Roon: Everything You Need to KnowAugust 1, 2020
“If you’re like us and you love audio, you’ve probably heard of Roon Labs . After first hearing it mentioned for the first time a few years ago, its popularity recently has skyrocketed. We have to admit that we were a little late to the party, but after fully absorbing ourselves in it over the last several months, we’re definitely believers!
We’re still learning and things change all of the time, but if you’re looking for a good beginners guide to Roon, you’ve come to the right place.
What is Roon?
In a nutshell, Roon is a subscription software service, designed to enhance and manage your home music experience. You’re probably thinking, “iTunes is free” or “I just stream from Spotify,” and we understand where you’re coming from. The fact is, this is like nothing we’ve seen before. We’ll take a deep dive in just a second, but first, we think it’s worth briefly talking about some of the history behind Roon.
Back in 2005, a group of music-loving software engineers launched a music server product called Sooloos. These were no ordinary software engineers as many of them were on the team behind Bloomberg’s electronic trading platform. We’re talking about a really talented bunch. The Sooloos system was great, but at $10,000 they were fighting an uphill battle to get it rolling. In 2008, Meridian acquired Sooloos and in 2015 they spun Roon out as an independent company.
To put their goal into words, they wanted to create something that emulated the feeling and experience you get when you open an LP. The cover art, the large booklet, the liner notes, the lyrics, and the pictures. If you love vinyl, you can surely remember the first time you came across one of your favorite albums and the way you became fully absorbed in the detail and visual presentation.
While software platforms and streaming services offer aspects of this, they’ve mostly taken a straightforward approach. It’s colder and more information. You see the album cover, you get the lyrics, but you lose the depth and warmth. Roon, however, has created an experience that is like nothing we’ve ever seen.
We could simply tell you that Roon has an amazing user interface, full of rich content and graphics, as well as incredible music, discover features, but that just wouldn’t do it justice. It’s hard to put it in words, so we are going to use our imagination to paint a picture of what it feels like to use Roon.
Imagine you happened to walk into the world’s largest record store, filled with millions of albums in endless aisles of wooden crates. This store is not only packed to the gills with music but also with people. At first glance, everything is just a blur but upon further inspection, you realize that the people are all musicians from throughout history.
You find yourself in front of the Rolling Stones record bin. Ronnie Wood, who has played guitar for the Stones for 40+ years walks up, introduces himself and asks if you’d like to know how he got started. He tells you he started in 1964 in a British R&B band called the Birds, then later joined the Jeff Beck Group for a few years until he and Rod Stewart left to form the group Faces. He takes you over to the Faces bin where you meet Rod Stewart who has a handful of pictures of the band in their early days, Rod Stewart then starts showing you around the store where you meet Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many more. Before you know it six hours have passed and you’ve discovered more about both the music you loved and music that you missed than you could have ever imagined!
If we have your attention, let’s now take a deep dive into how Roon might best fit into your musical journey. First, you will need a subscription. They offer a 14-day free trial. After that, it’s $119 a year or $499 for a lifetime subscription.
Setting Up Roon
You download the Roon software, called Roon Core, for your Mac, Windows, or Linux computer. There is also an option to use a device specifically developed by Roon known as the Nucleus. More on that later.
Once it’s downloaded and installed, Roon becomes the control center for all of your music. Simply tell it all of the places on your network where it can find music and it will consolidate and organize everything. It even finds duplicates and automatically displays the highest resolution version of each song. If you’re a Tidal subscriber, you can also link your Tidal account directly to Roon.
Once all of your music and your Tidal subscription is connected, Roon will the start scanning your music library and bringing in a huge wealth of information and pictures related to your music. Depending on the size of your library, it may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but it’s worth the wait. You will soon be presented with a stunning new way to browse your existing music and perhaps the best music discovery engine we’ve ever seen.
Next, let’s discuss how to listen to your music with Roon.
Listening Using Roon
This may be one of the most confusing aspects of Roon, as it took us playing around with various components to get a firm grasp on things. Roon has many different ways it can be used in your system. As a matter of fact, it can talk to tons of different brands of equipment, providing the same visual interface to all of them!
If you go to the Roon website you will see a long list of models of audio gear that are Roon Ready. These are models that have Roon streaming software built in, allowing Roon to take complete control of them. When you set Roon up, any devices you own that are Roon Ready will show up automatically and you’ll be able to activate them.
The Roon app will allow full control of these devices, including volume and mute. All Roon Ready devices within a system stay sync to one another too, so you can have several different brands of gear all working together, playing the same song at the same time, and the volume control works across the entire system. This is the first piece of software or system that we’ve ever seen that’s able to do this. It’s truly an audio lovers dream come true!
Just like with Roon Ready, you will find a long list of devices on the Roon website that are referred to as being Roon Tested. It is very important to understand the difference between Roon Ready and Roon Tested.
Roon Tested devices will, for the most part, be something that has a USB DAC built in. This might be a stand-alone DAC like a Chord Mojo or a full integrated amp with a USB DAC built in.
From within the Roon app, you can send music to Roon Tested devices, but in most cases, you will not have control over the volume and they will not sync with the Roon Ready devices in your system.
When you open up the audio settings on the Roon app, in addition to seeing Roon Ready devices, you will also see any Airplay ready device in your home. Roon can talk to any of these devices, and unlike Roon Tested devices you will have full control of their volume/mute with Airplay. In addition, you can group Airplay devices together in perfect sync with independent and group volume. It’s important to note, however, that Roon Airplay will not sync with Roon Ready or Roon Tested gear.
Other Ways to Listen to Roon
Roon has worked directly with some other brands who did not or could not install the Roon software inside their unit.
Sonos is probably the most exciting as you can stream to any Sonos product, control volume and mute, plus have grouped zones, all within the Roon app. All Sonos units will be in full sync.
Roon has also worked with Meridian on several units, Devialet, Squeezebox, and Raspberry Pi HATs to stream directly and give you control. Just like with Sonos, within the same brand, you will have your audio in sync.
Finally, Roon works with a handful of computer software products like HQPlayer and many virtual sound cards.
Which Roon Setup Is Right For Me?
As you can see, if you’re interested in investing in Roon, there are a number of ways you can go about it. Which is the right approach for you will depend largely on how you plan to use the system. Let’s look at a few use cases.
A Single High Performance Audio System
If you only have one great audio system in your house where you do all of your listening, things are pretty simple. Because syncing is not part of the equation, you can choose from any number of components or brands for your system.
You could choose a Roon Ready device, a USB DAC from any of the huge list of Roon tested DAC’s, or any of the single brands like Meridian or Devialet.
Of course, you’ll get the best sound from higher quality, more modern DAC’s, so for just a single room, it’s best to pick the best sounding DAC or player compatible with Roon.
At Audio Advice, we love the new Naim Uniti integrated amps, which are fully Roon Ready. We’re also really looking forward to their soon-to-be-released line of streamers, which will also be Roon Ready.
High Performance Audio + Other Audio Rooms
This is where Roon can do things that nothing else can! Pick a Roon Ready device for your main audio room and run your other rooms off less expensive Roon Ready players. When you listen all over your home or entertain, all of your speakers will be in sync. Plus, you get to use the amazing Roon interface for both your high performance room as well as for whole house music!
A great combination in this situation would be a Naim Roon Ready DAC or integrated amp for your main system and the Bluesound players for multi-room audio. Bluesound has a similar product mix as Sonos, but with much better sound, plus they can play most High Res Audio files. The Bluesound interface is not that great, but you’ll bypass it and use the beautiful one from Roon. Imagine the joy of just one interface for all of your audio gear.
Whole House Music Only
The most important thing about creating a nice whole house music system is that all of your music stays synced in all rooms. With Roon, this can be a snap! If this is your goal, you have a lot of options.
You may already have several Airplay products in your home. Using Roon, you can combine them all, control their volume, and keep them in sync. Or you may have some Sonos products. Roon can group them and give you a far better interface for browsing your music.
If you want multi-room audio and want to make sure you’re planning for the future, you may want to use Roon Ready devices like Bluesound products. This will make it easier to sync your whole house system with your high-performance system, should you decide to invest in one down the road.
Computer Audio at Your Desk
This type of system is typically based on a USB DAC and a pair of headphones or speakers. Here you could use any of the Roon Ready or Roon Tested DAC’s.
One of our favorites to use here would be the Chord Hugo 2 or Chord Mojo coupled with a great set of headphones. The USB DAC will show up as a Roon audio point inside the Roon app.
What is the Roon Nucleus?
The Nucleus ($1,398) and Nucleus+ ($2,498) are the first pieces of hardware from Roon. One problem with using your computer as the Roon Core is the fact it’s your computer. It might be sitting in your backpack when you are ready to kick back and enjoy some tunes, or it might have put itself in deep sleep mode. Roon is also a bit of a data processing hog, especially when it comes to very large music libraries. You may not want to run your system on the same computer that you’re working on as it may slow things down for you.
Roon’s solution was to create a small, super-fast and stable computer that could stay on all the time and never overheat. They use an Intel-based Linux box.
One cool feature about the Nucleus is the fact it has USB and HDMI out. It can sit anywhere on your network. Simply put it near your USB DAC with a great set of speakers or headphones. Your DAC will show up as an audio point when connected to the Nucleus. Or it can sit near your home theater system and give you an audio feed via the HDMI output.
If you have or plan to grow your library to 50,000 songs, we recommend getting a Nucleus.Your browsing experience will be super fast and you’ll never have to worry about it going to sleep. The Nucleus+ is for libraries over 100,000 songs.”