I’ve written before about a quandary I’m in regarding my digital front end. In summer 2017, my 2009-era MacBook Pro computer running Roon Core was exiled from my living room by my better half. I was left streaming all my music from my iPhone and a 2013 MacBook Pro, via AirPlay, to my Hegel Music Systems H360 integrated amplifier-DAC. While hardly the end of the world, this was not a setup suitable for an audio reviewer who wants to be taken seriously by his readers.
Indeed, I’ve spent much of the last 12 months bitching and moaning about the finicky nature of my AirPlay setup. With some recordings, my system sounded as if it was ever-so-slightly clipping on high-frequency transients. On some days, the Hegel would work perfectly for hours, reliably responsive as I shuffled among songs and from playlist to playlist. Most of the time, however, I would hurl one obscenity after another at no one in particular as music stopped playing for no apparent reason, and I’d lose my AirPlay connection to the Hegel, necessitating reconnection -- and, when my system was being ornery, I had to reboot the Hegel, my phone or computer, my Wi-Fi router, and my Internet modem. Even that didn’t necessarily guarantee uninterrupted tunes, and my cursing resumed with more venom, all as the Hegel’s blue alphanumeric readout stared back at me without remorse.
The problem with these modern stereo systems is that the fault could be in one or more of any of the links in this long signal chain. I couldn’t be sure if my problems stemmed from the Hegel’s AirPlay input, or Tidal’s Mac OS or iOS app, or iTunes, or my Internet service provider, or my Wi-Fi setup. I troubleshot everything but couldn’t identify the cause. The easy fix, of course, would be to buy a new Mac or PC to use only as a Roon Core. But that’s expensive.
Expensive is not how I roll. I bought the diamond for my wife’s engagement ring online. Using a discount code. Via a clickthrough site called eBates, which gave me a percentage of my purchase price back in cash. I waited almost three years to buy a suit that I wanted -- nay, needed -- because I was too stubborn to pay retail for it. I’ll buy from the Internet’s sketchier nooks and crannies and wait weeks for delivery, if it means I can get a TosLink cable for $2 less than on Amazon and $10 cheaper than at my local Best Buy. As long as it involves a good deal, I have no problem with delayed gratification. For me, there are few things in life more satisfying.
I was offered a review sample of Roon’s new Nucleus music server, but when I heard that it retailed for $1399, I politely declined. For many audiophiles, especially the tech-nonsavvy, the Nucleus is the most painless way to get on the Roon bandwagon. It’s also purpose-built and silent, with fanless operation -- audiophile calling cards for this sort of product.
My view of the Roon Nucleus is complicated. The little black box is effectively an Intel NUC computer in a new case, with heatsinks to forgo the need for cooling fans, thus ensuring silent operation. My problem with the Nucleus is that it can’t be used for anything other than music, while a much faster and more capable NUC can be bought new for less, and can do a hell of a lot more. The value proposition just didn’t add up. Nor does the Roon Nucleus’s base price include a hard or solid-state drive for your music. But, fed up with my system’s AirPlay woes, I figured it was time to do something about it.
Off I went to eBay, to see just how cheaply I could make my own faux Nucleus. An hour or two of research later I’d found exactly what I was looking for: a well-used, 2015 Intel NUC5I5RYK computer for $280 including shipping. It has a dual-core Intel i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a fast 250GB M.2 Samsung SSD, with a “legitimate copy of Windows 10” that had been “fleshly installed.” A propitious start. Yes, it looked as if it had been chucked down a rock face, and the person I was buying it from had a worrying number of s’s at the end of his user name, but I took heart in his 100% feedback rating. What was the worst that could happen?
The NUC arrived quickly and in one piece, but as soon as I examined its rear panel I discovered that NUCs have a mini-HDMI connection, not a full-size HDMI connection. Did you know that mini-HDMI is a thing? I didn’t. I then waited almost ten days for my Monoprice mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable to arrive, rather than buying one from Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, or anywhere else. Because it was, and I am, cheap. That hurdle jumped, I plugged into the NUC a monitor and a mouse, and booted it up. I was greeted with two things that concerned me: a cheap graphic for “The Photo Guys” -- as near as I can tell, a small business in scenic Las Vegas, Nevada -- and the home screen of Windows 7. Definitely “legitimate,” and most certainly “fleshly installed.” (I’m hoping “fleshly installed” was an intentional pun on the seller’s part, but the odds on that aren’t good.)
Ugh, fine. Whatever. The NUC had booted up. I confirmed that its RAM and SSD were as advertised. Now, if I could connect my old Apple wireless keyboard to the NUC, I could swiftly get my new Roon Core up and running, toss the NUC behind my system, and never have to think about my setup again. But Windows 7 sucks, and my vintage keyboard -- which I’d also bought via eBay -- refused to connect to my weathered little NUC, despite hours of trawling the Internet looking for simple solutions that didn’t include third-party software. So I used Windows’ onscreen keyboard to set up my Roon Core and to download drivers for some amplifiers that I have in for review.
For the better part of a week, Roon simply worked in my system. My stress levels went down, my system sounded far cleaner via a USB link than what I’d heard using AirPlay. All was well. Except that the Roon app on my iPhone loses connection to Roon Core for a split second every 90 seconds or so, and now the Roon software on my janky NUC quits of its own accord if it’s not playing music, forcing me to fish out the NUC from behind my rack and serve as my own tech support every time I want to play music. I’m not a violent person, but in recent weeks I felt compelled to commit a crime or two.
You get what you pay for. I can solve my keyboard problem by upgrading to Windows 10, which should have come with my machine in the first place. I’m betting Windows 10 would also eliminate Roon’s petulant-teen tendency to randomly quit on me. And I’m pretty sure that Windows 10 doesn’t require bespoke drivers for all the various integrated amplifier-DACs and standalone DACs that I review. Between needing to spend about $100 for a new OS, and the many hours I’ve put in trying to get my new-old machine to work, I would have been better off buying a brand-new NUC with Windows 10 already installed. And almost assuredly, there would have been hiccups along the way there, too.
In short, I could have just bought a Nucleus, which is purpose-built for the task I need done. And while I’m sure I would grouse and grumble incessantly about how much more the Nucleus costs than something like Intel’s NUC, the platform on which the Nucleus is based, I’d wager I’d have been enjoying fuss-free music for a while now.
But maybe, deep down, I just like having something to complain about, something to improve on. Isn’t that what makes an audiophile an audiophile?
. . . Hans Wetzel