Streamed music always seemed to me like a great idea, but one that, over the years, I have had begun to have serious doubts about. I know that, in many households, music has been somewhat relegated to commodity-level these days, but the systems I was hearing had left me unimpressed, despite the hype. As I began to dip my toe into the world of high-end streaming I was encouraged by the process but still generally disappointed with the overall quality I was hearing. Would it take years before we had the necessary equipment and software to really explore its potential and depths? Compact Disc was like that and we all blamed the early discs for their rather thin and indifferent sound. It took a long time for me to both accept it as a main listening source and even longer to understand that there was a lot more music on those early discs than I had ever thought. I hoped that digital file storage and streamed music wasn’t going to take so long to reach maturity because when digitally encoded music for the home first came to prominence in the early 1980’s, it absolutely stank.
The dream that streaming has always promised the music-lover is the world of high-quality music at your fingertips. Through lossless streaming from companies like Tidal, this dream has notionally become reality, or at least has been on the cusp of real success. In fact I have had several set-ups at home that have come close(ish) to high-end CD replay but the quality has always been ‘consistently inconsistent’. As the software improved so did the music, but a great sounding album could always be followed by flat and rather anaemic disappointment. Add to this a certain clunkiness in the operating systems requiring all-too-frequent reboots and I have often found it a rather unfulfilling experience. But, as far as sound quality goes, streaming and its electronics have moved on enormously over the past year or so and easy access to an enormous library is, in no small way, thanks to my choice of Tidal, and Roon’s software with its superb detail and implementation acting as Tidal’s able wingman.
Where home audio is concerned, there was a time when our musical horizons were defined by our libraries. How many CD’s or albums had you accumulated? Along with the occasional foray into the world of FM radio, that was your musical world, as seen from the comfort of your listening chair. Then along came iTunes and then Spotify, and the amount of music at your fingertips grew enormously. But there was always the sound-quality to consider if you aspired in that direction. You could plug into all sorts of music and even rip the contents of your CD collection onto any number of storage systems with a few clicks of the mouse. That was fine, but the sound certainly wasn’t. It was often excruciatingly bad. In fact, the sheer amount of material available and the various ways of storing the associated files was always going to require some creative software to bring it all together. If you’ve ever stood before your CD collection wondering what to play or hunted for an elusive disc, you’ll know what I mean. Some companies were ahead of the game here and supplied software providing this gateway and the hand-held tablet was quite obviously the most convenient way of actually seeing what was available to listen to. Throw in some metadata like the album artwork and other details, incorporate this into the mix alongside the world of recorded music and it’s not hard to see the scope for some serious software innovations. This is where Roon comes in.
Imagine a situation where you have a subscription-based account with a company like Tidal, NAS drives crammed full of your ripped CDs, some downloaded files, perhaps a memory stick or two, and a drive crammed full of hi-def files. That’s a hell of a lot of music you can access, and you’ll want to achieve that quickly along with some cover art and relevant information. You may just want to browse your music for inspiration, or even have suggestions made for you. Often there is a cascading effect where one piece suggests another, and this is the way great and memorable listening sessions come about for me. Roon is your friend here and is the richest and most rewarding of its type that I have tried. But, as a fan of great sound, I was never going to get too excited until the quality to rival a top CD player was achieved. For me it’s all about the total experience and not just the sheer convenience.
I had been using the Roon software, alongside Tidal for over a year now and one of the issues has been that running it requires a decent amount of processing power. A tablet won’t do it, so I have been using a MacBook. It works well enough but means that the computer is essentially out of bounds while the music is playing. What has been needed is a separate and dedicated computer for running the Roon core, linked to the network to assemble and collate the metadata as well as providing an extensive view of the library through your tablet. Utilising the Mac also led to some occasionally clunky and irritating reboot moments, which did little to enhance the whole experience into an immersive listening session. The Nucleus is Roon’s first hardware product; a dedicated server with a built-in processor that runs Roon autonomously. Two versions are available: the entry-level Nucleus (see Specifications box, below) and the higher performance Nucleus+ version reviewed here. The Nucleus+ is built around an Intel NUC i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128 GB OS SSD for the operating system with the option to also add an SSD or HDD hard drive to provide an extensive internal library. There are connections for external NAS storage and an output that supports an HDMI connection. Roon also has drivers available now that enable integration with automated systems like Crestron.
Nucleus and Nucleus+ are entirely compatible with any of the growing list of devices on the market that are Roon-ready and there are also an increasing number of products that are able to run a dedicated core too. Roon themselves are a very open company in so far as they make recommendations as to what to buy and how to configure it should you want to build your own server system based around the NUC. You could certainly achieve identical technical results and save some money by doing it yourself. The Nucleus+ is really a self-contained version that brings everything together in a pre-configured, small, finned box with a dedicated custom power supply and no irritating fan noise for those who just want a ready-made single-box solution. Its sole purpose is to power the software and bring you music from all connected digital sources and arrange it into a coherent and comprehensive format that enables you to listen to what you want and as importantly, to explore new musical avenues. It does these things supremely well. But, obviously at a price, especially when you factor in the costs for Roon itself.
Just plug the Nucleus+ into your network through the router, hook up your hard drives and access everything through the Roon app (Mac OS, Windows, iOS and Android are all supported). Straightforward installation and lightning boot up are both exemplary aspects of the Nucleus+ and its simplicity of operation, operational stability and the clean, uncluttered appearance of the app are hallmarks of a great design. It is also a multi-room compatible platform that provides DSD and PCM upsampling as well as multi-channel playback.
It’s impossible to talk about the Nucleus+ without describing what Roon itself brings to the home-listening experience and the success of the whole Roon platform depends ultimately not only on how it looks and functions but also on how it sounds. As I mentioned earlier, for years it has been possible to utilise computing power to access music from the net but it’s only recently that it has begun to sound like anything other than a second quality source. Roon has certainly helped in changing all that and it takes a while to fully appreciate just what it can do. A fully charged Nucleus-based system will have access to music through a subscription-based service, like Tidal in my case and perhaps an entire CD collection ripped onto a NAS. It also opens the world of hi-def downloads like never before and despite always being somewhat underwhelmed by these in the past, I have to say that, after recent experiences, I see them as the future of high-end sound. I was granted access to a portable hard drive crammed full of them and the audio quality of the music has been really very impressive. Music that I have on standard CD that I have been able to compare with some of the same albums in a hi-def format has left me shocked, in a good way. I can’t detect any unpleasant digital artefacts or tonal nasties. But what has surprised me most is the sense of solidity, integrity, and instrumental qualities and character that I have been hearing. At long, long last, the whole streaming experience is now fulfilling the musical potential we always hoped it would.
If you run Roon – and you should seriously consider it if you intend on using stored files and a service like Tidal – the Nucleus+ (or Nucleus) is but one option, but what an option! Roon will change the way you listen to music in that it will serve you up musical options and link them together. Search for an artist, an album or a song and it presents you with the answers by looking at everything you have within your musical library and everything it can find within Tidal, depending on the parameters you set. It will download rich metadata for all your music, including those ripped files and continually look for ways to enhance and expand that. It provides many musical reviews, ratings, and links which will enable you to look at an artist in far greater depth by listing all of their albums or by just clicking the producer or any of the mentioned musicians. This opens up a new vista of possibilities as this aspect of Roon is developing all the time. In this way you discover new music on a daily basis and I cannot tell you how often this has led me towards albums and artists that I doubt I would ever have heard of without the Roon/Tidal axis. It will, as Alan Sircom said to me, release your inner musicologist. It looks good too and has many subtleties that you discover on your journey. It enables you to focus your searches and bring songs or albums together in personal playlists.
For those who are happy to maintain their CD collection in hard form and who have no intention of ripping it onto a storage medium, but just like having a musical asset like Tidal, perhaps Roon is less necessary and there are other 3rd party apps that work well. But, as your library grows, Roon comes into its own and I wouldn’t want to be without it now as I envisage myself exploring the world of hi-def music much more intensely than ever before from now on. It has fantastic potential and depth.
So, if you are smitten with Roon and its abilities, the Nucleus is easily recommendable as it’s small, easy to accommodate and simply allows the software to work at its optimum. Your personal library just keeps growing and growing and it is just too easy to lose yourself for hours while listening to music you have never heard before. This just has to be one of the main reasons for owning a decent system. In the next issue I will be incorporating the Nucleus-powered Roon software into a high-end home system built around a dCS Rossini so I will be able to take a closer look at sound quality and formats. If you like Roon, there’s no doubt you’ll love the Nucleus. It does precisely what it says on the tin. Tidal’s wingman? In fact, the Nucleus is audio’s Top Gun!
Type: Music server/Core for Roon software
Variants: Nucleus – Intel NUC i3 processor, 4GB RAM, 64GB OS SSD
Nucleus + – Intel NUC i7 processor, 8GB RAM,
128 GB OS SSD
Storage: Supports libraries up to 12,000 albums (120,000 tracks)
Supports multi-room systems up to 5 zones
Connections: 2 x USB 3 ports, Thunderbolt 3, internal 2.5” HDD/SSD bay
Dimensions: 7.5 ×22 ×15.5 cm (H×W×D)
Price: Nucleus £1,499, Nucleus + £2,499
Manufactured by: Roon Labs
UK Distributor: Henley Audio
Phone: +44 (0)1235 511166
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