Roon Labs Roon v.1.0 music-playback app
All such library management combinations and standalone solutions are designed to do the same job: help you sort through thousands of possible music choices and pick a tune to play right now, or set up a playlist for the next few minutes or hours. In recent years, the product that arguably (although there's no doubt in my mind) managed these things best in the context of a large music collection was Sooloos: an intuitively useful music-management application combined with a single-unit touchscreen, CD-ripping transport, storage drive, and server (footnote 1).
Into this fray steps a new company, Roon Labs, with a standalone desktop app intended to take the sorting of music to the next level, for both audiophiles and regular music lovers.
The Road to Roon
Though Roon Labs is less than a year old, the company's pedigree goes back more than a decade, to when a small group of music and tech nerds began pondering better ways to manage their large collections of digital audio files. A couple years later, Sooloos LLC was established, and their first products hit the market in 2006. In late 2008 Sooloos was bought by Meridian Audio, and several Sooloos employees remained with the company, to continue to develop the Sooloos software and touchscreen-intensive hardware, as well as to create a custom music-player application that Meridian licensed to Hewlett-Packard, under the name HP Connected Music.
Fast forward to last January's 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where I first experienced the Roon Labs system in beta form, discreetly demonstrated in a quiet lounge at the Mirage hotel. Michael Lavorgna, editor of our sister online publication AudioStream.com, had joined me and the three founders of Roon Labs, and the beta product was booted up on a laptop. The product had yet to be named, though discretion forbids me from outing the several cringe-worthy ideas then offered. (Well, I do remember one name that contained the word "cow"...) In the end, they just called it Roon.
Michael and I were impressed with what we saw, but were sworn to secrecy until an announcement could be crafted that explained the new company's relationship with Meridianwhere all three Roon Labs founders had recently been employeesand a reasonably sensible release date and name could be agreed on.
Roon Labs was spun off from Meridian in February 2015, and Roon v.1.0 was officially announced in early April and released in mid-May. Roon Labs continues to have a close business relationship with Meridian, as well as new relationships with such hardware manufacturers as Auralic, dCS, Linn, PS Audio, and others still to be announced.
Roon v.1.0 supports most file formats, DSD included, at resolutions up to 24 bits and sample rates up to 384kHz, and is currently available for Mac OS X 10.9+ and Windows 7, with a minimum 8GB of RAM recommended; Roon Labs says that iOS and Android tablet apps are coming. [Note: these apps are now released]
Before downloading the software from www.roonlabs.com, the new user buys a one-year ($119) or lifetime ($499) subscription, or else signs up for a 14-day free trial, which also requires the user to submit credit-card information. I've seen some grumbling about Roon Labs requiring a credit card before starting the free trial, but I think you'll easily be able to decide if you like Roon within two weeks. There's also been some grumbling about the price, but prospective users must bear in mind that they're paying for metadatamore about this belowwhich is no trivial part of the Roon system.
Roon lets you set up multiple endpointsany Roon-compatible playback device, whether it's a compatible computer or audio hardware from a Roon partnering manufacturerin order to enjoy multiple unique music streams or zones. But the Roon license is assigned to one piece of hardware at a time, rather than to one person, so one of those endpoints must be designated as the host. You can mix Mac and Windows computers (I did), but you must make sure that whatever machine holds the license will always be running and connectedotherwise, the whole thing collapses. If you like to have your music collection with you when you travel, assigning the Roon license to a laptop may be the best choice, but bear in mind: When you and that laptop leave your network, the endpoints left at home will no longer functionunless, of course, you buy a separate subscription for at least one of them. Roon says they're thinking about how to deal with this in the future; for now, one subscription enables the working of one network at a time.
Setting up Roon
I set up Roon v.1.0 (build 29) on my MacBook, which is on a network with a Western Digital 2TB NAS containing some 4000 albums. Once downloaded, Roon presented me with an interactive menu, allowing me to add music libraries from multiple sources on my computer and network. I added to my Roon installation the Western Digital NAS plus the few albums I had in an iTunes directory, and designated the former as a watched drive: Roon continued to scan it for any newly added albums, which it then added to my collection.
To test Roon's metadata services, I exported from my Sooloos system to my NAS several thousand albums with no metadata attached, other than basic sorting information. When Roon started up the first time, it scanned those files; within a few hours, my installation was filled with photos and artist info.
Although not perfect, the results were nothing short of amazing. I'd say Roon got it about 90% right for my collection, and although there were errors, omissions, and errant tracks, Roon Labs claims that the system's performance will improve as their metadata service gets smarter (footnote 2). That said, considering what I threw at RoonI have a lot of obscure musicthe results were very impressive. And Roon continues to groom my collection: something I notice every once in a while, when new album artwork and liner notes show up in my system.
And the quality of the metadata is matched by the quality of Roon's infographics. Sometimes, in the design of a user interface, the greatest distinctions are a matter of tastebe it the taste of the developer who decides what to show you and when, or the taste of the designer who chooses the typefaces and typestyles, and the sizes and locations of various elements. When the right choices have been made, everything feels effortlessand that was the first thing I noticed about Roon: how good it looks, and how natural it feels.
It's all about the metadata
It's clear from the start that Roon is built on the foundation of user experience established almost a decade ago by Sooloosand that's a great thing. Once your files are scanned, you can organize your collection by Albums, Artists, Tracks, Composers, and Works. In Album view, for example, you can sort albums by Artist, Most Played, Date Added, Date (released), and Album Title. In Artist view, you see a grid of artist photos; click on one and you're presented with a larger image and a short bio, upcoming concerts, Top Tracks, Main Albums, and the names of musicians or groups whom this artist Influenced, Followed, Collaborated With, is Associated With, or is Similar To. Links can take you to the artist's website, Wikipedia entry, or Facebook page. These features are arranged in a series of brilliantly organized layers: As you scroll down the page, you get deeper and deeper into their connections to the rest of your collection.
The categories for Composers and Works are, of course, especially useful for classical music: Roon's ability to handle metadata for classical tracks, though imperfect, represents an improvement over previously available playback software. For example, although you cannot arrange a classical collection by conductora category that doesn't apply to most albumsif you click on a conductor's name within an album's metadata, you will then see other albums that include that conductor, and you can use Roon's Search function to locate other recordings based on that or any other metadata, including but not limited to date, period, form, and so forth. (As Roon Labs puts it, "Composers who die will show death dates, and artists will have updated photos as they age. Reviews will rewrite themselves to stay relevant over the years, as will the relationships between artists and their collaborative efforts.")
Links are embedded everywhere. Select an Artist and you are provided links to backing-group members who were involved with the making of other albums in your collection. Selecting Tracks gives you links to other versions of the same song, or to the songwriters themselves: In a step beyond the Sooloos system, metadata in Roon is track-level metadata, whereby unique data such as song authorship is linked to each individual track. For example, while listening to a David Crosby track, Roon linked me to the Byrds. When I then looked at one of their albums, under a song written by Carole King was a link to other artists in my library who'd covered that song. And it just kept going: I could wander my library for hours and never end up where I'd expected to be.
Other features: You can tag anything to create your own collections; bookmark information sources you've visited; create playlists; and explore the history of what you've played in the past. Lyrics are included, if available from a metadata service (Roon found lyrics for about half of my tracks), and you can denote as Favorite anything you like.
Roon incorporates a couple of browsing modes: Instead of picking music for yourself, Roon can curate your collection into Genres for further exploration, or into Discover mode, in which the system compiles an ever-changing custom "magazine" of suggestions, with inviting graphics and annotations. When I got stuck for ideas as to what to audition, I found this a great place to begin.
Footnote 1: The Sooloos system is now called the Meridian Control 15. See my review of that product's predecessor, the Sooloos Music Server System, in the September 2008 issue (Vol.31 No.9).
Footnote 2: Roon Labs says that the user will be able to edit errors, and that any grooming done by the user will be stored separately in the databasethus Roon can continually update the underlying data without interfering with user edits. A user-generated metadata service is also on the drawing board, so users will be able to perfect the data on tap and share corrections.