Home Apple Roon Labs' Nucleus music server review: Exquisite hardware for exceptional software

Roon Labs’ Nucleus music server review: Exquisite hardware for exceptional software


Roon Labs’ Roon music server software program is is unparalleled by way of its efficiency, its sturdy metadata help, and its flexibility. You’ll be able to combine any AirPlay, Chromecast, or native Roon RAAT (Roon Superior Audio Transport) audio system and different audio gear for multi-room streaming. The high-end music-streaming companies Tidal and Qobuz have built-in Roon so their subscribers can profit from the Roon’s consumer interface and its deep effectively of metadata (critiques, lyrics, artist bios, style classifications, album credit, launch dates, recording dates, and even reside live performance dates). And that’s simply scratching the floor of what Roon is able to.

Roon is software program, so that you’ll want {hardware} to run it on. You’ll be able to run it on a headless (no show wanted) Mac or a PC, or you’ll be able to set it up on a high-end NAS field (Roon recommends having at the very least an Intel Core i3 Ivy Bridge-architecture CPU, 4GB of RAM, and an SSD to run the server software program). However none of these choices are aesthetically pleasing (or quiet, since they’ll most likely have cooling followers), and also you may run into overheating issues in the event you conceal the gear in a closet. After which there’s the entire matter of configuring Roon itself.

Roon now presents a technique to get all the advantages of its software program in a plug-and-play bundle: Take a look at Nucleus, Roon’s first stand-alone {hardware}/software program answer. I’ve been evaluating Nucleus for greater than 5 months and located it to be a stellar answer. Sadly, it’s additionally a really costly answer, beginning at $1,399 plus the price of storage and a Roon subscription.

What’s Nucleus?

Nucleus is an audio-optimized file server that you simply’ll nearly by no means work together with instantly. It has no mouse, no keyboard, and no show. It’s designed for passionate music lovers who don’t have the time, know-how, or inclination to construct out a pc as a do-it-yourself undertaking.

Roon

Facet view of the Nucleus’ warmth sink fins.

Nucleus runs a stripped down, security-hardened model of Linux that’s optimized to run Roon. Its four-step setup is easy and simple, and you may run it from any internet browser or sensible gadget through Roon’s slick app (I’ll get into that extra under).

Aesthetically talking, the Nucleus seems like an enormous warmth sink. And that’s just about what its steel exterior is. Your entire shell is designed to dissipate all processor warmth effectively. And it really works. Throughout my check interval, I had the Nucleus on a shelf in my Salamander leisure heart. The Nucleus ran heat, however by no means scorching. Air flow was by no means a problem.

Roon Nucleus front quarter view Roon

A entrance quarter view of the Roon Nucleus.

Put an SSD contained in the Nucleus and it’ll don’t have any transferring elements by any means. It’s going to function in lifeless silence. You’ll by no means know you’ve got it in your room, a lot much less your gear rack. When you actually need to geek out, take a look at Roon’s white paper devoted to the design and engineering decisions made through the Nucleus’ improvement.

Constructed-in inputs/outputs

The center of the Nucleus is an Intel NUC (Subsequent Unit of Computing), a small kind issue desktop laptop, and it provides you many built-in enter/output choices: There are two USB 3.zero ports that you need to use for connecting exterior onerous drives and/or a DAC of your selection. The HDMI output helps stereo and multi-channel audio output. There’s a USB-C port on the unit’s rear that proper now doesn’t serve any sensible objective. Roon may (or won’t) allow that port for added performance down the highway.

Connecting the HDMI output to an A/V receiver or A/V preamp processor (like I did) permits you to entry the Roon’s web-based consumer interface, the place you’ll be able to see the Nucleus mannequin, OS model, serial quantity, and IP tackle.

Rounding out the ports, the Nucleus has a gigabit ethernet port. Wired connections are nonetheless the quickest and most dependable technique to join a high-performance server just like the Nucleus. For that purpose, you received’t discover a Wi-Fi adapter right here.

Rear view of the Nucleus. Roon

A rear view of the Nucleus.

Rip  your CD assortment

Throughout my assessment interval, Roon got here out with an improve that allows you to rip CDs on to the Nucleus, utilizing a USB CD-ROM. That eliminates the necessity for for a Mac or PC to archive your CD assortment. When the Roon working system detects a CD drive, it should add a brand new choice known as “CD Ripper.” Ripped tracks are saved as lossles FLAC recordsdata. I didn’t check this characteristic.

Extra growth choices

Along with the USB 3.zero ports, the Nucleus has an inner bay for putting in a 2.5-inch SATA SSD or mechanical onerous drive that’s no thicker than 9.5mm. For my assessment, I bought a 1TB SSD and put in it within the Nucleus’ inner bay. I discovered the method to be very simple with one caveat: The drive wouldn’t match correctly within the Nucleus with the drive’s mounting rails in place.

You can install a single low profile SSD drive inside the Roon Nucleus for internal storage. Theo Nicolakis / IDG

You’ll be able to set up a single SSD drive contained in the Roon Nucleus for inner storage.

I needed to loosen the rails, mount the drive, after which tighten the rails for the drive to suit correctly. The tolerances within the Nucleus’ design are so tight right here that I’m afraid an overly-enthusiastic shopper might attempt to pressure the drive into place, by chance inflicting some injury to the unit’s circuit board. I’m not fairly positive if my expertise is widespread throughout different manufacturing models or particular to my assessment unit.

The Nucleus itself has no transferring elements, so in the event you use an SSD, the server will function in full silence. This allowed me to position in my lounge, the place it by no means known as any consideration to itself.

The disadvantage of SSDs, in fact, is that they’re way more costly per gigabyte than a mechanical onerous drive. A 1TB SSD prices about as a lot as a 4TB mechanical drive. You probably have a big music library, you’d be higher off utilizing an SSD only for the Roon software program, and storing your music on a separate NAS field. Roon working on the Nucleus will uncover and entry these recordsdata irrespective of the place you find the NAS field in your house, so long as it’s linked to your community. Alternatively, you could possibly plug an exterior onerous drive into one of many Nucleus’s USB ports.

I had some minor issues installing an SSD Drive into the Nucleus’ drive bay due to its tight toleran Theo Nicolakis / IDG

I had some minor points putting in an SSD into the Nucleus’ drive bay, resulting from its tight tolerances.

I do want that Roon Labs allowed prospects to attach cloud storage companies comparable to  DropBox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, or Google Drive. Customers may then stream their music from the cloud, foregoing the necessity for native storage. Merchandise like Krell’s Vanguard Common DAC do help such an choice.

What’s the distinction between the Nucleus and Nucleus+?

Roon presents two Nucleus fashions, which look an identical on the surface however have barely totally different inner elements. The $1,399 Nucleus has an Intel Core i3 processor and  4GB of RAM. The $2,499 Nucleus+ has an Intel Core i7 processor with 8GB RAM. Neither price ticket consists of storage or a Roon subscription. Storage prices will range based mostly on sort and capability (Amazon sells the 1TB SSD I used for about $110). A Roon subscription will set you again a further $119 per 12 months or $499 for a lifetime membership.

Which mannequin is greatest for you relies on three components: The scale of your music library; the variety of zones (rooms) you need to run; and the Roon DSP options you plan to make use of. The bottom model of the Nucleus is rated to deal with libraries as much as about 10,000 albums or 100,000 tracks, six zones, and restricted DSP choices (you’ll be able to’t, for instance, use each a convolution filter and DSD512 upsampling on the identical time). The Nucleus+ is designed for every thing above that baseline, and it locations no limits on DSP features.

I used to be initially involved that the Core i3 processor can be too restricted for my setup. Boy was I mistaken. The oldsters at Roon Labs are spot on after they say the Nucleus has been optimized to run Roon. Except some sluggishness whereas the Nucleus was indexing my music library, I by no means encountered any efficiency or latency points.

Setup and listening

The Nucleus is a breeze to arrange utilizing the easy-to-follow, step-by-step instruction handbook. You’ll be up and working very quickly. You probably have an current Roon set up, Roon Labs supplies a knowledge-base article on migrating.

In a nutshell:

  1. Plug in and activate the Nucleus.
  2. Run the Roon cellular app on a wise gadget or obtain the Roon distant software program to your laptop.
  3. Log into your Roon account or set one up in the event you don’t have one.
  4. Arrange the Roon server by loading your music or restoring from a backup and signing into Tidal or Quobuz music companies (in the event you’re a subscriber).
The Nucleus includes an easy step-by-step quick start guide Theo Nicolakis / IDG

The Nucleus consists of a simple step-by-step quick-start information

I plugged within the Nucleus and launched the Roon software program on my smartphone. The app discovered the Nucleus instantly and was able to go. I turned to the Roon’s internet consumer interface and formatted the SSD I had put in.

I’ll be aware that I used to be involved that after I formatted the SSD I had put in, there was nothing to stop me (or another person on my community) from re-formatting the drive. Theoretically, somebody who comes into your own home with the Roon app and entry to your community can re-format the Nucleus’ inner drive. Whereas the danger of that occuring is low, I want to see Roon present a password choice for that command.

The Nucleus has a built-in web server and web-based GUI for controlling the unit’s basic functionali Theo Nicolakis / IDG

The Nucleus has a built-in internet server and web-based GUI for controlling the unit’s primary performance. There’s no password safety, nevertheless, so any malicious one that is ready to entry your community may erase your Nucleus’ major storage.

From there, I used my Mac Mini to browse the community and discover the Nucleus. I opened the pre-shared folders with out problem and started the method of copying over the roughly 14,000 songs from my Mac Mini to the Nucleus’ inner drive that I had put in.

Indexing the music within the library took roughly six days (that’s not a typo). Throughout that point, I did have a minor problem the place the Nucleus would randomly disconnect from the Roon app. I introduced this to the eye of Roon help and we weren’t capable of finding a definitive trigger. As soon as indexing completed, I didn’t have the issue once more.

I plugged the Nucleus into my Anthem AVM 60 Preamp processor through HDMI, after which handed the Anthem’s HDMI output to my TV. Benchmark AHB2 amplifiers powered the setup. I used each RBH Sound SVTR Tower Reference and Revel Ultima2 Salon2 audio system throughout my assessment interval. At one level throughout my assessment, I additionally examined the Nucleus’ USB ports as a digital audio supply for a Cambridge Audio Edge A Built-in Amplifier.

Roon’s setup is simple and straightforward. Theo Nicolakis / IDG

Getting Roon setup on the Nucleus is easy and simple.

As soon as arrange, I may do every thing on the Nucleus that I may do on a pc working Roon. I arrange suitable audio gear and audio system. I setup zones and grouped speaker pairs. The Nucleus even discovered the Chromecast-enabled Vizio P-Sequence Quantum TV I had in for assessment. By way of Chromecast, I used to be in a position to solid the Roon’s interface onto the Vizio for a wealthy visible expertise to accompany the music.

Talking of music, the Nucleus was an excellent sonic performer and didn’t miss a beat in comparison with a devoted laptop working Roon. To derive the utmost profit the Nucleus, you’ll need run the Nucleus by means of a premium DAC.

Through the Nucleus, I was able to setup AirPlay, Chromecast, and native Roon-ready devices for whol Theo Nicolakis / IDG

By the Nucleus, I used to be in a position to setup AirPlay, Chromecast, and native Roon-ready units for whole-home streaming.

I may go on and on about Roon’s characteristic set, which in and of itself would warrant its personal assessment. Suffice to say, the Nucleus proved to be a superior Roon server giving me every thing a devoted laptop working Roon may do.

Conclusion

The Nucleus is an excellent—although costly—choice for individuals who love Roon’s music server software program, however don’t need to set up and run the software program on a Mac, PC, or NAS field. It’s secure, simple to combine, fully silent, and a pleasure to make use of. I set it and forgot it was even there. That’s how all audio gear ought to be.

When you’re technically savvy and suppose you’d get pleasure from constructing your personal Roon-optimized PC from scratch, it can save you a whole lot of {dollars} in comparison with shopping for the Nucleus. Roon tells you nearly every thing it is advisable learn about doing that at this hyperlink.

If, then again, you’re a die-hard music lover who needs every thing that the highly effective Roon server has to supply, however you don’t really feel assured about—or simply don’t need to spend the time—going the DIY route, and you’ve got the funds for high-end {hardware}, don’t suppose twice about taking the plunge with the Nucleus. You’ll by no means look again.

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Newton Allan
Newton Allan is an expert of Apple and has started as a journalist for us (Trevino). He currently contributes for Trevino by writing about the latest happenings in the Apple INC.

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