The controller

March 12, 2023
 by Paul McGowan

The bit in a streaming music system we are most familiar with is the controller: the interface that allows users to browse and select music to play from a music server.

Controllers can be webpages, your phone, your computer, or even a voice-controlled version. “Alexa, play Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.”

The controller is often called the app.

Like Spotify.

The controller doesn’t play music nor does it store music. Controllers are human interfaces that tie together the two main workhorses in a streaming music system, the server and the renderer.

Probably the most popular music controller today is Spotify, but amongst us audiophiles, it is Roon.

Roon was founded in 2015 by a team of music lovers and software developers who saw a need for a music interface system that offered more than just the basics. The team included Rob Darling, Danny Dulai, Enno Vandermeer, and Brian Luczkiewicz. They had previously worked together at Sooloos, a high-end music server and management system acquired by Meridian Audio in 2008 (and then vanished forever).

Roon is all about creating an informed and engaging experience with music. The software uses metadata from multiple sources, including its own database, to provide detailed information about the music being played: artist bios, album reviews, and links to related artists and albums. If you’ve ever used Roon you’ll know it’s a fun experience.

Over the years, Roon has grown to include Roon Radio (a suggestion-based playlist), and real-time audio processing, including upsampling and room correction. For me, none of that is interesting. I just like the interface.

Roon requires a separate computer to run its complex software. That computer is connected to either your local network or the worldwide web where streaming services like Tidal, Qobus, Apple, etc. connect to to your playback device at the command of the controller.

Bottom line, the controller is a user interface like a librarian who points you in the direction of a good book. Controllers don’t play music, nor do they store music.

They help us find what we want to listen to and, in some cases like Roon, they can even help modify and prepare digital music files that are then sent to the renderer.

That’s tomorrow.

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46 comments on “The controller”

    1. Another exposition lecture I think. I am very comfortable with Paul’s explanations. I do not need a discourse of why Paul’s attempt to explain the basics of the configurations of the elements of the discussion are not totally perfect from the perspective of the subtle technical semantics. Words in and of themselves are not to me the important aspect in this topic. It is the context and concept of the what why and how.

    2. You have edited out your first reaction to Paul’s post. Why? I liked and it and it is why I responded above as I did. Your initial reaction anticipated or predicted posts that are to come.

      1. Hi assisi,
        I changed it because I felt that it was less humorous than my final one.
        Paul is a great guy & I have a hell of a lot of respect for him.
        I don’t stream music unless I’m watching YouTube.
        Steven is a highly intelligent & well researched individual,
        but that doesn’t mean that I always agree with him.
        Having said that, we are all far from perfect.

        The last two days of discussions here have been interesting & fun.
        I posted my original comment because I can see today’s topic
        going very similarly to the last two days.
        I changed it because it was possibly too obvious ✌

        1. Hi Fat Rat
          I thought your initial post was more humorous an apt in the context of what was said in the previous two days. I was disappointed when it was no longer there. I thought that it set the scene and anticipated very well potentially what could come in response to Paul’s post today. But I digress. Let it all come out and we will read what is said. More interesting fun as you say. I am with Paul. He to me is trying to encapsulate what can be a tricky subject depending where one is on the learning curve

          1. I’ll make this short and sweet.

            For me, Roon has been a revolutionary, not evolutionarily experience. Possibly because it was my first deep dive into streaming. Most likely will be my last. Roon is constantly making corrections and additions to its software platform. They seem to be always on the job. The only downside for me is lack of true customer service.

  1. I remember going to a demo of Sooloos at a dealer called Music Matters in Hatch End, back in 2007. I thought it was revolutionary. There was a slot to rip your CDs, they appear on a screen and you could select and play from an app on an iPhone. There was nothing like it at the time, just like there is nothing like Roon now. I think the only reason I did not buy at was because it had a non-expandable 500gb hard drive.

    The controller for Roon is called Roon Remote. As I understand it, the full Roon product includes a server part that Paul describes (Roon Core), renderer (Roon Bridge) and transport (Roon RAAT). When we go out and buy a streamer, like an Auralic G1 or a Lumin U1, I think we are buying a device that operates streaming transport applications. It is the transport that links the server to the endpoint (e.g. DAC, headphone amp, etc.), not the controller. In mobile apps like Spotify the controller and transport is one piece of software.

    I am a little unsure as Sooloos for me marked the point where home audio streaming became idiot-proof and there was little or no need to understand what was going on. I bought the Linn DS streaming system a year or so later, also idiot-proof, a design that convinced me that in a static system the transport and endpoint are best in one box.

    It might have helped if this discussion had started with a definition of streaming. This is from Verizon:
    “Streaming – Definition: The technology of transmitting audio and video files in a continuous flow over a wired or wireless internet connection.
    What is streaming? Streaming refers to any media content – live or recorded – delivered to computers and mobile devices via the internet and played back in real time. Podcasts, webcasts, movies, TV shows and music videos are common forms of streaming content.”

    Listening to music on YouTube is streaming – probably the most popular music platform. Clicking on a music sample link on the Octave Records site is streaming. One benefit Covid was that it popularised live streaming of classical music by subscription. So those people saying they have never streamed almost certainly have, without realising it, because it is now in the DNA of modern life.

    My experience is that streaming is idiot-proof and always has been. The problems that arise are usually with home networking and wifi installations.

      1. I read an interview recently that they were a bunch of friends with music in common, some were music industry professionals and Danny Dulai was the software genius (a real genius, not the apple type). They contracted to Meridian because it is fairly innovative, but Meridian were buying in streaming capability at exactly the same time that in the UK Naim and Linn were launching their in-house designed streaming products. So for Meridian it was a quick fix. I also went to see Naim and Linn, I went for Linn because Naim was about ten boxes and Linn was two.

        They were there for over 6 years before leaving. They left because they wanted to focus on software, and Meridian is essentially a hardware business. Their music industry roots no doubt drove the metadata/content/bio side and ultimately Valence, plus the fact that Qobuz started years earlier and was already heavy on content.

        Before going to see Sooloos, I hadn’t been to an audio store for more than a decade.

      2. Hi Paul,
        Have you ever considered having a PS Audio streaming channel? In a way you already do this as Jessica Carson allows tasting (“streaming”) of new tracks/albums to decide if we really like them enough to purchase the album. Perhaps you could have an option to individually purchase separate tracks, helping the artists as well as your company financially.
        Just a thought.

    1. Steven long before Sooloos there were the various Media editions from Windows and apps like Meedio that provided the functionality. What made Sooloos unique was it links guiding you to similar music or artists. But it was hopelessly overpriced and from my perspective to closely linked to a high end audio company. Thinking back there were also systems like Escient that allowed you to burn and manage DVDs and CDs. Though Sooloos and Escient media were controllable via internet interfaces, media were stored locally so I do not think I would call these two streaming devices

      1. The first server I bought (to use with Linn DS) was from a company called Ripcaster. This was a disaster. It used a thinned version of Windows to run Window Media Server. You’d be listening to music, Microsoft would push an update and the machine wold stop, you had to wait for it to complete and then reboot it. WMS, an old piece of Windows software, was pretty rubbish as well.

        I then bought a device that I used for quite a few years. It was a clone of the Naim Server. This was possible because Naim contracted out the software design to a couple of guys who retained ownership of the software and licensed it to other people. This was also a disaster because a power loss could result in a SQL crash resulting in a complete loss of data and a factory reinstall. In the end my device just stop working and died, by which time the developers had vanished and there was no support. Naim saw the error of their ways and when they did the Uniti range they developed their own new software platform in-house.

        These problems don’t exist now, but it was fun and games a while back.

  2. My understanding of the last three days is, in terms of server and controller, we only speak of SW. The HW part is ignored, as it can be very system dependent how HW is used as basis for the SW functions….until tomorrow (as far as I understand)… because the renderer (assumed but never confirmed so far=streamer) has to be a coincidence with a HW due to the change from network level signal to I2S or USB.

    It would have helped to clearly differentiate between storage and server, but I think that’s clear now. It would have helped to point out when Roon or Spotify is mentioned in different contexts, we partly speak of the server, partly of the app function.

    I understand that reducing the discussion mainly to SW parts, simplifies things. Leaving out the possible HW configuration options just makes it hard to agree on terms when talking about HW units we buy and configurations which vary among our installations.

    If all or part of this insight is wrong, I’m lost once more.

    Regarding this sentence: “Controllers don’t play music, nor do they store music.”….

    Servers (when we speak of the SW part, which I understood we did) also don’t store music. They just can, if the HW, the server SW resides on, also includes storage. That’s not true for online streaming services (if we look deeper than the “cloud” level), most NAS configurations or dare disks plugged into a server HW.

    1. Streaming is pure software. Every streaming service makes versions of their apps for the different operating systems they are likely to be used on.

      There is one basic hardware issue. If you use your phone as the transport, as most people do, because the endpoint is usually a pair of headphones, if someone calls you the music stops. Hence most people put a transport in their audio system, dedicated to that task. As they mostly cost around $500 to to $1000, it’s no big deal.

      That’s why I don’t understand Paul’s essentials because if there is one piece of hardware you are ever likely to buy, it’s a network audio transport (often just called a streamer).

      1. That would be the most interesting part, the roles in various configurations…

        In case of a complete online streaming setup, I’m with you, HW plays no role except for the tablet/phone for the app and a streamer?=renderer=endpoint=network transport (as you call it) for connecting the stereo to the server/storage part of the online service.

        As you say, when playing from the phone from local storage to headphones, it’s all in the phone. In a NAS configuration everything is separated with a variety of mixed HW associations to the SW services.

        The confusion starts again when we speak of buying a “server” or “streamer” as a piece of HW (Innuos or others), as mostly the “servers” have attached storage and streamers/renderers built in and the streamers often even inherit an optional basic server SW and have the option to attach storage.

        The cases of pure, dedicated server HW/SW units, at least without renderer (optional storage is mostly offered anyway) seem quite rare (e.g. Innuos doesn’t offer one, the initially intended PSA “server” also wouldn’t have been one) and pure separate “streamers” without an inherited server function and the option to attach a hard disk also seem quite rare. Except some network cards, the upcoming Airlens is the only one I quickly have in mind.

        So what I really learned positively from these days is to concentrate on the SW side (except of the streamer maybe) and ignore HW terms as most of them are wrong…they should be named by the combination of various functions they inherit in very different ways.

        1. With Roon, which is totally seamless, you can set you phone as an endpoint and stream away to headphones, irrespective whether the music is stored locally or online. They now have a thing called ARC to use Roon remotely, when not in range of your local network. That has understandably caused a myriad of networking and security issues.

          It does get complicated because different products have different functions and they change with software updates. Innuos originally just made servers with no music transport functions. They then built in capability to host Roon Core (obvious as it is server software) and Roon RAAT (Roon’s music transport). Innuos use an operating system from Logitech and a transport called Squeezebox, which were very popular, and the controller is called iPeng, so that is another option.

          I had my device in my office, where it worked as a server and transport, feeding an office system by usb. My main system only used it as a server. I only bought the unit because Devialet Expert had a software upgrade that made it Roon Ready, i.e. including the Roon transport software, so all that was needed was a network connection to the server.

          That changed again when Innuos released its own transport software. I’d also purchased an SSD QNAP for non-audio use, but was perfect for Roon Core (in fact by chance I’d bought the model Roon recommends).

          So a box I bought 3 years ago as server to host Roon Core is now being used as a transport and the Roon Core has moved somewhere else.

          To add insult to injury, I may have moved the server function, but the library has remained on the Innuos, which is why I insist server and library are different.

          A similar thing happened in 2015 when my Auralic Aries, a pure transport, had a software upgrade and became a server as well. Because of that, I could have two Aries sharing the same library.

          So you just have to hope that your hardware has the processing power, capacity and connectivity that can cope with the inevitable upgrades.

      2. How well does your software run without hardware? They intertwined like conjoined twins.
        The hardware needs specific instructions. The software / firmware does that. How it does it and how intuitive it is to any user is where the jump into the deep end starts.

        A phone for example has all the pieces built in – the server – the controller – the renderer. How that is all put together and what features they have is what sets things apart.

        1. A software product is basically one that only requires a specific operating system, hence is not dependent on any specific hardware. I would have thought that obvious.

          I understand that is why developers far prefer iOS, because it is a closed system that only runs on apple devices. There are so many versions of Android modified by a multitude of hardware manufacturers, developing android apps is much more complex if not impossible. Auralic have never done an Android app.

  3. Paul I think you nailed the description. So I am anticipating far fewer comments today. Than you for the series and I hope you will return to the topics of storage, library, server, and renderer taking into account all the comments received in the last two days.

  4. Hi, As user of Roon I must add that it also provide Bit upsampling, equalization , volumen control, show information about the music bit’s depth
    What are the differences in musical quality between different controllers? and to what are those different qualities generated?

  5. For some reason that I cannot completely explain, this discussion of streaming has made me think of cassettes. I see streaming as a huge victory for the suits that run the major music labels. ( I have a very poor opinion of these people. ) These people have worked for decades to figure out how to get consumers to pay for listening to their music every time they play it. Streaming comes very close to doing that. I then flashed back to when cassette decks that could record and play came along. The major music labels went crazy. The idea that you could make a copy of a vinyl record ( the main media back then ) and give it away or trade it with one of your friends without them having to buy the record was unthinkable to them.

    1. Tony do you see the day coming where the industry will move away from a monthly subscription to pay per play billing? And if yes, when do you think that might happen?

      1. Like BMW & their heated seats?

        “Dear satisfied Beemer owner, your derrière defrost tushy toaster was activated thirteen times last month for a total of 156 minutes at $.xx per minute, per cheek – thus your monthly butt budget balance owing is $xxx.xx…. Our vehicular monitoring records also show that at your rate of turn signal indicator usage, you turn signal bulbs should never require replacing…” 😉

        I do realize that artists get paid (a sad pittance amount) per spin on Tidal, so when I find a new artist or album I like, I will repeat play that artist while I am listening to music on other sources or even their cd. Every bit helps!

        “And in the news today, a woman discovered her husband left her for another woman who ran away together on a six month extended travel adventure. The scorned woman plugged her husband’s BMW in, turned on the ignition and turned all seat heaters to high. Rumours state she also placed a frozen fish on each seat…”

        Look, I’m not saying women are vindictive or evil, I’m just saying if you’ve just had a major blowout with your sweet, sweet gal, and you stormed out of the house to cool off… you MIGHT want to consider picking up a clean new toothbrush along with those flowers…

        1. I’m glad (a) I read your post as it made my day (b) my wife loves me (c) in case b is incorrect, my car does not have heated seats.

    2. Tony, what would you suggest I use to listen to music while I’m driving. At present, I’m being held hostage by Sirius/XM. They’ve got me by the shorthairs. Listening to Jazz while I’m driving is really pleasurable for me especially when I’m stuck in South Florida traffic which isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. Another hostage situation. Wish I was back in Westchester County.

    3. Irrespective of format, most music is protected by copyright and it is illegal to copy, sell or distribute. So streaming has just made it harder to do something that was always and remains illegal.

      1. Steven i believe in the US, if you have purchased the medium, your right to copy for personal use is legally established. So you can copy your CD to CDR or tape for use in your home, car, boat, wherever you wish. But for obvious reasons you cannot distribute those copies.
        I do not know if the same holds true for downloads . But clearly backups are essential

      2. English Steven,

        I have a huge amount of music in my iPad and a lot in my iPhone as sometimes I use them when I travel (airplanes). Most cars have Apple Play and I can stream the music to the car using it.

        No problem.

    4. Yeah, Tony,

      The licensing did not change when we could replicate the music. People overlooked the rights of musicians… “what one little copy to anyone?”…

      Much like a copy on a computer operating system… easy to overlook the fact that the actual software is not really owned by the one that has a DVD or a downloaded ISO file.

      When we see a filthy rich corporation involved, it’s too easy to forget licensing.

      MS tried with install codes, and then activation. And now we are paying monthly or annually to use it.

      Even public playback f music or video has caused various agencies to charge (per event or annually) for the privilege.

      And if the musicians retain ownership and receive royalties, all the better.

      This is why I love to purchase Octave recordings.

      1. John, When I was making cassette copies of my alums and swapping them around it did not real harm to the musicians. The harm to the musicians was done by the major music labels. Why do you think The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started their own labels? It certainly wasn’t because people like me were making cassette copies of their vinyl records.

        Today, very occasionally, I will make a CDR of a vinyl record for someone who already has the CD of the record. Every time I have done this the person always says that my CDR of the vinyl sounds better than their store bought CD. If only the labels would learn.

  6. It is still hard for me to get into streaming because of the existence of micro SD cards and quality CD rippers when it comes to audio playback while using a DAP.
    I have a DAP that is ROON ready compatible, but I just haven’t gotten that far yet.

  7. I don’t know why these steaming devices need there own app, when the streaming services have apps already. Why can’t they just use the native app? My bluesound node 2 always seems like the app works better with some services than others.

  8. If I read between the lines Paul.
    Re Roon + 100.
    It just works seamlessly for me and the support is great.
    I could not live without this amazing access to the whole music world.

  9. Several years ago I did a 90-day, 99-cents Roon trial that was an eye-opening experience (if not necessarily an ear-opening one). I was astonished at what it could do. But the cost was too steep for me.

    I don’t mean just the dollar price of admission, though I admit I found it daunting, especially since I’m now at the age where a “lifetime” subscription to anything becomes an exercise in balancing odds. No, my bigger concern was the cost to the societal fabric of my family. It’s just the missus and me, and our 36 years together have traditionally involved a lot of evening time in one another’s company. She, however, prefers TV and movies to music listening, so most of my time with the stereo is on weekends, and the occasional pre-dawn hours. But I found Roon so incredibly engrossing that I foresaw a life in which all my free time would be spent in my listening room, with me coming out only for meals, sleep and bathroom needs. That would be far from conducive to a happy life at home with my mate. So I let it go, wistfully waving goodbye from the shore as it sailed away, vanishing over the horizon.

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