Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXXII: Next Level Digital- Checking Out Roon
(August 2018)

"Now that you've gotten into digital streaming, you gotta check out Roon."

It's true, I really enjoy music streaming services such as Tidal. They are a wonderful tool for music reviewers, because I can hear all the new music releases the day they come out without having to schlep over to the local record store to pick up a CD or an LP. I can even fill in the holes that have appeared in my music collection over the years--albeit virtually--by simply pushing a couple of keys and loading one of the tens of millions of titles that Tidal features. The cost for this incredible convenience is only $20 per month--the cost of a CD or two, or two-thirds of a new release that's been released on audiophile-quality vinyl. It's an incredible bargain, and it's changed the way I listen to music.

So what else do I need?

According to many of my digiphile friends, I've only taken the first step to enjoying an entire planet's worth of music. The next step is Roon, a software service in the cloud that acts as sort of library for all of your digital files. I was able to try out Roon last year, when a friend--the same one who convinced me to subscribe to Tidal--lent me the password to his Roon account.

I immediately saw the value of Roon. My friend's laptop not only has a subscription to Tidal, but Spotify as well. In addition, he had downloaded hundreds of high-resolution files. What Roon did was take all these sources and organize them into an easy-to-use interface. I looked up a title, and it immediately delivered it no matter the origin. It could be from the cloud, or it could come from my computer files. Plus, the Roon interface provided many little touches that made listening to digital files far more interesting--original artwork, liner notes and much more. The LP lover in me loved this feature since it was the next best thing to having an album cover in my hands.

I didn't take the Roon plunge back then for several reasons. The first reason had to do with the excellence of Tidal's library. I felt that Tidal was all I ever really needed. Sure, not every title was available, and I had some issues with non-pop/rock genres. While I could find most of the titles by searching through the archives, the classical section was a bit lackluster and it was tough to find specific performances from specific musicians and composers. Second, a Roon subscription was an extra $20 per month, doubling my streaming budget. I held off.

So what changed? First of all, my music reviewing career has taken up more and more of my time. While I get dozens of CD's and LP's sent to me every month for review, most of the publicists and record labels prefer to give reviewers links to digital downloads. Since I tend to review music based on sound quality, I felt that digital downloads didn't offer that same sonic insight--especially since my digital streaming capabilities were constantly changing and evolving. In a nutshell, I didn't always have a quality DAC sitting around so that I could link up my laptop to my reference system.

This has become troublesome, because I might see something that I really want to review, but my sources don't have any physical formats available. So I have to let some of those more desirable recordings walk on by, or I have to run out and buy them--something I still enjoy doing, by the way. Also, I've started working exclusively from home, and my system is primarily set up for CD's and LP's.

Everything changed a few months ago. I started using an Audioquest Dragonfly Black headphone amp/DAC with my laptop, along with numerous headphone and earbuds from a variety of manufacturers such as Cardas Audio, ADL and others. With this rig, I've been able to sit down and listen to some of these digital hi-rez files and enjoy incredible sound quality for what I feel is the first time. There was a short period, in fact, where I had stopped listening to Tidal as much and even considered cancelling my subscription. I was still spending all my time reviewing CD and LP's that were being sent to me, and I felt like I didn't have the time to devote to digital streaming.

I changed my mind once I was offered another chance to try out Roon. This time, I felt as if it had far more value for what I'm doing right now, which is listening to music from a multitude of sources.

Roon is one of those software products that doesn't really make sense until you use it. It's sort of like the Naim Mu-so I enjoyed for most of the last few years. The Mu-so is a one-box digital player. I often refer to it as the best table radio ever made, because it does so much. At first I didn't think I would like it since the music all came from a single point instead of two separate stereo speakers. Over time, I grew to love the sound quality and I no longer thought of the Mu-so as a second-rate source for hearing music. After using Roon for the last couple of months, I'm starting to feel the same way, that I'm starting to look at my ever-expanding LP and CD collection and I'm wondering if it's really necessary to devote so much space to media storage.

Yes, I'm starting to sound like all those digital bozos that I've been railing against for the last 20 years.

What is so special about Roon, especially now? First of all, I no longer have to worry about those huge FLAC and WAV files taking up so much space on my hard drive. Roon keeps it all in the cloud. Second, when compared to old-school music services such as iTunes and even Spotify, Roon is far more dynamic and gives you much more information about your music. The Roon software automatically searches for additional content such as photos, reviews, concert tours, song lyrics, bios and more. In addition, Room has been optimized to work with Tidal. So if you have Tidal and love it, Roon sticks a big gnarly turbocharger on top.

Finally, and this might strike a chord with audiophiles, Roon reduces the money you have to spend on your hardware--music servers, network players and other digital streaming devices. You do need a DAC to get all the great sound from those hi-rez files, but I'm pretty happy with the Audioquest Dragonfly Black, which is the size of a thumb drive and costs $200. Through Tidal and Roon I can now build playlists and take my music, sound quality intact, anywhere I go. It all fits into my laptop bag.

Before I start sounding like a paid spokesman for Roon--I'm not--I should tell you that there are many other library-style options out there. When I posted on social media about how thrilled I was with Roon, a lot of people agreed. A few more, however, said they preferred other services. One of my friends in the industry, a speaker manufacturer, told me that he really likes the Roon interface but he enjoys the sound quality of a couple of other competitors. So your decision to move to the next level will depend, of course, on your personal preferences.

Back to that statement I made about my big LP and CD collection--I really have no plans to sell anything off. I always say that I'm not a collector, but I do feel protective toward the physical formats I currently possess. That's my life there, titles culled over the years. There's a bit of nostalgia here and there--when I bought a specific CD or LP, and what my life was like at the time. The cloud can't replace that feeling, at least for me.

Plus, there's the whole LP thing, how I still get an unrivaled thrill out of listening to vinyl. Whenever I improve something in my system on the digital side, something that takes me away from analog, I usually make another upgrade to balance things out. In this case, I mounted a new tonearm on my Unison Research Giro turntable--The Wand Master Series (up until recently I was the US distributor, so that's been disclosed). But it made enough of an improvement to my already stellar rig that I no longer obsess about buying that "last turntable I ever need." I think I have it now.

I've never really talked about tonearms with the same depth as phono cartridges, turntables and phono preamplifers, mostly because I haven't had a lot of experience swapping out tonearms. I usually stick with what was included with the turntable (a wise thing considering all the Regas I have owned over the years). Dealing with tonearms is fairly tricky, and not for the novice. Mounting and aligning cartridges is a breeze in comparison. But my analog rig is currently performing at a very high level, and that does distract me from Tidal and Roon--for the moment. But if you're still faithful to analog, the digital alternative keeps getting better and better. Roon and other similar services are truly matching incredible convenience to outstanding sound quality, and I'm eager to see where we are ten years from now.

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