Volumio Primo Network Audio Player Review
A clever little box from a rather clever company
What is the Volumio Primo?The Volumio Primo is a compact network audio player with additional AirPlay and Bluetooth functionality. It is, like many of the devices at this price point, a compact box that is dependent on a control app to function. Unlike most of its rivals, the path by which it came to be developed is reversed. The software that drives the Primo has existed for rather longer than the Primo has.
This is potentially very important. As I’ve intoned on a number of occasions, software makes or breaks these products. One of the reasons the Bluesound Node 2i is as highly regarded as it is, is because the control system is slick, stable and flexible. When you make almost no physical contact with the unit itself, the point of control matters hugely - I’ll stick my neck out and argue it is more important than sound quality because if you don’t like using a product, it won’t have the opportunity to sound any good.
This means that the Primo should have a key advantage in this area, so, if they have harnessed their software to a piece of hardware that is up to the job, this should be a very interesting new arrival indeed. There are a fair few ‘shoulds’ and ‘ifs’ there though, so is this a challenger for top honours or a slight curio?
Specification and DesignAs noted, Volumio was originally created not just as a software platform but as an entire operating system. It can be loaded onto a device like a Raspberry Pi which turns it into a streamer that can output to a DAC via a digital output. Looking online, some enterprising souls have also seemingly found ways of running it on older PCs too. Once installed, you get library management, the ability to add plugins for streaming services and format handling for most commonly (and not so commonly) encountered formats.
Until recently, Volumio was dependent on other people’s hardware for a place to live. The company then proceeded to expand its remit. If you go to its store, you can now choose a bewildering variety of bits to build your own Volumio powered digital front ends. If this is a bit too hands-on (and I make no bones that it’s not something I’d be inclined to try), they are licensing their software to manufacturers and producing a ready to go unit in the form of the Primo.
The Primo combines the Volumio operating system with a bespoke chassis and audio section. The audio section is built around an ES9028Q2M DAC that imbues the Primo with the ability to handle 24bit/768kHz PCM and DSD 512. The rest of the board shows signs of being carefully designed to get the best out of this DAC with a smattering of other good quality components fitted in crucial areas.
Where the Primo differs from a number or rivals is that, if you want to, you can ignore the internal decoding altogether. There are four USB connectors on the rear panel which can be used for backup drives and other niceties but will also function as a digital output connected to a USB DAC. The connection is bit perfect and you can perform management of the sample rates and formats so that if you have DSD files in the library and a DAC that doesn’t decode them, you can convert to PCM. There is also an SP/DIF output which works as a more conventional output with a limit of 24/192.
All this is encased in a simple metal chassis with an off board PSU that lives in a block and connects to the mains via a figure 8 lead. The Primo is not going to win a beauty contest but it’s well made, solid and there’s clear evidence that the people that designed it care about how it feels to an owner. There is no remote and no display on the unit, like a number of devices of this nature, so the Primo is largely dependent on its app to function. The use of the word ‘largely’ is important here because the Primo has a fairly unusual feature in the form of a video output via an HDMI connection. If you want to integrate it with an AV system, this is potentially a handy thing.
The good news is that Volumio is a very good app too. It’s worth noting that because it is very customisable, it is more complex than something like BluOS that underpins the Bluesound products. The simple expedient of there being more menus and tweaking available means that it cannot be as self-explanatory but it is impressive because it manages to make this flexibility as logical and accessible as possible. It’s also very stable and commendably quick too. It partially renders the library on the device which helps the speed and consistency of the responses. It also has a web browser version which is something I’ve found really, really useful in the time it has been on test because it means I can stay on the laptop I’m using as the point of control.
There are some catches though. Volumio comes in three levels and only one of those is free. The basic platform allows for full network audio from a NAS library and offers Spotify Connect and AirPlay. Additionally, Android users can stream Tidal and Qobuz material to the Primo via the Bubble UPnP app. To integrate Tidal and Qobuz into Volumio proper you’ll need to pay a subscription. Now, compared to Roon, this is not the end of the world as it is €29 a year. A further sub is available to have these facilities on multiple devices. You also have to pay for the Android app which is a bit of a low blow.
This seems to be a reflection of Volumio being solely a maker of software and charging accordingly. As people have paid for the Primo too though, it looks a little tight next to rivals where there are no additional costs. Ultimately, you will have to decide if you feel the additional cost is worth it. Certainly, having spent some time with it, the Volumio UI is right up there at the top of the pile, so you are at least paying for something worthwhile.
The Primo combines the Volumio operating system with a bespoke chassis and audio section
How was the Primo tested?The Primo has been used in both wired and wireless configurations taking a library feed from a Melco N1A and an Innuos Zenith Mk3 server. It has been run via the analogue outputs into a Naim Supernait 2 and Primare I15 integrated amp running Spendor A1, Acoustic Energy AE1 Classic, Falcon Acoustics R.A.M Studio 10 and Neat Momentum 4 speakers. The digital outputs - both USB and coaxial were tested into a Chord Hugo2 and the Primare I15. Material used has included FLAC, AIFF, ALAC, DSD with Tidal and Qobuz Sublime+ together with some Spotify Connect and Deezer via AirPlay.
Sound QualityIf you’ve made it to this point and you’re on the fence about whether the Primo is going to make it onto a shortlist populated by more mainstream devices like the Node 2i and Auralic Aries Mini, let me start this by throwing in an arresting statement. Used via the RCA outputs and all other things being equal, the Primo is the best sounding streamer under £500 I’ve tested. It’s not a landslide victory but having spent some time with all of them, I feel confident making this statement.
The reason for doing this is balance. The Primo makes use of its ESS Sabre in a way that really plays to the strengths of the DAC while avoiding its worst excesses. Listening to the 16/44.1 rip of Every Day by the Cinematic Orchestra shows this balance off perfectly. The shimmering start to All That You Give is detailed and impressively immediate and the cymbals sizzle as they should rather than hiss. When the music pauses and the double bass begins, it’s rich, weighty and compellingly real and it correctly sits in the mix rather than being given unnatural emphasis. Building the decoding stage of a product is not simply the case of banging the best DAC you can into a board and standing back to admire your handiwork. I don’t know what Volumio has done with their implementation but there is a sweetness to the way that the Primo makes music that isn’t always there with affordable ESS based products.
No less importantly, this sweetness is balanced by an energy and feeling of fun that manages to let high impact music sound as intended but leaves more gentle content sounding as it should too. You can go from Take Me to the Hospital by The Prodigy to Dust by Craig Armstrong and neither of these two extremes sounds anything other than entirely correct. The Primo is a very agile performer and this lightness of touch is just as effective at 45bpm as it is at 145bpm. Across a very wide selection of music, the Primo has managed to engage and this consistency is extremely appealing. It also seems to be reasonably forgiving of poorer recording and compressed material too. Steer clear of the really grim internet radio stations and you should be fine.
With Tidal and Qobuz integrated into the app, the performance from the Primo is excellent. If you are adamant that MQA is the future of music, the Primo has to take a backseat to the Bluesound and Auralic as it is not an MQA compatible product but the performance from Hi-Res files via Qobuz is outstanding (and changes to the Qobuz pricing program makes it more appealing than was once the case). Unlike Roon, you can’t integrate your favourites into the library as a whole but you can see your favourite albums in both services easily enough. AirPlay also works flawlessly which means if you use an unsupported compressed streaming service, the Primo has little real disadvantage compared to the Bluesound which does pretty much everything natively.
When you bypass the decoding of the Primo and go direct into a Hugo2, the USB connection is completely stable and works like a charm. The result is that you tie a very good interface indeed to the decoding and general performance of the Hugo2. If this sounds underwhelming, it shouldn’t. The Primo offers the scope to allow for some pretty exotic DACs to become very capable streamers and does so at a very sensible price point. If you’re a tinkering sort you can, of course, do this for less money with the core Volumio software and a Raspberry Pi but there’s something to said for the ‘it just works’ thinking you see here. There is also the consideration that you can buy the Primo, use it via the analogue connections for a sustained period and then upgrade later on and keep the familiarity of experience but with a boost to the sound quality.
Used via the RCA outputs and all other things being equal, the Primo is the best sounding streamer under £500 I’ve tested.
- Sounds outstanding
- Potent and flexible specification
- Excellent app
- Some features cost extra
- Not terribly pretty
- Less of an ecosystem of supporting products
Volumio Primo Network Audio Player ReviewThe Volumio Primo arrives in time to be a new piece in the puzzle of affordable streaming. It overlaps with the Auralic Aries Mini and Bluesound Node 2i but offers some different features to either of them that might be of considerable use to some readers. First things first, the downsides. The Primo can’t match the Bluesound for sheer ease of use and it lacks some of the whizzier server features of the Auralic. Some of the neater bells and whistles require you to put down more money as well which is something that rivals don’t need.
The flipside is that the Volumio does an awful lot of different things and does them all with a slickness that is testament to a well-adapted and well thought out user interface that makes a lot of the more mass market opposition look and feel messy and crude. Most importantly, the Primo sounds excellent. Used via the RCA connections it is one of the nicest sounding digital front ends under £1,000 I can remember testing and it then has the scope to attach to a higher specification USB DAC and to keep delivering higher performance. The Primo isn’t quite perfect but it’s a seriously impressive product that comes enthusiastically recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £479.00
Ease of Use8
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.