Wax vs Roon for Classical Music

Summary: Roon is a very favorably reviewed app for cataloging and playing digital files, but it has serious problems with classical music. Wax is by far the better app for the classical music lover.

Background: Roon has been widely reviewed and praised in audio magazines and websites. It is installed on a computer and accesses files on that computer’s hard drive or on a NAS. It can be wirelessly controlled by an iPad or Android device. It streams TIDAL, an on-line source of virtually every known recording, many in a “hi-rez” format (that is, better than CD quality) and MQA encoded files (a way of delivering hi-rez files in smaller packages that are guaranteed to be from original sources). It is available by subscription: $119 per year, or $499 for life. Updates are frequent, free, and automatically installed.

Wax is the software that runs on a Wax Box. The Wax Box is a self-contained unit: It stores files on its own drive; it has its own backup drive; and it rips discs and accepts files ripped elsewhere or downloaded from the web. It also streams TIDAL and other streaming services. Wax’s cost (including updates and support) is included in a Wax Box’s price.

My Experience: I started ripping discs when Sonos first became available. Sonos is a medium fidelity system, so I used it for background music and, later, for streaming classical music FM stations. I next tried a Sony player. It provided my first experience with automatically assigned metadata – which was often wildly wrong, and could not be edited. Further, available music was displayed on a tiny screen on the unit, and music could be found only by scrolling through alphabetically arranged disc titles, so if you wanted to play something by Zelenka, you had to be very patient.

About a year later The Absolute Sound favorably reviewed a Naim Uniti system, so I bought one. Discs were ripped in one of the units, stored on a NAS, and then retrieved by another unit, which then made the music available to my PS Audio processor. The system was reliable and sounded good. Metadata retrieved by the Uniti ripper was fairly accurate and could be edited immediately after a disc was ripped, but once it “settled in” editing became iffy. Communication between my iPad and the Naim units was irregular, but much better than it was with JRiver.

So I was still in the hunt when Jeff Barish demonstrated Wax at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Once I understood how easily albums could be divided or combined, and how all metadata could be edited anytime, to say nothing of how easy it was to create genres and sub-genres, I was convinced. I bought a Wax Box before I left the show.

Once the Wax Box was in my system, I had music on the Wax Box drive and music on the NAS that I continued to access with the Naim units. I sorted through my discs (now in boxes) and began to rip them exclusively to the Wax Box. Periodically, I’d transfer some of the files on the NAS to the Wax Box. Because the files on the NAS were all wav files, they had no tags, so I had to search for metadata every time I transferred a file. More than once I wondered: Isn’t there some way to automatically retrieve metadata for the hundreds of files still waiting to be transferred?

The answer seemed to be Roon. Roon can retrieve metadata for virtually any file, no matter how it was encoded. I was a little put off by the price, but the reviews bordered on sensational, so I downloaded it. I pointed it to the roughly 550 albums (about 10,000 files) on the NAS. In remarkably little time, they were all available in Roon, and almost all of them had metadata. Amazing!

Key issues:

  1. The metadata (covers, album titles, artists, track listings, etc. that is downloaded when discs are ripped) for classical music discs is hopelessly corrupt. This means that much of it must be corrected before music can be located and played, especially if a music collection is large. At a minimum, an app should offer access to more than one source of metadata, and editing should be easy.
  2. As classical collections grow, the ability of software to help you find the music you want becomes very important.

Roon’s user interface is based on images of album covers with the album titles shown in small boxes beneath the cover images. Clicking on an album cover brings up a list of the tracks on that album. As albums are ripped (by some other program – Roon does not support ripping), Roon downloads its proprietary metadata. That metadata includes the usual information (album title, artist, etc.) plus a genre and, in most instances, a sub-genre (for example, “Classical” and “Concerto”).

Wax allows the user to specify how to catalog works. Works (say, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2) can be cataloged by composer, conductor, orchestra, soloist, period (classical, romantic) or anything else the user chooses. As a file is ripped, the user specifies the genre and subgenre, and Wax downloads metadata from two sources.

Once ripped, albums can be grouped, divided, or assembled in any way the user chooses. For example, an album with several compositions from different composers can be split by composer, or a work spread across more than one disc can be joined into a single recording.

Roon is image and mouse based. If the automatically assigned file name needs editing, you click on the image, click on “edit” in a drop-down menu, click on “edit track” in a second drop down menu, scroll down to the track name, enter the correct name in a box, and then click save. If you want to change the genre, you scroll further down and then type in the correct genre or select it from a drop-down menu. Repeat all that 600 times and you’ll wish for something simpler.

Which Wax provides. Find the information you need to change. Delete. Enter new information. Done. No tedious clicking and scrolling.

Testing: To test the Roon software I decided to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. I searched for “Brandenburg” in the automatically generated metadata. No luck. Then Bach – too much luck. I tried various combinations of the artist names. Still no luck. I finally found the recording by searching for Johann. I quickly learned that the combination of albums by title and inaccurate metadata had produced a gigantic mess. Where was Shostakovitch’s 10th Symphony? It was filed as “Russia under Stalin”. Where was Charles Mackerras? Under “Sir”. How about Ades “Living Toys”? Try “Thomas”. And Beecham’s albums? Try Sir, Thomas, Royal Philharmonic – almost anything but Beecham. I also became aware of the issues created when an app automatically assigns genres. I had 490 albums in the Classical genre, and an incredible number of sub-genres. One album was assigned 13 sub-genres. Roon does have a menu that enables access to music by composer. But when I clicked on Bartok, Roon displayed every Bartok track, including each movement in orchestral works and every Mikrokosmos (there are 153). Buried somewhere in that long list was Concerto for Orchestra, but it took a keen eye and lots of scrolling to find it. So, I edited the title of every single album to change it to the name of the composer and the name of the works on the album (for example, “Beethoven-Symphonies 2 and 4”). This solution revealed another problem. You can enter as much information as you want, but Roon displays only 23 characters in the box below each cover image. By putting the albums in the proper sub-genre, I could abbreviate the description. Thus, after assigning the Beethoven album to the Symphony sub-genre, I could shorten its description to “Beethoven–2,4”, which isn’t elegant, but is easy to find in the visually cacophonous display of 24 cover images on each display page.

Speaking of album covers, sets present additional problems. Some sets are shown with the original cover of each of the albums in the set. Others show the set cover for every album. For example, my Boulez set shows 8 identical covers, none displaying anything about the contents of each disc. And, with only 23 available characters, there is no way to identify the many works on each disc other than to click on each album cover and then scroll down – sometimes way down – to find the track with the music I want. And the opposite occurs. My complete Beethoven Quartets albums mostly have different covers, but each is a picture of the members of the quartet without identifying information. And there is no use searching for “Belcea” (the name of the Quartet) because the artist is incorrectly named on several of the albums. Finally, there are the oddities. No matter what I try, some files on the NAS are never displayed. I can see them on the NAS and load them into Roon in many different ways, but the files simply don’t appear.

I do need to add that Roon is terrific for my small collection of popular and jazz albums. It finds all the correct metadata and enables me to move among different versions of the same song with one click. It makes accurate suggestions for other albums I might want to listen to. And it has artist information by track, so I know who is playing each song, and links to biographies of composers, to the notes that came with the album, and to detailed information on the date the album was recorded and issued.

Sound: Roon reviews stress the excellence of its sound. I’ve carefully compared the sound of Roon and Wax on a mid-level high end system (PS Audio and McIntosh electronics, B&W 802 D3 speakers). For all practical purposes, they sound the same. (Both Roon and Wax sound better than the now 5-year-old Naim system.)

Support: Finally, some comments about instructions and support. Roon has excellent instructions for beginners and a “Community” site with some of the most complex information about computer playback that I have ever seen. The problem is that it lacks information for the mid-experienced user. Support is available via email from Roon staff and from members of the community, usually within an hour and much faster after the first response to your question. The Wax manual is very thorough, covers issues from the simplest to the most complex, and is written in English rather than engineering. Support is provided by the person who designed (and sometimes assembled) your Wax Box and wrote every line of Wax code. And he answers the phone himself.

Conclusion: If you have a large collection of classical music, Wax is the better choice. You can choose your own genres and sub-genres without having to first delete those that have been automatically assigned. You can organize by composer, artist, orchestra, period, or any other way that suits you. You can combine works on several discs into one file (possible in Roon), or split multiple works on one disc into several files (impossible in Roon). You can easily edit track names as well as album names. And, in text view, you can very quickly scan down the list of works by a single composer or artist to find the work you want. It is much easier to find Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 if you can see all the Bach albums, and then all the Brandenburgs, in one text list.