What Is Roon?
Roon is a music playback and management software suite for digital audio components. There are many such products on the market, including iTunes and JRiver’s Media Center, but what makes Roon special is the unmatched comprehensiveness of its user interface and, believe it or not, its sound. This primer will cover some of the more salient features of Roon’s UI, as well as how to implement Roon in your system. I’ll also describe why and in what ways Roon affects a system’s sound.
The Roon User Interface
When you first set up Roon, it builds a database of metadata (descriptive information) about your music library, including any iTunes or Tidal playlists. As a first step, Roon imports from your media any existing metadata about each title. Because this information is often meager or incomplete, Roon supplements it with metadata from its own detailed database. Armed with this wealth of information, Roon can display or search through your music collection in remarkably useful ways.
Let’s start with the main view. As with most music playback software, you can specify how you’d like Roon to organize and present your library. Most users will choose a view that sorts by albums, artists, composers, or genre (Figure 1). You can also filter your view. For instance, Roon lets you opt to see only hi-res, DSD, or MQA titles. Of course, you can search for a title, artist, or musician. All this is pretty standard; things get more interesting when you start using Roon interactively.
For example, say you’re listening to Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” and find yourself taken by its great sax solo. With standard music playback software, you’re at a dead end. But in Roon, you just tap Credits to see all the musicians you’re hearing. The list includes saxophonist Pete Christlieb. Then simply tap on Pete’s name and Roon will display every album he’s played on, and let you know which are already within your library. You can then explore and enjoy more of Pete’s work by selecting any of those titles.
Roon also encourages interactivity by offering a trove of information relevant to what you’re playing. Available at your command are lyrics, reviews, the recording time frame, any rating you may have assigned, and whether an album is of an unusual type (e.g., bootleg, live, compilation, multichannel, box set). Nor does Roon ignore sonic factors; it’ll describe every track’s format, resolution, and even its DR (dynamic range) rating—a very reliable metric for recording quality (Figure 2). Similarly, if you tap on the currently playing artist’s name, Roon will offer up biographical information, current concert dates, albums you do and don’t own by that artist, and all the albums to which that artist has contributed.
Tidal Integration and Other Features
Another feature that sets Roon apart is the way it seamlessly integrates Tidal, an audiophile-oriented music streaming service. Let’s say you are searching for a piece of music and it isn’t in your library. Roon will automatically attempt to find it on Tidal. Assuming success, Roon will display the title on your screen just as if you owned it (Figure 3). Indeed, you can select “add to library” and Roon and will “virtually” include the title in your library. You can then easily play it right away or at any point in the future. In short, Roon renders immaterial the line between your own library and Tidal’s expansive selections. Of course, you have to have a Tidal account and an Internet connection for all of this to work. Roon also offers a wealth of options as to where your music plays. The software supports output to multiple devices (DACs, PCs, Macs, iPads, and Android tablets), so long as they’re on your home network. If those devices are located in different rooms, this feature translates into support for multiple listening zones. The devices in those zones can be driving either speakers or a headphone amp. Roon can also play to any AirPlay or Sonos device, if you’re willing to sacrifice some sound quality for convenience.
Finally, Roon includes the advanced audio features that have become typical for media software suites like JRiver. Specifically, Roon contains a DSP engine that offers compression, sample-rate conversion (from anything to anything), a variety of filters, stereo cross-feed (useful when listening through headphones), and a parametric equalizer. Yet it’s worth pointing out that Roon’s friendly, intuitive, and informative interface is leagues beyond the JRivers of this world, which come off as seriously clunky by comparison.