Kudos: Unrivaled means for managing and exploring music collections of any size; terrific sound quality; fantastic Tidal and Qobuz integration
While the music server/streamer category has matured immensely over the past decade, and now seems to be built into about every product from receivers to TVs to Blu-ray players, a category that hasn’t seen nearly as much improvement is music management. If you think about it, the majority of systems still force customers to browse their collections in the same nested folder method iTunes has employed since, like, forever.
But as music collections grow in size from hundreds of albums to thousands, locating the music you want to listen to, or just browsing through to see what you have, becomes an exercise in frustration. And forget about trying to discover new music you might like. Even with an abundance of streaming services, many people just resort to listening to the same Pandora station, Sirius channel, or Spotify playlist.
This is the problem that Roon was created to resolve.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Roon Labs team is fanatical about managing large — and I mean hundreds of thousands of songs large — music collections in the most attractive and user-friendly manner possible. And where other companies might focus on adding new streaming services, or building wireless speakers, Roon’s focus is on crafting the most world-class user experience possible.
You might remember Sooloos, a company formed in 2004. Beyond some gorgeous hardware, Sooloos’s real secret-sauce was its rich metadata and track tagging features that tamed even the largest collections. Sooloos was acquired by Meridian in 2008, where much of its technology was incorporated into Meridian hardware.
I bring up Sooloos for two reasons; one, in many ways it is the spiritual soul of the Roon experience we have today, and, two, Roon Labs is comprised of many of the very same obsessive, music loving engineers and designers that founded Sooloos.
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Roon Labs began in 2015, starting as a software company selling subscriptions to access its music management data service. The Roon team was — and remains — hardware agnostic, allowing its software to run on Windows, Mac, Linux, and NAS platforms, posting minimum specs needed to get the best experience, and having an active forum offering support.
But in the CI channel the majority of us don’t want to be tasked with designing, building, and maintaining computers for our clients, or get involved troubleshooting a customer’s DIY build. We also don’t like getting involved with products that don’t offer any kind of integration with our control systems. And many of our clients don’t want to have an always on and running computer dedicated to music serving.
And this is where the new Roon Labs Nucleus, the company’s first foray into hardware, could be the music streaming device both you and your clients have been dreaming of.
What It Is
Nucleus is offered in two versions, regular and +. They are externally identical, but the + model features upgraded processing horsepower and additional memory for handling extremely large music libraries, multiple simultaneous streams, and some more additional complex DSP processing. Since the base Nucleus is designed for libraries up to 10,000 albums (or 100,000 tracks) and handles up to six simultaneous zones of streaming, it will likely handle the vast majority of installs, and was the unit sent to me for review.
Designed in partnership with Intel, the Nucleus is built on Intel’s highest-performance NUC (Next Unit of Computing) platform. Nucleus is essentially a small-form, purpose-built computer running Roon’s proprietary ROCK (Roon Optimized Core Kit) OS, designed for just one thing: to browse and play music. Visually, the Nucleus has a simple, modern, sleek and cool aesthetic, with its top and sides covered in a continuous heat sink. Its fanless design along with internal memory stored on a solid-state drive equate to completely silent operation that will satisfy any audiophiles. Another nice touch is the single-power LED smartly housed in the back of the unit where it won’t cause any distractions.
Connection-wise, Nucleus offers a single Gigabit Ethernet jack (WiFi is not supported), two USB 3.0 connections, and an HDMI connection. (A Thunderbolt 3 port is also on hand, but currently unused.) These rear panel ports are “set back unobtrusively in recesses inspired by the hangar bays in the Death Star from Star Wars.” I mean, is that cool or what?
Unlike many music servers, Nucleus doesn’t include any storage for a music library. Instead Roon assumes users will have their own preferred method, whether NAS, USB, or adding a drive inside the Nucleus.
I connected the Nucleus’ HDMI output to my Marantz AV8805 for main zone listening. While a set of analog or digital outputs would be great for multi-zone connections, Roon offers plenty of other ways to send music around the house. First, the USB’s can either be used for connecting an external drive or sending audio to a USB DAC. Second, Roon supports both AirPlay and Chromecast to wirelessly beam audio to a growing number of devices. Third, Roon’s SDK is freely available to manufacturers, and many products work as Roon audio endpoints, including Bluesound, Elac, KEF, Krell, Lyngdorf, Mark Levinson, Meridian, NAD, Oppo, Sonos, and Trinnov to name a few.
Once connected, the Roon Remote app (available for iOS, Android, Mac, and PC) is used to configure and control the Nucleus. Upon opening, Remote locates the Nucleus and walks you through connecting and basic setup, which includes setting up a listening profile, directing where the music collection is stored, which endpoints, AirPlay, or Chromecast devices should be enabled, and linking a Tidal and/or Qobuz account.
One of the things that differentiates Nucleus from every other Roon product is its integration with Crestron and Control4 systems. Adding the Roon driver to my Control4 project allowed full control and library browsing, however, the richest Roon experience is definitely had when using its own Remote app on a larger screen such as an iPad or laptop.
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Roon transcodes — on-the-fly — any music file to any device, allowing high-resolution, multi-format, multi-room streaming. Enjoy those 192/24-bit FLAC files in AirPlay zones, or MQA-encoded files on Chromecast devices. Roon streams files up to 384 kHz/24-bit PCM and DSD512, intelligently converting audio to the optimal resolution supported by every device with no thought required by the user. Pick what you want to hear, and where you want to enjoy it, and Roon handles the rest. Nucleus also features powerful DSP such as parametric EQ and sample rate conversion configurable for each zone, allowing the best sound in every room.
The Roon Experience
I’ve spent far too much space talking about what Nucleus is, but it’s the experience of using Roon that makes it so fantastic. And I say using because Roon provides such a rich experience, it encourages an active role in not only exploring your existing music, but, even better, discovering new music.
Gone are the days of folders and lists, as Roon immediately begins analyzing your music collection at the track level, finding an immense trove of information. Selecting an artist gives you high-res images, a detailed bio, concert dates, social media accounts, and more. Selecting an album gives reviews along with full production credits and song lyrics.
Roon’s software also makes connections between artists and albums in your collection, creating an intricately tangled web of your music library that it then presents in a “searchable, surfable magazine about your music.” You can, of course, browse your music in the traditional artist, album, and genre ways, or use Roon’s powerful “Focus” feature to hone in on specific things such as albums featuring Miles Davis, from the ’60s, in 96/24 resolution or better. One thing Focus can’t do (yet) is combine searches, such as to display every recording that features Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. I say “yet” because Roon regularly updates and improves the experience, including an update to version 1.6 just weeks ago.
You can also meander your collection using Roon’s dynamic Discover tab that presents a different view every time you select it. Discover highlights albums, artists, labels, and genres from your collection, and provides little nuggets of info such as albums that were released this day/week/month in previous years.
Roon is great when just managing your own music library, but the real fun begins when you link a Tidal and/or Qobuz streaming account. Once done, you have a virtually unlimited number of albums at your disposal, many of them in high-resolution or MQA. Add any number of these cloud-based albums to your library, and Roon seamlessly merges them with your actual collection.
Tidal and Qobuz are also used to expand your Roon Radio listening options. Pick any artist, album, or track and start a radio station based on the style of music. According to the company, “Radio considers metadata-based relationships, listening history, overall popularity, and significance of content to build a model that predicts the affinity between radio picks and your Roon profile.” Roon will roam through your own collection as well as choosing similar tracks from Tidal and Qobuz, allowing you to discover new music similar to styles and artists you like.
Roon helped me discover that I like music genres called Jangle Pop and Left-Field Pop, which let me use the “Similar to” and “Influenced by” suggestions of artists I already like to find new artists and music I’d never heard of. And then clicking on artists they were similar to led me down a wonderful rabbit hole of new music discovery, similar to the way you use to go through albums in a music store, but far more effective, informative, and expedient. Long story short, I’m now bizarrely into Scandinavian female pop artists like Sigrid, Aurora, Dagny, MØ, and Lykke Li that I likely never would have discovered.
I don’t know a better way to sum up my experience with Nucleus than to say it made listening to music fun again. If you’ve been looking for a music solution for your audiophile clientele, Nucleus checks nearly all the boxes.
- Manages music stored on USB or NAS drives as well as streamed content from TIDAL and Qobuz
- Manages libraries up to 10,000 albums (100,000 tracks) and supports up to six simultaneous streams (Nucleus + available for larger collections and outputs)
- Support up to six simultaneous streams
- Compact, fanless design for totally silent operation
- Streams music to USB DAC, Sonos, Airplay, Chromecast, Roon Ready devices, and more
- Control4 and Crestron integration
- Connections: 2 USB 3.0 (for hard drive and/or DAC), HDMI (stereo and multi-channel audio output), Gigabit Ethernet LAN, Thunderbolt 3 (currently unused); detachable power cable
- Requires Roon subscription (annual or lifetime)
- 2.9 x 8.3 x 6.1 inches (HxWxD); Weight 5.51 pounds