When last we met, I described my experience of building a Roon ROCK (Roon Optimized Core Kit) server and setting up Roon as my music-streaming software in my home. I got as far as installing the ROCK and Roon clients on my laptop and phone, attaching an external drive and cataloging my music, and getting the thing working with my Logitech Squeezebox Touch streamer.
Shortly after I submitted that article, I received the Meitner Audio MA3 streaming DAC. As with the DS-EQ2 optical phono equalizer I wrote about earlier this year, the MA3 came nicely packaged and felt sturdy and well finished.
Hooking up the MA3 was obviously easy. Power in via a Nordost Vishnu cable and balanced outputs through Nordost Tyr 2 interconnects. Connection to my network was via a 35′ no-name Cat 6 ethernet cable from Amazon.
I ran the tail end of the ethernet cable into the auxiliary port of one of my industrial-strength UniFi Ubiquiti access points, which is in turn hardwired to the Netgear POE switch up near my modem.
Now before you true-believing audiophiles get your undies in a bundle about how I shouldn’t use cheap Cat 6 or a no-name switch, I’d like to refer you to Doug Schneider’s dissertation on marketing malarkey around such products. Doug and I have discussed this topic at length since we both have backgrounds in computer systems. At several shows, we’ve received enthusiastic pitches on how audiophile switches and network cables can do patently impossible things.
I once had a smooth-brained audiophile tell me that poor-quality switches “corrupt the timing” in the musical signal. In TCP/IP packets. Really. I got a little angry and proceeded to tell the guy that there was no musical signal in a TCP/IP packet. It’s data at that point, and at each stage of its journey from source to destination (data from Tidal or any streaming service undoubtedly takes many hops through hundreds of industrial switches and miles of shitty ethernet cables), parts of the data are verified by way of a checksum calculation. At the final destination, a more detailed verification is performed, and corrupted packets are marked as such. For corrupted packets, a receipt acknowledgment isn’t sent to the source. That packet then gets retransmitted. This process has a ton of complications, but rest assured, it’s insanely rugged. And it has to be—otherwise, your banking transactions, which are encrypted with a 256-bit AES protocol, wouldn’t work. “Oh, but that’s not muuuuuuusic,” audiophiles would say, as if the fact that those packets contain little chunks of an audio data stream means there’s something magical about them. It ain’t so. The data stream only contains music after the last hop, after the receipt at the final network adapter.
It dawned on me after the fact that the guy was likely talking about network jitter, which is a real thing, but has absolutely nothing to do with music and its reproduction. It seems to me, and it isn’t surprising, that audiophiles are being flim-flammed into conflating the concept of clock jitter in a digital stream, which occurs when the clock signal drifts slightly and the samples end up with tiny variations in length, with network jitter, which is totally different. Network jitter results from inconsistencies between the time a packet is transmitted and when it’s received. If network jitter gets too high, it can cause dropouts and buffering. But here’s the thing: as long as your network is running smoothly, it’s highly unlikely that there will be sufficient jitter to cause a problem. If you can stream a movie without buffering, you’re probably good. In any case, there are plenty of online tests that will immediately show the quality of your network. Should your network jitter test out as less than 20ms, it’s likely not a problem.
The bottom line here is that the network traffic coming down that cheap Amazon cable is just fine. As long as my network has the throughput to deliver the data via TCP/IP (which it does), the network adapter in the MA3 will receive valid, verified data from the Roon server, and it’ll digest it without issue, combining those packets back into a digital stream that the MA3 will buffer and send to the DAC.
Put another way—if we can beam a high-resolution photo of Pluto back to Earth from the edge of our solar system, then streaming a low-bandwidth music signal from one room to another via a short piece of wire just has to be settled science.
I’ll get down off my soapbox now.
The MA3 is Roon-certified, the implications of which I didn’t delve into before I simply plugged it in. What happened next made me raise one eyebrow, Spock-like. After I’d powered up the MA3, I walked over to my laptop and took a look at the Roon app. I clicked on the bottom right to see all connected devices, and—what the hell—there was the MA3! It was that simple.
If all you’ve ever used is Roon, you’re likely confused as to the reason for my astonishment. I’ve been messing with network streamers for nearly 20 years now, and I’ve spent around a decade working with Raspberry Pi single-board computers as both servers and streaming devices. For much of that time, I’ve worked within the Squeezebox / Logitech Media Server ecosystem, and using an external DAC with a Raspberry Pi is a pain in the ass.
The free distributions of the open-source LMS server and streamer software are built around a Linux kernel, and—for the most part—there hasn’t been much effort expended to enhance the discovery process for external DACs. So I’d plug in a DAC and then have to poke around in low-level ALSA sound-card settings to try to determine which of about ten options I should choose to get sound out of my speakers.
I guess this sometimes-fruitless aggravation became my reality, and I’d suffer through it whenever a friend would ask me to gin up a music server-streamer combination. The bottom line here is that I expected to have to wrestle with the Roon software to get it to find and recognize the MA3.
This ease of use seems to flow through every aspect of the Roon experience. For the most part, communication via the app on both my Windows laptop and Samsung phone has been rock solid. There’s been a couple of instances where the Touch streamer’s gotten a little confused and would only play one song at a time, pausing after each track, but it’s old and tired, so I can’t really blame it for that. A simple reboot cleans it right up. The MA3? It does exactly what it’s told—it plays the music and sounds great—and so far, it hasn’t so much as burped. More on the MA3 later.
For now, though, I’m still discovering cool stuff within Roon. Of course, the GUI is just fantastic. The album and artist lists are huge, colorful, and well laid out. Response time is snappy. In among the artist and album details are well-chosen biographies that I find fascinating. The Credits tab displays a decent-sized photo of each artist and provides click-throughs so you can dive down a never-ending rabbit hole.
Another hyper-cool feature is the Compositions tab. Select a composer, such as Richard Strauss, and hit the Compositions tab. This opens a list of all works by that composer. From here, you can click on one of those compositions and see every version of that piece. It’s an incredibly clean way of displaying classical music. In almost every other software I’ve seen, all performances of all works by a composer are displayed in a big list, and you’ve got to search through that potentially huge list to find what you’re after.
Perhaps Roon’s biggest selling feature is its seamless integration with Tidal and Qobuz. I’d heard about this from my neighbor Ron, but seeing it and actually working with it drove home what got him so worked up. Search an artist and the discography lists every album by that artist, including those in your local library and those hosted by Tidal or Qobuz—whichever of these you subscribe to (or both, if you subscribe to both).
The location—local or cloud—of albums is clearly marked, and for albums that are stored in more than one place, you can drill down to see each potential version (Tidal may have more than one). I’ve had some fun comparing my own locally stored files to Tidal MQA and remastered versions. It’s a geek-out festival.
I keep discovering Easter eggs. Click on the little sparkly light just to the left of the previous-play/pause-next track controls and up pops a full listing of each step in the signal path. The light changes color depending on whether the signal is bit-perfect from start to finish or if it’s being massaged in some way.
Another cool extra is the fully parametric equalizer that works entirely in the digital domain. While I don’t plan on using this function in my review system, I have had some fun with it on the second system I have on the main floor of my house. Right now, I have the Totem Acoustic Sky Tower speakers running on the main floor, and with their single 5.75″ woofer per cabinet, they can sound a touch thin in that big room. So, I simply dialed in a +3dB low-shelf filter starting at 100Hz, which filled in the bottom quite well. And because I’m a nice guy, I rolled off the very bottom below the port-tuning frequency so that the little guys would have an easier time of it.
I’ve found that my listening life on the main floor hasn’t changed very much. I still prime the little Squeezebox Touch with an album first thing in the morning and let it play. LMS has a plug-in called Don’t Stop the Music, which uses Last.fm to choose the next track after the album ends. It’s a cool function, as Last.fm keeps track of what you choose and play, so there’s a fair bit of smarts behind its decisions.
But now I’m using Roon, and it has similar functionality in the form of Roon Radio, which plays on after the last track of an album or playlist. It’s early days for me yet, but I think it does a great job. There’s a thumbs-up-or-down button on the Now Playing screen that allows you to train Roon Radio, but it seems to do a fine job by itself, so I haven’t bothered to interact with it much in this way.
The ROCK server, hosted on the Intel NUC, has been totally trouble-free, just as I’d expect from a stripped-down Linux OS. I’ve been reluctant to move away from my LMS-based server and streamers because I’ve invested so much time in learning their idiosyncrasies and how their infrastructure functions. The support group over at the Slim Devices forum has been incredibly helpful and welcoming, and I feel like a bit of a heel deserting them.
But time marches on and all that—hence this experiment. And this venture has netted significant benefits. My Roon encounter has so far been a pleasure, both for its rich user experience and for the additional functionality.
I’m going to leave the actual sound of the MA3, how it works into my reference system, and how it compares to my vinyl rig for next month because it’s a tricky topic. And I really need to think about it before I make any sort of pronouncement. In the meantime, I’m off to do a whole bunch of listening.
. . . Jason Thorpe