Review: Simple Audio Roomplayer

I got a Simple Audio Roomplayer on loan for 3 months now from a friend of mine who owns the local high-end audio shop. I waited this long with posting this review, because we reported our findings to the importer and hoped for a response or software update to fix the found problems. Unfortunately to date we have heard nothing yet, although we inquired several times for it. In the meantime an update for the desktop software has been released, but not much has been changed judging from the build number that has been increased with only 9 to 20034. The only difference I can spot is a feature that I used has been removed: if you hovered the mouse pointer over the album cover a play button appeared to start playing the album. Now you have to enter the album and start the first track yourself.

The hardware

The Roomplayer comes in a beautiful metal casing with glass on top. It looks very similar to the original Apple TV, but then in black. It feels very sturdy and so are also all connections on the back. The sound quality is very good, both using the analog and digital output. The amplifier can handle a wide range of speakers and also sounds very good, certainly considering the price point of the Roomplayer. All in all it has a high quality feel to it, the Roomplayer definitely impresses in the hardware department.

The system software

The heart of the Roomplayer is in fact just a small computer running some distribution of Linux. The main software is built on the GStreamer framework, which is used for decoding the various audio formats and network communication. Audio output is handled through the ALSA library. In the main software is where the first problems arrises. Those are not caused by bugs but are design flaws.

The 1st problem that turns up right away is that the digital SPDIF output is turned on/off on playing a track. This is a major problem because the digital processor/receiver (for instance a Meridian G68) needs to lock on the signal and will miss the first beat of the track. Besides being pretty annoying it can also be far worse. Depending on the processor, locking on the digital signal can also happen with a (loud) tick or distortion. And even the internal DAC will produce a small tick that is hearable on some loudspeaker systems, so this problem is not restricted to using the digital output.

The 2nd problem is that every track of a playlist is played separately, and therefor playback is not gapless! Combined with the 1st problem this results in a major issue, which completely ruins the listening experience.

The 3rd problem that is noticed pretty quickly is that pause does not work. It will instead stop playback and hitting play will just start the current song from the beginning.

Another small issue is that although the Roomplayer can access UPnP servers, it does not act itself as an UPnP renderer. This means that you can not control it using PlugPlayer or any other standard UPnP software, which means you are depended on the software Simple Audio provides.

The desktop software (PC and Mac)

The desktop software has 2 functionalities. The first is to control the Roomplayer and select the artist/album/songs you want to play from your library. The second is to act as library manager. In the original setup of the system it was always necessary to run the desktop software to provide a library to the Roomplayer. Only in a later software update support for UPnP servers has been added. We will focus on this below, as I consider the original setup to be a design flaw too. Nobody wants to run his PC or Mac to be able to play music on his audio system. Instead you want to use the NAS that already contains all your CDs.

Simple Audio recommends and explicitly supports Twonky, but as this is a commercial product and my NAS has already installed 3 different UPnP servers (MiniDLNA, Logitech and Plex), I decided just to give them a try. You have to enable the option to show non-Twonky media servers in the preferences to be able to use them. The good news is that the desktop software works with all 3 UPnP servers! The only problems I noticed are the following:
– After approximately 30 minutes the connection with the Logitech Media Server is lost. The only way to reconnect is to close and reopen the desktop software.
– After putting the computer to sleep all media servers are gone. Again closing and reopening the desktop software is the only way to reconnect to the media servers.
– The length of the songs in the lists is incorrect, as the minutes are displayed as seconds.
– When you start the desktop software while the Roomplayer is playing, it won’t show the song title, album and art until the next song is played. I believe I saw the same problem with the iPad app.
– There is no way to see the current playlist other than reselecting the album yourself manually. Also when the software is started the current playlist is not retrieved from the Roomplayer.

iPhone app

There is no dedicated iPad app (yet), so I am using the iPhone app on my iPad. On the iPad all 3 UPnP servers are seen, but only 1 works (Plex). This is pretty strange considering the desktop software works perfectly fine with all 3 of them. This indicates that the iPhone app and the desktop software do not share the same code base. Needless to say that this is a ticket to trouble. A friend of mine can not even get Twonky to work on his iPad, but everything work fine on his iPad 2. This is even more puzzling. On my iPhone it is completely a no-go, because although a previous version of the software worked with iOS 3, the current version needs iOS 5.

Verdict

I can not say that I am impressed with the software that Simple Audio provides with the Roomplayer. It is pretty bare bone with only basic functionality and unfortunately marred with several issues. All in all the software is not bad, but all the small issues together prevent to enjoy the Roomplayer as it should be. I am impressed with the hardware though, so if Simple Audio can fix the mentioned problems, they have a killer product on the market. Until then, I can not fully recommend it at this time.

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