The shift to small, single-purpose devices (wonkish)

I don’t think so, except the Nucleus is fanless.

As always, @AndersVinberg gives us food for thought. I’m not sure that the rise of IoT, big data and AI will necessarily lead us to a rosy future. I fully expect the weaponising of AI, for example. This report makes for sobering reading.

As the old Chinese saying (almost) goes - we are living in interesting times…

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Always enjoy reading Anders’ thoughts.

I think Anders’ remarks about the trend to appliances is consistent with the projected rise of Ubiquitous Computing. In brief terms Ubiquitous Computing is the concept that computing hardware becomes so small and cheap that everything has some built in smarts. The Internet of Things is another aspect of this, with a focus on how such devices talk to one another and what they can usefully tell each other.

I remember seeing some initial attempts in this direction that were misconceived. A fridge with a touch display that runs a web browser. If I want a web browser then I’ll use a tablet wherever I am sitting, I don’t want to stand in front of my fridge to type in a grocery list. What I want is for the fridge to know what its got in it so it can prefill a shopping list or check a recipe for missing ingredients. I don’t need my fridge to be a better general purpose computer, I need it to be a better fridge.

In the same way, although my current music server is currently the best general purpose computer in the house, I expect this may be an anomaly due to history and current technology.

In the future, I can see Roon running as a module in the Cloud associated with my House. By that time, of course, I will be commuting to work by jet pack and having my trousers put on in the morning by a Heath-Robinson machine a la Wallace.


Roon Nucleus appears to be a custom built Intel i7 based machine running, I guess, Debian Stable kitted with the server package list. Funny thing, I have exactly the same SW configuration running in a FreeNAS 11 virtual machine. Since both Roon and home file serving are light workloads, the two coexist nicely.

The primary purpose of my FreeNAS machine is to provide a reliable fault-tolerant store for Apple Time Machine. It has secondary duties as a UniFi Controller, Plex server (lightly used since Roon), Roon Core, and maybe UniFi Video later on (currently on a UniFi appliance).

The advantage of this FreeNAS environment is that the file system is Zeta-Byte File System, a very robust fault tolerant file system developed originally by Sun Microsystems but now an open source project supported by iX Systems, a leading maker of commercial mid-scale and large-scale storage systems. The Roon VM has its file system in a ZFS dataset that grows as needed. The ZFS file system uses the ZRAID-2 variant with dual disk failure tolerance.

My FreeNAS system can tolerate 2 disk failures. Experience has shown that disk failures cluster and it is not uncommon for a second disk to fail while the storage array is incorporating the replacement disk to recover from the first failure. When the second disk fails during RAID system recovery, the volume is lost. Partial recovery may be possible but is work for data recovery professionals.

My music library is an iTunes library living in a second FreeNAS dataset exported to a Mac for use. The data is here to have it available without the iMac running and logged in. Because the data is on a network file system and not on a Mac internal file system, Time Machine does not back it up. I need to set up a second backup mechanism for the pictures and music on the FreeNAS media dataset.

The Nucleus and MicroRendu don’t offer significant advantages over regular Intel NUCS or other small form factor bespoke systems. They basically are small systems running Linux and the Roon Server or Roon Endpoint software. They have some features that would not demonstrate benefit in double blind testing but make the products appealing to audiophiles. Their most appealing feature is that they are ready to rumble out of the box. If you’re not a skilled computer system administrator this can be a very attractive feature. The Roon Nucleus press release does not mention the file system used. One excellent product differentiator would be for Roon to use ZFS here.

One important thing to keep in mind in digital audio is that the last digital device that takes the signal into the analog world that is responsible for the quality of the sound. The last device performs jitter buffering, resampling, retiming, and rendering. Most good DACS use pro audio chipsets from Burr-Brown (part of Texas Instruments now) so product packaging, outputs, and bespoke discrete output buffers differentiate these products. It is instructive to read Burr Brown’s application notes for these parts to learn what they do and how well they do it.

Significant sonic improvement results with the addition of a DAC using these proven parts from Cambridge Audio, OPPO Digital, Bryston, or Parasound. Specialist DACS from Benchmark or Merging Technologies are of more interest in recording and movie sound mastering but can be used in home audio systems to good effect.

I particularly like John Curl’s work for Parasound. He’s an analog magician. Parasound contracts out its preamps and power amp signal handling to John with Parasound engineering doing the controls, switching, power supply, etc. Respected Taiwanese firms manufacture for Parasound for less than Parasound can purchase parts in the US. See YouTube for an interview of John Curl.

For my money and ears, it is most cost effective to use small scale server grade components like those in my FreeNAS system and a proven DAC from a respected manufacturer. Magic cables, external jitter buffers and timebases, etc look nice on the shelf but it is the DAC that makes the signal you ultimately hear.


I am not sure if I fully get your point, Anders.

Especially, I am not sure what the definition of a single-purpose-device might be. Are you referring to use-cases (software), the device itself, or the intent it was built for?
Nucleus, (hardware) can be a multi-purpose device, as it is a regular computer which can run anything you install on it.
From a software perspective, it is set up with ROCK to run RoonServer on it (single-purpose-device)

I think that single purpose devices can be great for specific tasks (like the Nucleus for example). But I also hope that single purpose devices do not become mainstream for everything.

I just tried to imagine what it would be, if single-purpose-devices become standard:
Of course it is great if you set something up easily and it works right away. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.
The good thing about Nucleus (or ROCK) is, that it is standard hardware with a dedicated OS. Most products on the market don’t go that way, as they want to sell their own hardware and make money in services afterwards.
Mostly they will be closed systems. And you have to find gear that is working with product A+B and some only support X or Y. A good example here might be Sonos. When you start with Sonos you can only expand the system by other Sonos hardware and only use the services they offer. You still have to tinker to get output from your computer audio jack to a Play:1 for example. And in this case, you can’t install a different software on these speakers. This was also one reason for me to use Roon as it is hardware independent. And I don’t see this openness becoming mainstream (as most brands don’t care and want to sell their own hardware).

But this also leads to a scenario, where people will become less interested and educated how things actually work.
I guess something similar already happened with digital photography: Since digital cameras became popular and mainstream, less people know what the impact of the aperture, ISO, and lens is, as they just shoot a photo and the camera sets everything everything automatically to the “best” value.
If this becomes the de facto standard for everything, we have, at a certain point, no idea what is happening in the background. If something breaks, we won’t be able to fix it by ourselves and some people might just buy a new device, which results in more natural resources and more trash. Since smartphones became mainstream there was already a significant increase, as people swap their phone quite often for a new one to have a faster one with new features. This might apply to other single purpose devices as well.
(The smartphone is also one good example, how a mostly single purpose device (our old dumb cell phones), became a multi-purpose-device.)

You mentioned this already: When using single purpose devices, file management becomes more complex in the aspect of backups, as they are spread to various devices. Sure, the devices might offer to sync them into the cloud, but there are many users, who’d prefer to not share them with online services.

I am not sure if I get your point here:

I can only talk about myself, but I (really!) never thought about leveraging its awesome power… :slight_smile:
Someone should consider its needs before buying a computer and choose one regarding its use-case.

You mentioned:

So what about the economic point and cost factor here? Both devices are also just PCs…

In the end I hope, that both kind of devices will coexist, as this is something of personal preference. :slight_smile:

EDIT: Don’t get me wrong. I am happy Nucleus/ROCK worked out so well for you and I enjoyed reading about your observations. I just don’t share the conclusion to favour single purpose devices in every area of our life.


I realize that this is just a guess, but it’s pretty far from the truth. There are fundamental and structural differences between general purpose linux distributions like Debian and RoonOS. You might find the Nucleus White Paper interesting.


Great insight.

I started looking into Roon and quickly got confused and with so many choices I decided not to move forward. I wish there was a cost effective, easy to understand solution where I could buy something and be up and running right away. I am starting to miss my Oppo 105 with Tidal. My Oppo 205 with a Roon option is too difficult for me to invest my time in understanding.

Thank you for sharing the Nucleus White Paper!

I was just wondering what happens when there comes newer and faster NUCs available. Can the existing Nucleus/Nucleus+ customers upgrade the NUC inside somehow? Will there be an upgrade possibility?

Your title on the avatar, is “Chief Tinkerer”. I think you have already defined yourself out of the mainstream :grinning:.

As I emphasized in the OP, this is entirely a discussion about software. The device is a combination of hardware and software, but its differentiating characteristics are software. Therefore:

No, it cannot. The Nucleus device does not allow any other software to run on it. It is true that the parts that it is constructed from can be scavenged and turned into something else, but then it is no longer a Nucleus.

This is essential to my view. Hardware matters, but software defines the personality. We can change the hardware, but the software makes it a Nucleus. Imagine that Intel creates a new computer model with different hardware (Optane storage for example), if Roon Labs uses that, it will still be a Nucleus. Or an ARM based board made by Qualcomm, it’s still a Nucleus. And Nucleus is a single-purpose device. And conversely, if you replace the software on it, with a general Linux distro plus some cool software from around the internet, it is no longer a Nucleus, even though the hardware is the same. The hardware does not define the Nucleus, the software does.

Wrt my movement from a NUC to a Nucleus, you say “both devices are just PCs”. And this is my argument: the NUC is, but the Nucleus is not. Just like a sewing machine is not, and my car is not – they do contain computing hardware, but they are not computers. This is the essential message.

Wrt @David_Hamby’s note:

@Brian has commented on it technically, but my comment is more fundamental: I don’t know the provenance of the Roon OS, and more importantly, I don’t care and I don’t have to care.

And why does this matter? I have a friend who is interested in upgrading his stereo, he is a 60-something financial executive in the apparel industry, I have talked about Roon but he is a little bit concerned, I think if I send him @David_Hamby’s post it would not reassure him. And in contrast, the other day I was at a show at Definitive Audio in Seattle, lots of big names were there, and the audience (probably many like my friend) really lit up when Steve Silberman demoed the Nucleus, the little black box, self-contained.

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Exactly - Nucleus is a music appliance. Some of us may have built our own from a kit of parts (HW & SW), but the end result is still an appliance, not a general-purpose computer.

Ok. I was under the impression that nucleus is just preinstalled with ROCK, but you could also install a regular Linux or windows on it, like on the NUC (if you really want to do that)…
(That‘s also the reason why I was unsure about the definition of single-puropose-device. )

The title was actually given to me here… :grinning:
And I am also not proposing everybody should be a tinkerer. It is great the Nucleus exists, especially for people who do not want to care about it like you. They can buy it, set it up and be happy. But it is even better to have a choice.
(And using mac or pc to run a software is actually no tinkering to me, but you are right it is more work.)
Maybe I lost the focus a little bit in my first post, I only wanted to point out, that I believe it would be bad if there were only single-purpose-devices in the future. But as long as options exist, everything is fine.
My main interest (hobby) is also primary networking and scripting and when I see certain audio setups in this community board I always feel like they are the real tinkerers to get most out of their system… :wink:

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Yep. I have to confess to suggesting it to Mike, so Chris is stuck with it now … :yum:.

Sure, I’m not suggesting that single-purpose devices will eliminate multi-purpose computers. Regular computers will continue to exist, for all the reasons they have been good for us.

But they are not growing as much as they were, for all the reasons they have been bad. There are one to two billion computers on the planet. The cloud is growing explosively, but they count millions, not billions. But reasonable people suggest there will be 20-50 billion devices on the internet by 2020. Ok, many are phones, but not more than 8 billion because a phone is useful only when a human is holding it. So 10-40 billion “other”, and those must be single-purpose, as simple as we can, because classical systems management cannot scale up.

They will also be very cheap. Below $100, and some below $10. And believe it or not, I know reasonable people working on the engineering problems of computers below $1. So that answers your issue about repairability.

I am intentionally looking far out. Not all of this is imminent. I have worked in the industry for 45 years, we have had a great ride, but I think the next 45 years will be much more exciting. We are at the infancy of the Information Age. Really, infancy. And what will happen over 45 years starts now.


Now if you could get them to built a Nucleus that would be something. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:
… because the Nucleus story you were telling earlier seems to contradict the trend you’re hinting at here. It began with a $2000+ pc reduced to serving a single purpose - just for convenience; this is probably as far away from being part of the next wave as a fridge with an IPv6 address and a touch pad glued to its door. Well, I stop here before Alexa starts laughing again …

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I got my first look at the Nucleus/N+ today and I have to say its one of the sexiest media server boxes I have come across. Actually held it in my hands. Props to @danny and the team. While its expensive to use as a general purpose desktop, if I was after the look its worth it.

Anders, I agree wholeheartedly with your general concepts. I would go a little further. I agree with your thoughts of a device to play (compute power at the edge), and am (mostly) using RPi and IQAudIO components.

In the “middle” I see a need for a few general directions over time, that are hard (impossible?) to realize at the moment. First I am moving towards centralized data storage (NAS, in my case FreeNAS serves that purpose best today) and how to manage ‘server’ capabilities and the integration between and amongst that ‘server’ capability.

I see two areas of weakness; one is the lack of ability to communicate between e.g. a home control system and a music system. So in general terms, I’m looking closely at Mycroft for voice control, HomeAssist for control of home devices, etc… The mechanisms to communicate (let alone integrate) between applications is sadly lacking, with most organizations seeking to control ‘the world’ from (only) their device and either ignoring or actively excluding the possibility of playing well with others. Where does voice control fit in, for example? I’d prefer to use an open solution (e.g Mycroft) but actually can’t AFAIK use ANY system with Roon. Extend the analogy to your device/system of choice!

Finally, I want to be able to deploy the “server” simply and efficiently. I don’t want to have single-purpose servers, I would like to take advantage of (in my case Docker) containerization technology and to be able to deploy and update easily and simply.

Of course, the challenge in all of this is the removal of complexity: few if any of the products or technologies are at the point where any one of them (Roon included :slight_smile: ) are deployable in a simple, consistent and reliable way, let alone have the play nicely together.

So, in short, compute power to the edge where it is appropriate, good integration (or at least open communication methods) for data and control, centralized data storage, and amalgamation (with isolation) of applications on a machine.


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Thank you for your wonderfully structured argument. It seems to mirror my experience as well, both in the computer world, and in the audio world.

Nucleus or NUC / Rock offer a good, frictionless experience. If your only music source is Tidal streaming, Roon is easy. If you also want to rip your CDs and put them into a structured folder system (like I do), you are back into deep geek territory.

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Only problem with anything you wrote here that I have is “prognosis for the next 50 years”. I’ve seen the technological landscape change so much in the last 20 I don’t see how anyone could possibly predict the next 50 with any confidence. When I think of myself 50 years ago, today’s technology would indeed be indistinguishable from magic–and the pace is only accelerating now.

I absolutely agree the days of the general purpose computer are numbered. I think there will still be computers for the foreseeable future for things they were always good at, such as crunching big data and math problems. For things like accessing information on the Internet–whatever it evolves into–or communicating via email, instant messaging, text messaging, etc. general purpose computers are already well on their way out.

I completely agree setting up a Windows PC for the purpose of hooking it up to a DAC and using it for music listening is crazy. For a long time I experimented with the “home theatre PC” concept. I ended up building one in a fanless PC chassis that looks not out of place in my high end audio system. But running Windows on it was an unmitigated disaster. It reminded me of that ad for the cool Apple computer versus the geeky PC–though I don’t expect a Mac would do much better. When you want to kick up your feet and listen to music, you don’t want a stupid computer nagging you to do updates. These days I run Lubuntu and Kodi on it, but I long ago gave up the idea of using it as a Roon endpoint. There are simply better options. Even for streaming video there are mostly better options. Maybe it’s a generational thing but for those of us who grew up collecting black vinyl disks and, later, little silver ones, a computer, or even an phone or tablet is a contraption best done without.

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