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Roon review (Part 1 – Walking on the…)

  • Relationships. They exist between hardware and user. Deploying a PC or Mac as a digital front end for a hi-fi system – it’s a compromise. Home computers don’t blend into the rack as well as single-use devices like CD players, music servers and streamers. The latter are seen as ill-affordable extravagances by the budget conscious buyer. As well as tune spinner, the PC or Mac must double as social media updater, photo editor and web browser. And so consumer-grade devices dominate the digital transport landscape — jack of all trades, master of none.

    This needs-must approach has contributed heavily to the proliferation of audiophile-centric software players that promise improvements on iTunes’ sound quality baseline. Sonic Studio’s Amarra, Channel D’s Pure Music and Audirvana+ are the big three for OS X. On Windows, it’s Foobar, J Play, J River and Fidelizer (among others). And whilst each app betters iTunes on separation, detail and all-round avidity to varying degrees, few (if any) better its UI. Some even depend on it.

    Amarra and Audirvana+ can be configured to play standover man between iTunes and D/A converter, thus mugging the former of its digital feed duties. These software interlopers marry iTunes’ reasonably slick library management, song/album selection and transport control (and associated smart device remote apps) to the sound quality goodness of the third party player engine. Channel D’s PureMusic plays only this way – perhaps why its own overlay skin is little more than functional. It’s Chuck Norris before it’s Brad Pitt.

    Amarra and Audirvana+ 2.0 function just fine as standalone players but you couldn’t call them elegant or stylish. Foobar is bare-boned from the outset with skin customization probably only tackled by its power users. J River brings some serious utility to the table but only once the end user is familiar with its deep menu drill-down approach.

    Audiophiles roll with aesthetic and configuration compromise punches that a regular Joe would laugh out of the room. Joe digs Sonos because the UI is intuitive, powerful and elegant.

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    What’s missing from the desktop software scene is a similarly satisfying solution. An app that will solicit an ‘oh-my-god-that’s-awesome’ response from anyone that uses it, especially those who value form as much as they do function.

    You might be surprised to learn that such a solution has existed since the late noughties but its pricing (north of US$10K) and hardware ties keep it out of mortal reach. The Sooloos music server ecosystem – later acquired and re-branded by Meridian – brought together S/PDIF outputting PC, DAC, CD ripper and hard-drive storage into one (closed) system. It looked and behaved like an audio component more than it did a computer. Stylish software and touchscreen control fronted a user experience that was more tactile and elegant then anything available in the world of consumer PCs. Setting Patti Smith’s Horses in motion on a Sooloos doesn’t feel like spreadsheet editing or email sending. Moreover, the Sooloos is for ripping, organizing and playing music – and nothing else.

    Those that could afford a Meridian Sooloos raved on but it wasn’t – and still isn’t – what you’d call affordable.

    Touchscreens are now part of our everyday lives, computers are cheap and fancy audiophile-grade soundcards no longer claim the lives of piggy banks as they once did. And yet most desktop computer users – myself included – still see iTunes as one of the better interfaces. Unfortunately, Apple’s UI development hasn’t kept pace with advances made in other content delivery systems.

    Consider virtual magazines like Wired whose iPad delivery has been a non-linear experience since 2010: its cover-page headlines act as direct hyperlinks to the content within. Scrolling between features takes place on the horizontal plane whereas scrolling within a feature is often vertical. It was visually arresting.

    Those looking for comparable visual arrest when navigating their digital audio library should consider Roon – a music player and library management system from the Sooloos software dev team, recently divorced from Meridian (on good terms). Picture The Strokes splitting only to reform without Julian Casablancas.

    Roon lanched officially at the Munich High-End Show last month; official demos were run in the Tidal booth but Paul McGowan could be found running it all weekend long in the PS Audio room. I caught up with company mainmen Rob Darling and Enno Vandermeer two weeks later at T.H.E. Newport Show.

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    Roon Labs’ Rob Darling and Enno Vandermeer at T.H.E. Newport Show 2015

    Vandermeer fleshes out the background: “We were both Sooloos dudes, and our roles are very similar. I founded Sooloos with Danny Dulai, who is our evil-genius-in-residence, so we were CEO and CTO, respectively. Rob joined to do strategy and help figure out how to build a business around the product at about the time that Danny and I were cleaning up the software and learning how to build boxes. Very similar configuration with Roon.”

    “Meridian owns the Sooloos name and all that old IP. We provide them with metadata for content identification, but that’s about it at this point. We have no direct input into their product strategy or implementation, although we are collaborating to some degree to enable Meridian/Sooloos customers to be able to use Roon.”

    On a VERY basic level, Roon is a software music player for OS X and Windows desktop computers. It supports all the major file formats – FLAC, ALAC, .wav, Ogg Vorbis – up to 24bit/384kHz PCM and yes it now does DSD. On launch day, long-time Sooloos fan and editor of TONEAudio Jeff Dorgay published his review/walk-through. Read it here.

    Setup takes but a few minutes: point Roon at your music library and it will begin deep analysis of its contents. Go make a cuppa whilst it does its thing. Then tell Roon to which USB sound device (DAC) it should send its digital output and you’re off to the races.

    Sounds like any other audiophile music player doesn’t it? Except it isn’t. Roon isn’t aimed squarely at improving sound quality; its modus operandi is to get you playing and discovering more music. It’s a “unified software experience,” says brand strategist Rob Darling.

    Whatever the marketing verbiage, Roon looks (and feels) exquisite. It isn’t just tits and teeth though. Behind the makeup lies some seriously impressive data smarts, central to which is the app’s focus on – you guessed it – relationships.

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    When I describe Roon’s major point of difference to audiophile pals already using PureMusic or Fidelizer I join hands with interlocked fingers in front of my face. Roon presents locally hosted and cloud content not as two separate libraries driven by separate apps or navigation systems but as one MEGA library. At time of writing only Tidal is supported but there’s talk of adding Deezer Elite down the line.

    No word yet on Qobuz either – and yes, I asked. Perhaps Messrs Darling and Vandermeer’s silence is a diplomatic ‘no’ or a perhaps it’s a ‘wait-and-see’.

    Vandermeer did however clarify Roon Labs’ position on other cloud services. ”Spotify and Pandora are two services that we’re unlikely to be able to integrate. They’ve taken policy decisions (perhaps rightly) to prevent integrations, because they’ve realized that keeping the user in their UX is actually the only way they differentiate. Allowing too many different integrations creates the risk of commoditizing the streaming services to the point at which they’re each just a bucket of the same ~30 million tracks. In this respect, our ambitions are at odds with those of the streaming services.” Interesting.

    Back inside the desktop app, the usual array of browsing filters can be applied: ‘Tracks’, ‘Albums’, ‘Artists’ are self-explanatory. ‘Composers’ and ‘Works’ covers classical works but remains untested in a house where the likes of Luke Haines, The Orb, Aphex Twin, Giant Sand and Four-tet rule the roost.

    Click through to an artist and Roon will display artist photo, bio, aliases, upcoming tour dates (if any) as well as social media, Wikipedia and website links. I’m now following Howe Gelb of Giant Sand on Instagram as a result.

    Beneath that, all albums available by that artist: the first row shows locally hosted content, the second shows what Tidal has to offer. At the bottom of the artist page we see connections: similar artists to Giant Sand, artists who influenced Giant Sand, who their influences are and their musical associations where Howe Gelb’s former association with Joey Burns of Calexico is laid bare. Did you know that Gelb had ‘Featured’ on more than one Neko Case album? Prior to using Roon, I didn’t.

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    Play a song and you’ll see its lyrics by clicking a link at the bottom right of the now playing window. If you’re a Cocteau Twins fan you’ll appreciate behind able to decipher Elizabeth Fraser without leaving the app. Tags a mess? Roon can display the proper info without ever touching your original files (unless of course you want it to).

    Roon’s data layer comes from various providers – All Music Guide (AMG), SongKick, Musicbrainz, Rovi and Gracenote – whose entire data libraries are ingested each day at Roon Labs HQ before being passed down the Internet pipe to the end user. The Roon pricing model reflects its developer’s ongoing data subscription commitments, passing them on to the consumer via a subscription model, a little like anti-virus software or streaming services themselves.

    Users observing Roon pricing against the backdrop of software like Amarra and J Play might baulk at its US$119 annual fee but remember, it’s not just a software player in the traditional sense. A lifetime membership is available for the one-time hit of US$499. If wish to dip your toe in the water before commiting you have to on the ball. A 14-day trial is available but not until you’ve forked over your credit card details. If you don’t opt-out within those 14 days your card gets charged for the first. Annoyingly, opt-out must be done via email. I suspect we’ll soon see some changes to the way Roon Labs handles its financial side.

    And let’s face it: those who cry poor when faced with US$20/month for the CD-store-at-home experience of Tidal Hifi are possibly unlikely to see the value in Roon. Those who do will view it as $10/month add-on for everything missing (and possibly unlikely to come from) Tidal’s own desktop app dev team.

    Roon caters to users without Tidal but a bigger local library is needed to properly unleash its power in revealing the hitherto hidden relationships buried within your music collection. At the very least, you’ll see album reviews and artist bios upon clicking ‘Discover’.

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    Roon adds visual and information stimuli to your music choices. How many times have you stared blankly at a 5000-album iTunes collection or the anonymity of an equivalently bountiful folder structure (my preference) only to be paralysed by choice? Roon transforms the digital audio library into a record collection proper, spilling with all the happy accidents enjoyed by owners of physical media.

    Roon builds an information landscape in and around your music collection recalling the pre-Napster era when we many of us read the CD or LP liner notes whilst listening to the album itself.

    You won’t find artist connections or liner note nuggets in Audirvana+ or J River. And that’s what makes Roon different. It’s THE app for those who’d rather their FLAC library behave as a CD collection once did but without the associated storage/transport penalty that comes with owning the media. Roon serves music fans before it serves audiophiles – it’s fully slick, bro.

    That doesn’t obviate the validity of asking how Roon compares* audibly to Sonic Studio’s Amarra or Channel D’s PureMusic (or similar). I won’t be investigating such deltas until I’ve detailed more of Roon’s operational particulars – there’s a LOT to get through. Expect further riffing on connections and relationships when we cover multi-zone configuration, remote control, touchscreen devices and 3rd party hardware integration in Part 2 next month here.

    Further information: Roon Labs

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    *Those unwilling to relinquish Sonic Studio or Channel D’s audio engine can keep either in play with Roon by routing the latter’s audio output through Amarra SQ or PureMusic Playthrough (that show up as virtual sound devices within the OS X Preferences pane).

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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