Putting sound quality issues aside for a moment, when you ask an audiophile who has yet to embrace digital and streaming sources why he hasn’t made the leap, the answer usually includes the difficulty in easily and accurately connecting with and finding all the different music in his library. As someone who embraced digital music and streaming early on, I have to admit that finding all my digital music files has never been as simple as going to my record shelves and pulling out an album, but it should be that easy.
Roon’s latest version, 1.8, finally makes finding music, both in your home library and Roon’s supported streaming services, Qobuz and Tidal, almost as easy and intuitive as grabbing an album off the shelves, but with less crouching. To accomplish this required a major overhaul of Roon, which is why Roon 1.8 is such a big deal. And while longtime users won’t find radical changes in the basic layout, ergonomics, and playback methodology, they will, if they begin to explore, discover that Roon now uses its vast troves of metadata in a far more feature-rich manner that it happily shares with its users.
What Is Roon?
For readers who are unfamiliar with Roon, it is an application that claims to be “the ultimate music player for music fanatics.” Roon accomplishes this in several ways. First, it unites home libraries and streaming services libraries from Tidal, Qobuz, and Dropbox into one comprehensive, cohesive, and completely searchable library. And Roon’s search functions are extensive (we’ll get into how powerful and flexible later). Next, it makes it easy to send music to any room in your home via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Finally, it provides a stable, hardware-agnostic platform that allows for individual optimization of every DAC you may possess.
The Roon application has three different, yet complementary, parts. The main part is the Roon Core. This is the section of Roon that does all the processing and interfacing. When using Roon, the Core section must be active at all times and should be on a computer with multiple processing cores, as well as a solid-state storage drive for the app itself. I’ve had my Roon Core (actually the desktop version, which is a combination of the Roon Core and Controller) on an Apple MacPro desktop, titanium trashcan model, for several years now.
Roon’s Core can also be installed on its own dedicated computer, and Roon even sells a “Nucleus” stand-alone computer that is specifically configured to run Roon. Roon offers two versions, the Nucleus ($1459) and the Nucleus Plus ($2559). You can also install the Roon Core application on one of 17 different Intel NUC computers that Roon has approved for Roon Core installation. Prices for these range from around $300 to just under $1000 for a NUC10i7FNx with case and solid-state drive. How hard is it to build you own NUC to run Roon? Here’s a quote from someone after a build: “It took literally 49 seconds to install and after that simply run Roon, select the core (which popped up immediately), and copy my music files to the internal 1TB SSD I installed.”
The other two parts of the Roon playback application are the Controller and the endpoints. The Controller app is the interface part that lets users make Roon sing and dance. It can be installed on any Android or iOS phone, Windows or Mac desktop or tablet, and offers all the control functions for Roon. An endpoint is any playback device that Roon supports. In my Roon system I currently have 16 endpoints, which includes four Raspberry Pi’s, three DACs connected via USB to my MacPro desktop, two DAC/streamers, several portable players, and a host of iOS and Android devices. Because I can, I have all my Roon endpoints connected via CAT 5 Ethernet, but Roon supports Wi-Fi (and AirPlay) as well as Ethernet endpoints.
Roon can be purchased one of several ways. You can get monthly, yearly, or lifetime subscriptions. Recently Roon raised its lifetime subscription rates, but did not discontinue them, although lifetime subscriptions would not be capable of supporting Roon long-term. Current rates in the U.S. are $12.99 for monthly, $119.88 for yearly ($9.99/per month), or $699 for lifetime subscriptions.
What’s New in 1.8—Seek and Ye Shall Find
I’ve been using computers to reproduce audio ever since I acquired my first Apple Mac Performa 600, back in the final quarter of the last century. l learned early on about folders and iTunes’ need for them. Some music-player applications still use folders, but one of the refreshing aspects of Roon is that you never need to use or even care about folders. Once you’ve designated which drives or folders on drives you want Roon to incorporate into your music library, any changes to those folders will be duly noted by Roon’s regularly and automatically updated database. What this means for a Roon user is that it no longer matters where your music is physically located. Be it on your hard drives, or in Tidal/Qobuz, or in your Dropbox, Roon supplies multiple ways of finding it.
And what do I mean by “multiple ways?” Of course, you have the ubiquitous magnifying glass icon, which lets you put in any words you wish, but that methodology has been around since the first build of AOL. Roon offers several other ways to find music. In its “Genres” page, you have types of music groupings, with the most populated categories closer to the top. For me “folk” and “classical” have the most releases. If you go into a genre category page, you will find listings of all your albums in that genre. Below the album list is an artist list. When you click on any of the performers, you get taken to that performer’s page, which will have all the albums by that artist in your collection. And on each artist’s page you will find a discography, which lists, with links, all the artist’s albums. Another new feature on the artist’s page is “Compositions,” which takes you to a list of all works penned by the artist. Going back to the Genre page, below the artists list is “New Releases” section. This includes new albums by any of the artists already in your library. Below this is the “Recommended Albums” section that includes releases by related artists that you may or may not have in your library. This section uses metadata from other Roon users with similar musical tastes to compile its listings. Below this, Roon has a short list of radio stations available through Roon Radio that play this genre of music. Finally, the last section on the page lists subgenres. For “Folk” there are 19 different categories, including Acid-Folk, Anti-Folk, and my fave, Work Songs…and each subgenre has sections similar to the main Genre page. One Roon user I know uses the phrase “going down the rabbit hole” to describe his late nights of search-inspired Roon-enabled musical forays.
Back in the days when LPs ruled the earth, whenever I contemplated buying a new album, I’d spend a lot of time perusing the back cover, looking for connections with artists and performers whose work I was already familiar with to determine whether I wanted to buy the album in hand. Unfortunately, until the latest version of Roon, digital music playback applications did not have the means to replicate the amount of data on the back of a record jacket—or the means to utilize that data. The latest version of Roon has made major inroads into this dilemma. Of course, Roon has always made extensive use of links. On earlier versions of Roon, all the performer links were light blue instead of black type, which made it easy to find them. Blue links also made it clear that not all performers and sidemen had links. On Roon 1.8 most of the blue links are gone, replaced by a far more elaborate and detailed connection scheme. Now a click on any performer will be a link to that performer. For an example I will use Paul McCartney’s latest, III. On the album page, next to the tab for the tracks listing, you have “Credits.” When you click on it, you will find several sections complete with links. The first section is “Credited On,” which lists all the musicians credited and what instruments they played. Each one can be clicked on, which will take you to their artist page. Below “Credits” is “Composers” which lists all the credited songwriters, with links to their other work. Below “Composers” is “Production” which lists engineers, producers, cover designers, and even photographers (if credited). A click on George Martin takes you to all the albums he had a hand in producing. The section titled “influencers, followers, collaborators, and associated with” will lead you even further afield from our original selection, III. During the course of examining these links I discovered that Greg Kurstin, who’s listed as one of III’s producers, also worked on Jeff Black’s Birmingham Road album. I’m a huge Jeff Black fan, but I didn’t know of this connection. Roon’s links can teach you stuff.
Classical music listeners have, since the first version of the Gracenote search service, been limited in the ways they could search for their music. Four text lines, dictated by Gracenote’s limited display capabilities and metadata categories, led to the need to search for Bach under “performers” as well as other nonsensical queries. Roon 1.8 changes that. In Roon you have far more metadata categories for searching. Looking at Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos played by Il Giardino Armonico on Das Alte Werk label, next to the Classical category is “Concerto.” If you click on it, it will list all the concertos in your collection. There is also a “Chamber Music” category as well “Symphony,” “Vocal Music,” “Keyboard,” and perhaps a few more categories I haven’t discovered. Of course, if you want to search by composer, Roon has all composers in your library listed in the “Focus” section.
Roon’s Home page now has a lot more information about its owner’s listening patterns. Roon knows I have 2471 artists, 5683 albums, 67,482 tracks, and 193 composers in my library. Below that Roon lists all my recent playback activity. Scrolling farther down the page reveals three “New Releases for You,” which currently shows McCartney III, The Beatles Getting Better All the Time, and the Rolling Stones Turning Blue and Lonesome. Further down the page, the next section will tell you how much time you’ve spent listening through Roon. In the last four weeks I spent 57 hours and 43 minutes. Roon also breaks down what percentage of the time I spent listening to different genres, and provides the four most-played artists and four most-played albums. It also has a Genres section, Top Artists, Top Albums, suggested radio stations, and at the very bottom, several curated playlists provided by Roon.
Given that my library contains 5683 albums, when I select “My Library” and “My Albums,” scrolling through them would be a very slow search option, but Roon provides a more streamlined way with the Focus search functions. This feature offers more selectable subsets based on almost any category that has metadata. Genre has 18 different categories. Release Date is divided into decades, beginning with the 1940s. Performers lists every artist in your libraries, the same goes for the Composers and Production categories. Other filter options include “Played in the last,” “Added in the last,” ”Album star rating,” “Album type,” “Label,” “Format,” “Sample Rate,” “Bit Depth,” “Storage location,” and finally “Inspector,” which includes another whole bunch more categories. Any combination of search filters can be used. For example, I can choose “Grateful Dead,” “Live,” and “MQA” to find the live MQA-encoded Grateful Dead files…which brings up the 50th Anniversary Workingman’s Dead on Tidal.
Roon’s Signal Processing Customization Features
Digital Signal Processing (DSP) can with some DACs and digital-reproduction systems sometimes produce a better final result than a bit-perfect file. I know of one DAC, the Khadas Tone Board, that has its most linear response with DSD64 files. With Roon, it was easy to designate that music I send to the Khadas Tone Board will all be transcoded into DSD64. Roon’s DSP capabilities also include headroom management so if you have files that were recorded at too high a level, they can be lowered a couple of dBs, so they do not clip your DAC. There’s also a clip indicator that can be turned on (it does nothing to the signal, so if you prefer no changes to the levels you can still see if a track causes clipping.) The “Sample Rate Conversion” section is where you can alter the format and bit rate of your files. You can also specify the Sigma-Delta modulator, enable native DSD processing, adjust the settings of the PCM-to-DSD filter, adjust the DSD-to-PCM gain, parallelize the Sigma-Delta modulator, as well as a few more adjustments. Each endpoint in your system can, and probably will, have its own particular optimal settings. You can also build your own preset filters. Why would you do this? My own example of a custom filter was a little something I built when I reviewed the Focal Arche DAC/headphone amp. The Arche reversed the channels on my DSF-format DSD recordings, so I built a preset that reversed channels for all DSF files played through it.
Besides DSP adjustments Roon also has provisions for extensive equalization for transducers and headphones. Roon has built-in filters for Audeze headphones and Headphone Crossfeed. With the parametric EQ, you can build and save EQ for every endpoint, headphone, or speaker system if you wish. If you are a devotee of the “Harman curve,” instead of a flat frequency response, you can make nearly any headphone adhere to that specification by building and then saving an EQ filter set for that earphone.
I regularly see the question asked by audiophiles, “Does Roon sound better than X, Y, or Z?” I also see many responses to this question that state unequivocally that “X, Y, or Z,” when playing one particular track, sounds better or worse than Roon. And such responders may be right; on their system, with their current setup, X, Y, or Z could sound better than Roon to their ears. But using one sample, where there is no way to determine that both files were identical, only proves that in that one case, in that one setup, the tracks sounded different enough for a listener to make a value judgment. Given the number of variables affecting streaming-music sound quality, to say unequivocally that any particular streaming service or playback app is universally superior to others, in my opinion, lacks credibility. But I will state, without a bit of irony, that compared to other playback apps Roon offers more ways to improve or screw up the sound than anything short of a complete digital audio workstation.
Are there any downsides to Roon? Sure. The first downside is that if Roon does not support a streaming service, you can’t use Roon with it. So, no Apple Music, no Amazon HD, and no Spotify through Roon. Also, Roon requires that your system be set up a particular way that may or may not be compatible with the way you have configured your own systems. If you do not adhere to Roon’s “best practices,” you will find that it may not work as smoothly as it should. Trying to run Roon Core on an uncertified computer can result in less than optimal performance, with slow load times and, occasionally, music drop-outs, stuttering, or an inability to find all the endpoints in your system. So, yes, there are many ways to make your Roon experience into an unpleasant one. But if you follow Roon’s “best practices,” Roon almost guarantees that you will have no issues with Roon’s performance.
Streaming Music’s Promise Almost Fully Realized
If you have read all the way through this article, either you have been seriously contemplating giving Roon a try or are already a Roon user who’s in the process of exploring the newest Roon version. In either case, I would expect that you will find the latest build comes the closest to realizing the promise and full ergonomic potential of digital music. Unlike most playback applications, which give you one or two ways to search for music, Roon supplies a multiplicity of search options and methodologies to spider through your music collection. That is huge. Instead of forcing you to do it “its way,” Roon offers users many different ways to explore their music collections, so they can choose the one that works with how they want to find their music.
When you add Roon’s technical capabilities and features, which include MQA Core unfolding, headroom management, sample rate conversion, EQ filters, the ability to build and save custom filters and presets, a clip indicator, and the ability to connect with almost every DAC, streamer, or endpoint in your home system, controllable on any phone or tablet, you have a 21st century playback app that makes it painfully obvious that every other playback app is still anchored to the 20th century. In short, if you aren’t using Roon, you aren’t getting close to the full ergonomic potential of your digital music libraries.
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