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Roon: everything you need to know

Roon: everything you need to know
(Image credit: Roon Labs)

What is Roon? It's not the easiest music service to explain. The fact that Roon Labs has its own, dedicated Roon Knowledge website is testament to that. The shortest way to describe Roon is that it's a multi-device, multi-room music platform.

It manages your music library, cleans up your files and directs the flow of music to your motley crew of hi-fi kit. A walled garden of hardware this is not. Roon aims to be a well organised, carefully considered and implemented, democratisation of multi-room.

Roon's goals are also supreme usability and super high-quality sound. The interface is designed to be richer than anything else out there and it claims "bit-perfect playback of lossy and lossless file formats, including high resolution audio content (PCM and DSD)".

High ideals indeed but, like all good things, Roon doesn't come cheap. So, if you want to know exactly what the Roon music server is before you sign up, read on to find the big questions answered below.

What is Roon?

Roon is a connecting, streaming and music management software which brings multi-room smarts to your hi-fi equipment. It is the brains which tells your music what to do and where to do it - the policeman directing the traffic.

Roon is not a music streaming service in its own right. It does not offer you access to any music service to which you're not already signed up. Instead, it takes control of your internet radio, your music streaming services and your own personal music files, and sends them to audio output devices as controlled on a series of computer, smartphone and tablet apps. It joins the disparate dots of your listening ecosystem.

To do that, there are several key parts to Roon's structure - the Roon Core, the control apps and the audio outputs. Let's look at those individually.

What is a Roon Core?

Roon: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Roon Labs)

Every Roon set-up requires a Roon Core. It's the conductor of your music streaming orchestra. It centralises the Roon application, which is responsible for all the thinking that your system needs to do. That way, you don't need to go updating all your bits and pieces of hi-fi every time Roon is fixed or upgraded.

Naturally, your Roon Core needs to be something with decent computational chops and, in most set-ups, its likely to be a Mac or Windows PC. It could also be a NAS drive or a dedicated music server (such as Roon's own Roon Nucleus) which is pre-installed or installable with the Roon Core server software. You can find a list of Roon partner products on the Roon website.

Music management

Wherever it sits, the Roon Core will manage the music from all of your digital sources: Tidal, Qobuz, NAS drives, HDDs, USBs, iTunes and live radio. It builds an interconnected digital library, with cleaned up, enhanced, up-to-date metadata, which is then tucked up into one, tidy interface with all the rich content that Roon can muster.

Those extras include photos, bios, reviews, lyrics, and concert dates, and makes connections between artists, composers, performers, conductors, and producers. The idea is to create a more searchable, magazine-type feel to your music.

Music playback

As well as organising your collection, your Roon Core is responsible for music playback too, and its aim is to take as much of the heavy lifting away from your playback devices as possible. It does all the audio stream conversion and volume levels the output. It controls your play queue, your output devices and the multi-room zoning as well. It also handles all the software updates.

Keeping all of those computational processes in one place means that the audio circuitry of your hi-fi equipment can be freer of noisy chips and components which may otherwise harm the quality of music playback. It also means that your hi-fi kit won't become out-dated.

AirPlay for audiophiles

Roon Advanced Audio Transport (RAAT) is the technology that allows this all to work in a centralised way. Roon describes it as "AirPlay for audiophiles". It allows the Roon Core to do everything apart from act as your remote control or the audio output device itself. Consequently, it promises fewer drop outs, lower latency and streams of up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256.

What is a Roon controller?

Roon: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Roon)

This one's easy. A Roon controller is a software remote control for your Roon service. It's not the core, it's not your library. It's simply the way you access what you've got and the way you ask your Roon Core to play music on your devices.

The Roon controller comes in the form of apps. There are Roon control apps for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac OS. They're all created with a single code base to make sure that the experience is uniform.

You browse and play music with Roon apps. All the data is kept synchronized in real-time and Roon claims that there's no lag and no stale data.

Audio outputs: which devices are Roon Ready?

"Audio outputs" are the part of the system that make the noise. These might be networked speakers, a music streamer, headphone amps, USB DACS or even a laptop.

Look out for Roon Ready certification on your playback devices. These are the guaranteed Roon integrated bits of kit which have Roon's hi-res streaming RAAT technology inside. Roon will discover these without a problem and automatically deliver the highest possible audio quality to them.

You'll find networked Roon Ready output devices from the likes of Audioquest, Bluesound, B&W, Cambridge Audio, Chord, dCS, Devialet, Elac, JBL, KEF, Korg, Linn, Mark Levinson, Meridian, Moon, NAD, Naim, Onyko, Oppo, Pioneer, Pro-Ject, TEAC and more. Take a look at the full Roon Ready list for more details.

Fortunately, that's not quite the end of it. There are one or two more commonplace audio and streaming devices which still work with Roon.

Does Roon work with AirPlay devices?

Roon: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Roon Labs)

Well, yes and no. At the time of writing, Apple AirPlay 2 devices aren't picked up by the Roon Core. Any Apple AirPlay 1 devices on the same network as your Roon app are, though, whether Apple-made or third party.

The maximum resolution for AirPlay 1 through Roon is 16bit/44.1kHz. Roon will downgrade any audio streams to fit with playback.

Does Roon support Sonos?

Interestingly, it does! Sonos kit is fully supported by Roon. The maximum quality audio Sonos hardware can receive is CD-quality, 48kHz/16bit but, as with AirPlay, the Roon Core will downsample higher bitrate streams automatically to fit.

Roon also supports Chromecast

Anything that you can plug a Google Chromecast dongle into can also become part of your Roon system because, yes, Roon fully supports Chromecast with music streams up to 24bit/96kHz.

That works for Chromecast (gens 1 &2), Chromecast Audio, Chromecast Ultra, Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max. In fact, most devices with Chromecast built-in should also be detectable by your Roon Core.

You'll get streams of up to 96kHz/24-bit using Chromecast Audio. Other Chromecast devices will support sample frequencies of up to 48kHz.

What audio quality can Roon stream?

Roon: everything you need to know

(Image credit: Roon Labs)

We covered this above but just in case you're skim reading (as if?), Roon Ready devices can receive streams of up to 384kHz/24-bit PCM and DSD256.

Not all networked audio outputs can handle those bitrates, though, so a Roon Core automatically converts the audio streams to the optimal resolution for those other devices.

For details on the bitrates when using AirPlay devices, Sonos and Chromecast, see the relevant sections above.

Does Roon support MQA?

Roon and MQA are firm friends and that's very good news if you've got a Tidal subscription but your music streamer doesn't play nice with file unfolding.

Take Naim, for example - great streamers but no MQA support. In a Roon set-up, though, it's not the music streamer that decodes the files. It's the Roon Core. So, you can use your Roon Core to decode your Tidal Masters stream, unpack the MQA audio and then send it over to your Naim as a playback format which it can cope with.

The way it works is that the Roon Core decodes the MQA file into a MQA Core stream. That then produces a PCM stream at 88.2kHz or 96kHz which is passed on to  your output device. That stream also happens include further MQA information. So, if your player has an MQA-compatible DAC inside it, then it can do further unfolding of that stream to unlock more levels of MQA's audio potential.

What is MQA? Take a look at our guide to learn more about it.

How much is Roon?

'Not cheap' is the easy answer but the engineers at Roon Labs would doubtless beg to differ. There's a lot of work that goes into usability, functionality, look, feel and everything else, and the upshot is that Roon currently costs $119/year for the standard membership. That includes full Roon functionality for one Roon Core to manage your music library and unlimited remote devices.

The other option is to bet the house and go big. If you love Roon and think it's here to stay for more than six years, then $699 brings a lifetime Roon membership.

The best news? Head over to the Roon website and you can have a 14-day free trial.

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  • kdbur
    It is an outrageous price!

    Roon are very greedy.
    Reply
  • WhiteKnight2020
    So, let's compare this to jriver media centre.
    Bit perfect audio, check
    Streams to any dlna renderer, check
    Can use many dlna controllers, check
    Can stream over the internet to your phone, check
    Handles video & audio, check
    Costs about £30 for a perpetual licence, check.
    Roon, £600, thanks but no thanks.
    Reply
  • Jimboo
    Let's compare it to your average dude.
    IKEA kallax check.
    Hi- Fi check
    Reply
  • Graig
    I'd like to comment on the idea that Roon is good for people with large libraries:

    The iOS and android Roon Remote apps have no way to quickly scroll through albums. There is no "alphabet slider" on the side like basically every other music app has.
    So, if you like to browse by album and have 500+ albums in your library, you will be swiping 30-40 times to get through your library from A-Z.
    Lots of people have complained to Roon about this for over a year, but they've done nothing to address the problem other than suggest typing in the name of the album you want to hear, which isn't the same as "browsing". I have 1000+ albums ripped from CD and can't remember the titles of all of them. So i like to flip through and browse to find a forgotten album once in awhile. Tedious and painful on Roon.

    Roon is great as an automatic jukebox app and as a Tidal controller, but I've gotta say, for people with big collections that they like flipping through and browsing, it's just badly designed for the purpose. I was excited to switch from Plex to Roon, but after 6 months, I've switched back specifically because of this.

    Also, I'll mention here that things seem to break frequently on Roon. An update a couple months ago kills functionality on QNAP devices, for example, and they have a non-employee community member working on the fix instead of doing it themselves (!)

    Previously, playback on most Android devices stuttered like crazy and had random, loud static pops and cracks that could damage your hearing. It took a couple months for that problem to get fixed, too.
    Reply
  • MidwestAudioMan
    As a Roon owner (I bought a lifetime license), here in the USA, I must be missing something. From my viewpoint Roon is a great value with a combination of features that is not easily available anywhere else.

    1. Seamlessly integrates music files I own on a hard drive with TIDAL and Qobuz, including MQA through TIDAL. It all looks like one library regardless of the source of the music. With a TIDAL or Qobuz subscription, I have access to more music than I could ever possibly listen to.

    2. Outputs to any device with exceptional functionality with Roon testing hardware to ensure it works and certifying devices as Roon Ready if they have the required capabilities to integrate with Roon. Roon ready devices can sync audio throughout a home. You can have music playing throughout a house in near perfect sync as if they are hard wired together. You can move your music from one listening room to another so your playlist follows you where ever you go in your home. You can have different music playing throughout the hosue so each family member can listen to whatever they want. This all works super smooth and easy.

    3. The operational paradigm is simple and efficient. You set up one core. This is the brains of your system and is always accessible within your home using wifi. Next, any computer, tablet, or smartphone acts as a remote giving access to all your music in a visually pleasing and intuitive interface that allows various people to have their own profiles and playlists. This is all accessed through your wifi. Last, your audio devices, wheather they are a smart speaker, a receiver with a Google Audio/Home puck attached, or a wifi enabled device like an Oppo UDP 205 or a NAD C368 DAC amplifier. You select the zone or device you wish to play music to using your remotes and you don't even need to be in the same room to start music playing somewhere else in your house. All of this just works.

    4. Integration of external data. Concert dates, lyrics, summary information about the artist and albums is all pulled in from the Internet by Roon and integrated into the display. Do you like Jessie Ware's new album, What's Your Pleasure? I pull that up and see she is performing thee times in April 2021 in Glasgow, Newcastle, and Leeds. She was born in London in 1984 and earned a degree in English Literature from the University of Sussex. I can click on the credits which lists everyone involved in this album and can click on the names to see what other albums or projects each person has been involved with. I have gone down so many rabbit holes this way and found a ton of new good music by clicking on these links. Each track will list how many other versions of that same song are out there. I can click on that link and then listen to all the other performances of that song. Just another rabbit hole.

    Last, I dispute there are issues with this software. I've been using Roon for over a year. Once in a great while there is a hiccup which more often than not is not a Roon issue. If TIDAL or Qobuz's servers are down you can't play that music. But I've found Roon to be rock solid.

    In case you're wondering, I do not work for Roon or have any financial interest in Roon. If I have one beef with Roon, is they seem to be too busy to update the main page of their website. But that is really reaching for a straw to complain about. Roon is the one single purchase that has changed the way I listen to music and the level of enjoyment I get from my music. Nothing in my music system has impacted me more. Given what it has done for me. I believe it to be a solid value and is unequaled in the marketplace.
    Reply
  • Jimboo
    It's a lot of money just to link stored bits of downloaded files and to give you info that is found on a typical Spotify package , seriously , given the size of the average house why do you need to hear it from speakers in every room? What are you doing playing an album while moving from the lounge into the kitchen taking a dump and then lying on your bed for five minutes.
    If tidal or qobuz has an issue it brings down everything. You download an app on your phone and tablet and gee it acts as a remote anyway. I don't need pretty pictures on a screen to gain musical enjoyment. There is a massive head in the sand failure by hi fi buffs to understand that apps give you pretty much everything roon gives you including info on dates , other albums and associated artists. It flatters to deceive. It's Tidal and quboz that give you the opportunity to explore music , roon has sold you a product that isn't really needed. It will be a niche product in five years time.
    Reply
  • MidwestAudioMan
    When you have a party at your house, and my house is fairly big, it is nice to have the same party music playing everywhere.

    When I finish up work in my office, I go to the kitchen to make dinner and move my playlist over there, and a Mahler Symphony takes some time to listen to. Taking that dump without a pause is nice. I'm sure Mahler does not mind!

    I guess you make a case for why record album covers should be plain white with just the name of the band and album on it. Black ariel font only.

    Read Roon's facebook page. Seems like the entire audio industry is getting on board. AURALiC, Arcam, and Trinnov Audio have just recently release new Roon Read products. I think Roon will be the Apple carplay to the audio industry. Why should a manufacturer have to develop their own system when they can use a good standard. Although NAD has gone out on their own and developed BluOS. Seems some manufactures find it important enough to go through the trouble to develop a similar solution on their own.

    Did I mention it sounds truley awesome?
    Reply
  • Jimboo
    I can see the party angle but it's not a roon only concept , there are a myriad of ways of having your music played in such a manner. For me personally the covers and info displayed via a screen are not something I would want as my sole reference point. I still prefer the actual physical media and the ritual of actually playing them.
    Again , manafactuaring companies don't have to develop their own system. You are missing the point that they only have to allow an app to play via WiFi , common,simple and cheap. Roon is at heart a simplistic picture book for stored music. With Tidal say it offers access to music without storage and gives you the info roon seems to think is a novel concept.
    Streaming will and is already making ripping,storing and organising redundant. You just need a phone or tablet. As I said you get roon to show you tour dates and the artists discography etc. It's already on the app. Ripping ,storing and management systems are overkill. It's on the app. Roon is just audiophile clickbait. To the average consumer it is an unnecessary over engineered idea that gives your man on the street little extra to warrant adding to his monthly streaming bill. Why pay extra for something that is 95% covered by what you already get from a monthly subscription service ?
    Reply