If you have been buying CDs for more than thirty years, there is a fairly good chance that your investment in both music, hardware, and media furniture to store all of those jewel cases has not been a small one. Roon is also not an inexpensive investment, but arguably the world’s best digital music management and playback platform and something that I’ve become a little obsessed with.
The last time we moved, the 2,000+ CDs in our collection required over a dozen large boxes and were not kind on my back. Frustrated with having to reorganize, and reshelve every CD that I’ve purchased since 1984, we made the decision to toss all of the jewel cases; please accept my belated apology to the environment for all of that plastic I dumped. Jewel cases take up a lot of space. They also lack the mystique of album covers which look sexier in your hands when listening to music. I did keep my MoFi, DCC, and JVC XRCD cases because they feel like a part of history and the album art is of a much higher quality.
After organizing all of our music into some rather expensive photo albums with static-free sleeves, we came to the realization that other than saving shelf space, we had not made listening to CDs any easier. Computer-based audio servers were not really a thing in 2003; audiophiles tend to be early adopters of unproven technology at great expense, but a brand new Apple MacMini backed-up with an external hard drive became our CD player. My Rega Planet CD player got packed up and disappeared into a closet.
iTunes was not the only game in town as far as CD ripping was concerned at the time, but if you lived in the Apple ecosystem, it became your digital playback platform.
iTunes did offer the option to rip CDs in WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, MP3, and AAC; and being an audiophile, I swore to never use anything but WAV or AIFF. iTunes was above average when it came to metadata, sourcing its album information from Gracenote, but it was hard to change mistakes, and it failed miserably when trying to read albums from obscure labels or your own CD mixes.
Being locked into the iTunes music store was an immediate red flag as it offered zero access to the first generation of audiophile download stores. Having to purchase from 3rd party sites, download and then transfer over to iTunes wasn’t very convenient. The launch of digital streaming services was the last nail in the iTunes coffin for me as a consumer.
With over 2,000 CDs, 300 downloaded albums, and subscriptions to Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify, there had to be one comprehensive platform to host all of my digital music, offer updated editorial content, and one that works with the myriad of digital streaming devices in our home. The only platform that comes close is Roon.
The Roon team has been in the digital music space for many years. Back in 2006, the team launched a product called Sooloos, which was a high-end audio digital audio management and playback platform. Sooloos was not inexpensive; the earliest versions of the platform ran into the thousands of dollars and the company was eventually sold to Meridian Audio who have been the leading force behind the adoption of MQA by the the streaming services and hardware vendors such as LG who have adopted it for their smart phones.
The original Roon team moved onto Hewlett Packard to create HP Connected Music. From there, the team decided to create their own music player software launching Roon in 2015. The goal was to create a music player that gave you more than just the track and album name, but actual context to your favorite artist and albums. Roon uses metadata to display bios, album reviews, credits, concert dates, and lyrics. The entire experience was designed around your own musical tastes, but it also helps you discover new music much more easily.
Roon’s GUI is second-to-none; on a computer screen, tablet, or smart phone. If your music server/laptop has an HDMI output, you can transmit the image to your HDTV and see your entire music library on a larger screen.
Roon recently updated to Roon 1.8 and I have a more detailed review of the updated platform coming along with a review of the Roon Nucleus server.
But what is Roon?
Roon is a unifying library that combines music you own as well as Tidal, Internet Radio, and Qobuz. Roon will then analyze all of the music and categorize the albums into genres and subgenres. Because the service is always connected, the software continuously updates album information, concert dates, new music, and biographical information about artists.
Roon also works with many streaming protocols including AirPlay, Sonos, Chromecast, iOS, Android, Mac, PC, and Roon Ready. You are no longer limited to a single streaming eco-system. The platform also allows for an unlimited number of remotes and profiles. You can have multiple remotes in your home and each family member can have their own profile to add music to the library, and custom playlists.
None of this would be very useful unless there was an app to control your Roon Core; either a computer, or dedicated music server like the Roon Nucleus. The Roon app is a music player that utilizes metadata to organize your music and analyze each album and track automatically providing hi-res album art, hi-res artist art, artist bios, album reviews, album credits, lyrics, concert dates, and much more.
The integration of Tidal and Qobuz allows you to control both streaming services via the app giving you access to millions of CD quality or high-res digital albums. Tidal’s Master Series is available with MQA if you care about that format – something that I’ve become less interested in over the past 12 months.
Tidal recently announced some changes to their streaming tiers that will put a premium on Tidal streaming with MQA and I’m not sure how much longer I will be willing to spend the extra $6.99/month for that when I already use Qobuz for my hi-res audio and I’m seriously considering adding Apple Music and Spotify HiFi to my list of streaming platforms.
Roon adding Apple Music, Spotify HiFi or Amazon Music HD would be a great way to attract more mainstream listeners to the platform but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of movement in that direction at the moment. The launch of Apple Music with lossless streaming and some hi-res content would make it a very welcome addition to the Roon platform but Apple seems far more interested in selling its own streaming devices like the Apple TV 4K and brand new iPad Pro tablet.
Roon also contains a powerful DSP engine, and support for high-resolution digital codecs up to 768kHz/32-bit PCM and DSD512. Roon also added Roon Radio a few years ago giving you access to even more music.
Before you decide to use your laptop or an older Mac Mini or PC gathering dust, you need to understand how the Roon ecosystem works and what makes it truly unique. Any Roon set-up has three components; Roon Core, Roon endpoints, and the control device that you decide to use.
If you decide to use a computer/laptop as your Roon Core, be mindful that it will demand a lot of memory; based on our experience running it on a 2016 iMac and 2016 MacBookPro, 16GB of memory would be a safe bet. My MBP has 32GB of memory and we have yet to experience an issue running Roon with other programs such as Adobe Illustrator being used at the same time.
I have a new M1-powered Apple iMac coming in a few weeks and I plan on using it as a Roon endpoint in my home office.
The other option would be to use a dedicated music server such as the Roon Nucleus. The Nucleus is always on and checking their metadata service for any updates. With a computer, once the computer is shut down or goes into sleep mode, the app does not check for updates until the computer is turned back on.
Roon has also written its own OS for Roon Core which quite frankly works much more smoothly on a dedicated music server. If you are building your music library from scratch (something we did when decided to use a dedicated server), our advice would be to rip everything in FLAC. A lot of people may not hear the difference between a WAV, AIFF, or FLAC file, but we do.
The second component is a Roon endpoint; which can be a streaming device like a Bluesound NODE, Sonore microRendu, or even a loudspeaker like the KEF LS50 Wireless II or LSX. Roon has dozens of hardware partners offering products that are Roon-ready allowing you to control multiple networked systems throughout your home. We use a Roon-ready Sonos speaker in the kitchen and I’ve had great success with Roon-ready network amplifiers from Bluesound, Naim, and Cambridge Audio so far in our home.
Is there a downside to Roon?
Roon is not inexpensive. Some people may find it absurd to spend $155/year or $699 for a lifetime membership with unlimited remote devices, but we think Roon is a bargain if you have a lot of CDs, digital downloads, and subscriptions to streaming services like Tidal or Qobuz. The integration with Roon-ready devices is plug-and-play, and the interface is years ahead of anything else on the market. Yes – you are paying for a music management and playback platform (ahem…iTunes), but nothing else works as well or is as comprehensive. Roon is a constantly evolving platform that will grow your music library for many years to come.
Look for our review of Roon 1.8 and the Nucleus in a couple of weeks.
For more information: https://roonlabs.com