“Roon. Great functionality, metadata2die4, a user interface that trounces others Hulk-style. All for the price of a good interconnect. Or rent it, like your music.”…say some. It’s not the only party in town though.
I use it. I know it’s good. It does cost a fair wedge and Roon’s in-house coded RAAT protocol is theirs and theirs only. I’m two years in and things move on both inside Roon (via a wealth of updates) but also elsewhere.
Time to revisit an alternative: the new version of Audirvana+. This one’s for Windows users and is the first outing of Audirvana+’s improved user interface.
A viable alternative to Roon – or still a lagger? And which sounds better? Game on.
Software apps sound different because they each have their own processor, RAM read/write and hard-drive read requirements and therefore deliver different electrical noise. Electrical noise can travel down USB cabling to disturb the downstream DAC. (‘Bits are bits’ believers are invited to alight here and are advised to stick with the inferior sounding iTunes or Foobar – Ed)
My ageing i5 Asus laptop coped okay with the Windows take on Audirvana+. Plisson recommends 64-bit Windows 10 (April 17 update onwards) with 8Gb memory. A powerful CPU is only needed for upsampling PCM to DSD. I ran with 4Gb memory – scanning 3,500 NAS-based albums took a while – but once it’s done, it’s done. Bottom line: Deep Thought isn’t required.
Frenchman Damien Plisson launched Audirvana+ in 2010. Each subsequent release has honed the sound, added functionality and improved stability. Plugins – Audio Units in A+ speak – are an integral part of the strategy. If Audirvana doesn’t do it, a third party Audio Unit developer might. EQ, for example.
Moreover, Audirvana+ integrates with Tidal and Qobuz and HiResAudio.com. That’s two more streaming services than Roon.
Audirvana+ was strictly Mac only until 2018. The iOS remote app has been around for a while and talks to both Mac and Windows Audirvana Plus versions. The Android remote app isn’t yet available. That spells a royal nuisance for non-Apple households like mine but Plisson says it’s coming soon.
Audirvana+ is $99 including 20% UK tax and $10 for the iOS remote.
Major new versions are also billable. Those muttering ‘momentum marketing’ should note the low cost – V2 to V3 will run you US$39 – and the infrequency of major releases – 3 in seven years.
You do need to factor in plugins as well, which can be pricey. EQ, for example, can cost the same as A+ itself.
Roon is $499 to purchase outright or rent it for $119/year. Version upgrades have been free so far, with each delivering significant extra functionality. Remote software is included, as is good EQ and upsampling (A+ has no EQ in the core). Both handle MQA.
Where Roon piles on the value is via its ecosystem. And then some. Endpoints are the recommended approach. Start at the bottom with a Raspberry Pi for forty quid. Or join me in lusting after DCS’s Bridge at £3250. Here we are sticking to a Windows PC (and a Mac).
With A+ we can stream to any UPnP-capable device – hello again Raspi – but also go from computer to DAC with a USB cable. But then again, Roon can do that too. This is where A/B SQ standoffs between the two apps tend to take place
The initial cost of entry favours Audirvana. In absolute terms, it’s not overly expensive.
Shiny new coat
Gone is the ‘Windows Explorer’ techie feel of the older interface, replaced by a vaguely familiar look that connotes a sense of Tidal crossed with Spotify. That’s fine by me. It eschews cleverness for the sake of it to feel modern and straightforward. There’s little need for a user guide.
Don’t underestimate A+’s power and flexibility though. The Windows’ version’s front door hides a multitude of features. This disarming simplicity is the result of Plisson drafting in a UX (User Experience) specialist.
Dark and light modes are available, as is a mini-player when needed. Smart playlists replace Roon’s bookmarks, tags, and focus tool — a concept is carried over from previous versions and whilst less flexible than Roon, it still works well.
That search results are returned from both your own library and those of Tidal, Qobuz et al. is a really nice touch.
The showreel that accompanies the now playing screen niggles – it gets in the way. You may like it. That’s the thing: we all use players in different ways and the pros and cons vary accordingly. Best to try Audirvana+ and see how it suits your modus operandi.
All up, the new interface is a step change for the better. Think MP3 to 24bit/96kHz FLAC.
Roon gives us a metadata layer whereas Audirvana doesn’t. Here you gotta BYO. That’s a significant point of difference.
With A+ you’ll have some metadata grooming to do: correcting artist names and finding missing album covers. Third party apps (like mp3tag.de) can help. Some enjoy the process. Others, like me, do not. Roon’s metadata layer goes deeper too, giving better search capabilities and a hyperlinked browsing experience.
Roon goes deeper on Tidal metadata too, allowing a single integrated view of local and cloud libraries, not the separated views delivered by Audirvana. I didn’t find three libraries (Tidal, Qobuz, my own) overly onerous but I do find Roon’s conjoining of Tidal and local a real bonus.
Ultimately, metadata is central to Roon and accounts for part of its premium pricing. That doesn’t necessarily undermine Audirvana’s approach though. You (don’t) get what you (don’t) pay for.
Multi-room is in Roon’s DNA and it uses its own protocol. Audirvana+’ approach is streaming from a single point to a single point. PC to UPnP endpoint. This renders it more limited than Roon – and it is a bit more hands-on as a result – but the UPnP networked streaming development nevertheless signals Damien’s intentions. A wise move given current market requirements.
So how does Audirvana Plus sound?
Very fine indeed, at least through a Brooklyn+ DAC (£2,000) with SBooster power supply (£300), Ayre AX-7e amp (£2,750 when new), and Neat Xplorer speakers (£3,495).
It also sounds – and I’ll whisper this quietly – better than Roon over USB. But for me with my hardware, it’s better. Not hugely. It’s in the minor upticks in finesse, the slightly greater sense of ease, the minor improvement to bass reach and control and an extra speck of clarity where it’s easier to discern the contribution of individual musicians. When Chris Wood’s backs his own vocals on Riches on the Bold (Trespasser) the harmonic effect is greater.
I tried numerous setups to eliminate variables. Roon and A+ on the same machine, then on different machines. The always presented, consistent in tone if not magnitude. Right now, in my system, A+ shades Roon on sound quality.
Summary – the use cases
A whistle-stop tour but hopefully you’ve sensed a positive vibe. I’m a Roon user and that will continue. Audirvana Plus will now run alongside it. Access to Qobuz is a nice-to-have indulgence, for others, it will be a priority.
For those dipping their toes into computer audio, Audirvana Plus’ simplicity is very appealing. It could also become the long-term solution – as it is for many – partly because plugins extend its reach considerably.
For those wanting a lower cost alternative to Roon that delivers on the fundamentals, Audirvana is ideal, not least because of the new user interface.
Is it right for you? Easy – download the 15-day trial version and find out for yourself. And apologies to Roon users. That sound quality delta. It’s small but it’s nagging at you now, isn’t it?
Further information: Audirvana Plus