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Roon is must-have software for hardcore music fans

Michael Brown | May 21, 2015
Fair warning to fans of high-end audio: Don't sign up for the free two-week trial to Roon Labs' Roon media server unless you're prepared to commit to the $119 annual subscription. Once you've spent some quality time listening to music and managing your music library with this software, you won't want to go back to whatever you were using before.

Roon can also stream music to any device that supports Apple's AirPlay technology, which gives the software better multi-room audio capabilities. You can send independent streams to each AirPlay endpoint (as well as to the primary computer and any other networked PC or Mac endpoints), or you can group AirPlay endpoints in zones and stream the same music to them.

AirPlay isn't the best multi-room audio system I've tested. Everything gets converted to Apple Lossless, which is fine unless your source material is encoded at a higher resolution or sampling rate. Stream a 24-bit/96kHz FLAC file for instance, and AirPlay will down-convert it to 16-bit/44.1kHz Apple Lossless. That particular sampling-rate conversion is especially problematic: Because 96 is not an even multiple of 44.1, the down-conversion can introduce all sorts of quality issues.

To Apple's credit, AirPlay is widely supported and can be found in a number of powered speakers and A/V receivers. I did a limited amount of wireless streaming using the new Wren V5US powered speaker and the even newer Naim Mu-so soundbar and experienced some troubling dropouts on both speakers. It's impossible to pinpoint exactly which point device in the chain is responsible for this; it could have been the Roon software, the AirPlay protocol, my Wi-Fi network, or the endpoints themselves.

The folks at Roon Labs say my AirPlay experience isn't typical, but I can't recommend using Roon and AirPlay as a multi-room audio system unless positive experiences from other reviewers indicate my experience really was an anomaly. If you want a higher-end solution, Roon also supports Meridian's streaming hardware, and it will support Linn Product's hardware soon.

When I asked about other streaming protocols, such as DTS' Play-Fi and Qualcomm's AllPlay, Roon Labs Founder and CTO Danny Dulai said "Play-Fi and AllPlay are being looked into, but we haven't been super happy there. Google Audio Cast is another interesting system we are looking at."

Roon Labs Founder and Director of Engineering Brian Luczkiewicz tells me the company is also developing a streaming protocol of its own. Dubbed RoonSpeaker, one of the protocol's primary benefits, according to Luczkiewicz, will be that "the endpoint owns the master clock. This allows us to take advantage of the premium clocking hardware in high-end endpoints in a way that [other protocols] can't." Here's hoping some of the same companies building wireless speakers in the price range of AirPlay, PlayFi, and AllPlay products will adopt it. 

The last highlight of the Roon's streaming capabilities that I'll point out is its ability to inform you of exactly what's happening to the audio stream at every stage of playback. Roon will not only identify the final output stream as low or high quality (with a colored icon in addition to text displayed in a pop-up window), but it will identify the file format, sampling rate, and bit depth of the source file, and then report every step of the conversion until the stream is output.


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