This is the second part of a three-part series on living with a computer-based audio system from an analog diehard’s perspective, and how it has changed the way my family, and I listen to music compared to a previously vinyl-only household.
In my first instalment I touched on what I was aiming to achieve by replacing my analog front end with the totaldac d-1 integral using Roon, and Tidal. Which was, namely, to see if an audiophile-grade DAC/server could sonically match the level of sound quality of a comparable (price, and quality-wise) turntable/tonearm/cartridge. The second was to engage my girlfriend, and children in playing music, by making more songs than I could ever hope to have on vinyl easily accessible to them via iDevice, smartphone, laptop, desktop or tablet PC, and also because they just wouldn’t play LPs.
I’ve now used the d-1 integral as my main source in a total of three separate systems. These included an all Audio Note UK rig, a CH Precision/Dynaudio one, and most recently a Pass Labs/DeVore Fidelity set-up. The totaldac – along with Roon – performed flawlessly regardless of what it was hooked-up to. The integral plays everything I’ve thrown at it with conviction, delicacy, texture, and an effortless musical ebb-and-flow. Bass is deep, and tuneful without a hint of one-note. I always have the integral’s output set to 100 per cent, and use whatever amp or pre-amp I have connected to it for volume attenuation. Not because the totaldac’s remote volume control isn’t good, it most certainly is, but because I prefer turning big chunky knobs to set listening levels as opposed to remote controls.
The transparency to the source file of the totaldac d-1 integral aside (which is a big aside, because the integral’s sound quality has few peers at any price point of the DACs I’m familiar with thanks to its 100-resistor R2R ladder DAC), pairing the unit with Roon being fed Tidal (and high-resolution files on a local hard drive) via ethernet has done more to change the way I interact with music, the way I curate music, and my appreciation for access to music than other piece of hardware or software has ever done. A big claim, but one I stand by. Moving forward, I cannot imagine not having Roon as my defacto portal to the realm of computer audio. It’s interface is straightforward, incredibly intuitive to use, and works seamlessly with one’s mind in the myriad ways that it catalogues, archives, searches, collates data, and presents information. It’s fast, responsive in operation, visually rich, and is obviously designed by people who love music. Which brings me to the focus of this instalment: A close look at how Roon works from two of the really big brains behind the software: Rob Darling, and Enno Vandermeer. Both have been friends, and have worked closely with one another for years. Both left Meridian Audio together where they designed that company’s groundbreaking digital-music server system: Sooloos. I caught up with them a couple weeks ago, and asked them everything about Roon I could think of, so please read on to get the skinny straight from the horses’ mouths.
Interview with Rob Darling, and Enno Vandermeer of Roon Labs.
RA: Can you explain what Roon does, in basic terms for a computer audio neophyte?
RD & EV: At the basic level, Roon is music player software… you tell it where your files
live and supply your TIDAL login information, and it gives you an interface for browsing and playing music. But this interface is far more powerful and engaging than any other you’ve used. Roon finds tons of data about your collection – credits, bios, release dates, labels, lyrics, composers, compositions – and weaves it all into a link-filled, surfable, searchable digital magazine about your collection. And this interface doesn’t make a distinction between files you own and files in TIDAL, so a search for “Moonlight Sonata” or “Bill Evans” or “Beethoven” will give you results both in your personal collection and in TIDAL. This is incredibly powerful and makes Roon a music lover’s dream.
Put Roon on your computer, attach your DAC, and you can enjoy browsing music like never before. Beyond this basic level, Roon is the hub of a Networked Audio System (NAS). One device in your home (usually a Mac or a PC) will be the brains of Roon, and then any Mac, PC, iOS, or Android device on the network can be a remote control for Roon, with the same browsing interface as the main computer. Likewise, any DAC connected to any computer on your network can become an audio output for Roon. And any Roon Ready, Airplay, Sonos, Meridian Streaming, or Squeezebox device on the network can be an output for Roon. All of these devices can live in different rooms, wired or wirelessly, to create a whole-home music system from different brands, so you don’t have to limit your enjoyment to your two-channel listening room or one manufacturer’s equipment. And multiple users can play different music at the same time, so you can share the system with the rest of your family. Most importantly, all of this is very simple to configure and very reliable in daily use. As the team behind the original Sooloos system, we have over 10 years of experience having created and made the easiest to use, most reliable, but most powerful networked audio system on the market.
If you want to get kind of abstract, Roon is a set of relationships working to give you an amazing user experience. Roon’s one-of-a-kind TIDAL integration and benchmark metadata presentation don’t just come from great programmers and creativity, they come from unique relationships. Likewise, our Roon Core, Roon Tested, and Roon Ready partner programs are rooted in the relationships we’ve built in our decade-plus in the performance audio industry. These programs take a lot of effort to put together, but the result is that you can buy hardware from different manufacturers and trust that it will all work with Roon, as well as it would if it came from the same company. When you use Roon, you are not just using a piece of software, you are engaging with a set of partners who are working together to ensure the best experience possible.
RA: What was the driving force behind creating Roon? Did you see a hole in the computer-audio software market? Was it just timing?
RD & EV: With the launch of Sooloos in 2006, there were two things that were difficult to navigate for our team. The first was feeling like we were hampered by the hardware relationship with our customers. As soon as you sell a hardware device, the clock is ticking on when it will be obsolete and you will have a bad relationship with the customer. You eventually will either make them buy new hardware, or hold back features that would break their current hardware. Focusing on making software frees us from the constraints of the hardware relationship, so we can always give the user the best experience possible.
The second was that we couldn’t just share what we did with everyone. Hardware gets expensive, especially in the audio-specialty channel where the markups are very large. For 10 years, if we met someone and talked about what we did, or caught up with a friend and wanted to share it, there was no way we could. Making software that anyone can download and run on a computer they already own, and play out to hardware they already own, means that anyone can have Roon. So when the time came to part with Meridian, we knew exactly where we wanted to end up: Making software that was widely available and priced so that it was affordable.
RA: What do you feel sets apart Roon from it’s competition? Is Roon the gestalt of listening to digital audio?
RD & EV: Roon looks at problems from a couple of base assumptions, which is probably what drives the separation from other music players. The first assumption is that we want to engage a user and excite them. We think that listening to music is supposed to be fun, it is supposed to be social. Music is about connections. Everything we do tries to push the user experience toward that. The second assumption is that performance and user experience do not have to be at odds with one another. We believe that you should never have to make a choice between having a simple, elegant experience and having the best performance possible. If you look around at the things Roon does, you will find the influence of these assumptions permeates the environment, from the apps to the website to our forums to the shape of our hardware partner programs.
RA: Please discuss what Roon is comprised of (I know it has a core, a control app, and outputs), what they do specifically?
RD & EV: The Core is the brains of the system. It knows where all your files live, it communicates with our metadata servers to identify the files, and it builds a database of information about your collection, which it maintains constantly. It discovers remotes on the network and feeds the information they need to display the user interface. It pulls files, decodes them, adds DSP as requested, and plays out the files. It discovers audio outputs: USB, Roon Ready, Roon Bridge, Airplay, Sonos, Squeezebox, or Meridian and communicates with them and sends audio to them. The Core is a very busy place.
The Remote is a crazy piece of technology. Everything in your Roon system – all the files, the metadata, the information about your audio devices, settings, anything that makes up your Roon environment – is an element in a database and the Core feeds out the necessary elements to the Remote, which feeds the data through a 3D-gaming engine to generate the interface. It does this over the network to Mac, PC, iOS, or Android, with feature parity maintained in lockstep across all the platforms.
The Output is the simplest thing on one level: you pick a file, hit play, the file is transmitted. That we support all sample rates and file types, played bit-perfect, is table stakes. But taking the effort to consider how different output types can co-exist in a system is another thing. For example, landing on a DSD file while in shuffle when you have linked the DSD player in your listening room system to a Bluesound wireless speaker in your kitchen means we will play DSD to the performance system but will resample it down to 24/192 to send to the Bluesound device, with no user intervention whatsoever. We work to support as many output types as we can, and to make sure this is completely transparent to the end user. So a system can include Roon Ready devices from any number of companies, Airplay stuff, Sonos gear, even Meridian and Squeezebox devices, and all the user has to do is press play, without any configuration hassle.
RA: What is Roon Ready, and why is hardware integration so critical for it?
RD & EV: “Roon Ready” is a branding designation, like Airplay or Google Cast, that means a hardware company has embedded Roon’s RAAT streaming technology in their device. In the way that Airplay devices “just work” with iTunes, Roon Ready devices “just work” with Roon. Attach the device to the network, turn it on, and it will show up in Roon, communicate its capabilities and become an output for Roon. This simplicity is very important to us. Owning performance audio equipment should not mean giving up elegance and ease of use.
But we don’t sacrifice performance, either. Roon Ready devices can play PCM files up to 24/384 as well as DSD and Multichannel files. Most importantly, the receiving device is the clock master – for the best performance. Apart from the technical piece, the most important part of the Roon Ready program is that all devices go through a rigorous certification, so that every device offers the same rock-solid user experience, regardless of which manufacturer you buy from. No matter how good our interface is, if the experience doesn’t extend all the way down to the playback hardware, the customer loses. This is why we put so much effort into launching the Roon Ready program and certifying the hardware.
RA: Talk to me about Tidal integration, and why does it seem that Roon/Tidal are the peanut butter & jam of audio software combinations?
RD & EV: At the turn of the century, when Sooloos was just a hobby among friends, we asked ourselves “What would it be like to have all the music in the world? How would you experience it, how would you engage with it?” Those questions have driven how we thought about user interface in the intervening 15 years, and Roon is always focused on addressing that thought project. So when you have the massive 30 million track TIDAL catalog attached to Roon, it is not an uncomfortable bolt-on to an interface evolved from the iPod, like other apps offer, it is exactly the experience we designed for.
RA: You both have backgrounds in the industry with hardware. To my knowledge the Roon team is comprised of many of the people involved with the creation of the groundbreaking Sooloos platform at Meridian. What brought you both together on Roon?
RD & EV: The Roon team is the same team that originally created Sooloos, sold to Meridian in 2008, and then continued to make Sooloos. We parted with Meridian and no longer make Sooloos, but the team never broke up. We are really more of a band than a company. We do this because we love it, we do it because we can’t imagine doing anything else.
My sincere thanks to Darling and Vandermeer for their time in answering my questions, and sharing their thoughts with readers.
Check back soon for Part Three, and my interview with totaldac founder, and chief designer/engineer Vincent Brient who will share his thoughts on high-end audio, and discuss the intricacies of the construction of the d-1 integral.