Roon Labs' Nucleus music server review: Exquisite hardware for exceptional software

Roon Labs’ Nucleus music server review: Exquisite hardware for exceptional software

Roon Labs’ Roon music server software is is unparalleled in terms of its performance, its robust metadata support, and its flexibility. You can integrate any AirPlay, Chromecast, or native Roon RAAT (Roon Advanced Audio Transport) speakers and other audio gear for multi-room streaming. The high-end music-streaming services Tidal and Qobuz have integrated Roon so their subscribers can benefit from the Roon’s user interface and its deep well of metadata (reviews, lyrics, artist bios, genre classifications, album credits, release dates, recording dates, and even live concert dates). And that’s just scratching the surface of what Roon is capable of.

Roon is software, so you’ll need hardware to run it on. You can run it on a headless (no display needed) Mac or a PC, or you can set it up on a high-end NAS box (Roon recommends having at least an Intel Core i3 Ivy Bridge-architecture CPU, 4GB of RAM, and an SSD to run the server software). But none of those options are aesthetically pleasing (or quiet, since they’ll probably have cooling fans), and you might run into overheating problems if you hide the gear in a closet. And then there’s the whole matter of configuring Roon itself.

Roon now offers a way to get all the benefits of its software in a plug-and-play package: Check out Nucleus, Roon’s first stand-alone hardware/software solution. I’ve been evaluating Nucleus for more than five months and found it to be a stellar solution. Unfortunately, it’s also a very expensive solution, starting at $1,399 plus the cost of storage and a Roon subscription.

What is Nucleus?

Nucleus is an audio-optimized file server that you’ll almost never interact with directly. It has no mouse, no keyboard, and no display. It’s designed for passionate music lovers who don’t have the time, know-how, or inclination to build out a computer as a do-it-yourself project.

Side view of the Nucleus’ heat sink fins. Roon

Side view of the Nucleus’ heat sink fins.

Nucleus runs a stripped down, security-hardened version of Linux that’s optimized to run Roon. Its four-step setup is simple and straightforward, and you can run it from any web browser or smart device via Roon’s slick app (I’ll get into that more below).

Aesthetically speaking, the Nucleus looks like a giant heat sink. And that’s pretty much what its metal exterior is. The entire shell is designed to dissipate all processor heat efficiently. And it works. During my test period, I had the Nucleus on a shelf in my Salamander entertainment center. The Nucleus ran warm, but never hot. Ventilation was never an issue.

Roon Nucleus front quarter view Roon

A front quarter view of the Roon Nucleus.

Put an SSD inside the Nucleus and it will have no moving parts whatsoever. It will operate in dead silence. You’ll never know you have it in your room, much less your equipment rack. If you really want to geek out, check out Roon’s white paper dedicated to the design and engineering choices made during the Nucleus’ development.

Built-in inputs/outputs

The heart of the Nucleus is an Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing), a small form factor desktop computer, and it gives you several built-in input/output options: There are two USB 3.0 ports that you can use for connecting external hard drives and/or a DAC of your choice. The HDMI output supports stereo and multi-channel audio output. There’s a USB-C port on the unit’s rear that right now doesn’t serve any practical purpose. Roon might (or might not) enable that port for added functionality down the road.