I had been using the Roon software, alongside Tidal for over a year now and one of the issues has been that running it requires a decent amount of processing power. A tablet won’t do it, so I have been using a MacBook. It works well enough but means that the computer is essentially out of bounds while the music is playing. What has been needed is a separate and dedicated computer for running the Roon core, linked to the network to assemble and collate the metadata as well as providing an extensive view of the library through your tablet. Utilising the Mac also led to some occasionally clunky and irritating reboot moments, which did little to enhance the whole experience into an immersive listening session. The Nucleus is Roon’s first hardware product; a dedicated server with a built-in processor that runs Roon autonomously. Two versions are available: the entry-level Nucleus (see Specifications box, below) and the higher performance Nucleus+ version reviewed here. The Nucleus+ is built around an Intel NUC i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128 GB OS SSD for the operating system with the option to also add an SSD or HDD hard drive to provide an extensive internal library. There are connections for external NAS storage and an output that supports an HDMI connection. Roon also has drivers available now that enable integration with automated systems like Crestron.
Nucleus and Nucleus+ are entirely compatible with any of the growing list of devices on the market that are Roon-ready and there are also an increasing number of products that are able to run a dedicated core too. Roon themselves are a very open company in so far as they make recommendations as to what to buy and how to configure it should you want to build your own server system based around the NUC. You could certainly achieve identical technical results and save some money by doing it yourself. The Nucleus+ is really a self-contained version that brings everything together in a pre-configured, small, finned box with a dedicated custom power supply and no irritating fan noise for those who just want a ready-made single-box solution. Its sole purpose is to power the software and bring you music from all connected digital sources and arrange it into a coherent and comprehensive format that enables you to listen to what you want and as importantly, to explore new musical avenues. It does these things supremely well. But, obviously at a price, especially when you factor in the costs for Roon itself.
Just plug the Nucleus+ into your network through the router, hook up your hard drives and access everything through the Roon app (Mac OS, Windows, iOS and Android are all supported). Straightforward installation and lightning boot up are both exemplary aspects of the Nucleus+ and its simplicity of operation, operational stability and the clean, uncluttered appearance of the app are hallmarks of a great design. It is also a multi-room compatible platform that provides DSD and PCM upsampling as well as multi-channel playback.
It’s impossible to talk about the Nucleus+ without describing what Roon itself brings to the home-listening experience and the success of the whole Roon platform depends ultimately not only on how it looks and functions but also on how it sounds. As I mentioned earlier, for years it has been possible to utilise computing power to access music from the net but it’s only recently that it has begun to sound like anything other than a second quality source. Roon has certainly helped in changing all that and it takes a while to fully appreciate just what it can do. A fully charged Nucleus-based system will have access to music through a subscription-based service, like Tidal in my case and perhaps an entire CD collection ripped onto a NAS. It also opens the world of hi-def downloads like never before and despite always being somewhat underwhelmed by these in the past, I have to say that, after recent experiences, I see them as the future of high-end sound. I was granted access to a portable hard drive crammed full of them and the audio quality of the music has been really very impressive. Music that I have on standard CD that I have been able to compare with some of the same albums in a hi-def format has left me shocked, in a good way. I can’t detect any unpleasant digital artefacts or tonal nasties. But what has surprised me most is the sense of solidity, integrity, and instrumental qualities and character that I have been hearing. At long, long last, the whole streaming experience is now fulfilling the musical potential we always hoped it would.
If you run Roon – and you should seriously consider it if you intend on using stored files and a service like Tidal – the Nucleus+ (or Nucleus) is but one option, but what an option! Roon will change the way you listen to music in that it will serve you up musical options and link them together. Search for an artist, an album or a song and it presents you with the answers by looking at everything you have within your musical library and everything it can find within Tidal, depending on the parameters you set. It will download rich metadata for all your music, including those ripped files and continually look for ways to enhance and expand that. It provides many musical reviews, ratings, and links which will enable you to look at an artist in far greater depth by listing all of their albums or by just clicking the producer or any of the mentioned musicians. This opens up a new vista of possibilities as this aspect of Roon is developing all the time. In this way you discover new music on a daily basis and I cannot tell you how often this has led me towards albums and artists that I doubt I would ever have heard of without the Roon/Tidal axis. It will, as Alan Sircom said to me, release your inner musicologist. It looks good too and has many subtleties that you discover on your journey. It enables you to focus your searches and bring songs or albums together in personal playlists.