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.
Who the heck is Roon Labs, you ask? It's a brand-new company, but one whose founders have a history of developing high-end hardware and software. They launched their first product — the $10,000 Sooloos music server — in 2007. That quickly attracted the attention of Merdian Audio, which acquired Sooloos in 2008 and incorporated its technology into its own streaming-audio systems. Earlier this year, Meridian spun Roon Labs out as an independent software developer.
The Roon music server runs on either a PC or a Mac, but it can manage your music library wherever it's located on your network: on the computer's hard drive, on a NAS box, or in folders on multiple networked devices. And you can establish multiple user profiles so that each person in your household can compile their own lists of favorites and have their own unique play history and music recommendations. If mom and dad hate the music the kids are listening to these days, they can ban that music so it never plays on their profiles.
Install Roon on other computers (endpoints) on your network and you can use them as remote controls for the primary computer's audio system, or you can stream your music over your network to those endpoints. In both scenarios, you can choose between the computer's onboard audio subsystem and any connected outboard hardware.
I tested Roon using a Sound Blaster X7 USB DAC/headphone amp on my primary computer (a home-brew Windows desktop rig), and with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins' MM-1 USB speakers on a corporate-issue Windows laptop set up as a remote control. Roon recognized that the laptop also had onboard speakers, and it detected the S/PDIF, coaxial, and analog speaker jacks on the desktop machine. Remote software for Android and iOS devices is in the works, but it wasn't ready in time for this review.
You can install Roon on as many remote computers as you like, but you can't stream the same music to more than one endpoint at the same time (I'll describe some notable exceptions later). While that limitation renders Roon inferior as a multi-room system compared to, say, a Sonos system, Roon is far superior in terms of supporting high-resolution audio formats and codecs.
Where Sonos maxes out with Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) and 16-bit/48kHz FLAC files, for instance, Roon supports FLAC, OGG, and several other formats at resolutions up to 24 bits and sampling rates as high as 384kHz (Roon supports ALAC, too, but that format is limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz by design). According to this post in the Roon forums, Roon Labs plans to add support for Direct Stream Digital files, too (DSD is the high-resolution file format used in Super Audio CD). Support for Meridian's MQA format is also in the works.
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