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This past week I was in my favorite place on Earth, the Hawaiian island of Kauai. There's nothing better than spending time with family in paradise, with spotty mobile phone coverage. I enjoyed missing several business calls because I was on remote beaches with little to no cell signal. I hope Kauai remains rugged, with single lane and frequently closed bridges, less than full cell coverage, and a treacherous road to Polihale State Park. That, in addition to the weather and water are what makes it magical for my family. What could make it even better? Access to my music collection, to create a vacation soundtrack and make some memories.
I've previously used other apps for remote and offline access to my library, but this time I went all-in on Roon ARC. In preparation for the trip I setup and tested Roon ARC around Minneapolis. I figured if I could get it to work around the city, I'd have a baseline user experience to which I could compare the remote island vacation experience. This sounded easy enough, so I setup ARC at home, completed the initial sync, and headed out to pickup my daughter at school.
On the first trip outside my house, I had problems getting ARC to work at all. I was driving and couldn't take notes on the errors or create a step by step document from which to continue troubleshooting later. On the way home I remembered Enno Vandermeer recently telling me, in an unrelated discussion, that the size of my library was quite large. I thought this may have something to do with the ARC issues and I could easily make adjustments as a test.
When I got home I disabled several storage locations within Roon, bringing my total number of albums/tracks to 5,000/66,000. This is a reasonable number compared to the 22,000/300,000 I usually load in Roon. I also ran the Clean Up Library function in Roon, to remove a ton of files associated with the music that was made inaccessible when I disabled the storage locations. After this I re-ran the initial sync by setting up ARC from scratch.
The next day, the day before leaving on vacation, I left early to pickup my daughter from school. This gave me time to wait in the parking lot and thoroughly test ARC if I experienced problems. On the way to her school, the problems started. While listening to music streamed from my home library, the track switched appropriately, but I had no sound and the playback counter continued to increase (0:44, 0:45, 0:46...). The counter on the CarPlay screen increased, but the counter on my iPhone remained at 0:00. Then I received a poor connection message on the CarPlay screen. That sounded like a reasonable explanation at first, but on the same screen I had a full (four bar) 5G cell signal from both carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile). I would never put money on the signals bars being a perfect depiction of actual signal strength, but it seemed reasonable as I drove adjacent to downtown Minneapolis, past the Sculpture Garden, where a strong signal would be logical for both carriers.
Note: I have my phone set to use the AT&T service for data and voice, and T-Mobile for voice only.
I tried to get other albums to play from my home library and was unsuccessful. I thought switching to my downloaded / offline content would be the silver bullet for now. Unfortunately the CarPlay screen told me "You haven't downloaded any music yet." That was strange because I spent quite a while downloading 100 albums from the Three Blind Mice Supreme 1500 Collection that aren't available on any streaming service. I checked the ARC iPhone interface for downloaded albums, and all 100 albums were there, with the little downloaded indicator to the right of the album art/name. I was also able to play any of the downloaded albums when selecting them from my iPhone, rather than the CarPlay screen which showed no albums.
I listened to a download album for the rest of the trip to school. Once I arrived, I parked in a known good location with full bars on my cell signal indicator. I tried playing Red Hot Chili Peppers' Unlimited Love from my Roon Core at home. No luck. Then I tried streaming Taylor Swift's Midnights album from Qobuz, still within ARC. I saw the spinning wheel forever, then received a poor connection message.
With five bars still on the cell signal indicator, I opened the Speedtest iOS app from Ookla. Not a perfect indicator of actual speed doing real world activities, but another data point nonetheless. The Speedtest app said my download speed was 79.3 Mbps and upload speed was 36.5 Mbps, with reasonable "Responsiveness" numbers for ping and jitter and 0.00% packet loss.
I went back to RHCP Unlimited Love. ARC on iPhone showed a spinning circle rather than play/pause button. ARC on CarPlay shows that the album was playing, the counter continued upward, but I had no sound. Then I received a poor connection message.
I tried Taylor Swift again. This time using Tidal from within ARC. The app showed lossy AAC quality because I had auto selected for quality, but the music still wouldn't play.
I switched to the Qobuz app and played The Chronic from Dr. Dre. An album I had never played on this phone, from Qobuz. It worked perfectly. Then I played a Christian McBride 24/192 album I hadn't previously played on my phone, and it also worked perfectly through the Qobuz app.
Lest anyone think my home connection could be the cause of the problem, rather than the cell phone coverage, I assure everyone my symmetrical 1Gbps with <2ms ping times was't the issue as all the live feeds from my cameras were still accessible from my phone in the parking lot.
I switched back from the Qobuz app to Roon ARC, and it started working. I changed nothing. I hadn't moved my car. But, I did quit and restart Roon ARC when switching from Qobuz. I even changed playback quality Original Format, to stream audio without lossy compression. I know this is nonsensical for my car because everything is converted to 48 kHz, but remember I am testing before leaving on vacation.
Unfortunately the success didn't last long. Checking the time stamp on my screenshots, I can see it lasted eight minutes. When trying Your Daily Mixes in ARC, I clicked on Chet Baker Mix. Nothing happened. Then I clicked on other mixes and I could only highlight them when tapping on them, nothing ever happened. The same thing for New Releases for You, Recently added albums, and My Library.
I then tested the downloaded albums. They worked great. My Speedtest results were still fine at 68 down / 19.9 up (41ms ping).
I switched to the iPhone interface rather than ARC CarPlay, and it worked for the aforementioned items that didn't work. I then tried Metallica's latest release via CarPlay, without success. The track was highlighted, but nothing happened. Back to the iPhone ARC interface, and all was well.
I disconnected my iPhone 12 Pro from the lightning cable that connects to my car, then reconnected it. The ARC CarPlay interface started responding and playing audio as designed. My car was in the same parked location this entire time, and all other CarPlay apps worked perfectly the entire time (before disconnecting/reconnecting).
Roon ARC worked perfectly for the 15 minute car ride home from school as well. I was done testing Roon ARC in Minneapolis, more because of frustration than a solid belief that it was going to work for me.
The second day in Kauai we went to my favorite beach, Tunnels Beach. It's hard to get to, hard to park at, and swimming is not advised because it's dangerous this time of year, but I love it. I had a cellular signal off and on throughout the day, with a single AT&T bar lonely at the top of my iPhone screen. This signal strength wasn't enough to stream anything but I successfully played my ARC downloaded content while watching the waves and thinking about absolutely nothing important.
What can make a day at Tunnels Beach even better? Listening to Pearl Jam play Oceans, and the rest of the MTV Unplugged performance. Before long, I was beckoned by my daughter to get in the water. I put the phone down and waded into the "safe for civilians" area and had an absolute blast.
I use ARC off and on while driving around the island for the entire week, and it worked well.
On the way home, I tried ARC on the airplane. I set my phone in Airplane mode, set ARC to Offline, and started scrolling. WTF? Selecting my Albums, the downloaded items should be displayed (the little downloaded icon highlighted purple). I saw all 100 There Blind Mice albums, but without any album art. I also saw a few albums that weren't downloaded to the iPhone, but they appeared in the downloaded section.
I played one downloaded album, Blow Up from the Isao Suzuki Trio, closed my phone and enjoyed. When I looked at the Lock Screen of my iPhone, it displayed the right album text information, but had album art from Joni Mitchell.
This wasn't the way I wanted the Roon ARC vacation experience to end, but such is life.
Roon ARC is the culmination of a feature set I've wanted for many years. Now that it's here, I hate it, then I love it, then I hate it, and now I'm indifferent. Life is already full to the brim with everything all at once in our faces. Everything is an app, many of those don't work how one thinks they should, and nobody has time to waste "figuring it out."
In addition to the issue I experienced, I was frustrated with ARC while on vacation because all the buttons are what I'll call mystery meat. One has to take a bite to see what happened and possibly figure out what the button does. I'm not an old curmudgeon but I do appreciate not having to memorize every button for every app that I use. If I only used Roon ARC, I'd probably be fine. However, that isn't anyone's reality. Every button without a label must be committed to memory, once its function is figured out. UI/UX design is hard. I don't envy anyone in this line of work and I feel the Roon team's pain.
There may be reasonable explanations for every technical issue I discussed above. However, sometimes I don't want to read every page of the manual and troubleshoot the issues with forum based tech support. I read many of the ARC knowledge base articles when I returned from vacation, and found no answers to help me. I also have unrelated tech support issues open on the Roon forum for nearly two years now, without answers. I just didn't feel like the work needed to pursue the issues was worth the effort and would give me a decent return on that effort.
I'm pretty sure Roon ARC works flawless for ten of thousands of users around the globe. A friend of mine said he has absolutely no trouble using it around Minneapolis and on his travels. I can only include that as anecdotal evidence of Roon's success with ARC. I set out to use ARC on vacation and write about my own experience. The actual on vacation experience went very well and I applaud the entire Roon team for pulling off this huge multi-year undertaking. Based on my complete experience with ARC I'm just not sold on its ability to work when I need it and I'm hesitant to recommend that others count on it, until I prove to myself that it's as solid for me as it is for others.
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