General observation about the new small computers

There has been a lot of discussion in these pages about the benefits, audible and otherwise, of the new small audio computers like the SonicOrbiter.

But it occurs to me that these computers, plus the new crop of high quality USB DACs, together drive a fast-moving revolution. The concept of a network audio endpoint with high quality used to be very expensive, and the devices were sized like normal high-end audio gear. The Meridian Sooloos system (Roon’s precursor) was a leader, but there are other high-end systems, like Aurender. I don’t have a problem with this in principle, I used to have a Sooloos setup and I have at times spent ridiculous amounts of money on audio gear. But I think this price and size revolution is earth-shaking. Especially since we do not give up sound quality.

Lower prices are always good, of course – improved cost-benefit is the central pattern of the computer industry, the famous Moore’s law. But it isn’t just that you don’t have to be super-wealthy to get good sound – the secondary effects are more dramatic. Just as with computers, it drives ubiquity. We can set up quality audio in multiple locations. For computers we talk about the Internet of Things, where all devices become smart. Our revolution may be Sound Everywhere – can somebody come up with something catchier?

It is related to mobility, of course – I have written at length about the importance of the mobility revolution, especially in combination with the cloud. Mobile doesn’t just mean that the device is mobile, it means that your experience is mobile, which means your data and metadata are mobile, and the cloud is what enables this. One of the first examples of this was the Kindle: if you read on one device and later continue on another device, it knows where in the book you are. Wonderful. Roon needs to go there.

But that’s a different conversation. Here, I’m just marveling at the impact of small, inexpensive devices. I recently had a casual thought that it would be nice to have a bedside headphone system, in case I can’t sleep and don’t want to disturb my wife. Not a big issue: I could get up and go downstairs, or I could use a portable device, or I could just abstain. But going downstairs wakes me up, harder to go back to sleep; the portable isn’t Roon and I have to manage the content; and I didn’t want to abstain. Not enough of a reason to get a classical hifi system, let alone a Meridian, for reasons of both money and space. But a SOSE plus a Geek Out is inexpensive and unobtrusive, no reason not to do it. So I can have a streaming endpoint at the bedside, and I can put that in every other location I can think of.

I think this is a bigger revolution than anything else we have seen: price, footprint and sound quality combine in a way that change classical thinking. Quality music playing is no longer just for the affluent, middle-aged white male sitting in front of an altar to high-end audio. It becomes ubiquitous. And quality is not just about sound, it also includes Roon-enabled metadata browsing and discovery.

Sonos drove this kind of change, but without the quality and user interface. BlueSound is picking up on this. But both are closed systems.

Ok, we have a ways to go. Setup is still too demanding. And we don’t yet have mobility though the cloud. But we can see the outline of a revolution.

I can’t quite convey the impact of the revolution I’m talking about. I’m old enough, and a techie, so I remember when computers were mainframes, and then came the PC and small servers, and we are still living that revolution with the cloud and phones. The point is, it wasn’t just about lower cost, it totally changed the mindset.

Some people, and some writers, devoted to high-end audio at stratospheric prices and sizes, will pooh-pooh this. And of course, the comparisons are not without merit – the very high-end systems are wonderful. But that misses the point. Clayton Christensen in his Innovator’s Dilemma wrote about this: the first steps toward the revolution do not match the performance of the classical solution, and do not meet the performance demands of the established customers, but once they become good enough their cost and size and agility advantages blow the old systems out of the water.

It’s a fascinating time.


Brian’s remarks in your (excellent) complexity thread spring to mind. Smaller, faster and ubiquitous (same notion as mobility) will win over the traditional server/client architecture.

I enjoyed this. And I agree.

The most challenging thing is that mobility isn’t a feature. It’s 20 things working together with a sane architecture and vision guiding them. Some people will achieve it more easily than others.

We can’t get out of spending resources on partner relationships, clawing our way out of technical/feature/product debt, or keeping ourselves competitive on the small stuff. These things need to happen too. But achieving the point where Roon is as accessible to everyone as mainstream solutions like Spotify is the real long-term crusade.

Some people have noted that 1.2 was is first “spouse-enabled” version of Roon. Phone-based control + lightweight zone options for secondary rooms mean that Roon is no longer just a toy for an enthusiast to run in an audiophile altar. Everyone in the household has a phone, and many like to listen to music as they go about their day with little-to-no considerations about sound quality.

This wasn’t an accident–it is one of many incremental steps towards making Roon consistently accessible. We are one of the few pieces of audiophile quality software that treats the user experience of the rest of the family as a core concern.

But we have a ways to go still. There is still access in the office, car, airplane, subway, sidewalk, and the other dozen use cases that we still need to enable. And with the appropriate quality/accessibility/usability tradeoffs for each.

Another big one: Roon should be simple enough for a casual user to set it up, use it, and access the benefits.

The “Bedphones” zone has been on my TODO list for a while, along with a couple of more convenience zones that I want to set up around the house. I’m happy that this is possible now, but it’s only the beginning of what we hope to accomplish.

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Part of the “Roon for all the family” mission will be building out the Profiles, possibly with alternative default views of the Library. I’m hoping we can see some movement in those directions in the forthcoming metadata extravaganza.


An even cheaper option is a Raspberry Pi and IQAudio DAC+ card, about £80 here in the UK and the sound quality is amazing for the price and of course it’s Roon certified

Right now even an Android phone/tablet can be used as an endpoint and (hopefully) soon IOS phone/tablets as well, add a small DAC headphone amp(geek out/dragonfly black/red) and you have a sweet sounding bedside system.