My journey to get the best experience of listening to music began many years ago, when I was still a teenager. That was when I first dipped my toes into the waters of HiFi. Using the wages from the first couple of years of summer jobs, I invested in a Quad 33 pre-amp and a Quad 303 power amp, coupled with a pair of modest KEF speakers, Goldring Lenco turntable and Shure pickup. The resulting sound was a revelation when compared with my parent’s radiogram that squatted in the lounge of our family home.
Over the course of the years I’ve been through several upgrades all of the components, and moved from vinyl to CD (yes, yes, I know many audiophiles will be frowning). There have been some constants over the years as well: I’ve stuck with Quad equipment. In 1976 I upgraded to a Quad 44 pre-amp and Quad 405 power amp, and invested in a pair of Quad Electrostatic Loudspeakers. Forty years later, they are still going strong and continue to give me much listening pleasure.
The journey with Home Cinema only began in 2008, when I assembled our first flatscreen TV, a Bluray player, a Denon AVR, and eight B&W loudspeakers for our first Home Cinema system. This worked pretty well, but there were niggles. A couple of years later, these niggles grew in importance to the point where I decided to replace the Bluray player with an HTPC. So I built my first HTPC, and coupled it to my Windows Home Server, which by this time was holding the contents of our CD, DVD and Bluray discs.
The next couple of years proved that HTPCs are still for enthusiasts who are able to roll up their sleeves and fiddle about, still I was happy doing that. Fast forward to October 2014, and it was clear that major changes would be necessary in the media application software of the HTPC. Microsoft would be dropping support for Windows Media Center (WMC) and I would have to find an alternative. I found two candidates: Plex and Emby. Neither of them were as good as WMC at the time, but I placed them on the waiting list.
As promised, when Microsoft released Windows 10 at the end of July 2015, they had removed WMC from the operating system, so I needed a replacement. I was still not convinced that either Plex or Emby had Home Theater applications that were better than WMC had been, but needs must, and I ended up installing both on my HTPC, with the corresponding Plex and Emby server applications installed on the Windows Home Server 2011 system.
From my perspective, and requirements, the weak points of both Plex and Emby are that they focus primarily on movies and TV; music and photos are way down the list of priorities as far as the developers are concerned. Another drawback is that both Plex and Emby are in the throes of redeveloping their Home Theater applications, and the new versions are little better than early alphas. We may be six months to a year away from solid releases of the new versions. What is even more disappointing is that the Plex Media Player (the new HT application) is even more limited in its handling of music collections than the Plex Home Theater application that it is supposed to be replacing.
The current state of play is that I have both Plex and Emby servers running. I tend to use the old (now obsolete) Plex Home Theater application on the HTPC primarily for showing movies and TV episodes. I use both Plex and Emby Windows 10 apps on our other PCs and tablets, with a slight preference for the Emby app. I’m still looking at both to improve before being able to make a choice for one or the other.
Music + Movies?
There was a time when the HiFi system was integrated into the rest of the media environment. That was when I had Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 running on our PCs or tablets. Both operating systems supported “Play to”, which meant that I could use a music player application on a PC or tablet to stream music from the server to the Denon, and thence to the Quad pre-amp.
Microsoft has effectively ruined “Play to” in Windows 10 to the point where it is not usable. I’ve given up any hope that Microsoft will get its act together and sort this out; the Windows 10 music player Groove continues to be without a “Play to” function and is practically useless in other ways. In addition, with every release of Windows 10 Microsoft seems content to give us a new collection of bugs, whilst crowing how much its customers love Windows 10.
It’s difficult to switch between the Denon and the Quad when using either Plex or Emby; neither of them seem designed to handle multiple outputs, so I was rather resigned to going back to my physical CDs when I wanted to play music via the Quads.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon a post in a Plex forum that alerted me to a music application called Roon.
Roon – A Revelation
So, what is Roon? It is an application available for both Windows and Mac OSX (with Linux coming soon) that:
- cross references your own digital music library (plus the content of the Tidal streaming service if you subscribe to it) with hyperlinked metadata and editorial content in an intuitive interface; and
- sends digital music in a variety of formats over a variety of connections to equipment that can play it.
It certainly ain’t cheap (a yearly subscription costs $119 per year, while Lifetime membership costs $499). However, people choose to use Roon because it is the best “front end” for a music collection. The only thing like it is Sooloos, which is where Roon came from. Roon helps you organise and discover music.
Audiophiles like Roon because it supports high resolution digital files and the sound quality it provides is second only to a very small number of other programs.
Roon Labs is the company behind Roon, and although it is new, the people involved have been doing this stuff for a while (e.g. Sooloos). Roon Labs is working on the Roon software, and licenses software to hardware manufacturers for inclusion in output devices. So the Roon ecosystem over time will look something like:
- Control Apps
- Core (the central library management system and database)
- Output devices
In terms of software, Roon Labs are leaning towards:
- Roon (all-in-one)
- Roon Remote (Control App + Outputs (if applicable))
- Roon Server (Core + Outputs)
- Roon Bridge (Outputs)
Plus you can get output devices from hardware manufacturers:
- Roon Ready Audio Devices (Networked output devices, implementing RAAT – the network protocol used by Roon)
- Roon Certified USB Device (USB devices that are known to work well and without quirks with Roon)
And you can get server devices from hardware manufacturers (these devices run Roon Core and may or may not include Outputs):
- Roon Core Certified Devices (Roon takes these devices into consideration when planning for the future, and assures they have a very long life with Roon)
- Roon Core Capable Devices (Devices that work fine with Roon for now, but will not be taken into consideration when planning for future updates. For example, ARM, Intel Atom and J1900 based devices).
Roon Labs haven’t committed to all the names yet, and that Roon Core Certified vs Roon Core Capable thing isn’t nailed down yet.
Being an (ex-)Software Architect, I was impressed by the software design, and decided I’d give it a trial.
Roon’s user interface is very elegant, and blows those of Plex, Emby and Groove clean out of the water. The entry screen gives an overview of your collection (note that it can be personalised for different users).
The top level menu immediately shows that in addition to Albums, Artists, and Tracks, Roon also knows about Composers and Works – these are elements that Plex, Emby and Groove haven’t got a clue about.
What I particularly like is that it can be clean and simple to use, but it is also easy to slice and dice your music collection (using the Focus feature) to find that hidden gem.
Or you can choose for serendipity, and follow links from the Discover screen, which changes over time:
Hans Beekhuyzen, a Dutch audiophile, has made a good introduction (in English) to the Roon user interface on his YouTube channel:
I decided I would trial a client/server configuration of Roon – have the Core component of Roon (RoonServer) installed on the Windows Home Server 2011 system, and install Roon software on all our tablets and PCs – including the HTPC. That way I could use any device to play back the content of our music library.
I also added an Audioquest Dragonfly DAC to the HTPC to connect it to the Quad pre-amp. Roon can support multiple outputs, so with the Roon software on the HTPC, I could easily choose to play music either through the Quad or through the Denon.
I ran into a couple of problems:
- The RoonServer software didn’t really like running on WHS 2011, and Roon Labs don’t support WHS 2011.
- Streaming music (FLAC 44.1 kHz, 16 bit stereo format) from RoonServer to Roon running on tablets or laptops (i.e. devices connected via WiFi) was occasionally problematic. The streaming would break or stop altogether. This does not happen with the same music streamed via Plex or Emby.
I solved problem 1 by deciding to migrate our server system off WHS 2011 to Windows 10 (which Roon Labs do support). The writing has been on the wall for a while that I would eventually have to do this migration. Microsoft stops mainstream support of WHS 2011 in April 2016. This issue with RoonServer was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and provided the impetus to migrate.
I’ve provided Roon logs to Roon Labs for the second problem, and they are investigating. I suspect that it is caused by the fact that I have two access points for our WiFi network here – the main access point at the router in the meter cupboard at the front of the house, and a repeater in the attic. In some parts of the house, a tablet will dynamically switch between taking the Wifi from the router or the repeater and vice versa. The network traffic of Roon seems to be a fairly constant 1,5 Mbps:
whereas that of Plex or Emby is much more “bursty”:
I am confident that this issue can be dealt with, and if the worst comes to the worst, I will still be able to use the tablets to browse the library and to control playback to the HTPC and the Quad. This feature comes in the upcoming version 1.2 of Roon. I can then continue with using Plex and Emby for music on our WiFi connected devices. Not perfect, but workable.
The journey is not at an end, but I think, at least as far as my music is concerned, I’ve reached a basecamp where I can pause awhile. It’s nice to be able to hear my music as it was intended to be heard on my Quad HiFi system once more, and that now includes high resolution music purchased online.
Yes, I’ve crossed the Rubicon and invested in a lifetime subscription to Roon. I just hope that both I and the company can survive long enough to give me a decent return on my investment…
With regards to our Home Theater experience, either Plex or Emby do it pretty well. I’ll wait to see how their Home Theater clients develop before deciding which one to go for. In the meantime, the now obsolete Plex Home Theater serves its purpose.