Many people think of Roon as a media player or media server, but it’s neither! Good thing, too, as it would be crazy to spend $120/year renting software to play music you already own, right? After reading this article, you’ll know what Roon is, why you might consider subscribing, and where and how to deploy it like a pro. This is the guide I wish I’d had when I started using Roon six years ago. Even if you’ve never heard of Roon or know nothing about it, you’ll be more of an expert than most subscribers after reading both parts of this series.
The Red Book Compact Disc Digital Audio (CDDA) format does not include metadata (artist, album title and other information)…not even track titles. Modern CD ripping software uses a CD’s track count, song durations, and song sequence as a “fingerprint” to match a CD to one or more online metadata databases, like freedb, Music Brainz, Gracenote, and Discogs. The software populates the album, artist, and track names if there’s a match – a big timesaver versus manually having to enter these. If there’s no match, the software may upload the track names you enter to these databases, saving others the same effort. As content in these databases is mainly crowdsourced, the quality is less than perfect.
Album cover art can make navigating a music library more enjoyable, yet scanning cover art is time-consuming. Most CD ripping software uses the album title and artist to search the internet for a suitable image. Often, these images are scraped from sites like Amazon and Discogs. The software embeds album and track metadata plus cover art into each file after ripping. Traditional media players, like foobar2000, rely exclusively on this embedded metadata plus file names and folder structure to make sense of your music library and present it in a meaningful way.
Roon is different. At its core, Roon is an online music metadata service. Unlike freedb, access to the service is limited to subscribers using software Roon Labs and its partners provide. Roon identifies albums in your music library and matches them to Roon’s online metadata. Successfully identified albums appear in the Roon software with metadata enriched from Roon’s cloud service, expanding upon or overriding what may be embedded into your track files. Roon never modifies your files.
Being an online service, Roon requires an internet connection; however, as it identifies albums, Roon downloads the metadata to a database (local to your installation) for performance and resiliency. Roon’s metadata service contains material licensed from the copyright holders (the bulk of Roon Labs’ operating expenses, besides salaries). This includes high-quality album cover art, song lyrics, album reviews, artist and composer bios, and detailed, searchable album credits.
Roon is also a set of applications for interacting with your music. These applications present your music library, enriched with information from Roon’s cloud service, in a way that encourages exploration. Names of performers and composers are hyperlinked to bios, discographies, and related works. Roon also tells you about collaborators with the artist you are exploring. When integrated with a music streaming service (TIDAL or Qobuz), Roon makes album recommendations and shares new releases. Roon’s presentation is a magazine-like format that is pleasing to read without getting in the way of doing what you came there for, to play music.
Finally, Roon is an ecosystem of hundreds of compatible devices, with varying levels of support and functionality depending on the degree to which manufacturers choose to integrate. Products with “Roon Ready” certification are running code provided by Roon, with every aspect of their functionality verified to high standards. “Roon Tested” products do not run Roon software, but Roon Labs has tested them to verify interoperability. Some devices offer functionality beyond their integrations with Roon, to appeal to the broader marketplace. Unfortunately, this does not always result in the best user experience, especially when competing ecosystems are involved.
In summary, Roon is a subscription service that provides access to continually updated, licensed metadata. Roon’s applications present your music, enriched with an overlay of high-quality images and information, in a way that encourages deep exploration and engagement.
Note: I realize that what you’ve read so far may sound like an advertisement for Roon. Let me assure you that I have no commercial association with Roon Labs. They have not compensated me in any way for sharing this information. I’m just an amateur audiophile who has spent hundreds of hours interacting with a wide range of applications and services to explore and play digital music. My aim is to act as your guide, showing you the surest path to enjoying what a Roon subscription has to offer.
Why Roon Is Necessary
A Roon subscription provides no actual music…only expanded information about the music you’ve already purchased or have access to via the TIDAL and Qobuz streaming services. You can play all of this music in some fashion without Roon, so where’s the value proposition?
If your playback environment consists of a single audio system and you only have a small local music library that’s well organized, Roon offers little value. The enriched metadata overlay would improve the experience of navigating your collection and finding something interesting to play. However, the depth of associations and crosslinks will be minimal, with a library consisting of only a few hundred albums. You likely know your music well enough to quickly find what you want, without needing any advanced search, exploration, and recommendation tools. You don’t require sophisticated features to manage multiple playback environments with different capabilities and optimizations. You may not have other members of your household, each with unique preferences, using the system. I don’t want to talk you out of giving Roon a try, but if this sounds like you, Roon is unlikely to provide sufficient benefit to offset its $9.99 a month cost.
Roon starts to make sense as soon as you have a subscription to Qobuz or TIDAL. These streaming services offer access to massive libraries containing tens of millions of tracks. While they provide rudimentary navigation, exploration, and recommendation tools, there are oceans of cruft to wade through before you find that gem of an album that’s worth your time. Most people feel a bit lost when approaching a library this size, and unless you’re into hip-hop, R&B, and rap, TIDAL’s default recommendations are likely to be disappointing at best. Search for an artist in Roon, and you are presented with albums from their discography sorted in order of popularity, instead of date or name. This makes it easy to select one that you are likely to enjoy. We audiophiles know that the sound quality of albums is heavily influenced by the recording and mastering engineers and others involved with the production. Unlike the TIDAL or Qobuz apps, Roon enables you to search for albums mastered by engineers like Bernie Grundman. The 1,800 or so matching albums on TIDAL are likely to be some of the best sounding recordings you’ll find anywhere.
When your personal music library contains over a thousand albums (roughly ten thousand tracks), you’ve reached the point where Roon’s discovery, association, and navigation features begin to offer real value. You’ll learn facts about performers, composers, and albums that you didn’t know before using Roon, like how session guitarist Dean Parks appears on a surprising number of your albums. Roon will even tell you about upcoming concerts and share links to their websites so that you can support your favorite artists directly. Roon’s metadata overlay enables you to get maximal value out of the music you’ve paid for. You’ll rediscover albums you may have forgotten you own and develop a deeper appreciation for your favorites.
Although you may have one primary audio system for serious listening, most music lovers desire the ability to play music in multiple rooms in their homes. Managing many devices from various manufacturers with different capabilities gets complex quickly. Each may have its own proprietary control app and way of presenting your library. There may be no way to group zones or transfer the playback queue from one room to another. Even if you are comfortable navigating such a multi-vendor system, getting family members up to speed will be challenging. If this is you, Roon’s unified, multi-user control surface and abstraction of device capabilities will quickly become invaluable to you.
In Part Two, we’ll explore the particulars for getting the most out of a Roon-based audio system, including computer and hardware requirements, and how to configure the system and network for best performance and sound quality.
Part Two of this article appears in Issue 147. To read the article, click here.