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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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