Personal Audio on the Cheap

Much written about personal audio is written to separate the established audiophile from a few dollars to buy a new gadget. This article is written for a student using Spotify or iTunes with headphones on an existing laptop.How can you begin a personal audio system and what are your migration paths going forward.

References

  1. https://roonlabs.com/howroonworks.html explains how Roon works
  2. https://kb.roonlabs.com/FAQ:_What_are_the_minimum_requirements%3F
  3. https://kb.roonlabs.com/Installing_Roon
  4. https://www.schiit.com
  5. https://www.headphone.com/pages/headphone-101
  6. https://www.head-fi.org
  7. https://darko.audio/

Initial conditions

You have the following kit already that you would like to use as the beginnings of a personal audio system.

  • A laptop or desktop PC running a recent version of Linux, MacOS, or Windows. Your PC should have 4GB of memory and be Intel Core i3 or newer but Core i2 is known to work (2009 Mac Mini).
  • Your PC has a music library on it and you can locate your music files using the PC’s file manager (Windows Explorer, Mac Finder, Gnome Nautilus, etc).
  • You have a pair of headphones that you like and you can use with your PC. Your phones have a 3.5 mm tip-ring-shank plug (the common one).

Although Roon runs nicely on Linux and Raspberry Pi, these environments require some Linux experience installing the operating system, using the package editor, and using a shell and simple editor to edit system configuration files. If you’re a computing hobbyist, have a go. If not, your easiest path forward is on MacOS with Windows being a bit harder. The Roon installation guide is good and and MacOS installation is easy. Download the DMG, open it, and drag the Roon App to Applications.

A disclaimer

I don’t normally mention things I don’t own and use daily but the premise of this post, building a budget personal audio system, takes me into this territory. I do have a Schiit Audio Gungnir Multibit DAC that illustrates the state of the art that can be made for a $1500 retail price. The same wizards who designed and build Gungnir make value personal audio DACs and headphone amplifiers. It is those two products, Magni 3 and Modi 3 that I mention below. They are the biggest piece of the state of the art that $100 can buy and they sound damned good. Link out from the product pages to John Darko’s reviews at darko.audio.

Why Roon

Roon is designed to start out as a personal audio player using your existing PC and music library but has the design architecture that permits it to become the digital music source for a whole home audio distribution system. Roon has three subsystems, the Roon Server, Roon Controller, and Roon Output. The Linux/Mac/Windows Roon App contains all three subsystems and forms the software foundation of a personal audio system.

Roon can use an Android or iOS phone or tablet as a controller. The controller runs the same user interface as the Roon App and can set up a playback queue for your computer or any of your Roon output devices which can include the iOS or Android device. So you can use your phone or tablet as a portable player at home.

To give an example of how a Roon environment can evolve, I use an iPad as my Roon Controller. An old Linux Mac Mini is my Roon Server, and I use Raspberry Pi computers with streaming daughter boards as my Roon Output devices. I also stream music to an Apple HomePod, Apple TV 3 and 4 devices, a Google Chromecast Audio device, and probably my toaster or dishwasher. My music resides in an iTunes library on a FreeNAS storage server with hires music in another directory outside the iTunes library.

Roon is designed to work with your existing music library and the Qobuz and Tidal streaming services. Roon indexes your current iTunes or other local music library and allows you to search by artist, album, or track. It shows Roon can retrieve and show All Music database information about your music and can find other music like a particular artist, album, or track.

It can also play music from your library that is like a starting album or track (Roon Radio feature). If you subscribe to Qobuz or Tidal, Roon Radio will pull in tracks from those services that are similar to the seed track. When away from home, Qobuz and Tidal know your Roon add to library streamed tracks and albums and can be used normally with the service app but not with an offsite Roon server. If you add Qobuz or Tidal tracks or albums to your online libraries, Roon will learn of those additions and make the corresponding additions to Roon.

The genius of Roon is to use Roon Radio with play streamed tracks in Roon Radio enabled. When you hear something you like, open Roon and run down the album, artist, or track to add to your library. Music discovery changes from accidental to relatively easy. I typically add an album or two every evening.

The design of Roon makes migration from the basic personal system described in this post to a complex system with multiple output points relatively easy. Most other products, even the “audiophile music players” are monolithic like iTunes and are unable to support an open ended and evolving system architecture. Most require your PC to be running and logged in to play music anywhere in the house. Not Roon. Roon server runs as a system service. Roon Output sends music to Roon Bridge to deliver the bits to a digital to analog converter and Roon Controller on iPhone or iPad lets you drive the system. No active logged in PC user account needed.

Minimal system

Most college bound students have a personal computer capable of running Roon or will be buying one for college. The minimum kit you need is a copy of the Roon App for your computer and a pair of headphones that work with your computer. You can try Roon using this rig by following the instructions for a trial installation. And you can continue to listen this way for some time.

Updating Headphones

Updating headphones can offer a significant improvement in sound quality for the expenditure of $100 to $300. The references include a site that will introduce you to the various types of high quality music playback headphones and the value considerations when choosing headphones. Head Fi is the premiere personal audio review and discussion site.

Add a Headphone Amplifier

With just a basic system, it will not be apparent why you should continue on to a paid subscription. The magic of Roon becomes apparent when your music collection is large or you have added Qobuz or Tidal streaming. Each can be had for the cost of a couple of CD’s per month but gives access to a large curated collection of CD quality material that can be streamed or cached locally for offline playback while traveling.

Adding a headphone amplifier will give a significant improvement in sound quality if you are using the laptop’s internal amplifier. Strict size and power budget requirements lead computer system designers to use a pulse width modulation amplifier to drive the internal speakers or headphones. Headphones can be difficult to drive (in electrical engineering terms, they present a high load impedance to the amplifier). That impedance can vary with frequency influencing the loudness with which the headphones can plan and their voicing. The frequency dependent impedance can hold back some sounds and let others through to excess giving an unnatural sound.

Using a properly designed headphone amplifier removes this limitation. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for one. A Schiit Audio Magni 3 will do nicely for $100. Jason Stoddard, Schiit founder and old salt audio electronics engineer, designed Magni exactly for the purpose of introducing music lovers to good audio playback on a budget. A 3.5 mm TRS to RCA cable connects your PC headphone jack to the Magni 3.

Add a Digital to Analog Converter

Transferring music to an external digital to analog converter for rendering offers a significant improvement in audio quality. The DAC connects to the PC’s USB output. RCA cables connect the DAC to the headphone amplifier. The tricky bit is that some older operating systems (Windows 7) have dated USB interface drivers that will not properly recognize an external USB audio interface device. Most recent versions of Linux, MacOS X (ten), and Windows Ten should set up without fuss. Any Intel Mac running MacOS will know what to do.

Schiit has designed Modi 3 to introduce music listeners to external DAC’s . Modi is designed to provide excellent music rendering for $100. It is the best DAC at this price and humbles many costing several times more. Mike Moffat, Schiit cofounder, is the digital audio wizard who first conceived of the external DAC and is the premier designer of external audio playback DACS.

What’s the tab?

We have the following yearly costs

  • $120/year Roon license
  • $120/year or $240/year for Tidal streaming service

For new equipment added in the order shown as funds are available totals about $500.

  • $100 to $300 for headphones when you are ready
  • $100 for a Schiit Magni 3 headphone amplifier
  • $100 for a Schiit Modi 3 DAC