I’ve become dangerously comfortable in my reviewing life. My main system is fed by one source—my VPI Prime Signature turntable. Occasionally new ’tables come and go, and the phono stage changes too. Cartridges flow through here also. But no matter how I take it apart, no matter how I break it down, that single analog source is a consistent feature.
It’s a source of pride, my vinyl-based system. In a similar vein, although I’ve converted our entire house to LED light “bulbs,” the 16 pot lights in our living and dining rooms are stuck in the 20th century—they have actual halogen bulbs. The way they dim down really low, the way the color temperature warms as they do so, adds a romantic, rich glow to the space. While the light they cast may initially seem less crisp, the color rendering index of halogens is notably more accurate than that of the best LEDs. There’s a metaphor here, but I don’t want to beat you over the head with it.
As I explained in my inaugural “For the Record” column, I love the LP format. I like the feel of it, the sound of it, the sense of humanity I get from these round discs, and the way I interact with them In Real Life.
That said, my main-floor digital system is fully entrenched in the 21st century, even though it’s kinda stuck back in the 2010s. I’ve got a Windows Home Server v1 box (I know—it’s a security risk) running Logitech Media Server that feeds a Logitech Squeezebox Touch. The Touch has a USB cable shoved up its anus and it squirts out bit-perfect data to my Hegel Audio Systems H120 integrated amplifier-DAC. I don’t review products up on the main floor, though. This upstairs rig is purely for listening enjoyment, and Marcia and I love it. To me, this all-digital system is more of a commodity—it’s the audio equivalent of a corporate supermarket. The basement system is a hippie collective that grows its own produce. I’m comfortable in my basement, surrounded by my records.
But SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider refuses to let me squat in my comfort zone. He’s a human gadfly. “You need a DAC,” Doug said on a recent visit to Toronto. “You need to start reviewing digital products.” Okay, I guess I really should branch out. Other than my first-ever review for SoundStage!, I haven’t reviewed a single digital component. My quiet, 3 a.m. worry, though, is that adding a quality DAC to my review system might raise the possibility that digital can sound better than analog. Then where would I be?
You can’t fight progress. Once I’d made the decision to knuckle under to Doug’s pointed suggestion, I got the ball rolling. My first step was to contact the fine folks at EMM Labs and Meitner Audio. Over the past year, I’ve reviewed (and loved) the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 and the Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 optical phono preamplifiers. Combined with the DS Audio DS 003 optical cartridge, these two components have upended my analog life with the best sound I’ve ever had in my room.
While reviewing those two products, I had several Zoom calls with Ed Meitner and his son, Amadeus, the principals of both EMM Labs and Meitner Audio. I don’t profess to be the smartest guy in the room, but I like to think I’m reasonably well read and nimble enough to pivot in whatever direction a conversation takes. But Ed Meitner is so casually brilliant that talking to him actually makes my head spin. No matter the topic, Ed has so much real-world insight, so many relevant personal experiences, and the ability to drill down into not only why a component sounds the way it does—not just how it works, but would I like to see his patent paper that describes the method?
Short form here—Ed is one of the world’s foremost experts on digital audio design, and if I were to move forward with a pivot to digital, his products would provide my system with an impeccable source.
So, in a subsequent conference call with the Meitners, we discussed the Thorpe Modernization Plan. They offered to send me their Meitner Audio MA3 DAC-streamer, for which I have just received a shipping confirmation. In our chat, I asked what would be their preferred method of serving up data to the MA3. I was pleased to hear that they weren’t overly fussy about how I fed it, as it’s a rugged implementation, and anyway, since it reclocks all incoming data, it shouldn’t matter much.
I asked if they would be comfortable with me using my Logitech Media Server serving a Raspberry Pi, which would send data to the MA3 via the Pi’s USB output. The Meitners weren’t familiar with LMS, but they seemed to think that would be fine. Amadeus did say, though, that they have had good luck with Roon and that I should give that software careful consideration as a source.
That’s good enough for me. My audiophile neighbor Ron is a Roon power user. He’s been trumpeting this software for years now. While my few glances at his implementation have certainly shown me that it has a cool GUI, my background in mainframe programming has predisposed me to blunt, stark interfaces.
“Very nice,” I’d say. “How much is a subscription again?”
LMS is free, and what’s more, it’s open-source software, which warms my heart. Roon is decidedly not free. It costs $14.99 (in USD) per month. You can save some cash by paying a year in advance, or by ponying up for a lifetime license, but I was stung once by paying up front for a one-year membership to a fitness club, which went tits up a couple of months after I joined. So I’ve stayed with LMS, but I guess I need to move with the times. I headed back over to Ron’s and relayed my dilemma. Ron kindly offered to help me build a Roon Optimized Core Kit, or ROCK, which is a computer solely dedicated to running Roon’s operating system. This OS uses a stripped-down Linux kernel, and tradition seems to suggest that it should be installed on an Intel NUC bare-bones computer.
“You can run Roon on any always-on computer,” said Ron. “Possibly even that relic of a server you’re hanging on to like it’s a family heirloom. It’s way underpowered, though. You need a high-torque box. Hang on a sec—I might have something here.”
Ron disappeared into his garage and returned moments later with the cutest little computer. “Here’s a spare NUC I’ve had kicking around for a while. Let’s build it up.” From other drawers and cubbies in his well-stocked listening room, Ron pulled out a 512GB SSD and 8GB of no-name memory.
After snapping in the drive and memory, Ron referred to the step-by-step guide on Roon’s website. He’d built a ROCK for himself once before, but there are a number of preparatory steps that are a touch fussy, so he felt it best that we take it slow and RTFM.
We went with some procedures that were familiar to both of us. First, we flashed the BIOS with the latest version and configured it to Roon’s recommended settings, which included telling it to boot from the USB port. Easy enough.
Next we had to install the Roon OS, which we had downloaded from Roon’s site and then imaged over to a USB stick. We booted the NUC off the USB stick and the OS installed itself onto the NUC’s drive. Again, this was easy enough, as I’d previously flashed Ubuntu (a Linux OS distro) on a couple of my older PCs.
Up to this point, we’d been accessing the NUC via a monitor, keyboard, and mouse that were directly plugged into the little guy. Once Roon was installed, the NUC displayed a helpful message that relayed the unit’s IP address so we could communicate with it through its web interface. We typed “192.168.1.34” into a web browser and up came the basics of the ROCK’s status.
At this point, the build was complete, and it was time to move it over to my house. I hooked the ROCK up to my network switch via a freebie ethernet cable, plugged in the 4TB USB drive that contained a backup of my music, and hooked up the power to both components.
While I was doing the physical installation, Ron had installed Roon on my Windows laptop. It’s important to note that this Windows software is the client. The Windows program won’t function unless it can access a Roon Core server—in this case the ROCK—on the same network. Another important point: although the ROCK is ostensibly the server, it still needs to communicate with Roon’s HQ, which is why you need that subscription. I logged in to the app on my laptop with my 14-day trial credentials (I’d already created an account) and hit the “find Roon Core” button. A couple of seconds later the handshake was complete.
From here, there were a couple of housekeeping items to attend to. First, I had to point the ROCK to my music library on the USB drive. I watched it start to index my music to confirm that it could read the drive. Next, I logged in to Tidal with my credentials. Finally, I checked for endpoints—clients that could play the music. Roon found the Chromecast in my basement home theater, and I confirmed that it could play music to that device. My Squeezebox Touch was absent, though. Digging through the menus, I discovered in the settings that I could enable Squeezebox support on the ROCK. Once I’d done that, I went over to the Touch and pointed it to the Roon library, and sure enough, Roon could now play to my living room system.
A postmortem on the build and installation: If you were installing the Roon Core on a Windows or Mac computer that’s already in place—a desktop in the home office, for example—it’d be really simple. Building your own ROCK is a touch trickier, but it’s not that bad given the detailed instructions provided by Roon. The hardest part is creating the USB flash drive to install Roon on the standalone computer, but there are tons of tutorials out there to give you a hand. You could buy a premade NUC for well under a grand, ask a neighborhood kid to help set it up, and you’d be 95% of the way there. Or you could take the easy way out and buy a premade ROCK from Roon (they call it a Nucleus) or a number of other manufacturers.
Cataloging my music took a fair bit of time—around 40 hours. In Roon’s Settings menu, I bumped up the processing to use two of the four cores, but it still took a while. During this period, the NUC was running quite hot. Class-A-amp hot. Now that it’s all settled down, the NUC is back to just above room temperature, which isn’t really unexpected, given that its I5 processor is only responsible for shooting out a single music stream.
I’m listening to the Roon ROCK play through my Touch right now, and it sounds great. I won’t even try to suggest that it sounds any better than my LMS server, as the two components are communicating via Wi-Fi, and the protocol is TCP/IP, so I can’t imagine a mechanism short of sorcery that could cause any sound quality difference.
Regardless, the interface is just great, and there’s tons more to explore and cover, including DSP trickery. I’ll continue this process of discovery next month when I’ve hooked up the Meitner Audio MA3 and had some time to get used to Roon.
. . . Jason Thorpe