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A Roon Primer

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.

 

Installing Roon in a Non-Networked Audio System
The simplest way to implement Roon is in a traditional, non-networked environment, with a PC or Mac connected to a USB DAC. First, you’ll need to ensure that your computer is up to the task of running Roon. As you’ve probably gathered from my description of what Roon can do, this is a fairly “heavy” piece of software. Just because your machine can run iTunes doesn’t mean it’ll support Roon. According to the company’s system specifications, the software requires, at a minimum, an Intel Core i3 processor (Ivy Bridge or later) with at least 4GB of RAM. An SSD boot drive is highly recommended.

Once you’ve identified a suitable host platform, all you need do is go to Roon’s website, create an account, and download Roon. The company offers a free trial, and if you end up keeping the software the charge is $119 per year or $499 for a lifetime subscription.

Once downloaded on your PC or Mac, the program will automatically locate your “My Music” and iTunes folders. You can also point Roon to additional folders, including those residing on a locally connected USB drive. Conveniently, Roon manages all those scattered files under one user interface. Roon will also find your computer’s audio outputs, such as system sound, generic USB devices, and any specialized USB/ASIO drivers. Roon lets you choose which of these you want to enable; that way, during playback, the Roon interface displays only those outputs from which you want to select music.


That’s pretty much it. You’re ready to roll with Roon. You can control its functionality with your PC or Mac, or with a tablet or smartphone connected wirelessly to the same network as the host computer (Figure 4).

The Elements of a Networked Audio System
The above scenario makes for an inexpensive, straightforward Roon implementation. However, a networked configuration will yield greater versatility, essentially infinite storage capacity, and better sound (thanks to the elimination of USB links).

There are two ways to implement Roon in a networked environment: turnkey and separates. The difference between these is exactly like the difference between integrated and separate audio components: The latter are costlier and require a more involved setup, but ultimately yield better sound because they divide functionality between discrete, specialized devices. I’ll describe the set-up process for both scenarios. First, though, it’s necessary to understand the four hardware elements that constitute a networked digital playback system. Then I’ll describe how they can be combined, if desired, to simplify the installation.


The first logical element is the music server (Figure 5). Servers store music files, such as WAV or FLAC files, and may also run the playback software that “knows” your music library. A server can handle both storage and playback functions, or the music files and playback software can reside on separate servers connected via Ethernet. Either way, in a networked audio system, “playing” music is really the process of playback software finding the relevant file, requesting it from the NAS, then sending it as data packets over Ethernet to a device that can translate those packets into a digital bitstream suitable for digital-to-analog conversion.

You might logically assume that the next element in the signal chain is the DAC. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible because DACs don’t understand anything about music files such as WAV. Further, DACs are expecting a string of bits and a clock signal, not data packets as transmitted over Ethernet. For these reasons, an intermediary is needed between the server(s) and the DAC. This intermediary is a combination of hardware and software called a renderer. The renderer translates music files from the NAS into the bitstream needed by the DAC.

Now we come to the DAC, which converts the bitstream sent by the renderer into an analog signal that can be amplified and played through speakers or headphones. In networked audio, all these devices—NAS drives, any additional server running playback software, the renderer, and the DAC—communicate with each other via an Ethernet network. Due to limited bandwidth and the potential for packet loss, wireless networking isn’t recommended.

If you’ve been counting, you know that that’s only three system elements: server, renderer, and DAC. The last element is called the control point. As its name implies, the control point is a device running software that enables the operator to control musical playback through a (hopefully) intuitive interface. Typically, the control point is an Android or iOS tablet that communicates wirelessly with the playback software. Note that Wi-Fi is perfectly okay in this application because the control point is not in the music’s signal path.

 

Installing Roon in a Networked Audio System
As already described, Roon’s playback software, which is called Roon Core, must run on a fairly meaty computer. That can be a properly-spec’d PC or a Mac, or it can be a dedicated, network-attached “appliance” running ROCK, Roon’s custom version of the Linux operating system (Figure 6). As for the music files, Roon is agnostic as to where they reside. They can be located on a traditional NAS drive, or on storage—a solid-state drive, for instance—that’s locally attached to the device running Core. The advantages of using a NAS are data redundancy and generally higher storage capacity. On the other hand, local storage is simpler to manage.


In Roon lingo, any device to which Roon can output audio, such as a streaming DAC, is called an Endpoint. The Roon-provided renderer code running in that device is called Endpoint Code. Working in conjunction with the Endpoint Code is Roon’s audio transport protocol, RAAT. RAAT can be thought of as Roon’s equivalent to the industry-standard UPnP.

Before Roon can work, a DAC manufacturer must implement both Endpoint Code and RAAT wherever the DAC will be running it. Typically, this is the DAC’s network card; however, strictly speaking, the renderer need not run in the same chassis as the DAC. Bryston, for example, physically separates the two functions. (That said, I’ll keep using the term “DAC” for simplicity’s sake.) Roon provides an SDK (Software Development Kit) to DAC manufacturers to facilitate integration of the Endpoint Code and RAAT into their product.

Interestingly, these Roon modules can either replace existing renderer/transport software or the two can run side-by-side, thus giving the user a choice.

Once the manufacturer completes this development work, it must send the DAC to Roon for testing and certification. This step is needed not only to determine if the DAC merits the “Roon Ready” certification, but also so that Roon can learn the specific capabilities and peculiarities of a particular renderer/DAC combination. Roon has a variety of settings it can then employ to optimize its software’s performance with that specific DAC. Later, when a Roon Ready DAC comes online at a user’s home, Roon identifies the specific DAC and optimizes playback settings accordingly. Note that even if you buy a Roon Ready DAC, you still must have Roon Core running elsewhere.

Is the thought of all these devices, protocols, software modules, networks, and potential failure points freaking you out? Fear not—you have options. One is to go the fully separate route but to enlist the support of a qualified dealer. Another is to simplify the installation by combining multiple functions into fewer devices. Roon itself offers a pre-configured hardware/software package called Nucleus. Nucleus runs Roon Core and the ROCK OS on an Intel NUC—a powerful, fanless computing appliance. The Nucleus family starts at $1395.

Even in the Nucleus scenario, you’re still juggling a NUC, a NAS, and a Roon Ready streaming DAC. If you want to simplify the setup further, you can avail yourself of an audiophile-grade, all-in-one player/renderer/server/DAC, such as those available from Aurender. (Now you know what those things do!)

My own setup consists of a Synology NAS storing my music files, an Apple iPad serving as the control point (the “Roon Remote” in Roon parlance), and the dCS Rossini DAC, whose network card now supports both Roon Endpoint Code and dCS’ own renderer side by side. Roon Core runs on a NUC. Although this is the most complicated set-up option, it’s also the smoothest running, most convenient, best-sounding Roon implementation.

 

The Sound of Roon
Which leads us, at last, to the sound of Roon. The fact that Roon even has a sound may surprise some readers. But remember that all music playback software and associated renderers have a sonic signature. That’s why TAS runs reviews on those products. Roon is no different.

To find out whether Roon’s impact is positive or negative, I compared it to dCS’s own proprietary renderer, which runs in conjunction with UPnP. This comparison was particularly telling for two reasons. First, dCS DACs are considered among the best in the world, so their own renderer is obviously no slouch. Second, since both the dCS and Roon renderers were running on the same dCS Rossini DAC, any differences I heard had to be due to the renderer.

Some comparison tests are of a “drop the needle and listen for two seconds” nature, where the result is immediately obvious. This was one of those. It took no time at all to determine that Roon constitutes a significant sonic upgrade over dCS’ own renderer. For example, playing Mark Knopfler’s “Golden Heart,” Roon delivered extra clarity, tonal color, and stage depth, making the performance more compelling and involving. Similarly, on the hi-res (176/24) version of Rickie Lee Jones’ “Jolie, Jolie” from Traffic in Paradise, Roon again conveyed greater clarity and detail. Further, the samba-like rhythms came through more propulsively, and the entire presentation breathed more naturally. One last illustration: On Bruce Cockburn’s haunting “Charity of Night,” Roon produced more dynamic shadings on the acoustic guitar, while Cockburn’s voice became more three-dimensional and natural sounding.

The improvements Roon reaps are not subtle; rather, they’re immediately and definitively obvious. They’re also complementary to the enhancements MQA brings to the party. If I had to characterize the two, I would describe Roon’s changes as primarily sonic in nature, whereas MQA’s are more music-oriented. Together, the two make a formidable combination.

Roon’s True Power
So far, I’ve covered Roon’s interface, features, setup, and sound. Yet I still haven’t mentioned what is arguably Roon’s greatest benefit: It makes your music—and your system—more accessible to others. By way of illustration, allow me to relate my own experience. My wife Krista and I often listen to music together, but I’m always in charge of operating the hi-fi. That’s not because I’m a control freak; it’s due to the system being so intimidating. I suspect most readers can relate.

But recently I handed Krista an iPad running Roon. I gave her a 30-second tutorial on how to search for what she wanted to play, and explained that if it weren’t in our music collection then Roon would likely find it on Tidal. Within two minutes, Krista was a Roon Remote pro, navigating with alacrity. More importantly, she was flush with the musical possibilities that Roon opened to her. Now she could summon whatever she wanted to hear on the fancy hi-fi. On that occasion, we stayed up until 3am playing track after track, enabled by Roon and limited only by our imaginations.

That’s the true power of Roon. This software allows you—and your friends and family—to forget about the usual mechanics of audio playback. You could argue that a smartphone with Spotify does the same thing, and to some extent you’d be right. But that approach was built for casual listeners, not audiophiles. Roon offers unfettered access to a universe of music, all played through your system, and all sounding better than ever. Like MQA, it’s a major advance in digital audio.

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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