I received a Roon Nucleus to review last month. Roon is something I have considered a little indulgent and I have been rather sceptical based on the little experience I had of it and the cost. Roon adds up to £9.99/month (on an annual contract) on top of any streaming service subscriptions such as Tidal and/or Qobuz. Given that a subscription to Roon merely helps to streamline the way I access digital music content I already pay for or own, it does seem slightly absurd. However, the opportunity to review the Nucleus is not to be ignored and with a new Roon 1.8 software launch in the air, the offer was too good to miss.
The thing is, I have also never quite understood Roon’s ‘rabbit hole’ argument; the idea that it is only Roon that allows you to fall into the ‘hole’ and discover more new music. Like many, I get my new music from podcasts, radio broadcasts and from the brilliantly curated ‘radio’ content options offered by Tidal (called Track Radio) that use bespoke algorithms to make suggestions and deliver music I might like to hear based on a particular track I have chosen. There is no such option with Qobuz content.
Roon is a software architecture to streamline your digital music library using a ‘core’ and apps to access and control output devices around your home. However, the Roon Universe has a core at its centre, and this is managed via Roon apps downloaded to your desktop computer, laptop, smartphone or iPad. These apps enable control of any Roon Ready or Roon Tested output devices in your household setup. For a bit more detail of the Roon Universe and a link to a list of brands that support Roon, see my full Roon Nucleus review here.
Using the Roon app installed on my desktop, Android-based Pixel smartphone and my iPad has been very slick and intuitive. Setting up a new audio device is simple and straight forward and when a track is playing you can select the DSP (Digital Signal Processing) function to tailor parameters to adjust the output to suit the room you are in or to suit your music.
General Music Listening
I have had a lot of fun getting grips with Roon although at first, I struggled to identify my library of 24-bit copies of my favourite albums. But once I discovered how to locate Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien from OK Computer using the software, I was fine.
I have found playlist building quite tricky given that I did think that this was one of Roon’s main strengths, but it got easier as I became more familiar with the procedure. I have to say that the Roon app on the iPad and my Google Pixel smartphone has pretty much seen the Naim app become redundant for controlling components around my home. As any Naim forum dweller will know, this is a good thing because the Naim app is rubbish on Android devices, and I am pleased to find an effective alternative in Roon.
For anyone who has experience of the BluOS ecosystem found on NAD and Bluesound streaming components, or MiND2 found on Moon components, the Roon app is similar in ease of use and among the best out there. It even gives Auralic’s impressive Lightning DS control app a run for its money as well.
Roon Radio is where you select a track for a particular mood and want to stay in that genre or moment. For example, I heard Paul Weller’s Broken Stones on the radio one morning and was reminded how great the track is. After selecting Roon Radio in the Roon app, I ended up listening to this vibe all morning and enjoying great tracks from the likes of McAlmont & Butler, The Seahorses, Kula Shaker (love them) and Tim Burgess, to name a few. It was a truly great list of tracks that worked perfectly for me. Using Tidal’s similar Track Radio algorithm didn’t deliver such a diverse range of tracks.
With Roon Radio, I can honestly say that I have experienced the new music discovery ‘rabbit hole’ that I was so sceptical about initially. I am finally getting into Neil Young and enjoying Roon’s sense of exploration with the tracks that it chooses – After the Gold Rush introduced me to Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia and George Harrison’s What is Life? for example.
I feel I am certainly at an advantage in having both Qobuz and Tidal subscriptions. I do not think Roon would be half as much fun if I just had one or the other.
I have been using Tidal’s Track Radio for a while and still find myself defaulting to it out of habit. I’m sure if I were committed to a Roon subscription, I would just pick a track and let Roon Radio take over my daily listening – it seems to seek out more unexpected tracks and I have certainly enjoyed the suggestions from its algorithm.
More Fun with a Chromecast
One big bit of Roon fun is that it can display the lyrics for just about any song. Once I figured out how to send the lyrics via Chromecast to the TV (with the Naim Uniti Star playing the music), I have been singing along (with my family) a lot, and a great remedy for alleviating cases of cabin fever in these continuing lockdown times.
I have particularly enjoyed the ‘Focus’ function, seeing who actually wrote a song I have loved for years, and who has covered it, played it live, etc. Indeed, I have found this a treasure-trove of info on Ryan Adams and I have spent a decent amount of time listening to cover versions of some of my favourite songs.
I have been controlling my own Roon universe with various devices including an iPad, Google Pixel 4 smartphone and my Dell XPS desktop. Software version 1.8 was released just as I was taking delivery of the Roon Nucleus, so I have no experience with previous versions. The introductory video I saw on the Roon website talked about its Museum Art layout for album artwork etc, particularly on iPad. It’s nicely presented indeed, and relevant additional images and genre suggestions are also offered. I have really enjoyed this new way of looking at my music with related playlists suggestions that are always very worthwhile exploring.
With NAD’s M33
The integration of NAD’s streaming amp was seamless through the settings menu, however, the M33 is not certified Roon Ready (update to follow when I get an official answer) so I was just accessing it through AirPlay – not a big deal really but a surprise seeing as the company’s M10 streaming amp and Bluesound Node and Node 2i stablemates are already certified Roon Ready.
With AudioQuest’s DragonFly & Chord’s Hugo 2 DACs
As I mentioned in my Hugo 2 review, the Roon integration is great and as a desktop buddy the Chord, an Editor’s Pick recently, is second to few in respect of quality. After a short period, however, I switched to my AudioQuest DragonFly Red and this too offers great Roon integration.
With Naim’s Uniti Star
By far the best sound and Roon integration are with the Naim Uniti Star. It is Roon Ready, and here I seem to be getting the most from the upsampling and DSP adjustments the app provides, although the novelty of tinkering with the parameters does wear off after a while.
Naim NAC-N 272 as a Roon endpoint
One of the issues I have always had with the Naim Classic series (i.e. not the newer fancy stuff like its Musos and Uniti series), is that I can’t use Roon with these components until it invests in a firmware upgrade which it seems unlikely to do. I have the same problem waiting for a firmware upgrade that enables Qobuz to be integrated on the Naim Classic series, too.
As a workaround, I set up a Roon endpoint using a Bluesound Node wireless streamer (following a quick software upgrade) and digitally input it into the N 272 streaming preamp. I now have a decent Roon endpoint to my Naim classic stack where the sound quality is excellent and the digital library integration and control seamless.
I have barely scratched the surface on the capabilities of the Roon universe but having spent some quality time using it, I get it now. I have all my playlists in one place, I can see and choose my own 24-bit music file treasures and I have the same curated music at my fingertips in every room. I have really enjoyed noodling along with the likes of Neil Young, and the lyric app has been a great discovery as well.
Roon has captivated the kids with a combination of integrated music content in one smart app that controls the Naim Uniti Star and (via Chromecast) seeing song lyrics displayed on the TV screen. Roon is undeniably a fun addition to the digital music experience for every kind of music fan and a great tool for any musical journey.
Ditched the Naim App
Museum layout of music
Nothing, if you can afford it