CLASH OF THE TITANS: JRMC vs Roon
“And in the black trunks, weighing in at 6.7 gigabits...”
The 21st century is a great time for audiophiles. We can choose from many media and delivery platforms to get our music wherever we are, whenever we want it, at whatever level of quality we’re willing to store &/or fund. The computer audiophile, a geeky anomaly only a decade ago, is now a mainstream player in the market. Per the 2018 RIAA midyear revenue report, streaming now generates 75% of all music industry revenue – and 75% of that comes from paid subscription services. We’re also accumulating fewer offline archives of our own, with digital downloads down 27% from first half 2017 and CD sales off 41%.
These format shifts mean steady, strong and growing demand for new vehicles to deliver our music to our ears. It’s no surprise that there are many music management systems from which to choose. Some have been around since SSDs were a fantasy, and others are so new that they’re still in constant beta use. Describing, explaining, testing, reviewing and comparing the myriad of formats, hardware and software players, renderers, streamers, endpoints, servers, etc is (like describing the kinds of users who build or buy them) far too complex to tackle here. In the last 15 years, I’ve played with dozens that were created by very talented people and are interchangeably usable by anyone willing to compromise.
But, as with most things, there are a few top performers that are simply more acceptable to more users than the rest of the field. Apart from the rare innovation that springs full grown from the forehead of a whiz kid, the best known and loved have evolved over time into durable solutions adaptable to the rapid change and innovation that drives computer audio. They accommodate those who never stream and those who only stream. They let listeners with large music collections rip, store, organize and play their own files. They adapt to new audio formats and changing quality standards. And they assimilate the information around the music into a combination of images and commentary that can approximate (and even exceed) liner notes as a critical resource.
Music management systems include a variety of functions. Acting as a librarian, they allow you to organize and access your sources no matter what or where they are, whether you’re a collector with an extensive collection of music files or a streamer with no offline files at all. They retrieve and deliver your source files to your choice of hardware in whatever format is required for transformation into audible output, and they let you control many or all aspects of playback. They let you create and use playlists, and they remember your preferences. Many gather and present images and information associated with the content of each file, providing it to you along with internet links for deeper dives into the subject matter.
JRiver Media Center and Roon are both serious music management systems with excellent track records and enthusiastic user communities. Debate rages on the internet as to which is better, and searching the topic finds roughly equal strength and numbers on both sides of the argument among literally hundreds of hits. Because the two systems differ functionally in fundamental ways, each is probably a better choice for some but not all computer audiophiles. This review and comparison is intended to help you choose between them to best meet your needs at the most reasonable cost short of buying both (which I have chosen to do). So let’s get into it.
Fighting under the self-designated title of “the most comprehensive media software”, JRiver Media Center is an award winning product that has evolved through at least a dozen major upgrades over the last 15 years and is considered by many to be the current champion. JRMC has grown from its simple “jukebox” origins into a robust delivery and presentation vehicle for streamed and archived audio and visual media that is available for a broad range of operating systems and devices. It is (as far as I can determine) written in C++ and wide open to plug-in development and implementation by users. The JRiver Interact forum is the “town square” for a robust community of users, and JRiver staff actively monitor, post and respond with timely assistance.
And in this corner is the challenger, Roon (aka “the music player for music lovers”). Introduced only 3 years ago, Roon is the product of a seasoned team with a serious and successful history in computer audio. Its lineage can be traced from the current spinoff back through Meridian to the original and widely acclaimed Sooloos Music Server (the product that converted Stereophile’s Kal Rubinson from a naysaying digital curmudgeon into a relatively early adapter). Unlike JRMC, Roon is for music only and makes no bones about it. It, too, is available for multiple operating systems and devices but is not as amenable as JRMC to user-developed plug-ins, skins or other interactions & modifications. The online community for roon users is not yet as mature and comprehensive as Interact. But it does provide a lot of usable Q&A as well as good input from Roon Labs support.
ASSUMPTIONS MADE IN THIS REVIEW & COMPARISON
This is an apples-to-apples review of the systems as purchased. Tweak away if you wish, but if it isn’t part of the package as downloaded, it’s not in this review.
The creators’ instructions and suggested parameters for installation, setup and operation are highly likely to work well. If we find an alternative that ‘s far superior, we’ll tell you – but this is not common or likely.
You will not like everything we like. You will not agree with every judgment we make. This is OK and this is healthy.
You will download and try each of these yourself.
GENERAL OPERATING INFORMATION
Although both Roon and JRMC include the same basic functions, they do so in different ways. JRMC is compliant with DLNA & UPnP protocols. Instead, Roon uses a proprietary approach they call Roon Advanced Audio Transport (RAAT), the main advantages of which are said to be that it requires no compensation for clock drift because the controlling clock is in the DAC, and that it requires no codecs in endpoints. There are three basic functions in each of these systems:
The core functionality of a music management system is to integrate your music collection and all associated information into an organized and readily accessible aggregate, which both roon and JRiver call the library.
Each lets you select from your library and control playback on the desired device(s).
Each transforms the source file into the appropriate format for each selected playback device and delivers each data stream to its intended device.
Roon is downloadable in various combinations and permutations of these functions. Full function downloads (core + control + playback) are only available for Windows and MacOS devices. A server core with output functionality is available for Linux, QNAP, and Synology devices and requires a separate PC, Mac, or mobile device (iOS or Android) for control. The downloads for mobile devices control all playback zones that have been configured for the core, and the mobile device becomes a separate playback zone that cannot be combined in a zone with other devices for simultaneous playback.
ROCK (Roon Optimized Core Kit) is an interesting variant of the core supplied within a light, custom Linux OS for installation on a dedicated device as a stand-alone, maintenance free network music server with output capability. Installed on a suitable device (e.g. a current Intel NUC), it’s a turn-key instance from download to playback that requires only a few simple, clearly described maneuvers to bring it to life. It must be controlled by other devices on your network, and your library files must be on a HD other than the boot device in the ROCK server. But it will both play your music from appropriately configured audio outputs (e.g. USB if on a NUC) and serve your music files across your LAN to any and all other appropriate endpoints (to be discussed).
Roon also offers its Bridge download, which is a small software package that enables devices running it to become endpoints for the core. Roon does not drive DLNA renderers (explanation from Roon here), but Chromecast devices work fine as is. In addition to letting PCs and Macs serve as playback devices, Bridge can be run on many Linux variants. It works very well on ARM devices including Raspberry Pi and Beaglebone. Roon also plays to Squeezebox devices, although there is a strong and clear disclaimer on their website regarding software emulations that roon “...does not support software implementations of squeezebox endpoints, and we do not test with them as part of our QA process. If you attempt to do this, you are on your own.” There are so many references to using roon with Squeezelite etc on the web that I suspect some experimenters have succeeded – but I have not tried.
Roon will not stream to endpoints outside your LAN. There are a few internet posts suggesting successful adaptation to other streaming servers, but we’re comparing Roon and JRMC as purchased.
JRMC, on the other hand, is available only as a complete package that does a lot more than roon. It is written in C++ for many platforms and is now available for almost any device on almost any platform including Android. Unlike Roon, JRMC is not identical across all devices and platforms and has some functional limitations in some versions. I have limited experience with JRMC on Macs, and changes are frequent – so some of the functional limits on versions before 24 may no longer exist (e.g. the inability to rip CDs, which I am told is now available on Macs as well). It plays well on a Raspberry Pi, although the GUI is a bit slow. There was a demo version for Beaglebone that timed out on June 10, 2015 and was never released for general use. Sadly, I cannot find a way to resuscitate it despite the fact that it worked well for me.
JRMC has integral web and DLNA servers, and it will play to any DLNA device on your network if you also install Bubble UPNP Server on the device running the main instance. More importantly, any device with a web browser and the access key can reach your JRMC media server and play content from your network over the internet.
WHAT YOU BUY AND WHAT YOU GET
JRMC is licensed by the operating system, so you can buy a license for Windows, for Mac, or for Linux. They also offer a discounted “master license” that’s good for all 3. Per the JRiver FAQs, you can run the program on all of your computers “...within reason”. You get 10 free “install keys” per year forever, and they’re reportedly very good about sending more if you use all 10. I’ve run as many as 8 to 10 instances at a time on multiple devices and systems over the years while learning and experimenting with JRMC, which (fortunately) appears to be under the limit of reason per JRMC.
JRMC’s integral web server (called Panel) is easily configured for access via web browser from both LAN and WAN, so no additional software is required for any device with a browser and a display. JRemote was an aftermarket remote controller and renderer that still works well but is no longer available from the iTunes App Store. (Editor's Note: @jriver correctly pointed out that JRemote is still available from the app store at this link). There were other tools for local and web access, control, and playback of JRMC (e.g. Gizmo and WebGizmo) that still work if you have them but are also now unavailable and deprecated. You can configure multiple instances of JRMC on your network as controls and/or endpoints using the same library, if you prefer the full GUI on all renderers.
Roon offers an annual license fee and a lifetime subscription, both of which enable use of one core server of your choice. So you have to choose among Windows, MacOS, and Linux based on your chosen server. ROCK has its own Linux-based OS, which it installs as part of the setup process. You can download and run unlimited instances of roon, roon Bridge, and roon mobile on other devices for control and output, but you can control from and play to your mobile devices only while they are on your local network. An additional license is required for each additional server you might want to run, but I can’t imagine why I or anyone else would want more than one roon server on my LAN.
DOWNLOADING AND INSTALLING
Choosing the correct download requires some thought for either product, in that you have to choose the correct version for your target device. JRMC installers are provided for Windows and Mac, with good instructions and documentation but a process that’s not quite turn-key. There are many Interact posts seeking help with relatively minor but disabling problems with simple (if not always intuitively obvious) solutions provided by JRMC staff or other community members. Linux variants must be installed via terminal commands to date, which is not for the faint of heart or those lacking experience with command line interfaces. Configuration also requires making several decisions for audio output and other vital functions. There are surprisingly (at least, to me) many non-working settings for a given hardware system, which can be frustrating after multiple ineffective clicks.
JRiver provides comprehensive documentation in which most answers are waiting to be discovered, including a section specifically addressing setup for optimum sound quality.
Roon provides installers for Windows, Mac and Linux with clear and simple instructions for installation and setup. Linux variants are all available in installer packages that are downloaded via terminal commands – unlike many other audio software packages, you do not need to burn an image to removable storage for installation. Once you decide on your server hardware, you can download the correct package for it, follow the clear online instructions to install and configure. You’ll soon be making music with little effort and frustration. Adding other roon PC and Mac packages for control and playback of your core, plus remote and Bridge to other devices as desired, gives you a complete system.
Roon includes one core instance per license fee, which is all you need to build a system. Many potential buyers ask and/or complain online about “only” getting one core per license. Frankly, I have no idea why this is of such concern to so many except perhaps that the higher cost (compared to JRMC) makes them feel like they deserve more. You only need one core to power as many endpoints as you can connect to your LAN - there may be a functional limit, but it’s clearly beyond the 14 renderers active today on my installation.
Both JRiver (Win, Mac & Linux) and Roon provide clear system requirements that users are well advised to follow or exceed. There’s simply no excuse for complaints about function, sound quality, or appearance if you use marginal hardware and operating systems, even though you can make either work on many older machines with less than the stated minimums. Function and sound quality may suffer in ways that are not obvious if you haven’t used and heard these as they can and should sound, with compliant hardware and operating systems.
Graphics power is important for smooth display of album art and associated information, although the minimum OpenGL needed for either program is several years old – 3.0 will do for either one, with 3.2 needed for heavier video use in JRMC. Roon apparently retrieves and displays a lot more information with each file being played than does JRMC, necessitating a more powerful graphics engine for large music libraries (10k+ albums).
If you’re limited to truly old &/or grossly underpowered architecture, one of the many good open source players seems like a much better choice than JRMC or roon until you can buy both new software and appropriate hardware. If OS cost is a factor, open source Linux variants are readily available, fully functional, easily installed, and quite fine for old or new computers.
Given the above, I’m frankly amazed at how well both systems run on almost any half decent hardware with a current OS and good device hygiene. I rarely disgard a computer if it has any life left in it, so my collection includes some real dinosaurs. Just for giggles, I set up both JRMC and Roon on a 2005 Toshiba Satellite U205-S5034 and a 2007 Acer 5100 (each with a fresh SSD, 4G of RAM, and a clean Ubuntu 18.04 installation). Despite some slowing of the GUI and modest but noticeable SQ degradation from noise and other limitations of these devices, I could live with either system on either device if it was all I had. Even the SSD is overkill if your library includes fewer than 2000 albums.
This review is based on living with the following instances of JRMC and Roon over about a month:
Ryzen 3-2200G 12G
Wndows 10H (1803)
Excellent in all respects
Excellent in all respects
Celeron 2955U 8G
Excellent in all respects
BCM 2837B0 ARMv8
Slow GUI but very good SQ
Worked well when available
A NOTE ABOUT ROON AND CHROMECAST
Many (including me) have questioned the use of Chromecast as an audiophile device. The only sound evaluation I can find is this one on Audio Science Review, which suggests a very interesting and dichotomous set of findings, specifically:
“The CAST audio functionality of Google Chrome is horrid. There is no excuse for it to be butchering even simple 16-bit signals as it did. While audibly it is not as dire as it looks, I still would avoid it if you can.
Roon's implementation of Chromecast streaming is superb. It is bit accurate up to 24 bits and 48 kHz that I tested. Congratulations to Roon for job well done. I assume they received support from Google to implement it as the protocol otherwise is not open to the public.
If you have a good DAC and use Roon, you can turn your DAC into a streamer/renderer using the Chromecast Audio. For just $35, that is a superb addition. As such, the combination of Roon and Chromecast Audio is highly recommended! “
Although the internal DAC and its analog output are little if any better than those in Raspberry Pi, the optical output of CCA showed amazingly low jitter and excellent performance overall when driven by Roon (but only Roon). There are many reports of even better SQ using top quality power supplies or batteries for CCA. I haven’t tried this approach because I’m not using CCAs in my serious systems. But I do plan to try this – if it’s really much better, I’ll set up a serious system with CCA in our master bedroom.
I’ve now deployed 5 of them on our LAN, and they are indeed excellent! They’re no substitute for wired, top notch endpoints & DACs in critical listening – but for casual listening settings, they’re as good as DACs costing far more – and, as we’ll discuss soon, they will link into a zone group that plays perfectly synchronously for music throughout the house.
INSTALLATION & CONFIGURATION
Downloading, installing and configuring either one is easy enough for almost anyone. Although not a problem for any but the most impatient and technically challenged, JRMC requires a bit more active participation and offers more choices during setup than does Roon, regardless of the platform to be used. This is not necessarily a good thing, e.g. if you install on a machine with multiple possible endpoints (e.g. HDMI monitors, USB DAC, home theater setup, and speakers connected to your motherboard) some of the offered alternatives result in poor sound or none at all. There’s ample online documentation from Roon and JRMC, with guides to configuration for best SQ from your equipment. Both also offer abundant support for getting started, with FAQs and access to expert response.
Windows and Mac installations are pretty straightforward. Roon is easier to install on Linux than is JRMC because there’s a Roon “easy installer” package to put the chosen package (Roon server or Roon Bridge) on a Linux device. However, you can only put Roon’s core and output functions on Linux – a separate device is required for control – i.e. your Linux instance can be your core and/or your output, but you’ll have to use another device to select and control playback. The Roon easy installer for Linux identifies missing dependencies and compatibility issues, helping you avoid that sinking feeling that accompanies silence from your speakers. It also configures Roon to start on boot, which you have to do yourself if you choose to install the files yourself.
Here’s a link to the JRMC Linux page on Interact, where you can find everything you need to know to install JRMC on Linux devices. Comparison with the Roon Linux installation page is instructive, as the relative effort required differs about as much as does the ease of finding everything you need to know to avoid and/or solve installation and configuration problems.
We were already well into this evaluation when JRMC became available for Android OS on December 2. So we sadly did not have time to acquire a license and set it up for inclusion. From the description, it has limited functionality right now and is still in relatively early development. It plays to DLNA endpoints, but I don’t know more than that and haven’t been able to see or use it yet. Based on extensive experience with JRMC on multiple other devices and platforms, it will probably have limited GUI functionality and multiple bugs right now. But, like the early Linux builds, it will also probably sound fine. At its current price of $9.95 from the PlayStore, it’s worth buying to play with if you’re so inclined. But, like all of the early JRMC releases on other platforms, it’s not yet ready for prime time so we’re not considering it further right now.
Setting up endpoints is simple for both. Either will play through whatever compatible audio outputs are connected to your Windows or Mac computer, as long as you select a proper output scheme in JRMC’s audio options or activate the endpoint in Roon’s Settings-Audio panel. JRMC will recognize any DLNA device on your network if you install Bubble UpnP Server on the computer running your main instance and will play to other JRMC instances on other networked devices. Roon Bridge is the software that enables devices running Windows, Mac, or Linux variants to act as Roon endpoints. Installing Roon Bridge is truly simple, and we were playing music through multiple endpoints driven by Chromeboxes, Rapsberry Pis and Beaglebones within a few minutes of starting the downloads.
Both systems will also control from and play to remote Android and iOS endpoints. JRMC is accessed with a browser (unless you have a legacy app like JRemote) while Roon requires the Roon remote app, which is available from the app stores. The main difference is that JRMC is accessible from both LAN and WAN when configured for this, which is easy to do. Roon will not (at least, for now) stream beyond your LAN on its own and is therefore limited to use within the 4 corners of your local network. There are sporadic internet reports of successful deployment of VPNs to enable Roon access via WAN, e.g. this use of SoftEther (excellent, open source VPN software). We have not tried this, but it tops the do-list because streaming over WAN is a critical requirement for me personally. But out of the box, JRMC will stream beyond your LAN and Roon will not.
LIVING WITH IT
These are wonderful programs, and either will delight most computer audiophiles whose priorities it supports. There are many similarities and a few important differences. Once each is installed and configured for optimum sound quality with the chosen playback equipment, the only valid generalization about overall choice is that either one will make most of us happy with most of what it does and how it does so. Those few differences in function and style are controversial enough to be deal breakers for some and may make cost the critical factor for others, as in “I’d pick Roon over JRMC if it only [add desired function here]”. But most of us would be very happy with either one.
We leave our media server and most of our endpoints on 24/7, so we had to break that habit to compare start-up for those who power down after use. We first installed and ran both, side by side, from the same machines to compare performance on identical hardware. All hosting computers were stock, with no additional cooling or unusual configurations. Neither program is a power hog, and neither put any stress on multiple PCs running both server instances. We had to stop playback on each when switching to the other, to enable exclusive access to audio output. So our blinded A-B comparisons were separated by a gap of a few seconds rather than being instantaneous. We monitored temperatures, CPU use etc during boot, playback, configuration and editing. Simply put, neither program made a dent in computer function no matter what we did or how long and hard we did it:
LIBRARY SETUP AND USE
The first major task is to get your music library into each system. Unless and until there is a universal tagging system for audio files that is consistently applied from ripping to playing, this is a daunting challenge met with varying degrees of success by JRiver, Roon, and every other such system in our experience. Despite many hours with MusicBrainz Picard and MP3Tag, our music library still displays with some duplicates, alternative artist names for the same people, loose and missing tracks, and other errors we thought we’d corrected years ago in every system we’ve used. JRiver and Roon are no different, as each finds and displays the contents of our FLAC folder (on NAS) the same way. This is not a problem with either program - it’s the result of ripping so many CDs with different software and trying to populate the tag fields the same way for each and every one. If you start and stick with one approach on one system, you’ll probably avoid even the few such problems we have as long as you check each rip and correct any anomalies right away.
The biggest criticism of both Roon and JRiver found in internet discussions is that they don’t manage extensive classical music collections. This is simply not true, as long as you’re willing to put some work into your tagging scheme up front (which you should be doing anyway, both to avoid files missing from your display and to tailor your display and sorting system to your personal preferences). You can add fields, and you can learn to use the default fields quite effectively. Both JRiver and Roon offer useful guidance for users of either system (or any other), and both can handle large classical libraries quite well with similar effort required – it’s up to you to make it happen.
Just point either one to your networked music files to start the process of indexing. We did not measure the exact time per 1000 album files, but there was no gross difference in speed between the two when importing the same files from the same NAS drives. Roon does a lot more work behind the scenes here than JRiver, in that Roon then works with the file tags initially identified to retrieve additional metadata for display and use from a second data “layer”. Beyond that, you can edit the metadata as you wish for a third data layer and set priority among these alternative data layers for each file individually, as you wish. Both systems have integral tag editors in their current versions that work equally well in our hands. In the end, perfection in library organization and presentation is possible but largely up to you.
Both are ready to play within 5 seconds or less of startup, with a pretty complete set of controls and options for picking and playing the desired music. You can configure some of what you see in either system, with a choice of dark or light theme in Roon and a dozen default skins in JRMC out of the box. There are currently 64 additional skins available from JRiver, but these are largely just cosmetic variations in layout, color and texture - you’d know it was JRMC regardless of the skin. You can reconfigure a few aspects of the GUI’s layout, but the overall look and feel is classic JRiver. It’s a bit old-fashioned and slightly clunky, which (although not bothersome to us) was less apparent before we tried Roon. Remember that we’ve lived with JRMC for several years, during which time the GUI has remained essentially the same despite addition of many new functions.
The most dramatic first impression of Roon is that of a new world of data and information about the music. While JRMC is limited to file tags for the information it presents, Roon gathers and assimilates a plethora of externally sourced information into that second data layer described above, along with links to even more. Roon displays an often amazing array of credits, production information, artist and composer background, plus lyrics for many (but not all) tunes that have them. It’s far from perfect, but you can correct and complete each set easily from the GUI while the music is playing – edits go into the third data layer, and you can set priority among file tags, externally sourced data, and your edits individually for each track.
Once you’ve selected your music from your library, standard transport controls let you play it to the device(s) of your choice. Endpoints are called zones in both systems, and both will play different source material simultaneously to multiple zones. Both also allow linking zones together for synchronous (make that almost synchronous in some cases) playback of the same source file. In JRMC, you drag the name of a zone onto another in the “playing now” panel to link them (you can drag multiple zones onto the same one to link them all). Roon lets you group endpoints by clicking the “group zones” link in the Zones panel that opens when clicking the endpoint icon at the bottom right of the display.
There are major differences between JRMC and Roon when grouping zones. Per JRiver, DLNA zones “cannot be controlled with...precision”, which results in significant time misalignment among DLNA / UPnP zones during linked playback. There is a time alignment adjustment in JRMC to minimize this disparity, but we’ve never been able to align playback among multiple devices on our network well enough to eliminate audible time delay. Our mix of JRMC endpoints includes Chromecast Audio, JRMC instances on Raspberry Pi and PC, plus a variety of networked mobile and fixed DLNA players. Alignment between ethernet and WiFi JRMC instances has been problematic, too– our 2000 sq ft apartment has an open floor plan, and the echo is audible from almost every seat in the house.
A new function called ZoneSynch 2 was added to JRMC 24 in early 2018 in an effort to solve this problem. Sadly, perfection is an elusive goal - this improves but does not eliminate the problem. JRiver states clearly that ZS2 “...works best with zones that run JRiver Media Center” and that “...Bluetooth or wifi audio zones or complicated output chains” should be avoided. This approach and result are typical of the evolution of JRMC. The team works constantly to rectify shortcomings and fix bugs, but solutions are often incomplete and drawn out into multiple stages.
Guess what? Roon has a different set of similarly compromising shortcomings in zone grouping. Time alignment among zones running RAAT (i.e. devices with Roon, Roon Server, and Roon Bridge) is excellent even with a mix of wired and WiFi connections. And time alignment is excellent among multiple Chromecast Audio endpoints. But the two cannot be combined into a single zone group using Roon alone – so we can either play the same source to every Chromecast in the house or to every RAAT device in the house, but not to every device in the house. Linking Chromecast zones to RAAT zones can be done using Google Home, but we use the Samsung Home Hub and were not sufficiently motivated to buy a Google Home device just to test this function. Also, mobile devices running Roon Remote are “private” zones that cannot be linked at all.
Both JRMC and Roon let you evaluate the entire playback path for playback characteristics and quality with an audio path monitor. In JRMC, it’s a subpanel under the Player menu and in Roon it’s an indicator “light” in the footer panel that’s also a link to a detail panel. Both identify deviations from bit-perfect playback at each stage of the playback path, and both are accurate with our associated equipment.
Both also enable analysis of selected sound file parameters. JRMC offers an audio analysis function, accessed via link in the Tools-Advanced Tools menu that displays multiple levels, dynamic range, tempo etc. You can toggle a real time display of the playing track’s audio spectrum in the header, although it only shows the instantaneous waveform with small leading and trailing extensions. In Roon, you can display a dynamic range readout with the track identification plus a full length frequency spectrum of the selected audio track across the bottom of the display.
JRMC is now set up for internet radio streaming from a variety of sources. There are 18 default choices in the current MC24 instance on my PC, and adding more is a simple matter. Radio JRiver is a recent addition (24.0.40 and above) that streams lossless music files by genre, works fine, and is currently included in the cost of JRMC. Roon integrates Tidal well, but it’s not yet a suitable internet streaming platform for general use. You can, of course, purchase and download files of any kind from any source and add them to your library with either system – just make sure to check the tags and edit them for proper placement in your library display and search schema.
This one’s the tough one! Both JRMC and Roon sound wonderful, and it’s not easy to choose between them for SQ alone. Of course, this does not stop many from posting to the contrary. Here’s a contemporary observation posted on a noted audiophile forum:
“Roon beats J River by a mile, it's more dynamic more detailed and is so so clean”.
Contrast that with this review from another noted audiophile forum:
“Roon sounded a little brighter and much thinner. The depth, the impact seemed to be missing. Each and every selection the JRiver play back had a much tighter bottom end, smoother vocals without the edge that I was hearing, and the biggest difference was much more open, much better sound stage”.
And then there’s this 4 way comparison done with very fine equipment by a respected reviewer:
“Roon sounds immediately fuller and more warm-blooded [than JRiver, Jplay, and Foobar2000]. It had much more low-end grunt and heft. It also had a nice balance of resolution and soundstage. Overall, just more meat on the bones without sacrificing fidelity.
A casual survey of the first hundred Google hits on “JRiver vs Roon sound quality” reveals a pretty even split between the two schools of thought. Many such comparisons were reportedly done the same way we did this one, with the same sources optimized for the same bit-perfect signal path – the only difference was the player. Why the dichotomy? We have no idea – but we strongly suspect that the dramatic differences described in both directions between JRMC and Roon are largely hyperbolic dramatizations of relatively minor differences that may, in fact, be related to something as simple as a minor mismatch in SPL. It’s clear that both systems make very nice music from a variety of equipment in many settings, and both have equally strong and supportive user communities.
And now, it’s judgment time. Our small listening panel includes experienced friends and family. But I rely largely on my wife’s subjective and unsolicited responses to corroborate my own reality. This is the woman who came into our library a few minutes after I replaced a cheap USB cable between our Beaglebone Black MPD player and the DAC with an Audioquest, to ask me why the music sounded “bigger”. She’s spent the last few decades living with and listening to tiny single ended triode amps, a Marantz 7&8, a Citation II, and a Hafler 500 through speakers as diverse as Rogers LS3/5as (which we bought new in 1975) and Infinity Reference Standards. We had season seats to the Philadelphia Orchestra for 20 years, and our home is filled with the sound of live musical instruments - a Yamaha grand, 2 keyboards, a dozen guitars, a bass, a concertina, plus assorted horns and reeds. Here’s the list of equipment used for this comparison:
HP Pavilion 590 (AMD Ryzen 3 2200, 12 Gig RAM, Intel SSD) Win10
Chromebox Celeron 2955U 8G Ubuntu 18.04
Intel NUC 7i3BNH i3-7100U 8G Roon OS
Raspberry Pi 3B+ BCM 2837B0 ARMv8 Raspbian
Beaglebone Black AM3359 ARMv7 Debian
Endpoints / Renderers
Chromecast audio via Toslink
Roon Bridge on Raspberry Pi 3B+
Roon Bridge on Beaglebone Black
iPhone 7 w/Roon Remote
iPhone SE w/Roon Remote
iPad Mini 4 w/Roon Remote
Digiland Android tablet w/Roon Remote
Kindle Fire HD8 w/Roon Remote
WesternDigital MyCloud Mirro 4 TB HDDx2
Buffalo Station 2 TB HDDx2
Emotiva Stealth DC-1
Prima Luna Prologue 5
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1
Focal 810 towers
Audioquest USB & passive speaker
GLS Audio XLR cables (DAC to powered speakers)
Pangea AC9 power cables
Let’s start with our conclusion: each of us had a slight preference for the sound of most source material through Roon over JRMC. I can’t explain it, given what should be bit-perfect playback of the same files through the same systems – but it’s what we found after listening purposefully and critically to over 300 tracks from 50+ albums in November and the first week in December of 2018.
Several specific observations stand out as examples supporting our perceived differences. Starting with Toots Thielemans’ excellent East Coast, West Coast album, both Mike Manieri’s vibes and John Scofield’s chorus effect on the track Con Alma are a bit more accurately reproduced through Roon. When the pianist (Herbie Hancock, I think) strums the strings directly in the opening to A Child is Born, it’s clearer and more life-like on Roon – we even compared it to the same maneuver on our own grand, to confirm the initial impression. And Toots’ harmonica tone may be just a hair more like his live sound on Roon.
What sounds like a pedal steel guitar on Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark is actually Larry Carlton using volume swells on his standard electric guitar (probably a Gibson 335) – this is plucking the strings with the volume control all the way down and rolling it up with the little finger immediately after striking while bending the string to glide the lower note up. The sonic contrast with a pedal steel seems a bit more evident through Roon. Another distinction for us was the sound of Joni’s dulcimer on Blue – it’s a bit more lifelike through Roon, perhaps because it sounds a hair tighter and less full.
Listen to Kelly Joe Phelps’ gritty voice and smooth slide guitar sound on Love Me Baby Blues. Roon presents his guitar as closely as I’ve heard a Gibson Jumbo through my own systems, and his voice (which is complex enough to challenge any audio system) seems to sound just a tiny bit more live than it does through JRMC.
We all love a tight horn section spanning multiple octaves, and Tower of Power is one of the best at this. Roon and JRMC presented most tracks on their albums interchangeably, with a few subtle distinctions. Rocco Prestia’s bass is perhaps a hair tighter in Only So Much Oil in the Ground, and the horns are a bit more distinct within the tight harmonies and inside inversions that characterize their charts. The same observations apply to Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass on many of their tracks. We even ripped 2 tracks from our treasured original 1977 Umbrella direct-to-disc album Big Band Jazz (an absolute treasure that remains a favorite even after 40 years on our shelf), an amazingly well recorded work that still sounds vibrant and alive.
Speaking of horns, the high trumpet lines in many jazz and blues horn parts are known as “screech trumpet”. A great example is heard inn the introduction to Imaginary People on the Uptown Horns Revue. I think the uncredited part is played by Paul Litteral (could be Larry Etkin, though), and the tone is perfect for that kind of playing. It’s sweet enough not to be screechy, yet it screams out above the rest of the band. On Roon, it may be just a tiny bit smoother.
The vibraphone makes a wonderful, rich, full sound that decays evenly and smoothly from top quality instruments, and the vibrato introduced by rotating discs in the resonating pipes is absolutely mesmerizing to me. Listen to Jacky Terrason’s sound on Summertime to hear how dynamic this vibrato can be, with Roon presenting it a tiny bit more dramatically (and more like their live sound). Another possible distinction is the shimmer of the ride cymbal despite being struck on the bell – it seems a slight bit more real on Roon.
Nancy Wilson (the jazz singer, not the one in Heart) is another of our lifelong favorite performers. Her voice is as smooth and pure as honey. But more importantly, her ear and pitch control are both so perfect that she uses vibrato and other pitch effects purely as artistic input. Vocalists with less than perfect pitch and control (who sadly abound in all genres) use vibrato to hover around the desired pitch, which gets the job done even if a bit less than perfectly. Nancy Wilson’s as good as it gets, and her subtle pitch control is perhaps a hair easier to identify and appreciate through Roon than through JRMC. Her sibilants are also a tiny bit less harsh on Roon, and Ben Webster’s tenor sax tone may also be a tiny bit more accurate.
Listen to Something Wonderful, an old Capitol recording that’s a bit harsh to my ears. But several instruments on it lend themselves to critical listening. Roon lets Jack Marshall’s guitar sound a bit more like it did live on a few tracks, e.g. If Dreams Come True and Guess Who I Saw Today. The NW album I love most - Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues – has similar qualities on Roon and JRMC. It may be my imagination, but Roon seems to bring out subtle articulation and phrasing a tiny bit better on this fascinating album. The title says it all – she’s ironically singing sadly what had been love songs for her now that the affair has ended. And the irony feels a bit more palpable through Roon.
Paul Desmond’s soft and sweet alto sax tone is legendary. He often said that he wanted to make his horn sound like a dry martini, and Roon may present it with a bit less vermouth in it than does JRMC. Desmond’s tone in person had a hint of reediness despite its sweetness, and it maybe “a bit more perfect” through Roon on Polka Dots and Moonbeams. Similarly, listen to Connie Kay’s brush work on When Joanna Loved Me. He’s swirling the left brush on the snare drum head (a classic jazz drumming technique), but there’s a rhythm and a slight volume dynamic to it rather than a simple continuous “shush” sound. That left hand brush seems a little more dynamic through Roon. And Jim Hall’s guitar, a Gibson 175 with flat wound strings, sounds a bit closer to real on Roon. Its laminated maple top generates much less wood tone than do “better” guitars with solid carved spruce tops.
Miles’ Kind of Blue is an interesting album for many reasons, starting with the simple fact that it’s not a wonderful recording (which is accurately presented by both Roon and JRMC). Recorded in 3 tracks, the engineer used the basement of the studio as an echo chamber by putting a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other to mix the delay into the recording in real time – but only on the track with the trumpet and bass parts. The original vinyl (of which I have 2 copies) has poor bass and a generally muddy sound - the echo is annoying and does nothing good for the album. FLACs ripped from early CDs reveal these and more flaws, many of which have been improved in remastered versions. Both Roon and JRMC reveal dramatic improvements in SQ from the latest 24/192 version, although I still can’t honestly call it a beautiful recording. This one’s a toss-up between the two.
I found John Marks’ comments in his Stereophile article about this album very interesting, to wit: "Because Kind of Blue was recorded in multitrack mono, without the use of any real stereophonic microphone techniques, the instruments appear in fairly constricted left, center, and right locations….Although only Davis and Chambers' track had a send and return to and from the echo chamber, there was some degree of leakage from the other instruments. Perhaps that helps account for the recording's naturally ambient sound". The original issues definitely sound constricted – but any natural ambience is probably more reflective of the size of the old studio, which was about 100’ long and had a 100’ high ceiling. All of these characteristics are evident using either player.
Brian Bromberg’s 300 year old bass is served very well by both systems, as is the grand piano on Bromberg’s Wood album (a 6’10” Steinway, as I recall). Denny Zeitlin’s wonderful playing and piano on Labyrinth are also beautifully presented by both. I got the impression that string harmonics were a bit more real and “there” through Roon in the sustained 2nds on They Say It’s Wonderful, as they held up a bit better against his solid left hand chording. Listen to Brazilian Street Dance, in which he taps and strums the piano strings directly (similar to what we heard in Toots Thieleman’s A Child is Born). Again, clarity and articulation may be a bit more accurate when comparing to the same effect on my own grand sitting between the Focals.
Dorothy Ashby is a little known and generally forgotten jazz pioneer from Detroit who played bebop harp (!) from the ‘50s until her death in 1986. Jazz harp is admittedly an acquired taste for most, so you may not like her music. But the harp is a difficult instrument to record and reproduce, but she had able assistance from Rudy Van Gelder and fabulous sidemen from her first album (The Jazz Harpist, 1957). So her albums are great for evaluating audio systems, if you know how a live harp sounds. Roon and JRMC both did a great job of bringing her to our listening spaces, with a few minor observations. On the introduction to Dancing in the Dark from her album In a Minor Groove, she and the bass are playing an eighth note line in unison. That they’re not in perfect synch with each other caught our attention when listening through Roon, although we’d not noticed it on first playing it through JRMC. Going back, it’s evident through either system, but the separation of what should be simultaneously plucked notes on harp and bass strings may be a bit more distinct with Roon.
On the classical side, Susan Lauck’s wonderful high resolution FLACs present her performances on the Jordan Hall Steinway D very well on both platforms. Maybe the left hand figures in the Schuman Fantaisie are a bit better articulated through Roon, but this is so subtle that personal preference may tip a listener one way or the other (which is true for many, if not most of the differences we’re describing). Played through the Emotiva Stealth DAC and Prima Luna power amp driving the Focal towers, the sound of that grand piano in that hall is stellar through both Roon and JRMC. We all thought that most baroque, chamber, and symphonic works are presented equally well by both Roon and JRMC through our multiple audio paths.
Here are the source files on which specific comments are based:
East Coast, West Coast
FLAC CD rip
Court & Spark
FLAC CD rip
FLAC CD rip
Kelly Joe Phelps
Lead Me On
FLAC CD rip
Tower of Power
FLAC CD rip
FLAC CD rip
Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues
FLAC CD rip
FLAC vinyl rip
Multiple direct downloads*
FLAC CD rip
FLAC CD rip
Stefon Harris & Jacky Terrason
FLAC CD rip
Polka Dots & Moonbeams
FLAC CD rip
In a Minor Groove
FLAC CD rip
Kind of Blue
FLAC CD rip
Kind of Blue
English Baroque Soloists
Water Music; Royal Fireworks Music (GF Handel)
FLAC CD rip
FLAC CD rip
Even Canadians Get The Blues
FLAC CD rip
Big Band Jazz
FLAC vinyl rip
Roon and JRiver Media Center are both excellent software packages that let computer audiophiles enjoy the highest quality music playback their systems will reproduce. We have lived with and loved JRiver for several years, but are very impressed with Roon and have a slight (if inexplicable) preference for its sound quality. Roon is less labor-intensive in all functions from installation to use, and its presentation is smoother and more contemporary than that of JRiver (which feels and shows its age).
Support is readily available for both platforms through monitored web forums as well as extensive documentation. Most instructions are a bit clearer and simpler from Roon Labs than from JRiver, and most tasks are similarly easier with Roon. Roon hasn’t been around long enough to have generated the extensive archive of information and help found in JRiver’s Interact forum, but a lot of the content of JRiver’s wiki and Interact is both dense enough to make finding what you need difficult and old enough to be suspect.
Both handle libraries of equal size and complexity equally well, and early complaints about genre-specific deficiencies are largely addressed. Roon’s GUI is a lot more sophisticated than JRMC’s and presents a lot of useful information about both program material and mechanics that is either missing or had to find in JRMC. Zone management on the LAN is easier and better with Roon, as grouping zones is simpler and synchronous playback is better in groups of similar endpoints. JRMC will allow grouping diverse endpoints regardless of platform, but synchronous playback is functionally impossible among them unless all are JRMC instances. Roon will apparently allow grouping disparate zones with Google Home, but we haven’t tried this and cannot find any information about the accuracy of time alignment in playback when doing this.
Web integration is a different story entirely. JRMC is readily accessible from anywhere, with both control and playback available anywhere you have internet access. We routinely stream our own music to hotel rooms around the world with no difficulty at all. I stream to my phone while driving, and I built a dedicated JRMC instance on a Raspberry Pi so our son can stream our library the same way. JRMC is also well set up for internet radio streaming, with its newly added and well integrated Radio JRiver offering lossless audio. Tidal is the only current option of this type for Roon users. Tidal’s a great source, but it requires a paid subscription in addition to the cost of Roon.
Remember that we’re only considering JRMC as a platform for music, but it does so much more than that. Roon is purely audio, but JRMC does multiple media very well and is a great match for anyone needing video capability. As a total music management package, we clearly prefer Roon over JRMC because of the rich information it brings us (along with links to even deeper levels of knowledge), excellent sound quality, enjoyable GUI, and ease of use. However, we could not adopt Roon as our only music system because of the WAN access problem. This leaves us with an easily solvable dilemma: we’ll just use both.
IF YOU WANT TO
A critical music lover who plays high quality files / downloads / streamed content
Access broad information about the music you’re playing, with credits & relevant links to web info
It presents jacket photos, credits, lyrics, useful links & comprehensive notes (although NOT the original liner notes)
A critical music lover with no music collection
Stream all your music from a high res subscription service other than Tidal
It integrates several streaming services and is flexible in adding more
Stream all your music from Tidal
Roon integrates Tidal well and delivers content to all roon endpoints
A critical music lover with a CD collection
Rip your CDs and play them from files
It will rip your CDs to files with great control and tag / organize them
A casual listener with no music collection who wants a lot of music at low or no cost
Stream all your music from an ad-supported or low cost service
It integrates several streaming services and is flexible in adding more
A casual listener with a lot of mp3s
Listen to your mp3s and stream from ad-supported or low cost web services
It comes set up for multiple streaming services and will organize / play an mp3 collection
Any listening and experience level
Listen remotely on devices with internet access that are not on your LAN
It works very well on any internet-connected device
Play the same source material on multiple devices on your LAN
Zone integration is easier to manage and has better control over time alignment of more endpoints
Do all of the above
Neither one does it all
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Much of the discussion of Roon vs JRiver Media Center is about the relative cost, with the prime question being whether Roon is worth $119/year or $499 for a lifetime when JRMC costs $60 for unlimited perpetual use on any of the major platforms (Windows, Mac or Linux) and $80 for a master license to use it on all three. You can’t analyze this without considering the total cost of ownership and the benefits it brings. The big differentiator for Roon over its competition is the wealth of data, information, and access to additional sources of interest that it provides. I’ve missed having cover art and liner notes since purchasing my first CD about 35 years ago, and Roon fills this need with far more art and information than we ever got from 99% of album jackets and inner sleeves. Having lyrics and credits for most tracks is truly wonderful, and finding them myself would be a truly arduous task – I don’t think I’ve done this ten times in the last 3 decades.
I assume (but cannot confirm) that much of the marginal cost of Roon over JRMC goes toward license and usage fees for a large chunk of those data. Having this information, especially in so usable and accessible a format, both justifies and is worth that cost to me. Others may differ, and I understand why. But Roon has filled the void in my life left by missing art and literature from long absent album jackets and sleeves – and I’m truly thrilled to have it back again! It’s worth the cost to me.
Certainly, one can buy a current JRMC license and use the program forever for far less than the total cost of Roon ownership. But JRMC has been through 4 or 5 releases since I first bought into it, and each has been far more sophisticated than its predecessor. Continuous quality improvement brings updates quite frequently, but that’s only true for the current release. So sticking with a deprecated version leaves one further behind the state of the art with each subsequent update of the latest version. Roon is currently updated at no additional cost in perpetuity, although the terms of purchase and use could change at any time.
I know that a “lifetime” purchase is frought with uncertainty, and the concept is fragile at best. So I will not be surprised at all to learn at some future time that what I thought was forever will not be. Of course, a new genius will emerge at some future time from his or her basement lab with a new system that is far superior to Roon and JRMC. When that happens, I’ll accept and embrace it if it’s truly better. Until then, I’ll be very happy with what I have – the price of pleasure is money well spent.