One thing I love about blogging and friendly social networks is that they can be a great source for finding out about cool things that you might not otherwise have come across. However, this can also open up dangerously enticing rabbit holes in which to fall, often involving spending money when you get to the bottom of them! So when Jack Baty posted about Roon, I was intrigued. At the time, I had a quick look and liked what I saw, but thought, “I don’t really need that as I’m quite happy with iTunes and Apple Music”. Well, dear readers, I think we can all predict how that turned out.
First, let me set the scene, audio-wise. My listening setup was like this: in the living room, I had a lovely hifi setup (which I’ve written about before), but of late, I have mostly been using it to listen to vinyl, not to my fairly substantial collection of CDs. In the office/spare bedroom/sewing room1, I had a pair of Audioengine 2 active speakers attached to an Audioengine D1 DAC, which was in turn attached via USB to my iMac, and mostly played output from iTunes. There were also various radios and Airplay or Bluetooth speakers around the house which serve as output for BBC Radio 3 or 4 for much of the day, as we are frequent radio listeners. I also had a couple of Squeezebox units sitting around not connected to anything, because I had found the Squeezebox server software to be a bit unreliable and hard to maintain since Logitech abandoned the platform.
A couple of years ago I subscribed to Society of Sound to download high resolution music, which I loved. However, I stopped my subscription for a while because it hit a patch when the albums on offer were not to my taste. I recently re-subscribed when I noticed that one of the monthly albums was ‘Solan Goose’ by Erland Cooper, which I love. That alone was almost enough to get me to sign up again on its own, but they have lots of fabulous music available at the moment. This means that I’ve got a fair collection of FLAC-encoded hi-res audio files, which iTunes cannot play. I had been using Fidelia for this. It does a decent job, but it is only a player, and doesn’t organise music, or allow for easy browsing, not to mention the fact that I can only play back those tracks on my computer in the office, which is a waste when I have a much better-sounding system in the living room. The rest of my digital music collection was currently mostly albums added from Apple Music. I really like the service as a way to listen to new music and discover new artists, but I can only play back on the computer or other Airplay devices, so the audio quality leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Roon, for those who have not come across it, is a subscription-based digital music player. The music playing part of it is very impressive, as Roon can cope with pretty much any music format out there, and it also deals very smoothly with high resolution audio files. However, Roon is also superb at managing your music and enabling you to navigate it. It uses deep links and relationships between artists, albums, performers and labels to allow you to find out — for example — that an artist you like has also collaborated with another artist you hadn’t previously encountered, but you then find you like. There is also a ‘Discover’ screen which bubbles up connections and suggestions from your own collection. This is very valuable if you have a large collection, in which you can get a bit stuck listening only to recent music, forgetting about the hidden gems that are lurking in there.
This is only part of what Roon does. It also acts as a music server to play your collection on any number of different ‘endpoints’. This is the really unusual part of Roon, since it is impressively agnostic about the output hardware to which it can send music. You can use Sonos speakers, Squeezebox units, most kinds of DAC, iPads and iPhones, and even RaspberryPi based endpoints. You are not even restricted to running the server component on a desktop, as you can also run it on a NAS unit, or a cheap Intel NUC. You can (for example) use iOS devices as fancy remote controls to choose what music to play and which endpoint to play it on, but you can also play the music on the iOS device itself. This flexibility and extensibility is what appeals most to me about Roon, because it reassures me that — as long as Roonlabs continue to be in business — my system can adapt as technology changes and my needs alter.
Roonlabs offer a time-limited free trial of Roon, so I dived into that rabbit hole and gave it a go. It sounded fabulous running on my iMac and playing my hi-res Society of Sound tracks to the Audioengine speakers, and I loved the display of information about albums and deep linking to other artists and music. I thought I might as well try linking up the Squeezeboxes too. Amazingly, this worked terrifically well, and I could even link them together (one in the office, and the other in the bedroom) to get synchronised play (somewhat surprising the cat, who was in the bedroom at the time, in the process). The track info is displayed on the Squeezebox screen, and you can control basic playback with the remote. The fact that this all just worked with now otherwise unsupported hardware is extremely impressive.
By this point, I had decided that I was going to subscribe to Roon. It’s not cheap, but in terms of the sheer enjoyment it has rekindled in my music collection, it is worth every penny, not to mention enabling me to reuse old hardware again. I read about using a cheap Intel NUC to run the server software (in Roon terminology, this is known as ‘Roon Core’). I bought the cheapest configuration of NUC components recommended (a NUC7i3BNH, though with 8GB of RAM rather than 4GB), reasoning that I could easily reconfigure and reuse it later as a file server if I decided to replace it with a more capable NUC in future. The price is constantly falling on these units anyway, so I decided that maximising the system’s capabilities before I really needed them wouldn’t be worth it. What I have works very well for me now, so I can just use it till I really need to upgrade.
Installing the RAM and tiny M.2 SSD went fine once I had stopped cursing the teeny tiny screws involved and general fiddlyness of the process. I then had to install the NUC-specific headless server software that Roon provides, which is called ROCK (Roon Optimized Core Kit). The idea behind ROCK is that it strips away all of the other OS functions that the hardware might have to run, dedicating all the resources to the core function of running the server software. It is also built to be low maintenance, as you can easily update the software with one click through the Roon interface on any device. The instructions on the website are clear and easy to follow, and the process went smoothly for me after I stopped trying to use a poor-quality freebie USB thumb drive to update the BIOS. I also had to improvise by connecting the NUC to my TV, as it was the only HDMI-equipped ‘monitor’ I had available, and you do need to connect a monitor for the installation process.
After a quick reboot, and telling the Roon software on my iMac that it should now consider the ROCK-equipped NUC as the Roon Core, everything went perfectly. I copied the music files from my iMac to a spare USB 3 portable drive, connected that drive to the NUC and told it where the music was stored, and suddenly I had an always-on music server! I wanted to also use the NUC as an endpoint to connect to my hifi system. I had a second-hand Arcam irDAC that wasn’t currently doing anything, so tried to hook that up by USB. Unfortunately, disaster struck, and when I powered it on, there as a loud bang and the awful smell of burnt electronics. Oh no, not again, as the bowl of petunias thought when it found itself falling through space. I’m hoping that it’s just the rather cheap wall-wart power supply that has died, and not the DAC itself, but I was still stuck for a high-quality connection from the NUC to my pre-amp.
I realised that I could probably use my Audioengine D1 DAC, since the Squeezebox 3 in the office could be connected directly to the Audioengine speakers. After a bit of cable wrangling, I had the D1 DAC connected via USB to the NUC2, the D1 connected to the pre-amp via RCA cables, and the Squeezebox 3 connected directly to the Audioengine speakers. It all worked, and rather beautifully. I now have 3 lossless-capable endpoints. The one in the living room can deal natively with formats up to 24bit/96kHz, and the ones upstairs can handle up to 24bit/44.1kHz natively, with Roon seamlessly doing something magic with sampling and re-encoding behind the scenes so that you can still play 96kHz (and higher) upstairs too.
All this tinkering has been extremely enjoyable, but the main point was always the music and enjoyment thereof. I can honestly say that I have been amazed by the quality of the sound that this system can produce. The system upstairs sounds better than ever, but the quality on the big speakers/amps downstairs is out of this world. Why do I always forget how poor the sound is from lossy audio formats? Convenience is a great thing for sure, but if the music doesn’t really grab you by the ears (in the way that the artists and the recording engineers intended) and pin you to your seat, what’s the point? I had a day off last week and filled the living room and dining room with the crystal clear, beautifully-staged and separated sounds of a church organ and full choir, who gave me a terrific rendition of Fauré’s Requiem to accompany my lunch. A requiem mass might not be everyone’s choice of lunch time listening, but I rather like them and find them comforting (Fauré’s in particular).
I’ve listened to recording after recording, marvelling in all the new layers and details I can hear. I’ve started ripping my CD collection to FLAC files to add to Roon’s library. I’ve even started a trial of the TIDAL music subscription service to see if I like it. This helps to broaden the network of music discovery that Roon has at it’s disposal, but also allows me to try out new albums before committing to buying a download or vinyl version. If I end up subscribing, I’ll drop my Apple Music subscription, so it will just be substituting one for the other. Oddly, I had avoided TIDAL until now as the albums they featured on their homepage gave me the impression that it would be mostly hip-hop/rap/R&B, which isn’t the kind of music I am into. However, once you dig around in the music they have available, this isn’t true at all, and they have quite a varied and extensive collection of all kinds of musical genres. So if you have been holding back on trying it out for similar reasons, don’t make the same mistake as me!
In case the previous 2000 words or so haven’t made it clear, I am enormously impressed by Roon. The audio quality available is excellent, and the flexibility and modularity of the system means that it can grow and adapt very easily. I’ve bought a NUC, but otherwise Roon has enabled me to create three lossless listening endpoints by just shuffling around old bits of hardware that I already had. So, Jack, thanks for mentioning it and setting me off down that rabbit hole! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read up about using RaspberryPi units to create Roon endpoints…