everything you need to know about Roon to get going
No, No, No, not round in a Scottish accent, Roon is for your HiFi and has had its fifth birthday. The urban dictionary says Roon is what you call your nerdy or dorky friend. Interesting as some might think you need to be, to get your head around streaming, let alone go to higher echelons with Roon. So here goes…..I lid lift technicalities and use plain language. Missing anything without Roon? Plus what gear do you actually need?
First though, what is Roon? In short, it’s an over the network digital streaming application that can be used across multiple devices….
C is for Customisable
Playing music from file containing storage drives is, let’s face it, a staid and boring way of displaying and interacting with your tunes. By streaming computer hard drive music over your network by fixed connection or wirelessly, you submit to the media server software on the hard drive. It packages the music in a folder tree structure which determines how the HiFi streamer dishes up the music to search and play. Just like how music is stored on our computers. The streamer is but a slave to music organisation in this universal plug and play (UPnP) approach of streaming – being subservient and told to ‘do as I say’ as UPnP renderer. In between, a tablet control app, or other means of control from a laptop etc, does the playback jiggery pockery. Like the BluOS app of Bluesound in sync with a Bluesound Node 2i streamer.
Ten years ago audio forums were tediously awash with debates about which media server offers best flexibility – Minimserver, Twonky, Asset UPnP. Streaming was more at infant school then. Endless messing about with changing the file data (called metadata) to ensure servers presented albums to liking. Roon changed all this and guillotined conventional use of media servers for serious audio lovers. We’ll come onto why in two shakes of a lambs tail, but in this context, Roon positions itself as the sleekest of the sleek in user experience. I mean sleek, if you didn’t get my point.
But along this journey, to stop expensive computers frying their own chips over long listening sessions, we put the music on an NAS – Network Attached Storage drive. Basically a similar hard drive with the media server mentioned. Think brands like Synology, Western Digital, or QNAP. Austere functional looking peripherals in computer shops perhaps, admittedly cheap as chips to Audiophiles. But in some ways Roon is a progression of the NAS approach, and how come? Well, because of…….
The Core of Roon
To make the music better organised and present as a kind of ‘journal or magazine of music’ with bios, concert dates and reviews, as well as search capability, which is bar none by the way, requires heavy processing. Cue Roon Core which can be run on a Windows PC (64bit or 32bit Windows 10 versions), Mac OS X on Mac, or a stand alone 64 bit Linux server (for example Small Green Computer’s sonicTransporter i5) or Intel NUC, or NAS drive of the ilk of either QNAP or Synology.
Core doesn’t necessarily have to include a music containing storage drive, which can be elsewhere on the network, but obviously will for the likes of QNAP Roon NAS drives. Or for instance an Innuos ZENith which uses a non spinning chip based ‘solid state’ hard drive with its Linux computer server with Roon Core, and is a CD ripper too. Or what about the Roon Nucleus (with a drive added) – see section below.
Another do-dar of Core in Roon is that it takes and organises music from all your sources like your PC, USB drives, NAS, as well as your iTunes library, so display wise it’s an ‘everything you’ve got’ approach. Add subscription streaming services in the mix too – Roon currently supports Tidal & Qobuz, lossless music services linking with Roon’s premium quality ideal. No Amazon UHD though although early days with this platform. But think high resolution MQA on Tidal Masters and Hi-Res on Qobuz, CD quality on both platforms too, which leads me to……
The User Experience
Whereas with Boris Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings amidst COVID-19, you can’t see his journey origins or destination, in Roon you can clearly see file origins. Whether on your NAS or a track in Tidal or Qobuz. All the conversion and sampling along the way too. Another step up bonus is multi source playlists – for example one track from Tidal, one from your ripped CD (you may have used dBpoweramp or Exact Audio Copy software on your PC to do this). It just makes the process seamless and you’ll never decry the mediocrity and inflexible procrastination that changing CDs over, brings. Thus, for all intents Roon is essentially building an interconnected library across various sources.
You can also use Roon’s Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to correct for Room effects on speaker frequency response or say crossfeed in headphones – blending the right and left channels of a recording. More processor hungry though, so you’ll need a higher specced Core, if using the mini headless/NUC variety. My Innuos starts to do funny things as you use DSP heavily.
Using the search Focus feature in Roon is very intuitive. Search from genres, albums, year, file quality, file type, most played etc. No more loosing music into obscurity on UPnP servers, where it can’t be found as easily.
But the biography user-ability and Discover feature of Roon are not to be diminished. Music displayed in a more user friendly way is sure to sync foot tapping music discoverability with enjoyment.
In Roon speak you can have as many endpoint players as you want. In effect the same as the end of chain UPnP streaming renderer, in the initial example I gave. Basically the endpoint is where the music comes to an end as far as the Roon journey is concerned. Where noise is made if you will. So a DAC like a Chord Qutest, a streamer like an Auralic Aries G1.., smart speaker like KEF’s LSX, streaming pre amp and so on. Roon also call them Outputs.
The effect is your Android or Apple tablet or phone, PC or Mac, can use the Roon app (called Roon Remote) to control endpoint’s and instruct Core to send music to the particular endpoint. This, again in Roon speak is the Controller. Multi room functionality is inherent in all this – your partner can listen to one tune in one room using an endpoint, and you can hide yourself away and listen to your guilty pleasure on another elsewhere. Mine – Julio Iglesias. Roon is a wireless Wi-Fi or wired platform too, depending on which endpoint’s are used. KEF LSX for example being a wired Ethernet and WiFi endpoint.
Whereas for example Auralic’s Aries G1 streaming transport uses its ‘Lightning DS’ App, only available for Apple devices, bare in mind Roon has both Android and iOS versions of the app.
example Roon configs
In simplest form the Roon set up could be all in one box if say it’s a Mac which runs Core, acts as the endpoint player from its speakers and also utilises the Controller too. But in a different set up all three elements – Core, Controller and endpoint could be separate. For example you could use a sonicTransporter i5 as Core, iPhone or iPad as controller with Roon Remote, and a SOtM sMS-200 network file player or Auralic Aries G1 streamer as the endpoint, situated in your HiFi rack. Or how about the Small Green Computer as Core, with an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC as endpoint plugged into an iPhone, with the iPhone as a Controller too. A laptop could be an endpoint as well, so can a phone or tablet, or a Google Chromecast Audio streamer, now no longer sold but kicking about. So can any AirPlay 1 device. There is Roon support for devices like the Google Home Mini, in fact anything with Chromecasting built in, for example a Cyrus Audio ONE Cast.
Sonos is supported by Roon, so you could play Roon to your Sonos Speaker(s), or say a Sonos Port streamer to your HiFi. So too are Squeezebox based platforms and Raspberry Pi streamers like the Allo DigiOne Signature, a Roon Tested Ethernet based streamer. Or some Roon Ready Pi streamers from HiFiBerry
From Roon ForumRoon supports endpoints which can then send the audio to a Bluetooth speaker. For example, you can use an Android phone as an endpoint and have it connected to a Bluetooth speaker.
Roon Tested v Roon Ready
You’ll hear the expression that an endpoint is Roon Ready and otherwise, Roon Tested. Like the ping of a microwave to a heated TV dinner ready meal, Roon readiness is about convenience too. A Roon Ready component like a dCS Bartók headphone amp and DAC I tested, is capability of hand-gripping Hi-Res audio up to the maximum Roon standards (see file formats and resolutions section). In path, Roon uses its own streaming technology called RAAT – Roon Advanced Audio Transport. No bogging down in technicality here, but basically achieving the same Hi-Res bit perfect original, sent asynchronously – meaning data is controlled by Roon. Also a Roon Ready endpoint is volume controllable in the Roon Software (which I’ll come onto).
In the sense a product is Roon Tested, it will still work with Roon but to a lower degree of quality. So for example, because Roon is a conduit for Apple AirPlay 1, if you have any AirPlay 1 playback device it will be recognised by Core and searchable in Roon Remote. With AirPlay, Roon chops down Hi-Res streams to CD quality 16 bit / 44.1kHz ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), being max resolution for AirPlay and AirPlay eating renderers. At the moment AirPlay 2 isn’t Roon explorative. Incidentally, AirPlay compatible devices are volume controllable in Roon.
Roon ROCK, Bridge & Outputs
Inviting the question what will I need to buy or install? Well, a visit to the itemised downloads section of Roon’s website is a good pertinent step – see here.
To go from zero to hero in one Roon swoop – Core, Output and Controller, on Mac or Windows PCs (or maybe an Apple Mac Mini) : click the download links at the top of that page. If you want to add Core on your Mac or PC and output to the same PC, select the Roon Server downloads options. Just then download the Roon Remote App for tablets and phones in the Google Play or Apple Stores, depending which you harrow, to control the Output computer. Alternatively if you plan on buying an always on Core installed elsewhere on your network (boxes like Nucleus, Intel NUC, Innuos ZENith, sonicTransporter i5 etc) to save your main rig computer from burnout, but want to use your Mac or PC as the Output, download Roon Bridge. Also there are options for installing compatible QNAP and Synology servers with Roon Core.
If you plan on buying an Intel NUC for Core you will need to install Roon software onto it yourself. It’s called ROCK and free (Roon Optimised Core Kit). For the download install guide see here.
Roon ‘nuclei’ devices come in ‘Nucleus’ and ‘Nucleus+’ shapes, at $1399 and $2499, respectively. Differing in the processing power for small or large libraries and the numbers of endpoints used. Essentially they are based on Linux operating Intel NUC mini headless (without monitor) computers, now in a new face-lifted Roon case, operating as Core and secondly with endpoint USB output, if need be. On call is a USB input to attach a USB music containing drive, ethernet for network hookedness too of course, and to the DAC is where the other USB slot wings itself. Buy a solid state drive and fit it yourself, which doesn’t come included, both models will then double as a storage server too. Again use Roon Remote for control.
Installing Roon ROCK on a NUC can be a faff if you are not PC patient, hence Nuclei appeal. Each to own on VFM, because if you are computer savvy and can install ROCK yourself, an Intel NUC and case with solid state drive can be purchased more cheaply. Essentially a computer peripheral with wildly different pricing, and used as a Core will, arguably, have no sonic character given network only credentials. However if you are after an off the shelf Roon Core solution, have the cash and no time, then why not a Nucleus with the confidence of a Roon optimised product to boot? To me, personally, the Nucleus is not value for money, given the price disparity to the NUC, but if you are time poor and cash rich, then maybe different for you!
File Formats and Resolutions
Roon Ready devices can receive streams of up to 384kHz/24-bit PCM, depending on file format with WAV and AIFF formats playing top trumps. Also up to DSD256. Stick shakingly, all the other usual file format suspects – FLAC, ALAC, OGG, etc (if anyone’s ever done OGG?). If, proverbially, the endpoint’s ‘computer says no’ to streams of too high a quality, Roon will convert the streams to a quality the endpoint can digest. No stuttering gaps between tracks of a continuous play album too – sorted by Roon’s gapless playback feature.
If you have Tidal and play Tidal Masters (MQA) content, Roon will produce a PCM stream at 88.2kHz or 96kHz. If the DAC is MQA capable, further unfolds of the file will happen to yield the full potential of MQA. Important if you are a tweaker and Hi-Res this, MQA that, DSD this, type of Audiophile. I’m not since I’ve come to realise it’s all in concept of source digestion quality. *Alimentary* thinking really. Sorry forgive me, but a corollary is that Roon doesn’t add to sound quality, it just presents music files in their bit forms and sample rates, as they are.
If you send Hi-Res music from Core to an amp like Hegel’s H120 integrated, which supports AirPlay 1, as explained, files are ‘carved up’ to 16bit/44.1kHz ALAC, the same quality as CD. True of other AirPlay-ing renderers as well.
On Sonos, again Hi-Res streams are downsampled to Sonos’ maximum 16bit/48kHz CD quality. Regretably Sonos seems stuck in the dark ages of streaming on such a resolution.
Google’s Chromecast Audio puck is supported by Roon in streams up to 24bit/96kHz. So is other similar Google boxes but Chromecasting devices like the Cyrus ONE Cast I mentioned support sample rates to 48kHz.
For explanations of sample and bit rates mentioned here, check the relevant part of my article on streaming here.
Subscriptions and Roon Radio
You could be forgiven for thinking what is the palaver with Roon if you aren’t fussed with how your music is displayed, or don’t want its extra features. If you simply want to play your stuff off a computer or network drive. An attitude of; ‘The streaming app with my branded streamer is good enough’, or ‘I can buy an after market UPnP app cheaply’. Also because a lifetime subscription costs $699.99 or $9.99 per month, which incidentally it needs to with involved software development. But you might be thinking, hard to shoulder for essentially a music app interface.
Well the answer is Roon Radio…. On by default when your album or playlist que has finished, or selectable when not, Roon starts playing music based on your library and favourites from your streaming services. The more you use it the smarter it gets, but since it can access all music available on your streaming service(s), ability to recommend music is fathomless. The smart intuition in selecting unknown music you’ll like, makes you wonder if owner Enno Vandermeer and his clan, have some AI which is sentient.
Add this to the user experience of Roon Remote, the price is easy to bear. Also, you won’t be going back to poor apps again like one called Cadence. Even better apps from bubble UPnP, Auralic’s Lightning DS, Yamaha MusicCast, BluOS from Bluesound, or better still Sonos or Denon/Marantz’s HEOS, are eclipsed by Roon. In my opinion due to ease of use, features, and controllability.
If you are happy with your streamer, have a budget system, then riled thoughts of why spend more, are probably well judged. But be a serious or curious music lover, staunch Audiophile, or Audiophile at first base, where Roon’s pricing can be accommodated and you want best user-ability and music discoverability, you simply can’t be without it. In fact I’d pay someone a tenner a month to recommend music alone, let alone other perks. Admittedly buying Roon peripherals notches up the price, making it relatively expensive as a control interface. Cheaper if you configure Core and its software yourself. A used NUC would be an inexpensive route, or approach a PC building firm. They could even install ROCK and offer ongoing support – the U.K. firm PC Specialist who I bought my PC from, do this for me.
As it stands you have 30 days cancellation to your commitment of $9.99 per month, for a year. To boot, a free trial period of 14 days. Considering aforementioned, price is stellar and tremendous value for money. By the way, it is welcome that you can now pay for Roon on a monthly basis, whereas this was not the case previously, being a one off yearly $119 charge.
Roon is about as ‘unblanding’ a HiFi experience as you can get. You should at least have a dip! Very Recommended and a 13th Note Achiever pretty easily.
How to get Going with Roon:
Some Questions and Answers
Question 1 I’m a PC or Mac person and have one Roon endpoint (or none), use phones and/or tablets and want to get going with Roon, to try the interface.
Answer : Download appropriate software on the link above, download Roon Remote for your endpoint or use your tablet or Phone as an endpoint at the same time as signing up for a free Roon Trial.
Question 2 : I like the idea of Roon, have a Roon compatible endpoint in my HiFi chain, but don’t like the idea of leaving my PC or Mac on.
Answer : Plenty of options from Roon Nucleus, Innuos (eg Zen Mini mk3), Synology, QNAP, Intel NUC.
Question 3 : I’ve tried Roon on my PC or Mac, have all the endpoint(s) but wouldn’t mind going for a networked Roon Core solution so I can turn my PC or Mac off. Don’t mind configuring myself and want a relatively cheap solution and am OK with computers / a computer geek.
Answer : Intel NUC solution with potentially a hard drive installed on the NUC, for storing music too, install Roon ROCK. Start new Roon sub, or Transfer Roon sub over.
Question 4 : I don’t mind leaving the PC or Mac on but want the best of Roon with tablets and a fully Roon Ready output with my HiFi.
Answer : Download the relevant software from Roon, sign up to a subscription and check out the Roon site of compatible devices.
Question 5 : I want to configure a budget Roon set up with a Raspberry Pi streaming endpoint. Cheap as chips please and I’m good with computers.
Answer : buy a Raspberry Pi (price typically around $30/£30), buy a used intel NUC around $100-$200, install Roon ROCK free, and sign up for the Roon trial. Install relevant software to pi. Consider too something like a used Allo pimped Pi based streamer, for improved sonics.
Pricing (EU and UK)
There is no fixed EU/UK price as Roon charge memberships in USD and their payment processor (Stripe) do the conversion to GBP as follows (from Roon):
Exchange RatesAs currency prices constantly vary, it’s not possible to know in advance the exchange you’ll pay. The rate displayed online at various sites such as Open Exchange Rates is the mid-market rate : the average between the prices at which people are buying and selling the currency. The actual exchange rate includes markups from financial institutions. When Stripe performs a currency conversion, funds are usually converted at 1% above the daily mid-market rate.