Roon 1.8 review: An unparalleled service for critical listening and music exploration

When I reviewed Roon at its launch, back in 2015, I called it “must-have software for hardcore music fans.” I stand by that characterization, although in retrospect, I shouldn’t have restricted its appeal to the hardcore. Anyone who derives deep enjoyment from music will reap tremendous benefits from this one-of-a-kind—albeit incredibly complex—software.

That said, if you don’t consider music essential to life, you’ll probably have difficulty justifying the cost of a Roon license and the relatively steep hardware requirements you’ll need to run it. In addition to the client software that you’ll run on a smartphone, tablet, or personal computer, you’ll need to run server software (the Roon Core) on some other computer on your home network. Developer Roon Labs recommends the server have a least an Intel Core i3 (Ivy Bridge architecture or later) CPU, and it strongly recommends that the Roon database be installed on an SSD.

roon nucleus Michael Brown / IDG

We used a Roon Nucleus Plus ($2,559) for this review, but you don’t need to go that high end for a good experience.

That rules out a lot of the NAS boxes you might already be using to store your personal music collection, since those tend to run on Intel Celeron, Intel Atom, Marvell ARM cores, or lesser processors. That’s not to say you can’t run the Roon core on a NAS box; it just needs to be a higher-end model with a fast processor. QNAP in particular targets Roon users with some of its higher-end models, as does Synology.

The Roon Core doesn’t necessarily need to run on the same machine where your personal music collection is stored. If you’re using a low-powered NAS box for that purpose, you’ll still be able to use it. At the low end, you could host the Roon Core on an older desktop or laptop computer that’s no longer useful for other purposes (the Roon Core can run on Windows, MacOS, or Linux). Next up in terms of performance would be something like an Intel NUC or a late-model Mac Mini.

roon parametric eq Michael Brown / IDG

Roon is much more than server software, it can perform complex digital signal processing—such as customizable parametric equalization—in real time.

There are three reasons for Roon’s stringent hardware requirements. First, Roon constantly analyzes the music you listen to—both your music collection and the music you stream from services such as Qobuz and Tidal—so that it can aid in your discovery of new music. I’ll get deeper into this in the other half of this review. Second, you have the option of applying resource-intensive digital signal processing to your music streams in real time, ranging from parametric EQ to room correction and lots more. Lastly, you can stream music to multiple zones simultaneously—up to six with a Roon Nucleus or its equivalent, and more than six with a Roon Nucleus Plus or its equivalent. (I’ll explain what the Roon Nucleus and Nucleus Plus are in a moment.)

Roon’s multi-room streaming comes with limitations, however. All the clients in a group must have the same processing capabilities, or they must be capable of falling back to a common protocol that might be more limited, such as Apple AirPlay or Google Cast. The upside, of course, is that you can build out a multi-room audio system using a mixture of components from different brands, using high-fidelity hardware in your primary listening room and less-expensive gear in rooms where music plays more of a background role.

signal path comparison Michael Brown / IDG

These screenshots show the signal path in two scenarios: On the left, Roon is streaming to a Cambridge Audio CXN v2 network streamer using Roon’s proprietary Roon Advanced Audio Transport (RAAT). The right-hand shot shows Roon streaming to both the CXN v2 and a Sonos Amp, using the Apple AirPlay protocol the components support in common.

At the high end, there are purpose-built servers, either from third-party manufacturers or Roon Labs itself: the Roon Nucleus ($1,459) and the Roon Nucleus Plus ($2,559), for example, are passively cooled, entirely silent, Intel-powered turnkey boxes with optional onboard storage for your music library (2- or 4TB for the Nucleus; 2-, 4, or 8TB for the Nucleus Plus). Both models come with a one-year Roon subscription.

Pay to play

Yes, I said subscription. Roon Labs operates on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model, in which you pay either a monthly or annual fee to use the software: $13 per month billed monthly, or $10 per month billed annually ($120 per year). There’s also the option to purchase a lifetime license for $700, but Roon Labs has made been making noises about eliminating this option since late 2019, saying the company doesn’t find the option conducive to its bottom line. That one-time license was just $500 when I first reviewed Roon in 2015, so I wouldn’t dismiss Roon’s musings out of hand. An available 14-day free trial will help you decide if Roon is right for you.