Roon 1.1 Computer Audio Playback Software

Metadata-Rich Music Playback

Equipment report
Music servers and computer audio
Roon 1.1 Computer Audio Playback Software

In the late 1990s three acquaintances—an A&R representative at a major record label, a record-label owner, and a software developer—found themselves with the identical problem of having no way to easily access their large music collections. The three envisioned a computer-based platform that would not only store and organize a music library, but also allow the user to explore that library in ways that made sense to a music lover. By 1999 they had conceptualized a music server that would be called Sooloos when it finally launched in 2008. The Sooloos interface was vastly better than that of any extant server, and for the first time revealed the power of computers for accessing music. Several years later, Meridian Audio bought the company, and two of its founders stayed on to continue with product development. But earlier this year, Meridan and the Sooloos founders mutually and amicably decided that software development should be spun off into a different company. The original Sooloos team started a new company, called Roon Labs, to bring to market software for managing and accessing a music library on any Mac or Windows PC. The software, called Roon, expands upon the Sooloos experience and makes it available to anyone with a computer.

The version reviewed here is 1.1, which adds several new features as well as RoonRemote, a remote app for tablets and other computers. Let’s get one important issue out of the way up front—Roon is relatively expensive: $119 per year for a single computer, or $499 for a lifetime subscription for a single computer. However, with your subscription you can use an unlimited number of copies of Roon. Android and iOS remote apps are available free, or if you have additional Windows or Macintosh computers, you can use Roon on all of them as remotes. You can even use a Windows copy of Roon on one of Microsoft’s Surface tablets as a remote; how many remote apps for Surface do you know of? Some people will see the price and send us hate mail about reviewing obscenely expensive items, but come on; that’s not much more than you’d pay for Microsoft’s Office 365 software, and I suspect Roon will give you much more enjoyment.

Roon Director of Strategy Rob Darling gave me this view into the future of the software: “To give a little background, Roon has a few basic components. The Core, which talks to our cloud infrastructure, knows where all the music files are (local or streaming), knows where all the Roon devices are, and brokers communications between them all to build the database that runs the system, generates the interface, and streams audio between points in the system. The Interface takes all the data we’ve added into your Library and generates the user experience. The Audio Endpoint receives streams, and plays them back. Right now, they are all in one package that lives on your computer, but now they will start to spread out across devices, in the way that Sooloos functions could either be on one device or spread among devices.

“With our next release, we will offer iPad control and a Headless Server. With the Headless Server, you will install one app that runs the Core in the background on a central device in the home—Mac, PC, or Linux (so you can install it on a powerful NAS, like a QNAP with and i5 or i7 processor). It will auto-launch when you turn on the machine and will auto-launch again if for some reason it is stopped. With the addition of iPad support, you will then control the system from any qualified Mac, PC, iPad, or Android tablet in your home. Now you can run the system from tablets and other computers all around your home.

“Later this fall, the last stage will be complete when we launch our third-party streaming protocol. This is like Airplay for Roon. Manufacturers will run a small piece of software on their DACs that will turn them into streaming Roon endpoints. In the same way an AppleTV just shows up in iTunes with no configuration and a ton of reliability, these partner DACs will just show up in Roon. But they won’t have the limitations of Airplay, which only handles 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. They will stream up to 384kHz audio at 32 bits, as well as DSD. And they will run under their own clocks, instead of the clock of the transmitting device. It is ideal for performance audio.

“The best part is that you can mix and match devices among different partners. So you can have a super high-end DAC in your performance audio room from one company, something else for background listening in your office from a different company, and another DAC for your headphones in the living room or out on the patio. And we talk to Airplay devices as well, so you can listen through the AppleTV in your bedroom. Oh, and it will do multi-room sync and multi-user audio, so you can listen all around the home.

“So, that will take us to where we wanted to be, giving all the modularity, flexibility, power, reliability, and simplicity that we created when we started Sooloos, but cross-platform and cross-manufacturer, on the hardware that you choose and can afford.”

Excuse the long quote, but it gives you an idea of what Roon will eventually be like. Roon 1.0 was a good start, but Roon 1.1 is a big step towards realizing that configuration.

You may wonder, as I did, where did they get a name like Roon? Answer: The name has no real meaning; one of the company principals just dreamed it up.

Roon updates its software when new features are available, notifying you of changes when you launch it to play music. Roon’s updates are fast and easy, and you have a choice whether to just accept an update or first read a change log that explains what it  does. I recommend reading the log, but some people won’t be interested in what might be regarded as technical gobbledy-gook and will just accept the change. I have found the change logs to be chatty and informative. In my experience, you won’t usually have to reboot your computer after a change—it just takes a bit longer for Roon to start up. However, perhaps as a result of rescanning the music file collection when it starts, Roon never fails to display files newly added to the library (the database of your collection of musical files), which is one of my pet peeves with some other playback programs I’ve tried that often don’t show some newly installed albums right away, and sometimes, never show them.