Anthony Kershaw from www.audiophilia.com
What an interesting audio component Roon Labs has produced. Ostensibly, its reason for being is to support Roon’s wildly popular music library organization software, now in its 1.8 version and reviewed right next to this one by Audiophilia’s Assistant Editor and Roon Whisperer, Karl Sigman.
The Nucleus Plus (NP) ($2559) is an Intel-based computer. But, it’s so much more. The NP uses an Intel i7 processor/NUC board with 8GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD solid-state drive. It has a single gigabit Ethernet port and two USB 3.0 ports that can be used to connect external storage drives and connection to a DAC (in my case, connected via Audioquest Cinnamon Ethernet Cable to my MBL N31 CD/DAC).
You want storage for your HiRes files? You’ll have to install an internal drive or use an external drive (either HDD, which work with rotating disks, or, SSD, which use flash memory—do yourself a speedy favour, external or internal, go SSD). The internal drive that comes with the unit is not used to store audio files. It has two very important hosting functions—it houses the ‘Roon Optimized Core Kit’ (ROCK) OS (based on Linux) and the server software that manages your music library.
As the Roon Labs software has developed to 1.8, it seems metadata is becoming richer and more useful. Metadata has always been the hobgoblin of classical music enthusiasts. Now, with Roon 1.8 and a Nucleus Plus, we’re pretty much in digital La La Land.
The NP’s ROCK on its internal SSD can traffic massive libraries—12,000 albums/120,000 tracks. Streaming access is blazingly fast, too. Remote is via the very refined app found on your mobile device.
As I never turn off the rear panel rocker switch, I’m not sure what the boot up time is. But, it’s silent and never gets too hot (the unit’s metal work is basically a massive heat sink). With one of its primary functions, allowing constant updates, the NP is really a place and forget component.
A gentle reminder Roon software is subscription-based. Three tiers at $9.99/month billed annually (save 30%) or $12.99/month billed monthly. Feeling flush and want to go digital for life? The lifetime sub is $699.99. This price keeps increasing commensurate with Roon Labs’ continuing market dominance. Sure, a lifetime is a gamble, but does anybody want to bet against Roon Labs for the foreseeable future? The first words out of a prospective digital purchaser these days is ‘Is it Roon Ready?’ not ‘HiRes’ or ‘MQA’. Hence, the massive sign on by just about every major digital manufacturer.
For a deep, White Paper dive from the mothership, go here.
I used my iPhone 12 Pro Max with iOS 14 and updates with the Roon app running v1.8. Enjoyable, beautiful aesthetic, informative and robbed of some of the sluggishness of previous versions. Together, the system is star worthy and foolproof. Downtime is a thing of the past.
I’ve been wanting a Nucleus Plus for quite some time. My thanks to Enno Vandermeer, Founder and CEO of Roon Labs, for supplying the Plus for review.
12-19V DC, 2.5mm ID, 5.5mm OD, 11mm L
2 x USB3.0 (can be used for hard drive and/or DAC)
HDMI (stereo and multi-channel audio output)
Gigabit Ethernet LAN
Dimensions and Weight:
212mm (W) x 156mm (D) x 74mm (H)
3.85kg gross weight (in retail package)
2.5kg net weight (product only)
The absence of noise and colouration added from a computer’s whirring fans, inelegant software implementation and other nasties are what makes the Nucleus Plus a solid option for digiphiles. That it updates seamlessly, houses all the Roon proprietary goodies, and is future-proofed, are additional reasons the NP receives a very high recommendation.
For sure, there are access implementations without Roon by leading companies such as Innuos and dCS that work beautifully. But in the here and now, those eschewing Roon are digital outliers.
The Roon Labs Nucleus Plus is the Zelig of HiFi components.
I use both solid state and tube components, all top echelon products, and the Nucleus Plus fits right in. Silently, feeding my DAC bit perfect files. Much like other high end servers, a few much more expensive than the NP, the Roon hardware lays out a digital playing field, pure of tone, free of grain, which allows the other topologies upstream to strut their stuff. The Nucleus Plus ($2559) approaches the quality of deliverables from my previous music server, the Antipodes CORE, also, the Innuos ZENith Mk3 Music Server ($4249) and Innuos Statement Music Server ($13,750) for clarity of purpose and musical statement, if not total refinement. And the NP streaming Qobuz and Tidal easily eclipsed by a significant margin the $995 network card add-on in my Mytek HiFi Manhattan DAC II (accessed through the ‘mConnect’ iOS app).
So, an old digital standby, the Dudamel/DG/Berlin/’Also Sprach’ intro (title music used by Stanley Kubrick for his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey) had the grandeur Strauss (and Kubrick) envisioned but with the wide open, unencumbered environs of the Philharmonie. The Antipodes CORE Music Server (containing a Roon Core) managed this spaciousness beautifully, too. But, even though the Mojo Audio DejaVu (so beloved by Audiophilia’s Karl Sigman, he purchased the unit and nothing he’s heard since has changed his mind) lays out the most detailed and beautifully quiet soundstage, it is significantly more expense. When you take these comparisons into account, the superbly refined and damn convenient Roon hardware makes musical and practical sense.
Let’s switch it up considerably to a Canadian gem of a musician, Lara Solnicki. Solnicki’s music is so easy on the ears and beautifully composed, but is difficult to categorize. Jazz, art song, performance art, free-form, poetry, speech-song, many. No matter the genre, it’s a fabulous CD and is accessible to all listeners. I’d recommend you stream (Tidal) or buy this CD (no affiliation) if you are a music lover or audiophile or both (you can rip your CD collection to your Nucleus’ storage with a CD drive that can attach to the USB input on the Nucleus). The performances, with some of Toronto’s finest musicians, are superb, and the recording by an old mate from Montreal, Jeff Wolpert, is demonstration class (think impressing your audiophile friends, or, manufacturers at shows, playing a world class Canadian in world class sound not having the initials DK!).
Interestingly, the CD won me over via the MBL N31 CD/DAC immediately, warm, detailed with subterranean bass and exquisite vocal timbre, but I found the Tidal stream even more detailed (very slightly). Why? I don’t know, but it makes for an interesting discussion point as to why a digital bit is affected by the two very high end delivery systems. In any case, both stream and CD are fantastic. Go with either, but owning very special CDs is becoming more popular with ‘wanting to own it’ music lovers and audiophiles.
So, more than HiFi, high end component, think of the Nucleus Plus as a digital consumer appliance, quiet as a church mouse, feeding and streaming bit perfect files across your home network. Owning a quality digital front end will eliminate constant needs to upgrade and is effective treatment for Audiophilia Nervosa.
As a confirmed vinylphile, I sometimes have difficulty placing myself in the mainstream of digital life. Yet, I can see the writing on the wall. Sure, there are cheaper ways of playing your digital files and streaming, but I was pondering a system reviewed from products reviewed in Audiophilia over the past few weeks. Buy a Denafrips Ares II DAC so enjoyed by Michael Johnson, and along with streaming and Roon subs, use the Nucleus Plus ($2559) as the star traffic cop to direct things. In HiFi terms, a digital front end of somewhat modest investment but one that will stand the test of time.
Further information: Roon Labs