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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.


    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.

    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.


    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.


    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’.


    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



    *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 H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. John,

      If you’ve got your music collection on a server, and a Tidal subscription, can you install Roon on other playback devices besides PC and Mac? I’m thinking a Roon UI on a iPad or phone.

      • Yes – at the risk of pre-empting what will feature in Part 2, companies like AURALiC and PS Audio are set to build Roon ‘endpoints’ into their streamers.

    2. Cool read. I use JRiver and the UI is cringeworthy at best.
      I am really interested in knowing if Roon will retain its charm a few months down the line. I look forward to the next installment.

    3. I can’t even afford tidal, even if it was perfect which it clearly is not. Very interesting though, and if it wouldn’t be in place of food i’d be interested. I can access Wikipedia, amg, and rovi on my own though.

    4. I’ve hesitated installing Roon after reading user feedback that it retags their custom tags to instead conform with how albums are tagged by their own reference data bases.

      Let’s say you’ve got three albums of the same, differing only in resolution. You’ve given them particular names to keep ’em apart. Now Roon reads/assimilates your library and voilà, they’re back to all being called the same as they were before you retagged them as you wanted them to appear.

      Could you chime in on whether that’s true – or whether such users overlooked a bypass feature somewhere that wouldn’t have touched their meta-data changes?

    5. I like Roon. Can only hope one day it’ll come with multichannel playback, and Dirac integrated. Then the future will have arrived.

      • Having not used Dirac, does it create a virtual device in the OS’s sound output or is it a plugin that must be installed/activated INSIDE the playback app?

    6. Just waiting for them to come out with a headless version so I can install it on my music server. I did try it out on my desktop device though, and it’s a fantastic piece of software. It’s the audiophile software for audiophiles who actually love music and like being immersed in all aspects of their collection.

      • You and me both. Roon (server and endpoint components) installed on models from Antipodes or Aurender would be terrific.

    7. Well, John, I can understand your enthusiasm for Roon, but only in the context of your equal enthusiasm for streaming services. Roon could be perfect, indeed, as an interface for those services (Tidal – for now, others – in the future). Pricy combination, but soooo convenient…

      I, on the other hand, don’t care much for streaming – even in CD-quality. And I don’t care at all for the subscription model in general. In my view, it’s a waste of money. What?! $20 a month (pardon – $30 a month with Roon) for 30 million tracks is a waste of money?! Colossal waste, considering the fact that all the music of the kind that I enjoy – that they could offer – already exists on my hard drives. Perhaps they can offer a few hundred or few thousand of tracks that I still don’t have but would like to. For those tracks I much prefer hi-res downloads from various sources. They cost more, but at least I can be sure that I will keep listening to them, they are in much higher resolution and I pay once to own them.

      So, Roon in its present state doesn’t interest me. When some kind of service emerges with everything that Roon offers, but also combines features of ultra-hi-res streaming (at least 24-bit/192kHz) with more sensible pricing scheme, then I may become interested. Of course, by that time, I may be dead already (highly probable). On the other hand, how long would I have to live to listen to al those 30 million tracks they have for me? In the meantime, I will be listening to my own music library that I have put together since I was a teenager.

      • Yes – agreed – and also, no. My enthusiasm for Roon stems only partly from its streaming service integration, about which you are correct: I seriously dig lossless services like those offered by Tidal and Qobuz. However, streaming or no, Roon also brings something else to the table: greater user interaction with a digital audio library. It makes me want to play more music. It reminds me of albums I own but had long since forgotten. Just like a CD store clerk might do. In other words, Roon lends a digital audio library some much needed character by drawing connections between artists and albums and presenting one’s music collection as more than just a list of albums. Oh, and the interface – I think it’s knockout.

      • You have all the music already that you plan to listen to for the rest of your life? 🙂

        I somehow feel perpetually alarmed by the thought of all the great music I’ll never get to hear. Not the fact that I don’t have the time, but that I’m fated to remain completely unaware that an album, artist and even whole genre that I’d love even exists. The fact that we only know the small sliver that our friends refer us to, or that we read about in review is enough to keep me exploring.

        John – I think Dirac acts as a virtual thingy if you buy from Dirac, and as an actual thingy if you buy the box from minidsp. But I have it as an Amarra Symphony plugin. You should try.

        • I hear you Bevan on hosting one’s own library. I would NEVER surrender my own 5000 album collection and place 100% trust in the cloud. What if Tidal Hifi vanishes tomorrow? That’d spell curtains for this music nut. I have Tidal pay complement to my own local library: for seeking out new tunes or playing things I like but don’t like *enough* to go out and buy.

          Dirac was on my list of things to investigate the year before last night but, as is often the case, time ran out on me.

    8. It looks like a fantastic product, but I understand that it is unable to output to DLNA devices. Do you know if this is correct?

      • As far as I’m aware, Roon use their protocol for networked data flow, the thinking behind which is better sound quality. Thinking that chimes with Mark Jenkins’ belief that DLNA is good enough but far from optimal for audiophile-level geekery.

    9. I think I understand the great quality of the database capabilities and the networkfunction.
      In al the reviews I miss the assessment of the quality of the player, Windows or Mac environment.
      Who will start to shine some light on that?

      Thanks in advance


      • As per final paras in this Part 1 post, I won’t get to that for a good while.

    10. The problem John is simply their pricing model. It’s outrageous. $10/month for basically a pretty player with some nice multiroom features is nuts. I don’t know how the product manager over at Roon can defend this pricing model – they are not a content provider. Sorry, I’m not buying biographies and pretty liner notes are worth the same as the content itself. At the end of the day, it’s about the music.

      Moreover, how often do you look at your player once you get your groove on? Honestly, now.

      What they should have done is license the technology to Tidal as a value-add on and then incorporate their fee into the base Tidal subscription. ($23-5/month with Roon+lossless, something like that).

      As I stated somewhere else, I predict their pricing model changes or they die (unless Tidal acquires them which may be what they ultimately want anyway).

      • Per the article Alex, I did indeed comment on how not everyone will find the pricing to their liking. And that ‘not everyone’ includes you! 😉 For owners of large libraries, Roon allows them to better see the trees *within* the forest. Tell me this: when you’re thinking of what to play, do you always know? I don’t. I find myself frequently paralysed by choice. Hitting the random album selector inside my current (Squeezebox-centric) server gets me ’round, reminding me of albums I’d long forgotten. Roon does the same – it can serve to reconnect you with long-lost albums (friends!)

        Roon’s value an aesthetic interface will vary from person to person. As well as being attuned to sound and music, I’m a visual guy so I REALLY like Roon’s simplicity and slickness. Its light years ahead of iTunes. Moreover, I like to SEE things as well as hear ’em. How I interface with my digital library matters hugely. For some it will be MORE important than ultimate SQ. Look at Sonos: do you think its primary appear lies in its sound quality? Nope. Sonos’ slick, fiddle-free interface is what has people spilling their cash. It’s only after they’ve played with it for a while that questions about how to improve SQ might arise. External DAC or re-clocker? Perhaps both.

        The larger (audiophile) issue with Sonos is that hardware and software are tied together but its internal DAC and digital output can’t compete with today’s price commensurate streamers and DACs. Roon frees the user from these hardware ties and their intrinsic limitations. In short, Roon is the sk/inerface that can lend hithero quirky audiophile hardware some much needed mass market appeal.

        I’d like to write more here but these issues (and more) will be addressed in Part 2 of my coverage.

        • LOL! No argument from me John.

          Here’s are some questions I want you to think about:

          Do you think the folks who are more interested in aesthetics than SQ (when it comes to playback of their large libraries) are willing to pay this price tag for it?

          Does using Roon really change your workflow when listening to your music or does it rather just give it more pizazz?

          With no Spotify or Apple Music support on the horizon, how useful is Roon going forward?

          Think about it.

          • “Do you think the folks who are more interested in aesthetics than SQ (when it comes to playback of their large libraries) are willing to pay this price tag for it?” <--- That's something only individuals can answer for themselves. I've got some audiophiles pals who have jumped on it. They have zero issue with the pricing."Does using Roon really change your workflow when listening to your music or does it rather just give it more pizazz?" <--- for me, it's BOTH. Roon has me playing more music, a lot of which I've not touched for years."With no Spotify or Apple Music support on the horizon, how useful is Roon going forward?" <--- I think it's super useful as is. The addition of Qobuz and Deezer would be nice...BUT Roon's impact doesn't necessarily hinge on cloud services. Those with large local libraries but without Tidal can benefit from its abstracted data layer.

      • Strangely, the only reviews on DAR that raise that response in me are music servers costing north of $1k.

    11. Hi

      Could you please explain what Roon will be able to do that Jriver/Jremote cannot do on a well and full tagged library with a personalization of Jremote navigation menus?

      Kind regards

      • In short: nope. 🙂 That’s not me being wilfully difficult, it’s just that I’m not a consistent JRiver user. I’ve only dabbled here and there. Besides, comparing the two is several days’ work. Days that I just don’t have.

        My focal priority for Roon is to explain how it works and where I see it being successfully deployed. From there, users of rival software will hopefully be able to make their own feature-set and UX comparisons.

    12. Thanks for bringing roon to my attention , I signed up for the free credit card secured trial last night on my mac mini/audiophilleo 2 pure power/chord hugo/stax 727 modded/sr009 system and loved the interface but not convinced on roons native sound quality, even with all the right audio options boxes ticked.

      Ive used amarra for ages in track mode and am tired of the clunky track load interface, so have been trialling audirvana which looked promising, with a hugely more friendly interface and engaging sound quality, however my back to back testing of the exact same file played through all 3 softwares has imo amarra in front with more detail, space and heft, audirvana a respectable second and roon convincingly third.

      Luckily my amarra installation includes amarra sq and so I directed roon through sonicstream, then did an amarra stand alone vs roon with amarra sq play off. No appreciable difference to these ears so I then spent a good four hours delving into my collection through the roon interface piped through amarra.

      I friggin love it so far, in fact last nights session was the most involving for me for yonks, I just sat back, remote keyboard in hand, sr009s on head and roon in full screen and typed in song names in the roon search function, played some forgotten faves and couldnt fault the sound quality thanks to amarra sq. Found out what Thom Yorke is really singing in a few old faves too thanks to the lyrics function.

      Its a hefty price tag to pay for a new skin for amarra but hey, last week I payed almost the same amount for a single seat at the recital centre for a 2 hour performance, last night I got 4 hours of quality music appreciation and can do the same every night for the next year for the same entry price, or for (hopefully….) much longer if I stumped up the lifetime amount. Im not quite ready to do that although Im thinking I might just not send that email to cancel before the one year subscription kicks in.

    13. always interested in your comments and reviews
      i cannot get amarra sQ+ to play with ROON
      ROON sound quality seems as good as sQ+ but i don’t understand the point of TIDAL plus Amarra if ROON alone doesn’t work with sQ+ alone?
      any comments or suggestions?

      • As per my replies to Todd Wilson (above) it would seem you need to wait for v2.2 to arrive for Roon to work.

    REDGUM remote control app for IR-blasting Android devices