Volumio sent me their first in-house product to have a listen to and evaluate. They call it the Primo. It is what I would refer to as an all-in-one digital music source. It runs on Volumio’s own developed software that offers playback of music files stored on a local USB hard drive, network shares or networked media servers. It also plays music from Internet based radio and streaming services. The music is then delivered in digital or analog form as per user preference.
For the past couple of weeks I discovered quite an exciting and pleasant product, especially for a first time user of a networked streamer device, or someone seeking a good music source that can grow with their audio gear acquisitions over time. But it certainly also provides a lot of value for the avid listener that already makes use of lossless music files and streaming, and already have more expensive gear, but wants to stop using a noisy computer or laptop and wants a smaller, dedicated, purpose built music source that just works and move out of the way. Let me explain and share my experience with you.
Unboxing, exterior look and feel
What a great package! Well packed and protected with no fluffy nonsense.
The Primo is housed in a sturdy metal box. It has a beautiful satin black finish. It feels nice to touch and hold, with a silky feel and rounded corners. It also leaves no finger marks. It has muted branding on the front with no lights or bright display. You don’t even know when it is on, apart from the fact that it just works, or if you used an Ethernet connection and look behind and see the activity lights in the network socket. And let’s be honest, if you are not supposed to interact with it physically (after the initial setup) and do not need to switch it off, knowing the power status is unnecessary. Less is more.
This is overall a very attractive design. It does not take over your living room and does not draw unnecessary attention. It is confident. While I was reviewing this unit, I completely forgot about it sitting on the side of my desk. All I was interested in was playing the music and using the web based interface on my computer or smartphone app.
At the back there are good quality and sturdy RCA connectors for analog audio and digital COAX SPDIF audio out. There is a WiFi antenna socket where you screw in the supplied antenna if you want to use a WiFi connection. There is an HDMI port that pleasantly displays the Volumio Interface if you want to plug in a display to show off the beautiful polished interface. You can go further and connect controlling devices like a mouse and keyboard or a wireless media controller into the USB ports if you wish to control the device directly. Talking about USB ports, 4 of them are arranged in the familiar layout next to an Ethernet port like with popular single board computers (SBC) such as the Raspberry Pi. But what you see here is in fact a much more capable SBC, the ASUS Tinkerboard S, which looks almost identical to the Raspberry Pi. The USB ports can be used to plug in a USB Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) and externally powered hard drives. The mentioned Ethernet port supports Gigabit speeds. Lastly, where it all starts, a 5V DC power jack. When you connect this, it starts up. There is no power button. This power input is meant to drive only the Primo, not additional USB hard drives or other power hungry devices. Those need additional external power by using a Powered USB hub for instance.
Volumio supplies a 5V 3A power supply that seems to be of good quality. I like the style they use as it is not a wall wart, but a laptop style switching power supply that has a normal removable power lead on the one end and a fixed cable on the other to supply the power to the Primo. There is a small light on this power brick that indicates power is being delivered.
There are no moving parts inside the Primo. It has no cooling fans or spinning hard drives. As mentioned, it uses an ASUS Tinkerboard S as the SBC that is at the heart of this device that makes it a networked music streamer or standalone digital music player. It is basically a small computer with everything integrated on one little compact circuit board: a quad core 1.8 GHz ARM Cortex-A17 with 2GB ram “small computer”. Very capable and powerful for the intended purpose indeed.
The SBC also has a Gigabit Ethernet port with built in WiFi and Bluetooth 4 (not sure if this is actually usable currently). It has HDMI with 4K capability as well.
It features 16GB onboard storage similar to modern SSD drives. Volumio is preloaded onto this storage. When powered on, it boots up from this storage and does that fairly quickly.
On top of the Tinkerboard there is another board that plugs into its 40pin GPIO connector. This board contains all the quality parts that makes the Primo sing. This board accepts the power input as well, where it is cleaned up first and then used on the rest of the hardware. The ESS9028q2m DAC chip is also found here, along with its clock oscillator and a programmable logic device that processes DSD over PCM signals for the DAC to use.
Startup and setup
Many people reading this might have already used the free Volumio software on their Raspberry Pi’s, Odroids or even PCs before. This is the same software found on the Primo. It is just pre-loaded, configured and tested with this specific hardware in mind. That means it works mostly without any surprising errors or incompatibility issues. Volumio thus already has a very large community on the internet who gathered over the years as Volumio developed, which means that support for your queries would be easy to find.
The picture above shows the Volumio interface presented directly via HDMI to my ultra wide monitor at first startup. Its glorious! But, I proceeded with the setup using the Volumio Android app. I connected the Primo to my network using Ethernet. This is the recommended connection to use by Volumio and myself. The Gigabit connection makes the web based interface fly. The Tinkerboard really comes to life and one appreciates the speed it offers using Ethernet. If you really only have WiFi, that is okay, Volumio starts a mobile hotspot called Volumio (with password volumio2) and you can connect to it directly with your smartphone. Then go to the Volumio app or your mobile browser using the address http://volumio.local. Volumio will give a friendly welcome screen and start with a setup wizard you just have to follow. This will guide you to setup your actual home WiFi network connection, specifying your network storage locations to start with music indexing, and to select your audio output preference such as Analog RCA Output, HDMI, SPDIF or your attached USB DAC.
Initial music indexing takes a while if you have a large library, a slow network, or a slow music server. I suggest you first index a small section of your library to just get started, and then add the rest later from the setup menu, and leave it over night to index and fetch missing album art from the internet.
Here is a slideshow with my setup steps and playing the first track:
How does it compare?
Very well indeed.
The tricky part here was that I had to use multiple similar devices to do this comparison. I used devices from Allo that I have reviewed before and that I regard as some of the best in its price class. This is because each of those specialised in a specific audio output type. Luckily I had them all with me.
I tried to standardise the cables and power supplies I used to make it a fair game as far as possible. I used two identical iFi 5V power supplies, one on the Primo and one on the “clean side” of the Allo contenders. I also used an Allo 5V switching power supply for the secondary supply needed on the Allo devices that only feed the Raspberry Pi or the “dirty side”. This is important to note that the Primo uses only one power supply that makes it nice and simple: no power-up sequences to follow or multiple expensive power supplies to purchase. Just get one stellar audio grade power supply or realise that the stock factory power supply that is provided is more than adequate for the Primo.
I did however deviate a bit and kept using Ethernet on the Primo and WiFi on the other devices. WiFi performance on the Primo was a bit disappointing versus the other Raspberry Pi 3B+ based players. It had bad signal strength and drop-outs, even though it has an external antenna, and the others just used stock on-board WiFi with no external antennas, or a cheap USB WiFi dongle. The Primo only has 2.4G WiFi, but this is supposed to have better range than 5G WiFi, yet in my case the 5G WiFi was receiving better and faster. I am sure this will not be an issue if you are close to your router. There is a concrete floor between my test station and the router downstairs, so just keep this in mind.
USB output to external DAC:
I started comparing the USB output of the Primo (Tinkerboard) to the Allo USBridge. I also tried a stock Raspberry Pi 3B+ for interest sake, but the results were immediately clear and that experiment got terminated very quickly. Stock Raspberry Pi USB outputs will do any proper DAC injustice, even with clean power supplied. The Allo USBridge is a very good USB source for digital music.
The Primo’s Tinkerboard USB ports are a serious step up from what the Pi offers. I found it very hard to distinguish the differences between the Primo and the USBridge. It makes me want to get a stock standard ASUS Tinkerboard and experiment with it a bit. They are just difficult to get in South Africa and they are 3 times the price of a Pi. The Primo’s USB is of such quality that I would have no problem to use this as my primary USB source. Any differences that I found is so minor that if you truly enjoy music listening, and not just listening to gear with the aim to find differences, you will not be bothered or be aware of any. The USBridge is better, and it should be. It is purposed for USB audio and has 2 power supplies to do it. I did hope that it will show clear differences though, but it is only marginally better. But do read on, this is not the full picture.
SPDIF output to external DAC:
For SPDIF comparisons, the Allo DigiOne Signature was called in and wired up. Regarding the wiring, this was tricky to switch between two COAX inputs with one COAX SPDIF input on my DAC. I could use two DACs and switch between 2 inputs on my amplifier, but that introduces more complications and testing to figure out if I am hearing SPDIF differences or DAC differences.
For the initial tests and listening, I used the same cable to switch back and forth between the Primo and the DigiSig. This was time consuming and tedious but it was the cleanest solution. I made my notes over a couple of days and then started thinking that I should take a chance and look for alternatives to make this easier.
So I pulled a hooligan move for the second part of the test. I employed the Schiit Audio SYS passive preamp to switch instantly between the two COAX outputs. This worked extremely well. It completely cuts the one connection before connecting the other to avoid shorts, and I could switch with only milliseconds of audio breakage between the sources. I could also easily build a symmetrical connection in terms of cables etc. Once I lined up the test tracks between the two players this was very insightful listening. I also found zero or inconclusive audible differences between this method and the tedious cable swap method I used first. The fact is, both sources had the same audio path and thus this was a valid test in my view. My sympathies to the purists.
Just WOW to the DigiOne Signature. It is such a clean and smooth sounding source. I rate it as the best Allo has to offer currently. The Primo stood its ground still. The DigiSig was not wiping the floor with the Primo. Not at all. I would say its performance is closer to the older first generation Allo DigiOne, but maybe just below that even. Which is still very good.
One of the DACs I use to test has a very abrasive personality. It is a very basic but good implementation of the ESS9018 Pro DAC chip. It has no reclocking, buffering or any error correction capabilities and if the signal is bad you know it. When I used the Primo on this DAC’s SPDIF input, I got signal drop-outs. I got intermittent no-lock errors on the display. So the signal was either not perfectly timed, or noisy power, or the signal was a bit weak. It does not happen with any SPDIF source I have on this DAC, neither does the Primo present this error on any other DAC I have. So I can only say there is something going on that makes these two not like each other. On the gear I really care about, this was a non-issue, so I regard this as an anomaly.
The Primo SPDIF output is great, does what it should, does not offend. Happy to use it as primary source as well.
Analog Output directly to amplifier:
Enter our last contender, the Allo Katana! This is probably the closest to the Primo of all three Allo contenders. The only thing it does not have is the SPDIF output. It does have USB ports that you can use for a DAC, but do remember what I said above regarding the stock Raspberry Pi USB ports. This is no different. So lets assume it only does analog audio out. And it does this extremely well. Probably best in its (price)class.
Of all 3 outputs I have compared, the Analog output of the Primo impressed me the most. It has considerable less stuff going on inside versus the triple stacked, multi power sourced Katana. And the Primo sounds good! I again hear that the Katana is the winner and has this super detailed but smooth sound that presents this 3D image with depth and realness that I have not heard before with any Raspberry Pi based steamer. The Primo does not do this so well. But it definitely sounds better than anything else on a Raspberry Pi I have heard, including the Allo’s own Boss DAC, HiFi Berry and IQAudio DACs.
You can definitely hear the similar flavor or sound signature of the Primo’s ESS9028 DAC chip and the Katana’s ESS9038 DAC chip. For me, the differences lies in the smoothness or shimmering edges of the sound, especially with the vocals and high notes. Also the Primo has a more laid back sound. The details are a bit less and recessed and does present a more focused sound with a slightly narrower sound stage. This is quite pleasant in some types of listening. Especially where there is too much going on in the music for the listener. I can imagine one can listen much longer to the Primo without experiencing listening fatigue.
Something interesting from my notes in the first week, is that the separation and sound stage improved in the first days. I always let gear play non-stop 24/7 for the first week or two. I found that with DACs this is quite significant. There is however a volume difference between the Primo’s DAC and the others. I had to volume match by lowering volume between 4% and 8% on the others. This is not a real issue, only during comparisons. It is a real pain with DSD music as you cannot lower the volume on the DAC by design, unless you convert it to PCM on the fly.
Another thing to consider relates to its temperature. The Primo does not get too warm. Compared to the Katana, the Primo is lukewarm at max where the Katana is hot and you can feel the heat rising from it. You cannot keep you finger on the heat-sinks for more than 10 seconds without burning on the Katana. So I would be much more comfortable putting the Primo in a confined space in my audio rack.
Yes, I will have no issue listening to the DAC on the Primo. And on some gear and with some music sources I would prefer it. Like, for instance, with internet radio, it will be much more forgiving.
Playback features of the Volumio system
The performance of the Primo hardware is largely dictated by the software it runs and the features the system makes available to you. Volumio covers a very large range of ways to play music. Lets have a quick look at the current capabilities.
There are 3 main tabs at the bottom of the interface. “Browse” contains all the music sources. The “Queue” is your current playlist queue and allows you to change the playback sequence etc. The middle main tab is the “Playback” tab that allows you to see the current track being played with its album art. It also allows you to control the volume on the right of the screen, as well as change the track position and see track details on the left of the screen.
While using the Volumio interface, it always shows a beautiful background image through the smokey transparent menus. This image you can customize in the settings menu. This settings menu is accessible by clicking the gear icon in the top right corner of the interface, where you can customise the rest of the available settings not contained in the clean minimalist main 3-tabbed interface summarised above.
free playback features
The “Browse” tab allows you to open your Music Library, which contains your indexed music file locations. This can be your attached USB hard drive, your NAS or files you have stored on the internal storage of the Primo over the network or transferred from USB storage (this is not really something I picture one does with the Primo). You can also select Web Radio in the “Browse” tab that exposes Shoutcast and Dirble online radio stations. This is one of my favorite ways to create background music and listen to new stuff while doing something else. Then there are other useful options in the “Browse” tab such as Favorites, Last 100 played tracks, Playlists, and groupings by albums, artist, genre etc.
To add additional playback features here, you can go to the settings menu and expand the Plugins selection. Here you can add a growing list of features to your Volumio environment. Noteworthy plugin capabilities are Spotify, YouTube, Squeeze Player and Logitech Media server, Pandora and OneDrive music playback. Unfortunately, I could not get SqueezeLite to work.
My Volumio subscription, tidal and Qobuz streaming service
If you want to go further, there is a Volumio subscription service called My Volumio. This allows you to use lossless streaming services Tidal and Qobuz natively in Volumio. You can sign up and login at the top of the main settings menu.
There are two packages called Virtuoso (single user) and Superstar (6 users/devices). They cost € 2.99/month and € 6.99/month respectively. There is also a reduced annual subscription for both packages. These subscriptions gives you a couple of other benefits as well. It allows you Automatic Sync of Personal Items, Remote Connection to your subscribed devices, and supports CD Playback and Ripping.
When you register on of these subscriptions, you will be able to log into My Volumio on your Primo via the app or the web interface. I went ahead to the “My Music” settings menu and scrolled down to where there was a new option available to register your existing Tidal service. Qobuz is also there but I do not have a subscription for them to test out, but I am sure it is a fairly similar experience. Once Tidal login details are captured and saved, Volumio will log in to Tidal and display a new section under the “Browse” tab called Tidal.
Here below is the details of the screens I followed on my smartphone to play some Tidal tracks, and search for music by Melody Gardot:
CD Playback and ripping to local storage
I was curious about the CD playback feature. I assumed this would mean you need to use a USB CD player. Luckily I have an external Bluray reader/writer. So here goes:
This was very easy. The Bluray player was immediately recognised and integrated into the “Browse” tab. CD details were automatically accurately fetched and displayed. I clicked on the “Rip” button at the top and I could verify the CD metadata and select the local destination where the CD music files would be placed. I plugged in a USB stick and this was also immediately recognised and listed as a destination. I did not want to use the limited 16GB of on-board storage the Primo has available, but it was an option.
Once ripping was completed, the disc tray popped open and a quick message was displayed on the interface to notify the user of completion. I would have liked this message to stay on top until I clicked OK, or at least show some sort of progress indicator. While it was ripping, there was no such indication other than the CD spinning and reading noises from the Bluray drive.
In the gallery above I show the playback of the same track from the disk and from the ripped FLAC file. It is strange that the info does not display on the Playback tab when all the detail show in the Audio CD browser. It would have been nice to see it here as well. You can also see that the new ripped files are shown in my music library under the USB storage where you can also see a CD rip I did long ago of the same CD. All nice and neat on the USB flash disk.
Playback of the CD and the ripped music files from the USB flash disk were like expected, with no hiccups. Very nice and well implemented feature!
Overall performance and use case
Here we have the Volumio Primo that is not breaking any records or setting new standards on all the outputs it has to offer us music lovers, but it is also not disappointing at all. Actually, it is probably the best overall experience I had with this type of device so far. It does nothing badly. In fact, it is more than acceptable by a large measure.
To better this device you would have to buy all 3 units from Allo to cover all the basis. Of course, this is extreme and you can just go and buy only the unit with the exact output you need at a lower price and you would be done, correct? Wrong. I know and have seen how often people change gear to try out new things or pursue that last percentages of sonic improvements to be had. Or just naturally upgrade as they learn or grow with the audiophile hobby thing. And then when these comparisons are being made before the old gear is passed on, or if the digital source implementations and quality differ between different gear, this extra verity of outputs comes in very handy.
We can use the analogy of the smartphone. Sure, you can get a better standalone GPS unit, a better standalone camera with quality lenses, or a super high quality standalone digital music player etc. But what do we use most often every day? Our smartphones, for all that purposes, because it does everything good enough and is much more convenient and at hand, and recently does it so good that we don’t even miss the other better things and gadgets we had or still have.
And it just works out of the box. The Primo comes preloaded with Volumio , which is stable and tested, and it gets updates over the internet, which adds new features like the recent Tidal integration or maybe in the future ROON integration etc.
Alternatively, lets say for instance you start with just the Volumio Primo. All you need to get your music playing is to get a nice good pair of stereo speakers (or headphones) and an amplifier that will last for a couple of upgrades. Then you just use the Primo Analog output at first. Later you may decide to buy an expensive DAC and then you just start to use the USB or SPDIF output to the DAC and enjoy the upgrade you have made. At this point or along the way you can invest in high resolution music and software etc. and keep using the Primo. There is also no reason to change or get rid of the Primo if you decide to try out old school vinyl records. You just build your system further with a phono-stage and pre-amplifier running in parallel to the Primo, keeping the convenience of digital music sources you have.
I think that although the Volumio Primo is priced relatively high to other available options, it does provide much more value and range than the other options. I also do not see that it should replace other options, especially if you already have something that performs great and is already being used. A dedicated device in a stable high-end audio setup will sound better and could be more optimised. And that is probably most people’s goal at the end of the journey. But one has to start somewhere and find out what you like. No one likes the same stuff the same way or on the same level.
I see the Primo as a perfect starting device. It is a bit of a financial stretch for a newcomer to high end digital music reproduction, but it will be able to grow with your needs. There are so many things you can upgrade that have a much larger effect on sound quality, than upgrading something like the Primo that is good from the start.
The Volumio Primo provides such value for the price. It includes simple to use software interface and controls, and is feature rich in terms of audio inputs and outputs. The subscription service allows Volumio to offer a very good stable Tidal and Qobus integration and allows the user to decide for themselves if these features are needed since the subscription is not compulsory. Users are able to enjoy all the other myriad of playback features on the free version that comes pre-loaded. I can’t fault the product proposition they have with the Volumio Primo.
Well done Volumio. Really impressive first device. It shows off your efforts with the development of the Volumio music system as a whole. The community supporting you are proud of you. Keep it up!