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The Maximum-Horsepower Center of Your Roon Music System
Roon transforms the experience of browsing music. Artist photos, credits, bios, reviews, lyrics, tour dates, and composers are located automatically, then interconnected by links to build a surfable, searchable digital magazine about your collection. And Roon finds all the same links between your personal files and the millions of tracks available on TIDAL, so you can start with the music you know, then explore and discover new music from the world beyond your collection.
Nucleus is the center of your Roon music system. It’s the housekeeper, the traffic cop, and the brain that takes care of the music in your life. Using Nucleus, Roon manages all your music – on hard drives, NAS, and streaming content – and allows you to play it on all the audio devices around your home. Nucleus is the best way to run Roon, at any price.
Just plug Nucleus into your network, connect your hard drives, download Roon remote apps (iOS, Android, macOS, Windows) and you’ll be ready to play music using a wide variety of audio devices, including AirPlay, Sonos, Roon Ready, Devialet, KEF, Meridian, Squeezebox, and a huge variety of USB DACs.
Aside from being a powerful, fanless music server, what sets Nucleus apart is that it’s powered by Roon OS – a fast and lightweight operating system optimized to do just one thing: browse and play music. Roon is a multi-room, multi-user networked audio platform built to the exacting standards of audiophiles, so it offers features like bit-perfect playback, DSD and PCM upsampling, multichannel playback, and signal path display.
The Best Way to Experience Roon
Roon software can be used on many platforms, including Mac, Windows, and Linux PCs, as well as NAS devices and a variety of media servers. Each of those platforms has its benefits and shortcomings, but none of them achieves a perfect balance between ease of use, raw performance, and audiophile design. So Roon designed the Nucleus Music Streamer to do just that… to provide the best Roon experience in each of these areas.
Roon has enjoyed tremendous success among computer audiophiles and other tech-savvy enthusiasts, but the company's long-term goal is to reach everyone who loves music. To do that, Roon created Nucleus, a product which requires nearly no computer knowledge or networking skill. You literally take it home, plug it in, and control it with the Roon Remote app for iPad, iPhone,, or Android device (and of course the Roon app for Mac/Windows). Because it’s running Roon, Nucleus finds the audio devices on your network and makes it easy to stream to them.
Two Models Let You Choose the Horsepower You Need
It was tempting to try to design a single device that was perfect for everyone. But since its launch in 2015, Roon has evolved to include a variety of computationally intensive features like DSD upsampling, convolution, and support for music libraries in the hundreds of thousands of tracks.
Specifying hardware to meet the needs of the few people who use all those features would have driven the price of Nucleus up for everyone. So Roon made the decision to produce two models, identical in every way except raw computing horsepower: Nucleus for the majority of users, and Nucleus+ for those with the most rigorous requirements in library size, numbers of simultaneous playback streams, and high-rate DSD.
Roon Nucleus+ has an i7 processor, 8GB RAM, and 128GB OS SSD. It manages libraries over 12,000 albums (120,000 tracks) and multi-room systems over six zones. Connections consist of Gigabit ethernet LAN, (2x) USB 3.0 (can be used for hard drive and/or DAC), HDMI (stereo and multi-channel audio output), and Thunderbolt 3. There is an internal 2.5″ HDD/SSD bay for adding your own internal drive.
Unlike simple music player apps, Roon is designed to make use of modern computing power (and the more of it the better). So Roon Labs worked with Intel to develop Nucleus on their highest-performance NUC platform. This means that using Roon with Nucleus feels incredibly fast, and there’s horsepower to spare for handling large music libraries, multi-room streaming, and digital signal processing.
An Operating System Built from the Ground Up
Rather than use a desktop or server operating system like Windows, a Linux distribution, or a system-builder tool, Roon realized that a truly bespoke operating system is an area in which the company can add real value. Roon OS is an optimized Linux-based operating system developed by Roon Labs to provide the best reliability and performance for what Roon does – networking, storage, and fast database access – and nothing else.
Some people store their music on a single USB disk, while those with large music libraries often have a NAS with RAID for redundancy and fault tolerance. Audiophiles may prefer SSD (solid state drives) over traditional spinning hard drives because they have no moving parts (and thus no mechanical noise) and a longer life span. A new generation of music listeners is increasingly relying on cloud-based streamed content rather than local media files, so they have little to no need for local storage.
Nucleus aims to address all these cases by taking advantage of modern storage technologies, most notably the introduction of low-power, high-capacity 2.5” hard drives and SSDs. Nucleus has an internal 2.5” drive tray, which can accommodate a single SATA SSD or HDD for dedicated internal storage. Two USB 3.0 ports can be used to connect one or more external hard drives with support for a variety of common filesystem formats: FAT32, NTFS, exFAT, and HFS+ (“MacOS Extended”). Of course Roon has always supported connections to SMB/CIFS file servers, which includes most NAS appliances available today.
Wireless networking is ubiquitous, and often consumers expect that every device can and should be wireless. While Roon is often controlled over WiFi (using Roon Remote on a mobile device) and RAAT (the protocol used by Roon Ready devices) is designed to work reliably over WiFi, Nucleus is an infrastructure product. Because its primary function is to act as the Roon Core on a home network, reliability is a key networking requirement. Roon Labs made the decision not to implement WiFi in Nucleus, and rather to require a connection to a router or switch via Gigabit ethernet.
Almost all music “server” or “streamer” products in the market have audio outputs of one kind or another, either digital or analog using a built-in DAC (digital to analog converter). With Nucleus, we have taken a different approach.
A cornerstone of the Roon product strategy has always been to support a wide variety of partner audio brands. Roon’s role is to be the best possible music source, leaving rendering to products from companies that specialize in audio. Nucleus extends that strategy by having no analog audio outputs at all. External DACs, receivers, integrated amplifiers, and speakers can be connected either directly via USB, HDMI, or over the network using RAAT, AirPlay, or Roon’s other supported protocols.
The Best Hardware Design
Roon is a demanding piece of software, and it doesn’t live up to its full potential on underpowered computing hardware. To operate at its best, it requires a modern Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 CPU, at least 4GB of RAM, and an SSD for storing the operating system and databases (spinning disks are fine for music storage).
Prior to the development of Nucleus, Roon explored collaborations with hardware manufacturers in which support for the Roon Core would be added to their hardware products. While a few of those projects did come to fruition, most did not because too few hardware platforms were able to provide the computing power required to run Roon.
The Best Platform: The Intel NUC
The optimal hardware platform for Roon is one which provides a small number of high-speed CPU cores. To provide the best possible user experience, Roon is designed to take advantage of a high-speed dual-core CPU, fast RAM, and a fast SSD.
Many media servers and other connected devices use low-power embedded hardware platforms designed for long product life (up to ten years in some cases). These platforms have the advantage of being reliable and cost-effective, but they’re often supplied by small manufacturers with limited software engineering resources, so the driver updates and security patches required to keep a modern Linux operating system up to date are unavailable.
An alternative is to use widely available consumer platforms like those found in modern PCs. The cost of those platforms is low and software support is generally very good, but product cycles are as short as six months in many cases. That means that physical form factor can change from one product cycle to the next, and it’s often necessary to build a new operating system kernel for each generation of the platform, which is costly in terms of development, testing, and maintenance.
With Nucleus, Roon has taken a completely different (and somewhat unconventional) approach. Rather than using an embedded or consumer platform, or investing resources in a custom motherboard, Roon partnered with Intel to build Nucleus around their NUC platform. This allows Roon to leverage a stable and well-supported family of computing components that behave consistently from one generation to the next, share a form factor, and are released on a regular schedule within a predictable price structure.
Working with a company that has Intel’s resources, commercial focus, and engineering capability has given Roon the opportunity to collaborate with their engineering teams on topics like power management and thermal design in order to deliver an extremely impressive amount of computing power in a compact, fanless appliance.
Intel’s NUC platform provides stability while future-proofing development efforts, due in large part to the consistency in form factor, BIOS, chipsets, and board layout across the product generations. It also means that every revision of Nucleus takes advantage of the latest and greatest hardware Intel has to offer. Whenever newer, faster NUCs become available, Roon will be able to update the Nucleus product line with minimal additional design and development effort.
Designed to Audiophile Standards
Nucleus is for people who love music, so it has to stand up to the scrutiny of the toughest customers out there. Designing Nucleus without fans, spinning disks, or other moving parts – while maintaining the level of computing performance Roon requires – brought some interesting thermal and mechanical challenges.
"If you’re addicted to Roon software to organize your digital needs, and we are, the next step up is the Nucleus+ which acts as a 'traffic cop' and manages everything on your hard drives, networks and streaming sources. The first piece of hardware offered by Roon, the Nucleus+ can even be used to play your files from multiple devices all through your home. We recommend getting the extra horsepower of the Plus over the regular Nucleus 'just because.'"
- parttimeaudiophile.com - 2018 Editors' Choice Buyer's Guide, December 2018