By Matthew Partrick
Since going full-force into Roon 1.2 for the past few months, I’ve had a fantastic experience both in terms of sound quality and the interface. Roon has really knocked it out of the park when it comes to the integration of hi-res NAS files, Tidal, and its ability to deliver lossless sound to networked devices. Because Roon allows multiple music zones through RoonBridge, I began investigating various commercially available endpoints with the best rate of return on investment in mind.
There are many streaming options listed on the RoonLabs website, some of which aren’t cheap. With the hope of disrupting my current setup the least (and not hemorrhaging major bucks on big hardware), I researched a few of the more inexpensive endpoint options.
My whole Roon saga started through the purchase of a Vinnie Rossi LIO. I was always a big fan of Red Wine Audio, but had never owned any of his previous products. When the opportunity arose to streamline my system, I jumped at the chance to ditch my onerously pile o’ gear and upgrade to the LIO and a pair of Joseph Audio Pulsar loudspeakers.
The LIO’s power supply is unique, using a dual bank ultracapacitor system that enables off-the-grid black power backgrounds. Vinnie’s updates to the LIO recently included a power supply option for Sonore’s microRendu, one of the best Roon streamers currently available. This prompted me (as well as a bunch of other LIO owners) to take the plunge and try out the microRendu as a Roon streamer. Used with a WiFi setup, I could completely remove the NAS and computer from the listening room. The microRendu runs $640, but that’s without a power supply (which, in my case, is solved by the extra out from LIO), and can also run several other apps through the web GUI such as Sqeezelite, DLNA, and HQ player.
The microRendu has been extensively reviewed and almost universally lauded, so I won’t belabor the details except to say it is an excellent product. While six hundred dollars isn’t exactly cheap, I am extremely pleased. Now that it’s set up, it’s basically fire and forget; I just go to the output settings window on the Roon software interface and select the appropriate output device. When playback begins, there’s a little light that pops up next to the track signifying “lossless playback”. There’s no doubt that it not-so-subconsciously encouraged me, and to frankly get annoyed if I can’t get that damn button to light up. I can hear a marketing guy snickering cheerfully right about now.
Sonore also offers the SonicOrbiter; at $300, it’s less than half the price of the microRendu. It’s essentially a Cubox (see if you can guess which is which in the photo below) that Sonore has done all the software configuration “heavy lifting” for the customer, making it virtually plug and play. Like the microRendu, the SonicOrbiter is controlled through a web-based GUI, and is just as slick as its big brother in the software department. Where the microRendu really distinguishes itself is with the durable metal case and support for more “audiophile” power supplies, while the SonicOrbiter comes with its own standard wall wart. To be honest, I thought they sounded pretty similar, even if yielding to the microRendu in the “detail and depth” department. If I was setting up a quick-and-dirty music system, I’d probably go with the SonicOrbiter, though. I’ll save the microRendu’s advantages to feed my LIO for the foreseeable future.
The very least expensive product I tested is the Nanopi Neo from FriendlyArm in China. This Linux-based product starts at $7.99 for the board alone. Like the microRendu, it has been thoroughly reviewed at Computer Audiophile. To get it to work with Roon, you need to download the OS onto a micro SD card and use your PC or mac to control the headless unit to install RoonBridge, a free software update provided by RoonLabs.
Having never messed around with Linux before, I had some learning ahead of me when I started the project. After that setup was complete, the input came by way of an Ethernet cable and output went by way of USB. I did get, and used the iPower power supply from iFi Audio, which runs about $50 from various online sources.
I’m guessing that this was not the first time in the history of audiophilia that someone spent far more on the power supply than the actual device.
I’ll admit it, I forked over a little more for a snazzy pink plastic case for the Neo. It’s so small that one could tuck it in practically anywhere, and that combined with the entry-level cost make it worth discussion.
Much more sophisticated and vetted was the Raspberry Pi 3 Linux system. Although one faces the same setup challenges as in the Nanopi Neo, we’re on a totally different plane with the RPi3 when it comes to both software and hardware upgrades. Version 3 of the hardware motherboard has a few very cool changes compared to V2, namely wifi and Bluetooth capability. Additionally, there are several third party hardware add-ons that really expand the RPi3’s functionality. Specifically, I chose to add a Digi+ optical/S-PDIF output board from HifiBerry, which also makes top-board DACs and amps. The optical output on the Digi+ tempted me with the potential ease of adding it to remote music stations across my house. After assembling the hardware boards and setting up the standard Linus OS on a micro SD card and using my Mac to headlessly control the RPi3 through SSH protocols, I added the software required for the Digi+ and finally RoonBridge. Because I had no idea what I was doing the first time around, the build took forever, maybe fifteen or twenty hours of trial-and-error with many desperate posts to the Pi forums.
Once setup was complete, however, it became a real treat. I have it WiFi-connected to the home network and connected to a Marshall speaker via the optical out. I am also using the iPower supply with this system, and finally splurged on a way-cool CNC’d plexiglass case that locks together using a mortise and tenon design. Now that it’s up and running, it sounds excellent and is totally seamless. I am definitely doing this project again for other remote speakers in and around the house, hoping to build my Hi-Fi version of the old Sonos systems, this time with better equipment and running Roon. Next time, I might avoid at least one nervous breakdown by ordering micro SD cards that are pre-loaded with the correct Raspbian OS, since that (for me as a Linux neophyte) was the biggest hassle.
After living with these Roon endpoints, my experience is that the microRendu is supreme. That said, if I had to do it all over again (knowing now what I didn’t then), the “value play” is clearly with the Raspberry Pi3. Adding WiFi and an optical out, tucking it into a slick little case and slapping on a dedicated power supply — and doing it all for under $300 — makes the RPi3 very appealing. If I was the confessing type, I’d mention that the satisfaction I gained from building a functioning streamer from scratch really can’t be quantified. Again, knowing what I do now, I can pretty much guarantee that when I expand the zones in my new house, I’ll be going with the RPi3.
[Editors Note: More info on a Raspberry Pi-based server can be found here and over at Computer Audiophile.]
About the Author
Matthew Patrick is an Emergency and Diving Medicine physician living in Key West, Florida with his wife, two young sons, and three dogs.
When not in the ER, he spends his time fishing and diving in the Keys and indulging a longstanding obsession with acoustic guitars.Matthew also writes down his thoughts on audio on his personal blog, the Clueless Audiophile.