Making Roon Sound Better

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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Chicagoland
I have long experimented with using Roon instead of the native Lumin App to play my music through my Lumin X1 streamer/DAC. The tradeoff has always been the superior sonics of the native Lumin App for all music—whether internet radio, my music files, Tidal, or Qobuz—vs the superior GUI and search functions of Roon, plus Roon’s Muse electronic equalization functions which seem as transparent as any electronic equalization I’ve tried.

Roon Labs has been acquired by Harmon. That could be a good thing--or not. But that may explain the delay in introduction of the new Roon Nucleus models as well as the huge price increase—to $3,700—for the announced new top Nucleus model, the Titan. I sold my Roon Nucleus Plus a while, back, never finding its sonics particularly appealing compared to the native Lumin App, even when using the Keces P8 LPS instead of the stock SMPS to provide DC power to the Nucleus Plus.

Very little hard information about the Titan is yet available. It appears to be mostly a cosmetic change. I haven't found any technical specs. The price is also $3,700, much higher than the old Nucleus Plus. I looked, but most Roon dealers no longer have stock of the Plus and there are few being offered as used or like new online.

How Roon integrates with the Lumin X1

With the Roon Nucleus or Nucleus Plus, from any Windows or Mac computer, the Windows Explorer or Mac Finder can see the Nucleus on your network. Music files can be added to any internal or external storage devices physically attached to the Nucleus by just copying and pasting from your computer.

A computer or at least an iPad is needed, for the initial selection and set-up of the Roon Core. The Roon Core is what runs the Roon software and send music to your endpoint device, ideally a certified-by-Roon Roon Ready streamer. The Core is then told to monitor in real time one or more specific directories for newly added music. I have a terabyte USB thumb drive with all my music files on it. I stuck that into one of the USB ports of the Nucleus Plus I had. When I’ve used my desktop Mac Studio computer as the Roon Core, I used the Mac’s internal 4 TB storage for my music files.

After set-up of the Core, nothing more than your iPad or iPhone used as a Roon controller is necessary. It handles all the display and music selection of music through Roon and Roon then plays through my Lumin equipment. On the Lumin, I just turn on the Roon Ready function via the Lumin App’s Options menu for the X1. After that, I don't even need to open the Lumin App. The Roon App takes over, feeds music to the Lumin X1 and uses the Lumin's Leedh-processed volume control to control the volume even though the Lumin App is not open.

I cannot use Roon at all unless I turn on the Roon Ready option in the Lumin X1 streamer/DAC's options menu. Lumin has designed its equipment to offer the very best sound quality possible through the native Lumin App. To do that, all non-Lumin source options are defeated by default. Thus, without turning on an option, I cannot use Roon or stream from non-native internet radio stations such as Sirius/XM. The Lumin App handles my music files, Tidal, Qobuz, and all internet radio stations accessible through Tune-In as "native."

Thus, if I haven't enabled the Lumin's Roon Ready option, when I go into the Roon Audio settings menu to enable my Lumin X1 as an audio device, I won't even see the Lumin X1 as an available device. Once I turn on the Lumin's Roon Ready option, then I can enable the Lumin X1 as an audio device in Roon. Then, when I play music through Roon, I use Roon to control everything; the Lumin App can be closed and I usually have it closed when using Roon. However, the Roon Ready part of the Lumin makes sure that the Lumin's Leedh-processed volume control is still the volume controller for the signal. The signal path display in the Roon App shows the Lumin X1 and its Leedh-processed volume control in the path.

So, to get the best possible sound from the Lumin App after listening through Roon, I first disable the Lumin X1 as an audio device within Roon, close the Roon app, open the Lumin App, turn off the Roon Ready option, then select my source through the Lumin App. This all takes less than 30 seconds.

Thus I can easily compare the sound quality of particular source material via Roon vs. the Lumin App. The Lumin App has always been a bit better sounding. But the gap in sound quality is narrow enough that for most listening the superior Roon GUI is perhaps worth the slight downtick in sound quality Roon imposes. I've flip flopped on that judgement over the years. There is no doubt that both the Lumin App and Roon sound quality have improved with system changes I've made.

Prior Roon

I wrote an entire thread about Roon, the Roon Nucleus Plus, and their capabilities about four years ago here. The story continues in my Lumin X1 thread starting on page 3 here. Then, even more recently I’ve written about streaming issues and Roon in my Graham LS8/1 and New System thread here.

In recent months I had been using my Apple Mac Studio computer as my Roon Core. My comments about the sonics of this method compared to using the native Lumin App are in this post.

If you take the time to read all that, you’ll see, just as I said in a prior paragraph, that I’ve flip flopped a lot over the years on the issue of whether the Lumin App’s audible-but-relatively-subtle sonic superiority is worth eschewing the better Roon GUI, its superior cataloging and indexing of all music, and its electronic EQ. One thing that has held steady over the years, however, is that to my ears the Lumin App always seemed at least slightly superior to Roon.

One-Box Solution?

I have not seriously looked at the one-box Roon solution (Core and Roon Ready player in a single box) myself since these days Roon seems to clearly state that its sound quality is maximized by having the Core in one room and your audio system in another.

I don't think there are many boxes which qualify. One is from Mytek, but I was not impressed by the Stereophile test results of that unit. See https://www.stereophile.com/content/mytek-digital-brooklyn-bridge-ii-roon-core-preamplifier

While theoretically all streamers and CD players are little computers, the emphasis is on "little." The processing power necessary to snappily run all Roon's functions in real time is considerable--thus the use of full-fledged Intel PC chips like the i7. Having such processing power in the physical vicinity of other audio equipment may end up placing a lot of EMI and RFI noise in the air and wiring of your audio room, causing more sound degrading effects than if the Roon Core is at some greater physical distance.
 
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New Roon Clone with SMPS

I recently decided to give Roon another shot based on what I'm hearing from using my Apple desktop computer as the Roon Core. I'd also like to have the Roon EQ functions available.

I ordered a Roon Labs Poor Man’s Nucleus Plus Clone ($699 plus $50 shipping) from Poland. The Clone is somewhat smaller and lighter than the Nucleus Plus I owned. It also runs cooler. As the Audiogon listing states, while it is less expensive than the prior Roon Nucleus or Nucleus Plus models, it runs the same Roon ROCK software used in the Roon Nucleus and Nucleus Plus, has twice the memory of the Nucleus Plus, uses a faster SSD, and uses the same Intel i7 CPU used by the Roon Nucleus Plus.

Following Roon’s current recommendations, I put the Clone and its power supply downstairs in my family room inside my TV cabinet and connected it to my router via ethernet. The SMPS which comes with the Clone includes both AC and DC cables which should be long enough for most any installation.

When I first started up the Roon Clone with its stock SMPS, it started right up once I pushed the little button in front, the side with the two USB ports. It took a couple of hours to load all my albums from my Terabyte stick, but that's to be expected. I thought it was done, but then it started up again with the rotating circle. The second time it was integrating all my ripped albums with all my favorited Tidal and Qobuz ones. That took another 20 minutes or so. Music was playable all during the loading.

The sound was immediately definitely better than my old Nucleus Plus and also better than using my Apple as the Core: More three dimensional and dynamic, without edge. Blacker background. It definitely seemed fine that way, without any after-market linear supply.

The packing of the Clone was okay; not as bomb-proof as some, but double boxed nicely with degradable (wash them down the sink after spraying them with water) foam nuggets between the two boxes and hard foam inside the inner box holding the unit away from the box sides. Intact and cosmetically perfect. It looks very nice and seems very sturdy and well-constructed.

The only tricky part is transferring from one Roon Core/Server (in my case, my Mac Studio) to another (the Nucleus Clone). This is not a problem with the Clone, it's just the Roon program. You can do all this from an iPad running the Roon App. You don't need to be at a computer screen.

Unless you want to start from scratch in terms of your Roon settings, you should make sure you are using the current version of Roon Server on your current Core and your new Roon Core (the Clone). Then you backup your Roon Database and transfer a copy of that to the new Clone. To do that, I followed the instructions here. Read those over a few times to familiarize yourself with the process.

However, you also need to know that to start the process you'll need to Disconnect Roon from your original Roon Core/Server. Go to Settings>General>Roon Server and click on Disconnect. You can only use one Roon Core at a time. You don't have to delete your old Core, just disconnect it. Then you find your new Roon Core, and update it to the current version.

Actually, you may be able to find the Clone on your network by going to Settings (gear symbol) > Setup > Find Roon OS. You're looking for the "Roon Optimized Core Kit" which is the Clone. Then click on the address, then choose Reinstall the Operating System. That will automatically update your Clone to the current version.

I used a copy of my Roon Database on a USB stick to make the transfer. Since I'm also storing my ripped music for Roon on a separate USB stick, that simplified the process. (For some reason, Roon did not allow copying the database directly to a USB stick. I copied it to my Apple hard drive and then copied it from there to my USB stick.)

I realize these instructions may be clear as mud. Sorry. Having done it this way, I have to wonder whether it might just be simpler to start from scratch and set up Roon as you currently want it on the new Roon Core. That would avoid all the rigamarole with transferring the Roon Database.

The only glitch I encountered with the result on the new Clone was that somehow the Roon Database transfer duplicated some of my radio stations in My Live Radio. That was easy enough to fix by just deleting one of the duplicates.

Adding the Farad Super3 LPS

About the same time I ordered my Roon Clone I also ordered a Linear Power Supply (LPS), the Farad Super3 (about $768 with upgraded DC cable) a Dutch unit recommended as the best for the Clone by Adam, the manufacturer of the Clone.

I'm using the Classic Level 2 DC cable upgrade that Farad offers. That's a copper cable; I avoided the more expensive silver version since I generally find the sound of silver wire to be too bright/edgy/aggressive. I'm using one of my "standard" Absolute Power Cord MkII power cords to connect it to the wall outlet. Those are the same power cords I’ve long used on most of the rest of my audio equipment.

The Farad Super3 LPS is quite small, less than half the size of the Clone, but feels like a brick at 3.5 pounds. Fit and finish, like the Clone, is really excellent. There were no problems at all hooking it up. You use this unit, the included DC cable, and your own AC power cord (unless you want to buy an AC cord from Farad) in place of the Clone's included SMPS and cabling.

My initial sonic evaluation was, yes, this is better sounding Roon in my Watkins system. I immediately noticed that with the Farad Super3 there was more bass, warmth, and midrange fullness. Any hint of the highs being too strong relative to the bass was gone. There was added "thrust" to the sound, especially in the bass, and further added low-level detail. Focus was improved, as was three-dimensionality and envelopment. Within an hour of turn-on, it sounded a bit bassier and fuller than music via the Lumin App.

With the Watkins Generation 4 speakers I’m using right now, what I initially heard from the Farad Super3 is the more-meat-on-the-bone direction I want to push the sound balance in my room. In addition, all the improvements in the sound I heard with the Clone’s stock SMPS were still there. But now I heard imaging and staging that were fully the equal of what I hear from the Lumin App. For the Graham LS8/1 speakers, I'll have to experiment later. They already are plenty meaty.

(As an aside, I'm really not sure if the Watkins Gen 4 sound has yet fully stabilized. There for a while, via Roon I was adding 6 dB to the bass end and reducing the highs by 2 dB. Then that started to sound excessive and I reduced the bass boost to 4 dB, then 3.7 dB and reduced the treble reduction to minus 1.1 dB. But then, during the last few days before I received the Roon Clone, even that amount of bass boost had sounded a bit excessive and the reduction in the highs did not seem to improve the sound. Thus, I'd been tending to run the system with no EQ even when it was easily available when listening via Roon since the subjective tonal balance seemed to have improved without EQ. Strange. I'm not sure if my ears are accommodating to the Watkins, or the Watkins are still breaking in.)

But the Farad LPS comes with an extra sheet of instructions about break in/settle in of the unit. It states that 300 hours of playing time are required before the sound settles down to its ultimate capability. And, indeed, as I listened to the sound of Roon with the Clone plus the Farad Super3 LPS over the next two weeks, the sound did vary quite a bit before it settled down around day 11 or 12. What I now hear is a big, bold, beefy sound which is a great match for the Watkins speakers. In addition, the subtleties of detail, depth, imaging stability and focus, and envelopment I get from listening via the Lumin App are all there in spades. For the first time I have sound from Roon which I feel is overall superior to that I hear via the Lumin App!

Functionally, the only downside to Roon vs the Lumin app via the Roon Clone is that the Lumin App loads music from my music files, Tidal, and Qobuz a second or two faster than Roon and loads some internet radio stations five to ten seconds faster. Even when I’m in a channel surfing mood, usually this Roon “slowness” does not tax my patience. This “slowness” has been there with Roon from the beginning and is not a peculiarity of the Clone. In fact, the Clone loads music faster than prior Roon Core units I have used.

The Muse Parametric Equalization function of Roon works as effectively as ever. The momentary muting of the sound when the equalization is changed is still there, but I’d say that the muting is of a bit shorter duration than it was with prior Roon Cores I’ve used.
 

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