HiFi: Roon Nucleus Review as a STREAMER vs Innuos Zen Mini MKIII

Roon Nucleus Review as a STREAMER vs Innuos Zen Mini MKIII

By Steve Huff

So as I sit in my music room writing this review/comparison here on July 4th 2020 I am listening to my Vinnie Rossi L2i SE integrated amp (that now sits next to a Naim Nova, comparison between these two soon). I am listening to the new Willie Nelson album, his 70th, streaming from Qobuz at 24/92 direct from a Roon Nucleus device through its USB out direct into my L2i SE DAC. Willie just keeps going, and this new album is quite nice. While I am no mega Willie fan, his music has been with me my entire life. When I was a kid my Father would listen to Willie Nelson often, in the car. My Father has long passed on but Willie is still going, making wonderful music that can still touch our hearts and soul. Listening today makes me remember some good times with my Dad from those days. Yes, all is good and that is part of what makes music so special to me. Just as with photography, music can take you back to better times and memories.

Getting back to the reason for this post…

I have recently removed my official streamer/server from my system which was an Innuos Zen Mini MKIII stack and in it’s place I have only a Roon Nucleus device. But how I got here was without even knowing that the Roon Nucleus could connect right into my USB DAC inside the L2i SE and sound so good with this easier, more direct route to the music that feeds my soul.

This device, as far as I always knew, provided a way to easily and effortlessly add Roon integration to your system. The Nucleus would act as the CORE of the Roon setup (you can also use a computer as a core) and to that I always thought an “endpoint” was needed, in the form of a streamer. Heck, it works great in this way when I use the Naim Nova, which is an “official” Roon endpoint approved by Roon. As in, the Naim is fully compatible with the Nucleus and Roon, and I can confirm that they work so well together and sound fantastic. I always used my MacBook as a core, or the Zen Mini III itself. But the Nucleus just makes it all so much better, at least for me.

Now some of you reading this may be asking “What is Roon”?!?!?

That’s what I said a couple years back when I discovered Roon for myself and truth be told, back then it all sounded so complicated to me. ROON is basically a music management and streaming solution. For you photographers out there, think Adobe Lightroom but for Music. ; ) It’s a complex system that brings sophistication to music streaming and serving. It just works, and allows customization and even adding DSP effects and EQ to your music, if you so desire. (I do not use these features).

To set up ROON sounded complicated to me a while back. We needed a “core”, an “endpoint” and the “app”. We also needed our gear to be compatible with Roon, as not all gear is. I avoided it for a while until I sat down and tried it at my local HIFi Dealer, AZ HiFi. The app was the best I have ever seen for streaming music, and that alone made it so enjoyable to stream music from streaming services, or a hard drive locally on your network. After that I decided to jump into Roon, and read up on it as much as I could. I signed up for a free trial, and soon after purchased a lifetime subscription. I was hooked and knew this was how I wanted to listen to my music every day. Worry free, instant, and with beautiful high end sound.

Not so long ago I ordered a Roon Nucleus, direct from ROON through AMAZON. (See it here). 

The Nucleus plugs into your wall, and then you simply plug in an ethernet cable to it. My Naim Nova also has an ethernet cable plugged in to it, and therefore I can open up the Roon app on my iPhone, iPad or Laptop and stream music to my Naim Nova with ease, and speed. It’s easy as the system “sees” it all and it literally took me a minute to set up and get running. The Nucleus will even update itself automatically when needed, as one you set it up you never need to worry about it again. It just does its job without you having to worry about it, ever. That alone is well worth the cost over building your own mini computer which will have fan noise, lights, and also need to be configured. I’m ok paying a premium for something that enhances my life in a positive way.

What I was not aware of was that the Nucleus has the capability of running direct to a USB DAC as well, eliminating the need for a proper “streamer” which can set you back thousands of dollars. My Vinnie Rossi L2i SE has one heck of a DAC inside and it has been fed from an Innuos Zen Mini MKIII stack via USB since last year with no complaints to sound quality, at all. It’s been amazing in that regard (not so much in usability when used as a core).

Since purchasing the Nucleus which set me back $1400, I have loved the way it has upped the game with speed in browsing through ROON. When using the Zen Mini as a ROON core and endpoint, it would at times get sluggish using the Roon app and I would have to restart the Zen often as it would stop being recognized by the system. This started happening more and more over time. It started to become a pain so when the Nucleus arrived all of that came to an end. I had an instant “I am so glad I bought this Nucleus” moment. It’s so worth it in some situations. A no regret purchase. 

I feel the Innuos Zen Mini MKIII is not the best if you want to use it as a Roon core and endpoint, as it (the app) can get sluggish. With the Nucleus in the mix, it was a much nicer experience. Even so, what if I removed the dedicated streamer (Zen), power supply, etc and replaced it with just the Nucleus feeding the Vinnie Rossi, as just a streamer? That was making me super curious. 

Most online forums are split on this. Some say it will never sound nearly as good as using a dedicated streamer and others say it sounds better. Some say there will be zero difference as it’s just feeding 1’s and 0’s. 

I had to find out so I removed the Innuos, and plugged in the USB out of the Nucleus into the USB in of my DAC inside the L2i SE. Nothing fancy. No re-clockers, no megabuck streamer. I was ready to hear a downgrade in sound and expected it. 

My first thoughts were that it sounded different, as it did. I heard a weightier sound, a fuller sound and the same amount of 3 dimensionality I was used to hearing from this integrated amplifier and DAC. After a few hours, then a few days… as I listened and compared I actually came to enjoy and prefer the sound of just using the Nucleus into the Vinnie Rossi MORESO than using the Zen Mini III! No need for a streamer here as the Nucleus will allow me to stream from Tidal or Qobuz as well as any music I load to a hard drive and place inside of the Nucleus. I can even attach a USB drive with music to the second USB output of the Nucleus.

Yes there was a difference in sound, so the “it is only 1’s and 0’s theory” doesn’t hold water for me. With the Zen III the sound had more zing in the highs, and less weight in the bass. It was a lighter presentation, more airy. With the Nucleus running the show and feeding the 1’s and 0’s to the Rossi Integrated Flagship’s DAC I had superb depth, more weight to the sound and a little bit less treble zing. It was a presentation I preferred and no matter what music I pushed through this Nucleus/Rossi combo it sounded refined, special, and complete. It’s obvious this is a sound that is special, and about as good as it gets for these ears.

I am sure the DAC in the L2i SE is playing a part here as it seems to work magic no matter what goes to the input but I have realized I have no need for any “proper” streamer in this system, no matter what amp I use (of the two I am now listening to). The Naim will use the Nucleus as the ROON CORE and will use its built in streamer to stream. Therefore, it is streaming via ETHERNET not USB or COAX. This is always said to be the best way to stream for sound quality. It sounds damn good too as this Naim Nova is incredible for the money that it costs. A true deal in HiFi.

With the much more expensive Vinnie Rossi piece, I get a larger sound that envelops more of the room, and places me more inside of the performance. I hear subtle details in space, and imaging to die for. Bass plucks are defined and rich and vocals are large, throaty and with texture. This is with just the Nucleus via USB and with no streamer at all, as the Nucleus is the streamer now! Incredible that I can have a server and streamer that is built for ROON and is silent as a sleeping mouse, and have it sound incredible doing double duty all for $1400, much less than most high end streamers start at. In fact, high end streamers without a DAC start at around $2000 and go to the stratosphere.

THE NUCLEUS IS MORE THAN A ROON CORE, IT IS A STREAMER AS WELL..and A DAMN GOOD ONE in the right system. If you have a USB DAC this should work for you as well but do check with Roon to see if your DAC is compatible. 

The Nucleus has a newer sleeker and thinner design and it is basically a black box that sits unnoticed and just does its job of serving music to your system either through ethernet or USB. No complex manuals to read, no need to configure through an IP address, no need to download any apps other than ROON, which is expensive but so worth it. I have been using Roon since last year and can not go back to any other way of serving music. Everything about Roon is polished and it just works well and sounds fantastic. I can not recommend Roon more, it gets my highest recommendation if you are a true music lover in this streaming age. I recommend an iPad or Tablet for your music streams as well because the Roon app looks better and shows more with larger tablets than it does with say, my iPhone.

See more info on ROON and what it is HERE.

With the Roon app and a Nucleus all one needs is a compatible Roon Ready product (or compatible USB dac) and luckily many of the nicer streamers and integrated amps these days are Roon Ready. With the Roon app, it’s as easy as loading your credentials for Tidal or Qobuz (or both as I have) and you are set to stream anything your heart desires. I have found I stream from these services for 98% of my listening. The rest is either Vinyl or from music I have on a hard drive (that is all available from Tidal or Qobuz so I rarely stream from my drive, it does not bring enhanced quality).

You can add an SSD drive to the Nucleus if you want to store your own tracks that you already own and have them at the ready to stream. Many music lovers have thousands of tracks they burned from CD’s, some have high res tracks that were purchased and all of these can be served from the Nucleus by adding an SSD or traditional old school spinning hard drive inside of the nucleus itself. I recommend an SSD of course. I run mine without any hard drive as I just stream 99% of the time.

After the experience with Nucleus, and after seeing how trouble free it is, and how good it sounds either with the Naim Nova via ethernet or with my Vinnie Rossi via USB to the DAC I sold off my Innuos setup and gained a couple grand back in my pocket. All while being a little happier with the sound and glitch free speedier performance. The Nucleus is a true “set it and forget it” type of product. It has no noise as it is a fanless design (unlike a DYI core) and looks great as it is, a black box without lights or annoying bussing or noise. It just works, and works as soon as you start it up. It’s a ROON core AND brilliant streamer all in itself, made and sold for by Roon Labs themselves. In fact, I placed my order from ROON direct at Amazon and received my Nucleus in two days. From order to doorstep. Two days.

Some will argue that dedicated streamers will add better sound quality and going direct to USB from the Nucleus will degrade the sound quality. Well, that didn’t happen for me, in fact I preferred the sound of the Nucleus going direct USB to my DAC vs my $5000 streaming setup for most music (but not all). Hmmm. I also didn’t jump to conclusions, as I had both here and compared them for a week. I could have kept my Innuos setup but it offered me little over the Nucleus itself, rather it complicated matters more with random freeze ups and restarts needed over time. See, sometimes we can spend less and get the same or better performance in audio ; )

With that said, the Zen III with Phoenix USB Purifier does have magic to the sound but the Nucleus brings a tad more weight and some days I just watts rock out, and with this kind of music the Nucleus is a beast. With gentler airier music, the Zen and Phoenix will win out, ever so slightly, but the speed, ease of use, set it and forget it nature and rock solid stability make it all worth it to me. Unless I can one day swing some serous cash for an Innuos Statement, I will stick with the Nucleus as my server and streamer using ROON.

My system is just so enjoyable. I have no complaints or desires to “upgrade” to anything. This is true.

I do have desires though, to “try” many things, for my love of the gear itself and my curiosities. I will always test new gear but right now I am in audio heaven as with my Rossi, my Naim, these B&W 705 S2 speakers (which are now my listening room bookshelf reference due to the sound and silky yet detailed high end) and the Roon Nucleus. It’s all I need. If I want a faster get and up boogie presentation, I put on the Naim. If I want to sit in the dark and listen to some smoky Jazz or Led Zeppelin, on goes the Rossi with its 300B tubes that add that human touch that speaks to the soul so well.

Read and see more about ROON

Buy the latest Nucleus direct from ROON (now the only way to buy)

See my Vinnie Rossi L2i SE Review

Review of the Naim Nova