Playing well with others

If our experiences at Sooloos and Meridian taught the Roon team anything, it was do what you know. In our case, that means music and software. Sure, we’ve built hardware and shipped mass-market apps, but when your heart’s not in something, it shows.

The spark that inspired the founding of Roon Labs a year ago was the idea that there weren’t great experiences available to people who love music, audio, or both. A few streaming services have made some interesting mobile apps, but those experiences don’t translate well to listening in the home; they often don’t offer reasonable audio quality and they’re designed to be, well, mobile. Conversely, much of the software that’s designed to be used with audio systems leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of user experience.

Two sides to the story

Our vision was to create a product that does two things better than anything else. First, it should gather up all your music (whether that’s ripped CDs, downloaded files, and/or streaming content) and present it in a rich context that showcases the people behind the music and how they connect with one another. Second, it should be able to play that music on any piece of audio hardware you have, either in one room or around your home.

The first six months since Roon’s launch were squarely focused on the first part of that story. Those users who have been with us from the beginning will have seen a steady stream of new features designed to support more types of content and provide better and deeper information about it.

Starting at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, we began to talk about our approach to the second part, which really represents how Roon evolves from being a cool piece of desktop software to a multi-device, multi-room music system.

Roon Tested

There’s a ton of audio equipment out there, and job one for us was to make sure that Roon can work with it. A cornerstone of our philosophy is that it shouldn’t be necessary to buy into one hardware ecosystem or another to have a great music experience, so working with the gear people already have was top priority.

Looking at the various streaming protocols and the hardware that supports them, we decided to begin with USB DACs (scarcely a category five years ago, but now ubiquitous), AirPlay, Squeezebox, and Meridian streaming to give us a broad base of supported products. Each of these systems has its idiosyncrasies, and within each you quickly find that not all products are created equal.

In an attempt to provide some clarity (and some confidence) for our users, we reached out to a variety of manufacturers to collaborate on testing their hardware with our software. Fortunately, most brands have been very receptive and signed on as partners, and the list of Roon Tested products is growing steadily.

So much for utopian standards 🙁

Our next project was to design a means for high-performance streaming. The goals were support for high resolution audio, PCM and DSD content, hardware clock control, multi-room synchronization, and tight integration of hardware and software for volume and other controls.

The only standard that promises these features is UPnP (and its derivative, DLNA) but as anyone who has used a UPnP product can tell you, it’s a great idea on paper but the reality is a little shocking. Because UPnP is a specification without a central certification scheme, implementations vary widely and the dream – interoperability between all your devices – doesn’t really pan out.

There’s one more wrinkle. The architecture of standards like UPnP assumes many “lightweight” devices interoperating in a decentralized way on a network. Roon doesn’t work this way, because presenting music in the rich way that is our DNA, requires some fairly heavy lifting. The way we escape the tyranny of the “list of tracks” user experience is by breaking the “dumb client” model.

Roon Ready

Given our years of experience designing multi-room streaming protocols, we figured it made more sense to start from scratch and design a system that really works – both for hardware manufacturers and for end users. We developed Roon Advanced Audio Transport (RAAT) and distribute an SDK to audio companies which they can implement in their network player products.

In the process of certifying partner devices, we’re able to guarantee that Roon Ready network players will appear as outputs in Roon, synchronize with other devices, receive audio optimized for their capabilities, and allow the user to control them right from within Roon.

Of course we had no idea if anyone would be interested, but since we embarked on this path the reception from the audio community has been overwhelmingly positive. Our first partners – Auralic and Sonore – showed working demos at CES last month and are shipping Roon Ready players now. IQaudIO, which makes a DIY Raspberry Pi-based streamer, is certified and ready to ship.

The list of companies currently developing Roon Ready players – many of whom we can’t yet disclose – is truly a who’s who of audio brands, which is as humbling as it is exciting. Roon Ready offers them the opportunity to differentiate on the basis of what they do best: producing great-sounding equipment. And it makes us sound great in the process 🙂

In the Sooloos days we competed with audio manufacturers, but in this new world we all get to play nicely. It seems that doing what you know is an idea whose time has come for the whole industry.