A distraction in playing back computer audio files occurs when there is no metadata (cover art, artist name, track names, or other information about the performance) shown for an album in your library. Roon 1.1 provides improved tools for adding metadata into the library display. The metadata editing tools are accessed by clicking the metadata editing icon on the right side of the screen. An album in my library is titled The Best of Opera Volume 1. It’s a collection of famous opera arias ripped from the CD Naxos 8.553166. Although the track names were listed correctly, there was no cover art shown. I looked up the album online, found the cover art, did a screen copy of the cover art, saved it as a file on my hard drive, and then dragged the cover art file into the Add Image field on the editing screen, clicked Save, and the cover art was then shown for the album. That’s pretty convenient, although it would be even easier if I could have cut and pasted the cover art image without having to first save it as a file, or scanned the image from the CD booklet cover. These are things that can come in future upgrades to Roon; current editing tools are quite flexible and complete. I could go on at length with other examples, but this one illustrates the ease of using Roon’s metadata editing tools.
One of the metadata fields I hadn’t seen before was a yes/no indicator of whether an album contained explicit lyrics. If you have children, that could be really handy.
OK, I’ve spent a lot of words describing the experience of using Roon; now on to the really important questions: How does it sound? Do bits really equal bits? Or does it have distinctive sonic characteristics?
I began my assessment of Roon’s sound by listening to an ultra-familiar track, “Folia Rodrigo Martinez” from La Folia 1490-1701 by Jordi Savall and his band, ripped from Alia Vox AFA 9805. The sound picture seemed unusually widespread, glowing with detail not usually heard. If you’ll pardon an optical analogy, it was like someone had opened several curtains, bathing the surroundings in lots more light. This was not due to additional peakiness, just additional detail that was spread from speaker to speaker. Percussion instruments, normally in the background, seemed more present, more “there.” The bass drum had lots of power and punch, but sounded different than it usually does; its timbre in the low bass was reproduced with power and impact, but the midbass seemed somewhat less prominent.
Another fave review cut is “Miserere” from The Tallis Scholars’ Allegri’s Miserere & Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (96kHz/24-bit FLAC, Gimell). The a cappella vocal forces were spread more palpably than usual between the speakers, and the solo group, which is located some distance behind the main choral group, was reproduced with more of the subtle cues that tell you how far back the group is positioned. I also fancied I could better distinguish how the tenor soloist vocalized each syllable.
Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ (DSD64/DSF, Acoustic Sounds) is a lovely, natural recording. Here again, the midbass seemed less emphasized, although the deepest bass had plenty of power and impact. Lynne’s voice was quite expressive.
Perhaps the most common playback software for Windows is JRiver Media Center, now in version 21. Running on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers, JRiver now plays PCM files up to 768kHz sampling rate and DSD files up to DSD256 via DSD over PCM. I’ve never seen any of the former files, but the latter are beginning to become available, though are still rare. In addition to a Forum, JRiver offers a Wiki, which is an online set of instructions. I wouldn’t describe it as a real manual, but it’s way better than nothing. JRiver Media Center sells for $49.98, and updates to new versions sell for as low as $18.98. Minor updates, which don’t change the version number, are free.
In addition to a metadata editor (not as capable as Roon’s), JRiver also provides a ripping capability that lets your computer rip a CD to its library. And if you insert a CD in your computer’s optical drive, JRiver will play it. Roon’s staff told me the latter service is not planned for Roon, but I’ll bet your computer already has software that will play CDs.
On “Folia Rodrigo Martinez,” I could hear a bit more of the midbass with lots of power. The soundfield seemed slightly murkier, with the percussion instruments recessed a tad more deeply in the background. “Miserere” lacked a smidgen in horizontal spread, and although the impression of soundstage depth was there, some of the barely perceptible reverberant echoes, which cue you about back-to-front depth, were slightly less evident than with Roon.
Shelby Lynne’s simpler arrangement sounded quite similar. I could hear more midbass detail, however.
JRiver has a couple of remote apps you can use to control it, including Jremote for iOS machines (even my old iPad), and Gizmo for Android tablets. I’ve used Jremote, but find it easier to use JRiver directly on the playback computer. That’s a personal preference.
Since this has been a review of a computer program instead of equipment, I’ve tried to give you a glimpse into the experience of actually using Roon. I hope I’ve shown that it offers a rich interface with far more information about the music in your collection than any other program I’ve seen. Its flexible, easy-to-use metadata-editing tools make fixing the inevitable errors that creep into Roon’s (and any other playback program’s) graphic display of your albums simple. Space precluded discussion of Roon’s integration with the Tidal streaming service, but it’s done so cannily that music via Tidal shows up just like music in your personal library. I found playing music on Tidal easier through Roon than Tidal’s own playback program. Most importantly, Roon just sounds good—a little different from, and in some ways better, than JRiver. It’s relatively expensive, but in my view, you get a lot for the money. (But if Roon is beyond your financial comfort zone, JRiver is still a formidably capable program that’s cheaper and has additional features. And there’s a version of JRiver for Linux computers.)
If you would like to get into computer audio music playback but have found the software unappealing or challenging, give Roon a try. You may find Roon’s simple, massively informative interface just what you need to get started. And don’t forget—there’s a two-week free-trial period. What have you got to lose?
SPECS & PRICING
Audio formats played: WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, OGG PCM files up to 384/24; DSD files (DSF only), either by using the DSD over PCM (DoP), or by converting them to PCM; DSD-Direct (DSD-Native) using ASIO drivers on Windows (up to DSD256 files are supported; MP3 and AAC files if your operating system provides the appropriate codec)
Recommended hardware: Intel Core i5, Ivy Bridge+, 4GB RAM, SSD boot drive, 1440 x 900 resolution display
Supported platforms: Windows 7+, OS X 10.8+ (10.10 recommended)
Supported tablets: Android 4.4+ (5.0 recommended), Apple 64-bit iPad running iOS 8.0+
Price: $119 per year, $499 one-time lifetime subscription