While removing the Roon Nucleus from its packaging, I was approached from behind by my 8 year-old daughter who wanted to know what her Daddy was doing at 7 a.m. on a Saturday when we’re usually getting breakfast ready before our long walk to synagogue.
She’s the curious type who likes to see if her iPad can take control of the myriad of equipment in our home and she immediately started trying to pair up her “wemote contwol” with the Roon Nucleus. She’s missing 4 teeth and from the Jersey Shore so everything sounds like a cross between Bugs Bunny and Tony Soprano.
She also went 33-33 at the plate this season winning her local baseball championship so I tend to keep her Easton bat hidden away when I’m unboxing new review products.
When I explained to her what it was, she yawned and asked “No Youtooob?”
“No YouTube but I can access millions of songs on TIDAL and Qobuz and all of my CDs.”
“Do you know what streaming is?”
“Same thing but music.”
“Does it work with Alexa?”
“How do you know what Alexa is?”
“Daddy…everybody has Alexa and Google. That’s how I buy my apps.”
“You know how to buy apps?”
Back to the Nucleus
The Roon Nucleus is the entry-level music server from Roon Labs and after a few months with it, I definitely understand how it fits in the context of Future-Fi and digital music streaming.
Is it perfect? Not exactly.
Depending on the nature of your specific streaming needs and the size of your CD collection, the Roon Nucleus might only be a partial solution.
I was an early adopter of computer-based music servers and spent more than 18 months ripping 1,900 CDs in FLAC to a pair of LaCie external HDDs; something that I’ve been forced to backup more than once.
Over the years since I made that huge effort to create a portable CD library, I’ve only added 200 additional CDs to that collection. 200 CDs over 8 years probably sounds like a pitiful number but the reality is that I started buying downloads and then made the jump to digital music streaming.
The ripping process was not smooth sailing; issues with ripping software that did not add the correct meta data, album art, or even permit certain discs to be copied.
Needless to say, I still own 3 CD players.
The $1,459.00 Roon Nucleus does not include a CD ripper. Innuos and Small Green Computer offer network servers/players with internal CD rippers that work very well.
Does Roon’s world-class software and music-management system work as well on those other two options? Not quite.
I would recommend Roon over the native Innous music management software 99% of the time and I’ve used them both enough to make that call. The ZenMini MKIII is one of my favorite music servers below $3,000 and the one I would suggest if you’re not using Roon 1.8 as a platform.
But it’s the software that makes the real difference and at the end of the day — there is no more compelling music management platform and interface than Roon. You can read my more detailed journey with Roon 1.8 here.
For those who require a CD ripper, there is a solution.
One recent new product from Small Green Computer rectifies that issue for the Roon Nucleus and while it’s not inexpensive at $220, it offers a reliable CD ripper that requires no additional software.
If you own a rather large CD collection that has yet to be ripped, I would consider it mandatory with the Roon Nucleus.
The World According to Streaming
Digital music streaming is not without its issues; the primary one being that you don’t own any of the music you’re paying for each month. I’ve been a paying Tidal and Qobuz customer for years and I’m cognizant of the fact that should either streaming platform disappear, I would lose thousands of saved albums and over 200 saved playlists.
Building that library took a lot of work and a lot of listening. I’m also not the forgiving type and I would probably go back to CDs (which I still own) or just listen to my records if that ever happened.
I also hate the hassle of having to upload multiple apps and interfaces to my iPhone, MacBook Pro, iMac, iPad, and some of the other Windows-based devices we have at home.
Keep it simple stupid.
I know that sounds rather rude but the folks at Roon clearly understand that people want their cake and the ability to eat it too.
The Roon Nucleus allows you to merge your ripped CD collection, along with Tidal and Qobuz into one very slick management and playback platform that took less than 30 minutes for me to integrate into our home network as our Roon Core.
Roon also supports your iTunes library and live radio stations. AirPlay? Yup. Sonos? 100%
Most people don’t have 6 stereo systems at home but I suspect that audiophiles have more than one and that they want the easiest method of listening to their digital music library through one interface and through multiple Roon endpoints if they are using compatible network players like the Bluesound Node 2i/NODE, or Cambridge Audio CXN V2.
The Black Box of Musical Ecstasy
The Nucleus is not a very large music server (3″H x 6″D x 8.4″W) and its industrial design features integral heatsinks to keep it cool during operation.
The rear panel features 2 USB 3.0 ports (for both external storage and USB DACs), 2 HDMI outputs, Gigabit Ethernet LAN, and a power button.
The HDMI ports can pass multi-channel audio (on the Nucleus+ version) and two-channel digital audio to your AVR.
Certain combinations of DSP + DSD may not be possible. Upgrade to the Nucleus Plus if you need DSP with DSD content. I own less than 5 DSD albums so the Nucleus fits my needs perfectly.
The internal storage bay is empty with the $1,459.00 base model, but you can add either a 2TB or 4TB SSD for an additional $400/$800.
I have more than 2TB of lossless music on external LaCie HDDs which I was able to connect using the USB ports.
The Nucleus can play to 6 zones simultaneously which is more than most people would ever possibly use.
If you’re looking for a silent and plug-and-play music server solution — nothing could be easier to setup and integrate than the Roon Nucleus.
Nu? How did it Sound?
One of the smartest things I did when I purchased our home was to add long runs of CAT6e to all 4 bedrooms, all of the principal rooms on the main floor, and the basement. Our modem and ASUS router are located in my home office which is hidden behind a fake door in the bedroom (kinky but not that kinky).
12 runs of Ethernet cable exit through a cut-out in the wall behind her desk along the floor. There are 2 Ethernet switches in the house as we needed multiple runs in the living room and basement for home theater devices. I lost 12 pounds of water running it all during the hot weather back in 2009 but it has worked well for 12 years.
I tested the Roon Nucleus in two different scenarios; wired directly into our ASUS router and setup in my den listening room with a run of USB cable to a number of DACs and integrated amplifiers with internal DACs.
My home isn’t that large (by local standards) and not a single run of CAT6e was more than 100 feet in length.
After merging my Tidal and Qobuz accounts, I had access to over 6,000 albums on the streaming side and 2,100 CDs on external storage.
The Nucleus does not have its own DAC so you’re really playing with a blank canvas — I really didn’t find that it imparted too much of its own sonic signature on the music.
I also ran my Bluesound Node 2i and Cambridge Audio CXN V2 network players as Roon endpoints. I controlled everything with my iPhone, MacBook Pro, and Apple iMac.
Roon Me for Life
Of the 3 units, the Nucleus has the least distinct sonic signature. The Bluesound Node 2i definitely sounds warmer and darker than the Nucleus and the CXN V2 sounds slightly more open with the DACs in my systems.
Wired directly into the sublime Rotel Michi X3, the Nucleus made a strong case for itself as a high-end server that is beyond easy to use, reliable, and very open and detailed sounding. Bass notes from the Nucleus/X3 combination were meaty, hard hitting, and delivered with excellent definition.
The AQ DragonFly Cobalt sounded less open and definitely more restrained through my Magnepan LRS speakers. The Rotel X3 electrifies those speakers better than most amplifiers that I’ve tried so far and I thought the Nucleus/DF Cobalt pairing was the least impressive of everything that I listened to.
The Nucleus/Cambridge DAC combination was very pleasing with most music but I did discover that the DacMagic 200M is not as warm sounding as I first thought.
Every combination demonstrated that the Roon Nucleus just does its job and lets the rest of the system paint the music from a tonal perspective. I really don’t want my network source to do anything but provide a stable platform that delivers music quickly, reliably, and with a neutral tonal balance. Too many cooks in the kitchen can ruin a dinner party.
It’s definitely more open sounding than the Bluesound Node 2i, but it’s also $1,000 more and I would expect it to offer better resolution, greater detail retrieval, and better sound quality overall.
The Cambridge CXN V2 definitely offers up a greater challenge with a punchier midrange and solid pacing. I own 2 Cambridge Audio amplifiers so I’m partial to its sonic presentation, but I definitely can confirm that the Nucleus and CXN V2 work really well together as part of a multi-room Roon network.
At the end of the day — it’s the interface stupid.
Roon 1.8 has a new update available this week with improved playlists and a new interface for Tidal. It is the consistency of these updates that makes the platform something that will only get better with time — and only put more distance between itself and the competition.
Should you buy this?
Just because a product is fantastic, that doesn’t mean that it’s the right product for everyone.
Do you use Tidal or Qobuz? Do you have a substantial iTunes library? Do you have a ripped CD collection or one that you want to rip to a centralized music server that can be used in a multi-room scenario?
For someone like myself, the Roon Nucleus is the endgame music server that will never have to be replaced as it satisfies 99% of my digital music listening needs. I have access to everything that I own and rent (streaming) and I ultimately decide what it all sounds like based on the components on the other end.
We don’t do the “Award” thing because it’s marketing hype to make companies happy, but the Roon Nucleus is about as good as it gets in this category below $3,000.
For more information: store.roonlabs.com