Roon Music Playback Software Review

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We’ve come a long way from WinAmp

by Ed Selley Apr 28, 2019 at 6:38 AM

  • SRP: £499.00

    What is Roon?

    Roon is a piece of software available for PC and Macs that acts as collation and control for your ripped music library. This is not a new development and unless you’ve been particularly spartan with your installation, you’re likely to have a piece of software included that can do this. Furthermore, the idea that you can pay money for software that has some more bells and whistles isn’t a new one either. jRiver and Audirvana have been ploughing this particular furrow for some years now. Roon is not a new idea, so why are we looking at it?

    First up, while the overarching ideas aren’t new, the bells and whistles that Roon brings to the party are considerable (be prepared for a hefty ‘Specification and Design’ box on this one). It represents a collation of lots of different ideas that have existed in parts all over the place and brings them all together. If it does most of the things that it says it does, it represents a step change over anything that goes before. This extends to the emergence of an entire ecosystem of products designed to work with it - more of which later.

    Finally, there’s the small matter of cost. A lifetime sub to Roon costs pretty much the same as an Auralic Aries Mini which remains one of the very best affordable streaming platforms there is. Can this software really mount a challenge to the best streamers on the market and offer the experience that it promises? Time to consider a whole new world of streaming which starts, aptly enough with the core.

    Specification and Design

    Roon Labs Roon Specification and Design
    Roon is available for PC and Mac with most current versions of Windows and OSX being supported. The principle by which it operates is subtly different to many rivals and reflects the scope of the ambitions it has. A computer that you install Roon on becomes the ‘Core.’ As the name suggests, this is the central control for your Roon system. You can collate your library here, make some adjustments to settings (much more in a bit) and, if you want, you can listen to you library directly from here.

    Your music doesn’t need to be in a single location for a single library to be assembled. If you’re the sort of person who has absentmindedly accrued music in a few dispersed locations, it will all appear organised and in one place having done so. Neither is this a simple ‘dumb’ collation. As the library assembles, you’ll note that some of your album art is being altered and tweaked to look more homogenous once assembled.

    Once your own music is in and present, you can start to bring in other content too. If you are a Tidal or Qobuz subscriber, you can add these details to Roon. Once you’ve done so, anything you have favourited in the dedicated apps (mobile or desktop) will be added to that existing Roon library. It’s important to stress that this isn’t entirely new. What Roon does that is different to anything else is that, rather than being collated in its own section, it all becomes one library. Search for an artist and the search will look at both music you own and their content in the streaming service too. To make this most of this, Roon can ‘unpack’ an MQA encoded file on Tidal and supports Hi-Res on Qobuz if your subscription does.

    Roon also takes a leaf out of the streaming service playbook by analysing what you listen to and curating content to suit. This will take from your own music and any streaming service in a relatively impartial way. Key triggers are looking at genre connections you might have missed and telling you about items in your collection that were released on today’s date. If you want, you can ignore them but the quality of collated content is up near the Tidal and Spotify end rather than a more half-hearted attempt - Apple Music, I’m looking at you.
    Roon Labs Roon Specification and Design
    Importantly though, this is only the beginning of the process. Once the library is built up, you can simply select something and play it via the computer speakers or headphone socket but there’s rather more functionality on offer. Naturally, you can connect a USB DAC to the computer and select that too. Here is where the concept of ‘Roon Compatible’ and ‘Roon Ready’ start to play a role. If you have a DAC that is made by a company that has worked with Roon, you can connect it, select your driver (or not if you’re a Mac user) and once you’ve told Roon what it is, the correct max settings, DSD handling and other niceties will be selected automatically.

    Why does this matter? Crucially, Roon does rather more than simply deliver the music file to the supporting device. If you want, you can use it to upsample your music to a higher sample rate than it has natively. This can be done on a one size fits all setting where everything is sampled to the maximum figure supported by your DAC (although this is done in increments of 44.1 and 48 so if you have a 192kHz capable DAC, it will go to a maximum of 176.4 for a 44.1 signal and 192 for a 48 one) or you can select a simple ‘power of two’ upsample or go completely bespoke. Additionally, you can change everything to DSD if you’re one of the subset of people that believe that DSD is somehow magic.

    Neither is Roon done there. As well as altering the sample rate, you also have the option of applying EQ settings to the output too. This can be as simple as putting a bit of crossfeed on your headphone signal (something that a few brands do anyway and can make a genuine difference to things) all the way to a serious attempt to remove room interactions altogether. Critically, this isn’t obligatory. If you aren’t of a mind to start throwing lots of processing horsepower at your music, you don’t have to. It’s there if you want it.

    Finally, the reason why the Core is so named is because it the start of a Roon environment rather than the culmination. Network audio devices that are compatible with Roon - and this includes items like the Naim Uniti family and the Chord Poly - can be selected and controlled from Roon with the upsampling and processing options you have selected. You can also send content to other devices on the network via AirPlay. Effectively, Roon becomes a Bluesound or MusicCast network for different devices provided that they are compatible.

    Naturally, sitting at a computer controlling all of this isn’t as slick an experience as Roon would like. To this end, there are iOS and Android apps that mirror the interface and allow for control from there. If you use the phone versions of the apps, this will limit the access to the DSP settings as they are too small to show it to Roon’s satisfaction. Tablet versions, give you all the options though. The apps will also allow you to listen to material in your library using that mobile device as an endpoint.

    The final stage of this process is to take the Core off your standard computer and park it on a dedicated machine. To do this, Roon has adapted a version of Linux to act as a complete operating system on compatible hardware. If this sounds a bit involved, they also make the Nucleus and Nucleus + servers for a plug and play option.

    Roon Labs Roon
    Roon Labs Roon

    There’s no getting around the reality that all this costs though. If you’re going to build a server to run Roon, you are realistically going to be looking at a lifetime sub of $500. This is additional to the hardware for the server, the sub to Tidal or Qobuz needed to really get the best out of it and the supporting hardware to play the outputted signal. There aren’t really any cheap ways into Roon and it should be seen more as a competitor to equipment in the £1,000 and up category.

    The counter to this is twofold. The first is that, as a control device and browsing experience, Roon knocks most streamer control apps into a cocked hat. It’s faster, slicker far more capable and generally it’s utterly stable into the bargain. The iPad app makes most one brand equivalents feel like a child’s IT project. The amount of information available about your library and the speed by which you can access it is an order of magnitude better than almost any other system I’ve ever used. It isn’t perfect though. I don’t like the left to right scrolling and it is also a little too easy to play two different things at once if you aren’t paying attention to your selected zones.

    The second advantage concerns the shape of the system that results. There are a considerable number of extremely capable DACs that really only need a control point to become seriously talented network players. Roon - with the help of some intriguing third party devices - is a good potential answer to this particular quandary.

    Roon Labs Roon
    Crucially, Roon does rather more than simply deliver the music file to the supporting device.

    How was Roon Tested?

    Roon was installed on a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad which acted as the Core for testing purposes while a Melco N1A held the library. Tidal and Qobuz Sublime Plus accounts were then added. The control app has been installed on an Essential PH-1, iPad Air 1st Gen and 2nd Gen iPad Pro. It has been tested with a Chord Electronics Hugo2, Mojo and Poly, Naim Uniti Nova and Auralic Vega G1 as well as an SOtM Neo 200 network head unit. Partnering equipment has included the Sennheiser IE800S, Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic and Neat Momentum 4i speakers. Test formats have included FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, DSD and MQA content from Tidal.

    Sound Quality

    Roon Labs Roon Sound Quality
    In keeping with the reviews of streaming services, this section will be shorter than the marathon that precedes it. The reason for this is simple. If you don’t select any of the bells and whistles, Roon sounds exactly the same as material taken off my NAS drive and controlled by any other piece of control software. Sure, it’s enormously better to use but if you are running it ‘as is’, the sound quality on offer will be a result of the quality of the file and the capability of the hardware decoding and playing it.

    Of course, if you are forking out for Roon, it seems unlikely to me, at least, that you won’t turn on any of the extra features. As the upsampling facility is undoubtedly going to draw a great many people possessed of DACs with serious sample rate handling but no means of trying it out. First things first, if you open Task Manager in Windows (or its OSX equivalent) and start tinkering with the upsampling, you’ll notice that the demands on the processor and RAM climb rapidly. The more you ask of Roon, the more the horsepower of your computer is going to matter.

    As a result of this, my findings need to be taken into account next to the spec of my laptop running the Core. This isn’t shabby - i5 processor and 12GB of RAM - but simply asking Roon for ‘all she’s got’ and converting 16/44.1kHz to a faintly hysterical 24/705.6 for the Hugo2 wasn’t an unbridled success. For starters, doing so means you are using more than half your physical memory on music software and, more subjectively, it doesn’t sound that good.
    Roon Labs Roon Sound Quality
    What do I mean by this? The effect is the audio equivalent of turning on all the processing on your TV. It sounds a bit etched and unnatural and some of the tonality that the Hugo2 normally excels at delivering is lost. Be a little more circumspect though and there are benefits to be had. Running a ‘power of two’ upsampling setting is a lot more successful. For starters, the demand on the PC hardware drops significantly. Sonically, the effect of playing 44.1 material as 88.2 is a little extra space and three dimensionality to the way that things sound. It’s equally effective with Tidal and Qobuz as it is with stored material too. I find myself wondering if you mated Roon to something really very powerful indeed, if the higher rates would be better but this is going to add to that already substantial bottom line.

    The Parametric EQ functions are also an interesting proposition. Using my Neat Momentums in this current 3.5 by 4.8 metre space is interesting. The full width of the room can’t be used so the speakers are offset from centre, roughly two metres apart. The behaviour in the room is generally benign but they excite a 40Hz room node quite significantly. Where Roon works a treat is being able to integrate the boost from the node into the frequency response of the speaker. It’s not Dirac perfect but then, the last time I checked, Dirac wasn’t that hot for browsing a music library.

    The gem in the features is the crossfeed though. This is as good as the X-PHD feature that is built into the Hugo2 and turns the reasonably capable headphone amp in the Supernait 2 into a much more dynamic and interesting sounding device by holding off the most starkly apparent feeling of left and right in the presentation. If you are a regular headphone user, this is a very, very handy thing to have to hand. It’s worth pointing out that rivals have this too - and in the case of jRiver, it is as good but all the other caveats about what Roon does additionally then apply.

    Roon Labs Roon
    As a control device and browsing experience, Roon knocks most streamer control apps into a cocked hat

    Conclusion

    9
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10

    Pros

    • Absolutely peerless control experience
    • Extremely flexible in setup
    • Boosts the viability of many streaming products

    Cons

    • Expensive
    • Places intensive requirements on hardware
    • Won't work with everything
    You own this Total 3
    You want this Total 0
    You had this Total 0

    Roon Music Playback Software Review

    Let’s deal with the big bit first. Roon is expensive. It has the highest licensing costs of any such piece of software and this number keeps growing as streaming service subs and suitable hardware are added to the roster. You have to be pretty keen on your streaming audio to want to go this route. If you are thinking about a Bluesound Node 2i or similar, that really shouldn’t change on reading this. There are a select few devices that have interfaces good enough to make the decision to switch a slightly pointless one and some of these are used to control some genuine bargains.

    No less importantly though, Roon is better than even the good interfaces. As the price of rival systems climbs, it starts to make more and more sense. As many interfaces out there are not good, this decision becomes easier and easier. Put simply, the test phase has been a bit of an epiphany for me. I won’t be moving over completely but Roon is going to feature in test work a great deal more henceforth - it has to because it is the standard by which all control software needs to be judged. Yes, it’s expensive, yes, it’s unlikely you’ll wind up using all the features it can technically provide and yes, some more affordable rivals get reasonably close. They can’t equal it though and for that reason, Roon has to be seen as the current Best in Class.


    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £499.00

    The Rundown

    Sound Quality

    10

    Content

    10

    Stability

    9

    Platform Support

    9

    Value

    9

    Verdict

    9

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