One of the biggest problems with digital music, especially streaming, is that it deprives us of the sense of ownership. We long for the days of gatefold LPs, with stunning artwork, copious sleeve notes, lyric sheets, and special editions. We loved to hold them in our hands. Digital is just so soulless. This is one of the challenges that Roon sets out to address.
At its simplest, Roon is some software that you install on a computer, which gathers together your digital music from a number of sources dotted around your home, and the internet, and presents you with an interface to pick and play it.
That doesn't make it sound very much more interesting than half a dozen other music library front-ends. However, there's quite a bit more to Roon. The best description I've come up with is that Roon is like having the best on-tap music geek ever.
I have a friend who sometimes helps out in the record shop in the arcade where my shop is found. He's called Gary. He is a mine of knowledge. Sure, he has specialist subjects, but even so, he know an absolutely huge amount about music, artists, studios, labels, everything. He's brilliant at making "if you like this, you'll like that" recommendations, he has an inexhaustible supply of interesting trivia. Seriously - the guy is awesome.
But, he's one guy. He lives in Chichester. His encyclopedic knowledge does wear thin for some other genres. If you want to talk about 1990s grunge, or new-wave-of-new-wave, there are better people. If you want to talk about classical, I'm your man. But I'm only one person too. Roon is like a Gary for every genre, every band, every record, every composer, every record label. Only one that doesn't need to eat, or sleep, and after four pints of Guinness, doesn't start to repeat himself, and insist that Rod Stewart is the best singer/songwriter the UK has ever produced.
What Roon does, you see, is gather together all kinds of information, in real time, constantly updated, about whatever you're looking at, and present it to you in a digital magazine format, where everything is beautifully presented, clickable, and fresh. Using the power of metadata, Roon brings back the sense of ownership, and promises to engage and excite the listener again.
What this means is that Roon isn't just a really nice way to collate your music collection, and augment it with Tidal. It's a way to help you continue to explore and appreciate music.
Roon Labs span out of Meridian in 2015, as an independent software company, dedicated to developing an offering that encourages engagement with the multi-dimensional connections that make music so fascinating.
Doing this with software is a clever idea. The problem with trying to solve the digital engagement problem with hardware is that hardware devices become obsolete quickly, so customers are either reluctant to get on board, or are bitter when they're forced to upgrade - lose/lose. Secondly, in order to develop a successful offering, you need a lot of feedback, product champions, and early adopters. To do that, the barrier entry needs to be as low as possible. Within the hifi industry, a hardware device with the capabilities that Roon offers would cost thousands of pounds - that reduces the audience right away, and makes it very hard to get rapid feedback.
It's a good move technically too. The problem space that Roon operates in is well-defined and well-understood. Iterating on software which mashes up data from many sources, handles multi-dimensional metadata, and makes intelligent recommendations based on pattern recognition is bread-and-butter computer science. The idea of wrapping that capability up in a slick user interface, and charging a subscription for it is brilliant.
Getting started with Roon is as simple as signing up to the free trial, which gives you the chance to use the software for 14 days.
The software needs to be installed on a computer which has access to the music you have on your network. It can see music on the computer on which it's installed, plus any network shares or network storages boxes you have.
Once downloaded, and installed, Roon will suggest you sign up to Tidal. This is good idea, as it gives you access to a massive library of CD-quality music, which Roon will mine for you, to find music you might like.
Conceptually, there are three components to Roon. Firstly, Roon Core. This is the service thats finds your music on your network, and combines it with Tidal. It communicates with the upstream Roon service - the metadata servers - and builds a continuously updated database of your record collection, and makes that data available for presentation. It also handles the actually streaming of the files, handling any requirements to up or downsample depending on the signal path. This is the software installed on your "main" computer.
Secondly, Roon Remote. This is the actual interface displayed on computer, tablet, or phone. It receives all the data that describes your Roon environment, and presents it to you to explore and enjoy. You can have as many remotes as you want..
Thirdly Roon Outputs. This is the bit that does the playing. In order to hear the music, as we discussed in an earlier article, we need a DAC, an amplifier, and some speakers. Your laptop has all of these features so Roon can play here. However, it can also send data to an external DAC, or communicate with dedicated hifi components which have partnered with Roon Labs (so-called Roon Ready).
To get a sense of the interface, you can just use the software on your computer. A few minutes exploration is enough to tell you that this has been very nicely put together. The interface is easy-to-use, and immediately the sleeve-note feel is there. Instead of poking about in wikipedia, I have information right at my fingertips.
To get the most out of it, sonically, you will want to connect your computer to a DAC. Your choices here are legion, depending on whether you're primarily going to be listening with headphones or through full-range loudspeakers. Of course, budget is also a consideration.
A good place to start, if headphone is your chosen medium, would be something like the Audioquest Dragonfly, which is the size of a USB stick, and plugs into your computer, providing a DAC and headphone amplifier in one small package.
At the next level up, I like the Audiolab M-Dac. This is a great-quality DAC and headphone amp in a small package.
For hifi purposes, to be used in conjunction with an amplifier, the Heed Dactilus is worth a look. Many integrated amplifiers now include high quality DACs - we like and recommend the Quad Vena, and the Emotiva BASX range.
Roon is, as I mentioned, a subscription product. It's $119 a year, or $499 for life. Before you gasp and stretch your eyes, that's currently less than £90 a year, or £1.71 a week. I think our 24x7 über-geek is worth half a pint a week, don't you?
The fact is that writing and maintaining a quality software service costs money, and delivers value. Gathering all that metadata involves subscribing to other licensed content, and Roon Labs promise to keep software updated as standards evolve. This was senn in the release of 1.3, which saw Roon support MQA.
So, to sum up, I think Roon is a fabulous tool. Particularly as a classical music lover, I become frustrated with Spotify and Tidal's attempt to shoehorn every recording into Band/Album categories. Roon's metadata is much more sophisticated, as well as completely customisable and editable. Even just as a tool to gather and play music, it's one of the best I've ever used. Adding in the degree of engagement and discovery it facilitates makes this, in my opinion, and indispensable tool for music lovers.