I dedicated my last post to the joys of building a Raspberry Pi-based Squeezebox replacement, not least of which is that Logitech Media Server (LMS) is free and works well overall.
Audiophiles with deeper pockets, however, have another great option: Roon Labs’ music server software. Roon’s software costs $9.99 per month (which does not include subscription fees for services like Tidal), but it offers a superior user interface, up-sampling and DSP capabilities, reams of metadata, a great recommendation engine, and a Pandora-like radio function. Most importantly, at least with my setup, there was a noticeable improvement in sound quality over my LMS-based Squeezebox server. But more about that later.
Like LMS, Roon requires a central server – called a Roon Core – which streams music either through its own outputs or wirelessly to Roon endpoints throughout your home. I initially set up a Roon Core on an older Intel i5 (8th Gen) desktop computer in my bedroom. The setup was seamless and required nothing more than downloading and installing Roon’s Windows-based software. It also sounded great. Ultimately, however, I decided that I did not want to leave that computer on 24/7 and rely on it as my primary music server, so I purchased a used Intel NUC (version 6) from Ebay for $110 to use as a dedicated Roon Core. The NUC (which is a tiny, ~4″x4″ box with ports) has a even older i5 processor, 4gb of RAM, and 64gb of storage, which is more than enough power and storage for the slimmed down Linux-based Roon Core kit that Roon offers for free: https://help.roonlabs.com/portal/en/kb/articles/roon-optimized-core-kit. (Be sure to check the list of compatible NUC devices before buying anything.) Installing this software took a bit more work, but Roon offers a helpful installation guide that walks you through the process step by step: https://help.roonlabs.com/portal/en/kb/articles/rock-install-guide. It took me a bit of tinkering to get the Music codec installed properly, but having a dedicated Linux-based music server that I can leave on 24/7 and plug directly into my router is an elegant solution. Roon sells some very expensive Roon Core hardware, but there is no reason to waste your money on that when you can spend between $100 and $150 on eBay and get exactly the same results.
To set up Roon endpoints, I simply repurposed the Raspberry Pi devices that I had previously been using for LMS. Ropieee – available at https://ropieee.org/ – offers free software that you can flash to your Raspberry Pi’s memory card to convert it to a Roon endpoint. It even works with the official Raspberry Pi touchscreen, which is quite convenient and eliminates the need to pull out your phone or iPad every time you want to pause the music. After installing Ropieee, you connect your Raspberry Pi to your favorite DAC and voila, you can stream your favorite music in high res to any room in your house.
Roon offers a 30-day free trial, and I had no idea whether I would actually pay for the software when the time came. But it took me only about a week to decide that the cost was well worth it, even compared to the $0/month I was paying for LMS. In my mind, there are three primary benefits that justify this cost (although others could reasonably disagree):
- Roon simply sounds better than LMS at lower frequencies, particularly the lower mid-range. I have no idea why, and I was highly skeptical that it could sound better given that LMS is, in theory, simply sending the same stream of 0s and 1s to my Benchmark DAC. But the difference is not subtle. Using the same amp, DAC, and cables, I have tighter, better defined bass with Roon, and the lower mid-range is substantially more defined, leaving me with the strong impression that I was missing key parts of the performance with LMS.
- Roon offers up-sampling, EQ, and DSP features that were unavailable with LMS (and is part of the reason the Roon Core requires substantially more processing power). I don’t know whether the up-sampling is responsible for the audible improvements that I heard, but it could be. In any event, the EQ and DSP features are fun to play with and allow you to adjust the sound to account for room characteristics and your own preferences (for all you bass heads out there!).
- Roon’s recommendation engine is life changing. This is probably the single biggest reason that I pay for Roon beyond the sound quality. When listening to your favorite artists and albums, Roon will recommend other artists that you may also like, leading to afternoons spent exploring “new” music (which in many cases is quite old) that you would probably never have discovered through LMS.
But there are some major downsides to Roon as well:
- Roon can pull in all of your local music from a NAS or other source, but it is only compatible with two streaming services: Tidal and Qobuz. Those are the two best in my opinion , but this could be a dealbreaker for dedicated Spotify users.
- Roon does not work with Pandora, but instead has its own radio feature that you can configure to automatically start playing similar music when your selected tracks end. I find this feature to work well (although I have never been a heavy Pandora listener), but if you love Pandora and have carefully curated your stations, Roon may not be for you.
- Roon is obviously expensive.
Overall, I was skeptical of Roon before trying it, but I’ve become a dedicated user and anticipate remaining one for the foreseeable future. It is easy to set up, remarkably easy to use, and it has led to countless hours of enjoyable listening. Most importantly, it has improved the sound quality of my system and has led me to discover many new artists and albums. Is that worth $9.99 per month? For me it is.
Definitely not worth a monthly subscription fee to me. I stream bit-perfect hi-res music (DSD/DoP + PCM up to 24/192) from a laptop to my SB Touch connected asynchronously via USB to my DAC, for free. I certainly have no desire for “fun” EQ and DSP effects. “Roon simply sounds better than LMS at lower frequencies, particularly the lower mid-range. I have no idea why…” This suggests either 1. something wrong with your LMS set-up was stopping you getting a bit-perfect stream, OR 2. Roon is not bit-perfect but is modifying the sound in a way you prefer, OR 3. the placebo effect is deceiving your ears (and the effect can be very powerful). To rule out option 3, conduct blind listening tests.