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Roon: for the hardware you have, not the hardware you have to buy

  • With Roon Core running on a server – any PC/Mac or QNAP/Synology NAS – we can stream music to Roon Ready to devices like the AURALiC Polaris, the PS Audio DirectStream DAC, the Ayre Acoustics QX-5 Twenty, HiFi Berry and IQAudiO, all via the company’s in-house designed (and asynchronous) RAAT protocol. Roon’s hardware partners now number sixty (60!). The point? Roon is an elegant, audiophile-centric music library manager and network streamer.

    However, Roon also dreams of mainstream acceptance. With full AirPlay compatibility baked into its code, it will stream audio to an Apple TV, Airport Express or any other AirPlay-equipped device. It will stream to legacy Squeezeboxen. It will stream to any other PC or Mac running Roon. With the advent of Roon v1.3 it will stream music to any Sonos device.

    Straddling the audiophile and mainstream worlds sits Bluesound. Each of their eleven streamers and wireless loudspeakers are Roon Ready — any one of them would happily stand in for a Sonos device.

    At the Berlin DARhaus, there isn’t a single system that cannot talk to the Intel NUC running Roon Core from the kitchen: a pair of Sonos Play:1 in the bedroom; an AURALiC Aries Mini (via AirPlay) in the upstairs headphone station; a Sonore microRendu and an 11″ MacBook Air that front the office headphone system; an Apple TV Gen 4 in the lounge (with the TV splitting out digital audio via TOSLINK); a PS Audio Network Bridge II and a Wyred 4 Sound-modded Sonos Connect in the main rig. Talk about comprehensive coverage!

    Roon Labs aren’t blind to their growth potential. Steve Silberman, formerly of AudioQuest and Ayre Acoustics, was recently appointed as Roon’s VP of Sales and Marketing.

    In his new role at Roon, Silberman “will be charged with with expanding Roon’s presence in the dealer and distribution channel.”  That’s Roon’s press release talking.

    Here’s more: “In addition to working closely with dealers and distributors, Roon Labs expects to leverage Silberman’s product development experience and knowledge as the Roon Ready program continues to expand to an ever-wider range of audio partners.”

    From the man himself: Roon has become a household name among computer audiophiles, but the partnerships we’ve built with our Roon Ready program mean that Roon can now be a valuable tool for retailers and integrators as well. It’s our goal to introduce new systems and programs that will allow our partnership experience to be more fluid, dynamic and profitable for our partners.”

    With Silberman settling into his new role, Michael Lavorgna (of AudioStream) and I thought it an appropriate time to hit up Silberman and co. with a few questions about Roon and their future plans. Lavorgna’s Q&A will land on AudioStream in due course.

    Coming up frequently among DAR readers is the issue of Roon’s pricing structure: US$119/year or US$499 for a lifetime subscription.

    DAR: Why does Roon cost more than other music players?

    Roon: Roon costs more than other music players because it’s much more than just an “app”. An app is a standalone piece of software that can be developed by an individual or a small team. Roon is an ecosystem consisting of apps, protocols, cloud services, and a network of partnerships with nearly a hundred companies.

    Let’s start with metadata, which in many ways forms the foundation of the Roon experience. We aggregate some crowd-sourced metadata, but we license most of our metadata from commercial sources, which costs real money per user, per year. We designed and built cloud infrastructure to distribute metadata and software updates, we host it at Amazon for reliability and performance, and we have a senior engineer dedicated exclusively to the operation and enhancement of those systems and the services they provide. No other player app even offers this caliber of content identification, and certainly not with the metadata Roon provides.

    We build all our software for Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and Linux. All those versions are released in lock-step with every build we release, and we maintain feature parity between all of them (with the exception of a small number of platform-specific technical constraints). No other player app even attempts a deployment model of this scope.

    Next, we have the Roon Ready program. We designed the RAAT protocol, built an SDK to provide to partners, and have relationships with over 60 brands that have Roon Ready implementations done or in progress. We support each one of those brands in their engineering efforts, and then offer a rigorous testing and approval process to each device submitted for Roon Ready certification so that all users get the same stellar experience. No other player app even has a streaming protocol, let alone audio brands working with them to build an ecosystem.

    But it isn’t just how much it costs to make Roon and operate the infrastructure on which it depends. On the other end of the price spectrum, look at iTunes. Apple spends orders of magnitude more than Roon Labs on developing, testing, and maintaining iTunes, and yet it appears to be free. Of course, nothing is actually free; Apple gives iTunes away because it’s a feature of a $1,000 phone and a computer that can cost up to $5,000. Maybe most importantly, it’s the portal to a content/app store that grossed nearly $30 billion in 2016.

    Lastly, just compare Roon’s user-facing features to other player apps. We set the bar very high, and we work hard to make it look easy. We’re a tiny team compared to Apple/Google/Microsoft, but we hold ourselves to the same standards those companies do.

    The reality is that we’re a team that is dedicated to making listening into a genuinely delightful experience, both sonically, aesthetically, and intellectually. When you pay for Roon, you aren’t buying an app… you’re paying for the dedication of a team of music lovers who are committed to earning your money year after year. This was the reason we chose an annual subscription as our pricing model; it means our users will just go elsewhere if we don’t keep innovating and improving constantly, which is exactly what we want to be doing.

    Useful analogies can be found in many other product and service categories, but consider premium foods. When you pay extra for microbrew beer, hand-roasted coffee, or artisanal cheese, you’re making a decision about the extra level of dedication and effort that goes into making those products, and you’re saying that the superior quality is worth it to you. You can easily buy cheap mass-market equivalents if it’s not.

    DAR: The audiophile world is only so big. Are you guys content serving only we audio nerds or do you intend to reach a broader audience? If so, how?

    Roon: Roon is for people who love music. Whether they identify as audiophile or not, people who love music also care about how it sounds, so we don’t really see these as mutually exclusive things the way others might.

    At launch Roon was available only as a desktop app, meaning that it was accessible only to computer audiophiles, or people comfortable having a PC+DAC at the center of their music system. The strategy behind our partner programs (Roon Ready network players, Roon Tested DACs, Roon Core servers, and NAS-based Roon Cores) is to provide our users with a wide variety of choice, and to provide a consistently great experience at the same time.

    This also means Roon can be available to a broader audience of listeners.

    We believe that Roon’s approach to interacting with music is something that appeals to more than just audiophiles, and we’re committed to exploring new ways to deliver that experience for different markets. The ELAC Discovery is a great example: by including our Roon Essentials software, it provides the Roon experience (minus many of the audio and power user features) in an affordable, widely-accessible product.

    Our commitment to supporting mass-market streaming technologies like Sonos, AirPlay, and Squeezebox is another indicator of our commitment to  all music-loving customers and use cases. It’s true that Roon Ready devices give you multi-room, high-resolution synchronized streaming, but that isn’t a requirement for everyone. By supporting the products that customers already own, we constantly strive to make Roon more useful to more people.

    Both of these concepts (more choices for Core hardware and more support for audio devices of all kinds) are trends that will continue. For the first time, we’re seeing people with just an iMac or all-in-one PC and a few Sonos speakers using Roon, and we consider this a sign that we’re doing something right for music lovers outside of the hardcore computer-audiophile set.

    DAR: Would it be fair to say that Tidal is Roon’s Achilles heel? Any plans to broaden the range of compatible streaming services? Qobuz, Deezer for audiophiles. SoundCloud and Bandcamp for the rest of us?

    Roon: We chose TIDAL as our streaming partner when we launched in 2015 because they had the two things we considered absolutely necessary: lossless streaming and availability in a broad range of countries. In addition to our great relationship with their founding team, those factors made them the best fit for Roon, our values, and the customers we serve. At the time, Qobuz was in an uncertain situation and was focused only on Western Europe, which remains the case. Deezer had just launched their lossless Deezer Elite service, but in the US it was available exclusively on Sonos.

    Of course we want our customers to have choices, and we’re constantly evaluating options for providing those choices. Because we don’t just do stock API-based integrations of music services, getting ramped up with other streaming partners takes more commercial and technical effort than it might for other software players. We’re in discussions with several potential partners and expect that other services will be available in Roon in the future.

    Roon’s ability to stream to audiophile- and mass market devices, to deliver advanced features to power users, to look beautiful and behave elegantly, means we get a user experience with one foot already outside the audiophile bubble. I call that Future-Fi.

    Further information: Roon Labs

    Comments are welcomed below but readers are heartily encouraged to keep them on topic: Roon.

    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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