I believe we should simplify the recommendations we make to newcomers.
Drastically simplify it, and bring it down to earth.
The most glaring example is this whole issue of networked connection vs. USB. And the related discussion of noise transmission.
(And it isn’t just here: Hans Beekhuyzen has a Youtube video on “What Audio Server Sounds The Best”, and it goes on and on about the problems of direct USB connection.)
I am not saying that this issue isn’t real, or that it doesn’t cause audible degradation. I leave that discussion apart. But I do say, very forcefully, that it isn’t the most important and urgent issue to bring up to a newcomer.
We have seen people coming on to the forum happy with very humble audio systems seeking advice, and we recently had somebody with a very ambitious and high quality system but with little knowledge of Roon asking for advice when building a new house (!), and they often say “I know nothing about Roon except I know using a USB connection is bad and so is WiFi and I should use wired networking.” That is not the first thing people should know! Both because it isn’t the most important, and because it is easily tested and altered later.
“The most important thing for a good handling car is the tires. The tires are the contact of your car with earth, if you don’t have a stable foundation, nothing else matters. This is not just about grip, it is about stability, precision, responsiveness to control inputs. So you should start with a good, high precision, low profile tire. I recommend Pirelli P-Zero. And make sure it is filled with nitrogen, not air, because with nitrogen the pressure is less sensitive to temperature changes. You definitely need to mount them on magnesium rims, but if possible I recommend carbon fiber rims and carbon-ceramic brakes, because those will lower the unsprung weight and allow the tire to keep in contact with the road when it is bumpy. The change will be like night and day, it will give a whole different feel to your Prius.” Ridiculous, right? Even though all the advice is correct, it is not the first consideration for a Prius. And yet, this is what we do.
We talk about the noise transmission issue as if this could render the whole system useless. One of the key points about digital audio, and especially computer-based audio, is that it is less sensitive to physical imperfections than analog systems. And yet, there was one writer here who asked for advice about the harsh, glaring distortion he got when playing Roon, and he described his system is detail including the brands of cables he used, and described his next step in the troubleshooting as getting some even higher quality cables to compare. I’m not saying that digital cables have no effect, again that’s a separate discussion, but they do not cause dramatic, harsh distortion.
First, we should start with the fundamentals, and leave final tweaking to later.
Second, we should stop talking about computer audio and talk about appliances. You don’t need to get a NAS. You don’t need to obsess about the CPU – unless it is underpowered, a more powerful CPU will not improve sound quality. Wired networking does not give better sound quality than WiFi – unless the WiFi connection is unreliable or underpowered.
I would say this:
If you already have a music system, you should think about adding Roon like you do about adding an FM tuner. You get a Roon box like a Nucleus, or there are a few other brands. If you have your own music library, you need to store it, the cleanest is to install an SSD in the Nucleus, your dealer will do it, or you can buy them on Amazon, it takes five minutes with a screwdriver to install it. Or if you prefer, you can get an external drive and plug it into a jack on the Nucleus. One terabyte is enough. And then you plug the Roon box into your hifi. If your hifi doesn’t have a jack that fits, or if it doesn’t have a DAC, you need to add a box, that’s discussed here. The Roon box needs to be on the internet, and it needs to be on WiFi so you can control it with a tablet, you can use a WiFi connection or a wired connection if you have one. Copy your music to the Nucleus from your computer, or connect to Tidal, and enjoy!
One advantage of Roon is that you can play in other rooms. For that, we don’t use short USB cables, we use networking. So you need to connect your music systems in the other rooms with networking, either WiFi or wireless. If your music systems in those rooms don’t have network jacks, there are several devices that can handle that, from the $35 Chromecast to multi-thousand boxes from the likes of PSAudio, those are discussed here.
Of course, you can use networking for the main system too, instead of the USB cable. That allows you to put the Nucleus box somewhere else, if that is more convenient.
And some similar advice for somebody without an existing music system, that is even easier.
The point is, this approach, which removes a lot of the fine-tuning we often drill into, is already complex enough. But I didn’t talk about computers. And I didn’t talk about audio finetuning, or nitrogen in the tires. And nonetheless, the sound will be awesome, much better than anything that has come before. And it is simple, and reliable.
Now, it the person we are talking to wants to do more fine-tuning to get the ultimate sound quality, I would suggest looking at the speakers and the room, and if you don’t wanto to make your room look like a studio with panels on the walls, educate yourself on how to use Roon’s DSP room correction. And after that, look at quality bottlenecks in the system, the DAC isn’t super-critical unless it is sub-par, etc. And after that, worry about what type of connection you use, and cables, and the phase of the moon…
The Computer Audiophile demographic should not be our audience (our only audience).