Reviews // Hi-Fi

Volumio Primo Review • A truly impressive device

Volumio Primo is a compact network audio player with additional features like AirPlay and Bluetooth. Like many other similar devices of this class, the device is a compact box, the operation of which is controlled via a mobile application. Unlike most of its competitors, the primary development of Primo was the Volumio software, which was born much earlier than the player.

And this is a very important point. As I have said many times, it is software that drives the success or failure of such devices in the market. One of the reasons the Bluesound Node 2i player is so highly regarded, for example, is the flawless operation of its control system. When you barely touch the device itself, its mobile interface is of great importance – even if audiophiles disagree with me, this is even more important than sound quality. If the player becomes unstable or inconvenient to use, no sound can justify this.

This means that Primo should potentially have a key advantage over the competition, as its electronic filling was matched to existing software, and not vice versa. But let’s still figure out what Primo is really capable of, and whether it will be able to realize its potential.

Specifications and design

As already noted, Volumio was originally created not just as a software audio platform, but as a real operating system. It can be downloaded to an SD card and installed, for example, on a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, turning it into a real audio streamer. The audio signal from it can be removed both via USB and from the I2S bus (in the second case, of course, you will need a special DAC). In addition, there are versions of Volumio for other hardware, including PC. After installing this software, through a special application or simply through the web interface, you get the ability to manage your music library with files in almost all existing audio formats, install various plug-ins and perform other functions. Although the Volumio system itself is free, for using the mobile application, which implements all its functions, you will have to pay (although the amount is not so significant). On the other hand, many music lovers may prefer the “free” web interface, which, incidentally, is very user-friendly.

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Until recently, Volumio was purely software designed to be installed on compatible hardware available to the user. Then the company-developer decided to expand the scope of its activities and opened an online store of devices intended for use with Volumio. There is a wide variety of electronics, both for DIYers and those who prefer ready-made devices. The Primo player presented in our review belongs to the latter.

Primo combines the Volumio operating system and all the electronics you need in a compact package. The audio section of the player is based on the ES9028Q2M DAC, which allows processing PCM signals with parameters up to 24 bit / 768 kHz, as well as DSD 512. In general, the Volumio Primo’s workmanship makes a pleasant impression, selected components are installed in the critical parts of the circuit, and the placement of all elements well thought out inside the case.

Primo also differs from many competitors in that, if you wish, you can bypass the built-in DAC and pick up the signal directly from one of the four USB connectors on the rear panel. You can also connect to them external drives or other compatible devices.

Volumio Primo transfers data with bit-for-bit precision, but for digital outputs you can enable additional signal conversion. For example, a DSD stream can be converted to PCM if your DAC does not have the appropriate format support. The player also provides a more traditional digital SPDIF output, which, of course, has a 24 bit / 192 kHz output stream limitation.

All this is enclosed in a simple metal case with an external power supply. Primo is clearly not going to win a beauty contest, but the device is made with high quality and sound quality, with good attention to all the nuances of the design. The player does not have control buttons or a display, like many similar devices, so the Primo is almost entirely dependent on the control application. The use of the word “almost” is important here because the Primo is equipped with an additional HDMI output to output the interface to an external monitor. So if you want to integrate it into an AV system, it can potentially be useful.

The Volumio app itself is very well thought out and easy to use. Due to the abundance of system settings, it is more complex than, for example, BluOS, but this is also its advantage. The large number of menus and available settings means that you can very flexibly customize the operation of the player, and as a result, make using it as convenient as possible. The application is very stable and fast. After scanning the available music library, the transition between albums and tracks is very fast and smooth. The mentioned web page has the same similar functionality, and, in addition, allows you to control the player not only from mobile devices, but also from any computer on the network.

Now, a little more about the application itself. Volumio comes in three levels, and only one of them is free. The base platform provides full network audio playback from available devices, as well as Spotify Connect and AirPlay support. Additionally, Android users can stream content from Tidal and Qobuz to Primo, but only through the Bubble UPnP app. To integrate Tidal and Qobuz into Volumio directly, you need to pay for a subscription. Compared to Roon, its cost is much more humane and is about 30 euros per year. In addition, the Android app is also paid.

Perhaps this is the flip side of the fact that the Volumio software itself is free for everyone who wants to install it on their devices. But in this case, the user buys a ready-made device, so the need to pay for the application is not very advantageous for Volumio Primo compared to competitors. However, I repeat that the system’s web interface is also very convenient for managing Volumio Primo, albeit without some additional functions. But if you need them, then the cost of a branded program is more than affordable.

Sound quality

If you’ve gotten to this point in my review and are in doubt as to whether the Primo will make the list of recommended models filled with more popular devices like the Node 2i or Auralic Aries Mini, then I have an important statement to make. Connected via the analog outputs and all other things being equal, the Primo is the best audio streamer in its price range I’ve tested. This is not an unconditional victory, but after spending some time with all of them, I am quite responsible in making this statement.

The reason for this is the balanced design. The Primo uses the ESS Saber DAC to highlight its strengths and not show weaknesses. Listening to the 16-bit / 44.1 kHz Every Day rip performed by the Cinematic Orchestra perfectly demonstrates this balance. The intro for All That You Give was detailed and fast, and the cymbals sounded exactly as they should. When a double bass appears, it sounds rich, weighty and irresistibly real, and is correctly positioned in space. Designing a DAC isn’t just about putting the best possible IC on a board. I don’t know what Volumio did with its DAC, but there is a sweetness in the way the Primo plays music that is not always present in available ESS devices.

Equally important, this sweetness is balanced with energy and a sense of fun, allowing the music to sound as the musicians intended. But where restraint is needed, it is fully present. You can go from The Prodigy’s Take Me to the Hospital to Armstrong’s Dust by Craig and both of these songs will sound absolutely right. The Primo’s sound is very fluid, and it easily conveys the rhythm at both 45 bpm and 145. The Primo has managed to handle a wide variety of music genres, and it’s impressive. It also largely forgives poor recording quality or compressed formats. Stay away from internet radio stations with very low bitrates and you should be fine.

Thanks to the integration into the Tidal app and Qobuz, Primo works great with these services. If you are absolutely convinced that the MQA format is the future of music, then Primo should give way to Bluesound or Auralic, as it does not have its support. But the sound quality of the Volumio when playing High resolution files via Qobuz is outstanding.

When you bypass Primo decoding and connect it to the Hugo2 via USB, the sound is even better. In fact, you’ve combined a very good interface with the sound quality of Hugo2. Primo is able to turn almost any DAC into a very good audio streamer, and at a very attractive price. If you are electronics savvy, you can get the same for even less money with Volumio and Raspberry Pi software. Still, the Primo has a very good built-in DAC, and you can listen to music from its analog outputs until you decide to upgrade again. And after it you will still remain on the familiar control interface.

Volumio Primo is the new affordable audio streamer and competes with the likes of the Auralic Aries Mini or the Bluesound Node 2i
The good:
  • Great sound
  • Very flexible settings and many functions
  • Great app
The not so good:
  • Some additional features will have to pay
  • Not very handsome in appearance
  • No support from other manufacturers

Conclusion

The Volumio Primo is the new affordable audio streamer and competes with the likes of the Auralic Aries Mini or the Bluesound Node 2i. However, it has functions that these models do not have, and which can be useful to many music lovers. But first about the disadvantages. Primo can’t match Bluesound for ease of use and lacks some of the server-side features of Auralic. In addition, you will have to pay for using some additional features in this model.

However, the strong positive side is that Volumio has a very wide range of settings and functions, and they all work flawlessly. This is the result of very well thought out software and user-friendly interface that many competitors are not very attractive.

And most importantly, Primo sounds great. When connected via the analog output, this is one of the best-sounding audio streamers, even at a higher price point, that I have tested. And it has the ability to connect an external USB DAC with even higher performance than the built-in one. The Primo is not perfect in every way, but it is a truly impressive device that we highly recommend purchasing.

Specifications

DAC: ESS ES9028Q2M DAC
Services: internet radio, Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz
CPU: 4-core 1.8 GHz ARM Cortex-A17 with passive cooling and 2 GB RAM + 16 GB EMMC
File Format Support: MP3, AAC, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, DSD, OGG
Outputs: analog RCA, coaxial, HDMI, USB
Network connection: Ethernet, Wi-Fi