Monday, May 30, 2022

Audio: ROON ROCK on a ZOTAC Z Box

For those who don't know, ROON is far and away the best platform for streaming music from a local library as well as from services like TIDAL, Qobuz, and other online providers of hi-res streaming, for a single audio system or multiple systems throughout a home. It's user-friendly and offers lots of handy tools for organizing music and associated information.

Many hardware manufacturers (including ROON) make servers that can run ROON. But most of them are stupidly expensive, running into the thousands of dollars. However, ROON also offers downloads for running ROON on any Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. So, you don't need a dedicated server. That said, many people prefer to have ROON on a dedicated server, where it's not competing for RAM with lots of other programs. I'm in that camp. Fortunately, ROON offers a special version of its software, called "ROCK," which runs without any other underlying operating system. So, you can buy a mini pc to use with ROCK, which ends up being less than half the cost of buying a ready-made ROON server. And it does not require a degree in computer engineering.

For the past few years, I'd been running ROCK on an Intel NUC (7th generation i3) computer. But I've had some reliability issues with that unit, which also is a bit noisy because it has a small fan. For that reason, I've always kept it in a separate from from my listening room. 

To solve those problems, I just purchased a new ZOTAC Z Box, C Series, with a 10th generation i3 chip (the same as ROON uses in its own Nucleus server). The new computer also uses the same SODIMM RAM boards as the NUC, so I just swapped them from the old computer. I installed a fresh download of ROON ROCK onto an internal 240gb SSD, a process that is a bit more complicated than swapping out hardware. First. you need to download ROCK software onto separate Windows/Mac/Linux computer, then flash the image from that software onto a USB drive. You boot up the new server from that USB drive, which sets up the internal SSD for running the software. The most complicated part is getting the BIOS settings in the new computer right. ROON's instructions don't accurately apply to the BIOS on every brand and type of computer/server, so you sometimes have to make some educated guesses on the settings. That process can take a bit of time.

Once I had ROON ROCK up and running on the ZOTAC, I plugged in an external SSD that contained my digital music library, and a LAN cable to access the home network I had previously set up. That network allows ROON to access all of the ROON-ready endpoints throughout the house, including various stereo components, TVs with Chromecast or Airplay, phones and tablets. 

The ZOTAC has a reputation for running hot under heavy loads, but I anticipated no problems because ROON ROCK is not a heavy load, and it's the only OS on the computer. So, no multitasking and no game playing. Indeed, the small computer gets only a bit warm to the touch, less so than my Parasound JC2BP preamplifier (which doesn't get all that hot either). Because the ZOTAC does not have an internal slot for an M2 SSD, I don't have the option of putting both the operating system and the music library (which cannot be on the same drive) under the hood. But I've found it advantageous to keep the library on an external drive. It's easier to maintain, when necessary, by plugging it into another PC or MAC, as opposed to attaching a keyboard and screen to the Zotac, which doesn't require them for ordinary operation.

A ROON subscription is $120/year or $700 for a lifetime subscription. When I bought my lifetime subscription a few years ago, it was only $500. There is no extra charge for the software. The total cost of the hardware (computer, SSDs, and cables) was less than $700. Compare that price to the $1500 ROON Nucleus server, which runs the same Intel chipset, same amount of RAM, and the same software, plus a 1tb HDD (rather than an SSD).

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