Volumio Primo music player/streamer

Is this all there is to it? I had done some superficial investigations of Volumio online, after the Primo was suggested to me for review. I had learned that the Volumio player software is available for several hardware platforms including Windows, Mac, and Raspberry Pi, but I had not tried it before. I discovered Volumio’s reputation as an efficient, Linux-based music player, installable with an SD card on minimal hardware and said to support virtually all music formats and resolutions including DSD and multichannel. But I had not experienced any of this for myself.

When I unpacked the Primo, I was surprised to find such a small black box. Could such a small, lightweight device do all that and do it with adequate sound?

There’s a precedent, but it’s 10 years old—ancient in digital-audio terms. My experience with streamers began a decade ago with the amazing Logitech Squeezebox Touch, which was not much larger than the Primo, weighed about a pound, and played (at the time) only PCM and MP3 formats. On the other hand, it supported internet radio and had a user-friendly touch-screen display. I wrote an enthusiastic review.

In the last 10 years, however, audiophiles—including me—have come to expect (indeed, demand) more from audio streamers: more formats, higher resolutions, internet streaming, and, for some of us, the frissons of multichannel and DSP. Our expectations have been satisfied with multipotent, proprietary, often expensive audiophile-quality streamers of full-component dimensions and ever-more-complex PC-based boxes such as my Baetis Prodigy-X and the impressive Pink Faun 2.16x I reviewed in our December 2020 issue.

A refreshing counterpoint to this trend toward bigness and expense has arisen from DIY, hands-on culture: the proliferation of project-based streamers that utilize small, single-board computers (SBCs), generic computers adapted as single-purpose machines running slimmed-down operating systems and relying on external devices for control, display, and storage.

The Primo (€619, equivalent to $735 at the time of writing) is the best of this breed. It comes with OS and software loaded and ready to go. It is based on a minimalist computing platform, the ASUS Tinker Board S SBC, to which Volumio has added an audio processing board. The Tinker Board, which you can think of as an alternative to the better-known Raspberry Pi, runs a Rockchip Quad-Core RK3288 CPU with 2GB RAM and 16GB eMMC storage. The Volumio audio board sports multiple low-noise voltage regulators, a high-precision clock, and a top-of-the-ESS-line ES9038Q2M SABRE Reference DAC. Aside from “Volumio” and “Primo” discretely printed on the front, there are no indicators or controls anywhere on the box.

There are, of course, inputs and outputs around back. These include a Gigabit LAN connector (RJ45) and four USB 2.0 Type A connectors. There’s an HDMI output above an RCA S/PDIF digital output and a Wi-Fi antenna above a pair of stereo analog outputs (RCA). A coaxial barrel jack connects to the 5V DC power supply that comes in the box.

My Primo’s 5V power supply, which was first shipped to the US for the EISA awards competition—it won the award for its category—came with an EU plug and no US plug adapter. Fortunately, the power supply works at both European and US voltages, and I found an adapter in my parts bin.

What makes Primo run is Volumio, a server/player application that’s also available by itself, intended to run with a variety of SBCs as well as with the X86/X64 processors in PCs and Macs. In this respect, you might say it resembles Roon.

Volumio, which is advertised as “a free and open source audiophile music player,” is controlled via a web interface or by apps that run on Android and iOS devices. Apps support Tidal and Qobuz streaming as well as, eg, the TuneIn internet radio service. The standalone Volumio service is available at levels ranging from “Volumio Free” to “Superstar.” The purchase of the Primo Hi-Fi Edition makes you a Superstar for life; separately, a lifetime “Superstar” subscription costs €199 ($236).

Volumio is indeed an open-source platform, with plug-ins contributed by Volumio’s techie users. Those plug-ins, which are available at the Volumio website, have significantly expanded the player’s capabilities and continue to do so. I tried a plug-in that allows the Volumio device to act as a Roon Bridge; it worked fine. Another plug-in, for BruteFIR convolution engine, disappeared from the list when I tried to install it. User-designed plug-ins are likely to be a mixed bag, from buggy to excellent and often both. This is a great system for those who like to tinker, but don’t expect polish.


Quick setup
The instructions in the Quick Start Guide are simple: Plug in your LAN’s Ethernet cable. Connect an output device via USB, S/PDIF, or analog jacks. Power it up, stand back, and wait 5 minutes.

The next setup step is to access it from your phone, tablet, or computer, to make sure that the silent Primo has in fact been establishing its own mobile “hot spot.” (There are no flashing lights or other indicators.) Now you can customize the Primo to your environment and preferences, via Settings.

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Volumio SRL

Via dei Pepi

76R Firenze, Italy



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