“And in the black trunks, weighing in at 6.7 gigabits…”
The 21st century is a great time for audiophiles. We can choose from many media and delivery platforms to get our music wherever we are, whenever we want it, at whatever level of quality we’re willing to store &/or fund. The computer audiophile, a geeky anomaly only a decade ago, is now a mainstream player in the market. Per the 2018 RIAA midyear revenue report, streaming now generates 75% of all music industry revenue – and 75% of that comes from paid subscription services. We’re also accumulating fewer offline archives of our own, with digital downloads down 27% from first half 2017 and CD sales off 41%.
These format shifts mean steady, strong and growing demand for new vehicles to deliver our music to our ears. It’s no surprise that there are many music management systems from which to choose. Some have been around since SSDs were a fantasy, and others are so new that they’re still in constant beta use. Describing, explaining, testing, reviewing and comparing the myriad of formats, hardware and software players, renderers, streamers, endpoints, servers, etc is (like describing the kinds of users who build or buy them) far too complex to tackle here. In the last 15 years, I’ve played with dozens that were created by very talented people and are interchangeably usable by anyone willing to compromise.
But, as with most things, there are a few top performers that are simply more acceptable to more users than the rest of the field. Apart from the rare innovation that springs full grown from the forehead of a whiz kid, the best known and loved have evolved over time into durable solutions adaptable to the rapid change and innovation that drives computer audio. They accommodate those who never stream and those who only stream. They let listeners with large music collections rip, store, organize and play their own files. They adapt to new audio formats and changing quality standards. And they assimilate the information around the music into a combination of images and commentary that can approximate (and even exceed) liner notes as a critical resource.
Music management systems include a variety of functions. Acting as a librarian, they allow you to organize and access your sources no matter what or where they are, whether you’re a collector with an extensive collection of music files or a streamer with no offline files at all. They retrieve and deliver your source files to your choice of hardware in whatever format is required for transformation into audible output, and they let you control many or all aspects of playback. They let you create and use playlists, and they remember your preferences. Many gather and present images and information associated with the content of each file, providing it to you along with internet links for deeper dives into the subject matter.
JRiver Media Center and Roon are both serious music management systems with excellent track records and enthusiastic user communities. Debate rages on the internet as to which is better, and searching the topic finds roughly equal strength and numbers on both sides of the argument among literally hundreds of hits. Because the two systems differ functionally in fundamental ways, each is probably a better choice for some but not all computer audiophiles. This review and comparison is intended to help you choose between them to best meet your needs at the most reasonable cost short of buying both (which I have chosen to do). So let’s get into it.
Fighting under the self-designated title of “the most comprehensive media software”, JRiver Media Center is an award winning product that has evolved through at least a dozen major upgrades over the last 15 years and is considered by many to be the current champion. JRMC has grown from its simple “jukebox” origins into a robust delivery and presentation vehicle for streamed and archived audio and visual media that is available for a broad range of operating systems and devices. It is (as far as I can determine) written in C++ and wide open to plug-in development and implementation by users. The JRiver Interact forum is the “town square” for a robust community of users, and JRiver staff actively monitor, post and respond with timely assistance.
And in this corner is the challenger, Roon (aka “the music player for music lovers”). Introduced only 3 years ago, Roon is the product of a seasoned team with a serious and successful history in computer audio. Its lineage can be traced from the current spinoff back through Meridian to the original and widely acclaimed Sooloos Music Server (the product that converted Stereophile’s Kal Rubinson from a naysaying digital curmudgeon into a relatively early adapter). Unlike JRMC, Roon is for music only and makes no bones about it. It, too, is available for multiple operating systems and devices but is not as amenable as JRMC to user-developed plug-ins, skins or other interactions & modifications. The online community for roon users is not yet as mature and comprehensive as Interact. But it does provide a lot of usable Q&A as well as good input from Roon Labs support.
ASSUMPTIONS MADE IN THIS REVIEW & COMPARISON
- This is an apples-to-apples review of the systems as purchased. Tweak away if you wish, but if it isn’t part of the package as downloaded, it’s not in this review.
- The creators’ instructions and suggested parameters for installation, setup and operation are highly likely to work well. If we find an alternative that ‘s far superior, we’ll tell you – but this is not common or likely.
- You will not like everything we like. You will not agree with every judgment we make. This is OK and this is healthy.
- You will download and try each of these yourself.
Read more . . .