album art and lyrics, and its attractive and themeable user interface.


Juk would not load my WMA or ASF files or my CD and it does not support radio stations or scheduling podcast feeds. I could not get it to play my MP3 files even though the files were loaded into the playlist. It did play my other files without a problem.

You can start Somaplayer from the command line or with a Gtk user interface. It played only my Ogg Vorbis file successfully; other files either did not work at all or gave garbled hissing sounds. The application froze after I cycled through my playlist of different format music files and then clicked the stop button. It could not play any of my radio stations.

MPD is a music playing daemon that you can connect to using an MPD client such as Glurp either on the same machine or remotely over a network. It did not recognize my WMA or ASF files and it could not play my CD or my radio stations. The Glurp interface is rudimentary but functional, but other interfaces are available. Playlist management is limited. It lists files only in the folders you configure.

RealPlayer would not play my FLAC, WMA, or ASF files. Music management is non-existent except for a favorites list. It could not play my CD, and it played my streaming MP3 radio station but not my Windows Media or RealAudio radio stations.

Helix Player would not play my MP3, WMA, ASF, or FLAC files, and I could not play any of my radio stations or my CD. Playback was jumpy on my Ogg Vorbis file. As with RealPlayer, music management is non-existent except for a favorites list.

GXine would not play my WMA, ASF, or MP3 files, and it played my Windows Media radio station but not my RealAudio or streaming MP3 stations. It only has a single playlist for music management. GXine seems designed more with video playback in mind than audio playback.

MPlayer played all of my sample files and radio stations, although I had to resort to the command line to play my CD. This was the only application I looked at that played everything I threw at it, but it has limited music management facilities.

VLC did not play my RealAudio radio station, but it played all my other files and radio stations. As with MPlayer, though, it has only a single playlist and little in the way of music management facilities.


More choices

I didn’t test every available Linux music player. You might want to consider one of these additional candidates:

Media Center

After testing 16 applications, I was finally finished. I was pleasantly surprised that all of the audio formats I chose could be played on Linux, although only a single application could play them all — MPlayer. VLC came close, but did not play my RealAudio radio station. Rhythmbox also came close, but would not play the Windows Media or RealAudio radio stations even with the GStreamer plugin for Windows Media installed.

I found most of the available audio players for Linux to be quite usable, even though many were lacking in music management features and some had limited file format support. MP3 and Ogg Vorbis were by far the most widely supported formats on Linux. Most of the players could receive my MP3 streaming radio station, but strangely, only one, XMMS, would play the stream over dial-up without getting a message that I needed to log in before I could listen to the station. I found it odd that RealPlayer and Helix Player could not receive my RealAudio radio station, since this is their native format.

All of the players I looked at crashed or froze at least once with my list of CD audio files, music files, and radio streams.

After trying out all those applications, three players impressed me the most: Rhythmbox, Quod Libet, and XMMS.

Rhythmbox is a functional, reliable audio player, and its no-nonsense (some might say boring) interface offers a good selection of music management features. Its GStreamer back end allows you to add support for many different file formats through plugins; you should explore these if you want to get the most out of what Rhythmbox has to offer. It is a solid performer with all the features I could wish for, but I’d like to see Rhythmbox spice up its interface, perhaps offering different skins or brighter icon sets for users to choose from.

Quod Libet was a bit of a surprise for me. It improved drastically from Ubuntu 5.04 to Ubuntu 6.04. It has features that rival those of Rhythmbox, including management of playlists, Internet radio stations, and podcast (audio) feeds, and a central library of music files. It also includes a plugin that allows you to burn files to CD, and others which download lyrics and album art from the Web. One drawback is its lack of support for playing directly from CDs. But if you need to play only MP3 and Ogg Vorbis music files, Quod Libet may be a good option for you.

XMMS is a solid and reliable player and has plenty of plugin support for different file formats, audio effects, visualizations, and even a music management interface similar to Rhythmbox called MadMan. Even though it froze on me during my testing, this is, in my experience, an exception rather than the rule. For supported formats, XMMS is a rock-solid player. Although it lacks some of the music management features of newer audio players, it stacks up well against them in performance and versatility.

While MPlayer was excellent in its support for different filetypes, its music management capabilities are limited. I want an audio player that can manage my music as well as play it, so MPlayer did not make the cut for me, but I will use it as my fallback when I need to listen to a file or radio station that my top three players don’t support.