If you love great audio, a dedicated music streamer is essential. It can become the center of your hi-fi universe, making every listening session that much more enjoyable. At The Master Switch, we adore music streamers, so we decided to put together a list of the best. By music streamer, we mean a device that has the ability to play audio stored in another location. This location can be over the Internet, in the form of a streaming service like Spotify or Tidal, or an external hard drive. For more background information on music streamers, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Amp: Yes - 40W/8Ω
What We Like: Outstanding sound and design, terrific operating system.
What We Don't: Very expensive, remote picks up fingerprints.
At The Master Switch, it's our policy to return review models that are sent to us. But we really didn't want to let the Naim Uniti Atom go. It works so well, so effortlessly, that we found ourselves using it almost every moment we were in the office. The operating system is virtually flawless, and the Uniti Atom is capable of playing music from just about any source. It even has an HDMI ARC connection for use with your TV. It's fully Roon Ready, and can handle hi-res audio up to 32 bit / 384kHz, as well as DSD.
Thanks to an included integrated amp, it manages to produce excellent sound quality in its own right, with audio that is crisp and detailed. It also helps that the design is spectacular, with a nifty volume wheel and vibrant screen - even if the remote is a fingerprint magnet. It definitely costs a pretty penny and is only suitable for those looking for the absolute best. We'd be crazy to pick anything else for the top spot here – the Naim Uniti Atom is one of the best products we've ever tested. It's also worth noting that Naim makes several different variations, including ones with larger amps and CD rippers, so you'll have plenty to choose from...Read our in-depth review
See the Naim Uniti Atom
A Close Second
What We Like: Versatile operating system, huge range of input options for the price.
What We Don't: Requires a separate USB dongle to connect to Wi-Fi.
If you can't stretch your budget for the amazing Naim Uniti Atom, we'd strongly recommend looking at the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2). For under $1,000, you get an awful lot for your money. We especially appreciated just how easy and intuitive the operating system was, and the vast range of services we were able to connect the CXN to - including Google ChromeCast.
The design is a little bit more spartan than others on this list. That isn't necessarily a problem, but it does have at least one puzzling aspect. Almost all the other streamers on this list will connect to a Wi-Fi network using a few simple taps of an app, but the CXN (V2) requires that you plug in a separate USB dongle into the back. We genuinely can't think of why this is the case. However, it's something you only need to do once, and it doesn't stop the CXN (V2) from being a genuinely fantastic piece of equipment. If you're looking to step up into slightly better hi-fi sound, but don't want to remortgage your house, this may be an ideal starting point...Read our in-depth review
See the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2)
Best Budget Music Streamer
What We Like: Simple operation, highly affordable.
What We Don't: Can be a little tricky (though not impossible) to find in the US, no AirPlay 2.
We love what Yamaha has created here. With the WXAD-10, they've taken everything you could possibly need in a music streamer, and pared it down to the absolute bare minimum. The result? A highly affordable music streamer which gives you everything you need to turn your hi-fi system into a complete wireless setup. Whether you listen with Spotify, Tidal, over Apple AirPlay, or from a network storage drive, this little box will sort you out.
There are definite downsides to the low price, however, and it's worth taking into account before you buy. The WXAD-10 isn't compatible with Roon, and there's no ability to play DSD files. At the time of writing, there is also no Apple AirPlay 2 - just the original AirPlay. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we've seen it's availability fluctuate in the US. We've definitely spotted it on Amazon in the past, but at the time of writing, it's no longer present. It's still relatively simple to get, but you may need to order from overseas. It's worth the wait though, and compared to other affordable music streamers, like the Amazon Echo Link, it does an absolutely superb job for the price.
See the Yamaha WXAD-10
Best High-End Music Streamer
What We Like: High-end sound quality, phenomenal design.
What We Don't: Utterly merciless with low-quality recordings, stomach-churning cost.
The Auralic Vega G2 isn't going to knock the Naim Uniti Atom from the top of our list. But if you demand the very best, the absolute pinnacle - and you have the money to pay for it - then the Vega G2 is your best bet. It's billed as a streaming DAC, and is as good at converting as it is at streaming. That means brutal, brilliant sound quality - although don't try putting low-quality files through this. She's unforgiving.
The design and operating system are top-notch. The Naim Uniti Atom is still better in this area, but not by much. The Vega G2 also easily beats the functionality of similar systems, like the Aurender A10 (which is just under $200 cheaper). And unlike the A10, this streamer is fully Roon Ready, as well as talking to just about every other streaming service you can think of. We'd recommend going for the Auralic Vega G2 if you want more advanced sound quality than even the Uniti Atom can give you, and demand the most from your sound.
See the Auralic Vega G2
Best Plug-and-Play Music Streamer
What We Like: Simple design, great ease-of-use.
What We Don't: Perhaps a little too pricey for what you get.
What? It counts! In all seriousness, the Amazon Echo Link is a music streamer - and if you want a no-frills way to transfer music to your hi-fi system, via 3.5mm, RCA, or optical connection, this is how to do it. Connect the Echo Link to an external amp, or a set of powered speakers, and you're ready to go. It can even stream Tidal now, meaning you have access to very decent quality at your fingertips. You can also spend an extra $100 and get the Echo Link Amp, allowing you to power passive speakers.
The Echo Link occupies a rare spot on this list - there's not a great deal of products we can directly compare it to. That's not a problem, necessarily, but you need to be aware of what you're getting before you make the purchase. While we like the features, including the subwoofer out and optical connections, this is a very simplistic device. And we believe $200 is arguably a little steep for what's offered. Interestingly, shortly before we published this list, there was another plug-and-play streamer in contention: the Google Chromecast Audio. They have since discontinued it. Sad trombone. Still, the Amazon Echo Link is a very capable little box if you want to dip your feet into streaming.
See the Amazon Echo Link
Best of the Rest
What We Like: Huge range of features for the price.
What We Don't: Lacks a special something to put it over the top.
On the surface, the Bluesound Node 2i is amazing. It offers a complete, wireless, multi-room streaming solution that can handle just about anything you throw at it. It's compatible with virtually all major streaming services, is Roon Ready, and handles hi-res file formats like a pro. The sound is rock-solid, with excellent dynamic range. It has slick design, and a great app in BluOS.
If it wasn't for the incredible screen and operating system of the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2), or the all-round amazing functionality and sound of the Naim Uniti Atom, the Node 2i would be in our top five. It's a very good system; it's just that it doesn't quite have a special something to get our pulses racing. Subjective? Of course. And if you can't find any of the above for sale, you will be quite satisfied with the Node 2i. It remains an excellent alternative, and definitely an option for those looking to protect their wallets while still investing in a great music streamer.
See the Bluesound Node 2i
Amp: Yes - headphone amp
What We Like: Old-school solution that is perfect for CD listeners and headphone fans.
What We Don't: Deadly-dull design, no Roon functionality.
You've got to respect Marantz for at least sticking to their guns. With the ND8006, they've managed to combine a competent music streamer – capable of handling Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz and more – with some truly unusual features. And by unusual, we mean old school. A CD player, for example – although don't expect to be able to rip anything, as there's no on-board storage. You also get a headphone amplifier, despite the fact that you won't be able to power passive speakers with this streamer. It means that the ND8006 could quite comfortably occupy many roles at once, and it definitely deserves a spot on this list. Even if it's never going to compete with the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2).
In fact, not only is the CXN (V2) cheaper, to the tune of about $200, but it also has much better design. The ND8006 looks exactly the same as a Marantz A/V receiver, which looks exactly the same as a Marantz headphone amp. There's been zero imagination with the design here, and that's a big black mark from us. It's also quite perplexing that the ND8006 isn't capable of handling Roon - something we'd expect to see in a $1,000-plus music streamer.
See the Marantz ND8006
What We Like: Solid sound, good range of features.
What We Don't: Barebones design, relies on Play-Fi.
The Arcam rPlay occupies the same space as the wallet friendly Yamaha WXAD-10: a simple, single-box streamer that lets you enjoy the simplicity of listening to music without worrying too much about advanced controls or functionality. Of course, the rPlay costs quite a bit more than the WXAD-10, and that's down to its range of features. The rPlay is absolutely perfect for hi-res audio, delivering superb sound quality through a staggering number of services. Its plug-and-play functionality makes it straightforward to use, and it also offers multi-room support.
Something you do need to be aware of if you're considering the Arcam rPlay is the app. In order to utilize its multi-room functionality, the rPlay uses the DTS Play-Fi protocol and accompanying app, which lets speakers of different brands communicate. The problem? Play-Fi can be a frustrating app, and it means that the rPlay is never going to beat products like the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2), which have excellent apps. We also aren't wild about the design, which is supremely unexciting. However, neither of those things take away from how well this streamer performs, and it remains a solid choice.
See the Arcam rPlay
Storage: Yes - 1TB
What We Like: Good design, balanced sound, great for those with large music libraries.
What We Don't: No digital outputs, no streaming services, won't work with NAS drives.
Almost all of the music streamers on this list enable you to play music from a service like Tidal or Spotify. The Sony HAP-Z1ES take a slightly different approach. It has an internal 1TB hard drive for music files, but can also access any other hard drives on a Wi-Fi network, and import music directly into the unit. It can also play music from drives connected via USB. We thought long and hard about whether to include it – remember, our definition of a music streamer is one that can play audio from an external source. In the end, we think it's worth including. It's an unusual choice, and it's never going to be a top pick, but this could be ideal if you have a large music library.
That's without mentioning the fact that the Sony HAP-Z1ES is actually quite an incredible machine to use. Like the far more expensive Naim Uniti Atom, it has a full color digital display, and the brushed silver housing and sleek design features make it a real winner. It would have been nice to have digital outputs – you only get analog here – but it does an exceptional job nonetheless. We wouldn't advise this if you're looking for a traditional streamer, but it certainly fulfils a particular niche. By the way: unlike many of the other products on this list, the Sony HAP-Z1ES will not work with NAS drives, which is a little frustrating.
See the Sony HAP-Z1ES
What We Like: Serious workhorse with great sound and a good range of features.
What We Don't: No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth yet? You're kidding, right?
Linn make some absolutely superb music streamers, and we think the Selekt DSM is our favorite. You'll definitely pay for the privilege – it's the most expensive streamer in our list, far more so than the Naim Uniti Atom and the Moon by SimAudio Neo Ace. But the Selekt DSM manages to hold its own, offering an excellent range features. We also adore the sound quality. There's no amplifier, although you do have the option to upgrade to one if you choose to. The audio quality from the internal circuitry is lively and dynamic, and great fun to listen to.
But here's the catch. How on earth can Linn seriously offer a $6,000-plus streamer with no Wi-Fi? Yes, you get Ethernet, and Wi-Fi compatibility is being added on at a later date...but seriously. Come on. Streamers that are literally $3,000 cheaper have the ability to play Tidal, whereas the Selekt does not. As good as this streamer is, you may want to wait a while before investing your hard earned dollars.
See the Linn Selekt DSM
Amp: Yes - 50W/8Ω
What We Like: Balanced sound, forgiving nature.
What We Don't: Clunky controls, quite expensive for what you get.
We first heard the Moon by SimAudio Neo Ace at the Soundroom here in Vancouver, when we were testing a pair of the exquisite Focal Utopia headphones. It impressed us with its easy-going nature, offering an audio signature that felt balanced and clean, but didn't feel like it was going to torture us if we put a low quality source through it. We also enjoyed using the MiND app, which made the experience relatively seamless.
That being said, having tested out a few music streamers since then, this isn't going to be our first pick. It's good, but not quite perfect. The front end is clunky, and feels somewhat old-fashioned. And if you really are prepared to spend this much, we think it's absolutely worth shelling out an extra $400 for the outstanding Naim Uniti Atom, which looks and sounds even better. It's a highly workable alternative, and a good one if you listen to a variety of different audio sources, but it's not the best we could recommend.
See the Moon by SimAudio Neo Ace
Storage: Yes - 4TB
App: Yes - iPad only
What We Like: MQA decoding and huge hard drive make this ideal for demanding listeners.
What We Don't: Poor screen, bizarre app choices, still not Roon Ready.
The Aurender A10 is the second most expensive streamer on this list, and it certainly brings a lot to the table. It has two key features. The first of these is dedicated MQA decoding, which means it's ideal for those who love streaming music from Tidal. The second is its absolutely enormous hard drive. With four terabytes to play with, you'll be able to store an absolutely massive collection of music on there, and access it via the outstanding Aurender Conductor app.
However, the app is also the A10's Achilles heel. For some reason, and one we can't quite fathom, it is only available on iPad – not iPhone, and definitely not Android. There are other problems, too. The screen on the front of the A10 feels miserly and small; it always feels like you have to squint to see what information is being displayed. It's easily beaten by the screen on the Sony HAP-Z1ES, which is a good $3,000 cheaper. And even a year or two after its initial release, the A10 is still not Roon Ready. Because of these issues, we don't think it's the best choice for high-end streaming – that would be the Auralic Vega G2 (don't get them confused - the names are quite similar). However, it definitely has its uses for those in need of MQA decoding and an outrageous amount of storage.
See the Aurender A10
What We Like: Naim goodness at a (relatively) affordable price.
What We Don't: Lack of a screen may turn some people off.
Naim's music streamers have such an excellent reputation, and perform so well, that we wanted to include another one of their products on our list. The ND5 XS 2 is marketed as their 'entry-level' streamer, despite the fact that it costs nearly $3,000. Welcome to the weird world of high-end audio, folks.
It offers a similar experience to the high-priced Uniti Atom, with a couple of significant differences. The first is obvious, in the lack of a screen. Naim have a perfectly good control app, and you'll have to use that here rather than viewing digital album art on the display. There are also no physical controls on the unit. This isn't a dealbreaker, but it does cut down your options. It also means that, if your phone dies, you won't be able to control anything. However, the ND5 XS 2 still impresses with its excellent sound quality, range of features, and the number of streaming services it's compatible with, including Roon.
See the Naim ND5 XS 2
What We Like: Squeezes every drop of quality out of your music.
What We Don't: No Wi-Fi, although there is an Ethernet connection.
One of the things that sets music streamers apart is the ability to give you the maximum amount of detail in your music. The Sonore Signature Rendu SE is the ideal choice for this. If you find yourself getting nerdy about sample rates and bit depth, if you demand absolute precision and clarity from your music, then this is the streamer for you. It can handle a whopping 32 bit / 768kHz resolution, which is great in comparison to other models - the Naim ND5 XS 2, above, only goes to 32 bit / 384kHz. Plus it has something called Sonicorbiter 2.5 output modes, which essentially function as presets, optimizing the audio quality depending on where the music is coming from.
What may turn some listeners off is that you really have to care quite deeply about the minutiae of music streaming to get the best out of Signature Rendu SE. It demands concentration and knowledge, and as such, is nowhere near as accessible as other similarly priced streamers like the Naim ND5 XS 2. Peculiarly, it also has no Wi-Fi connection, although there is an Ethernet port. It's definitely not the friendliest or most accessible music streamer available, but it certainly has a place on this list.
See the Sonore Signature Rendu SE
Storage: Yes - 2TB
What We Like: Looks and sounds fantastic, great display.
What We Don't: A little old now, no standby option.
NAD's M50.2 is their current flagship streaming solution. It's a hell of a product. Not only is it a capable streamer, but it can rip CDs to its 2TB internal hard drive and play music from just about any source you'd care to name. As you'd imagine, the sound quality is spectacular. There may not be an internal amp, but the competent circuitry at the heart of this machine does more than just its job. We also adore the screen, which is equal (we think) of that found on the Naim Uniti Atom. The Atom is less expensive, however, by about $700.
Despite its positives, the NAD M50.2 is a touch old now. That's not too much of a problem - new NAD streamers are on the way, as we'll describe in the section on upcoming streamer releases below. But it does mean that, as fantastic as the M50.2 is, you may want to reconsider purchasing something out-dated, and wait for a new model. If you're hankering for a solid solution now, however, then we strongly recommend checking out the M50.2. It's a beast.
See the NAD M50.2
What We Like: A simple and effective sub-$2,000 option.
What We Don't: The app is frustrating to use.
The Pioneer N-70AE presents you with hi-res sound without the financial headache. Its capable DAC handles audio conversion well, and offers an excellent range of compatibility with various streaming services. It's cheaper than many of the high-end streamers on this list, with the possible exception of the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2). The design and connections are decent, and if you don't want to break the bank, this is a good option.
The N-70AE does have some downsides which keep it from the upper echelons of this list. There are significant issues with the Pioneer Remote app, chiefly when navigating NAS drives. It also does a clunky, unsatisfying job of integrating music services like Tidal. Given how central apps are to the music streamer experience nowadays, those are some major black marks, and something Pioneer will have to fix if they want to raise their score on our list. The N-70AE is a good alternative to other models, but nothing special.
See the Pioneer N-70AE
Amp: Yes - 135W/6Ω
What We Like: Great options for the price.
What We Don't: Dated design, we aren't all that into the sound.
The Onkyo TX-8250 is a basic, straightforward music streamer at an affordable price. No more, no less. It gives you all the features you'd expect, the ability to control them, and then gets out of the way. The lack of digital album art, Roon capability, and the like are reflected in the price. For the most part, the TX-8250 was just designed to get the job done.
The problem is, while it is a very solid streamer in its own right, and certainly a viable option, it pales in comparison to the excellent (and less expensive) Bluesound Node 2i. We struggle to imagine getting the basic Onkyo, with its average sound and dated design, over the exciting, dynamic Bluesound. We don't mean to shortchange Onkyo – their streamer does have features that the Bluesound doesn't, like a digital display, and there are some solid options for the price. But it's never going to be anything other than a reputable alternative to the more interesting models on this list.
See the Onkyo TX-8250
And Now for Something Weirdly Specific
What We Like: Excellent range of features, superb sound.
What We Don't: Only works if you own a Chord Mojo DAC.
Time for something quite unusual. Meet the Chord Poly: a little box you can connect to your portable Chord Mojo DAC to turn it into a music streamer. The little Poly has a very respectable range of features, including an SD card slot, Wi-Fi connectivity, respectable file handling (32 bit / 768kHz) and – a real surprise – Roon Ready functionality. Unsurprisingly – for Chord are good at this sort of thing – it sounds fantastic.
The problem, somewhat obviously, is that you have to own a Mojo to make it work. The Poly simply will not function with anything else. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but it does mean that this is a weirdly specific music streamer that not everybody will be able to use. A Mojo by itself is also quite pricey, bringing this combo to over $1,000. Come to think of it, it's absolutely crazy to us that Chord have yet to produce a full stand-alone streamer, given their love of high-end DACs and amps. Get on that, guys...Read our in-depth review of the Chord Mojo
See the Chord Poly
New Music Streamers Coming Soon
At the time of writing, there are several new streamers currently in production. By the time you read this, they may very well be available for sale – we update our Best Of lists regularly, but sometimes the market moves quite fast, even for us.
There are two releases we are particularly excited for at the moment. The first is the NAD C 658. Outside of offering all the usual features you'd expect on a streamer, it has two particular elements which make it a very exciting little box. It uses Dirac Live room correction to improve the sound – something we haven't seen on a streamer before – and it has a modular design, meaning any and all of its components can be swapped out at your leisure. This essentially future-proofs the streamer. We are also quite excited about the NAD Masters M10 system, announced just as we were finishing up this article. That system will cost you $2,499, and will run on the BluOS operating system. Like the NAD C 658, it offers Dirac Live room correction. We'll write more once we've had a listen…
The other big release coming soon is the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge. It's a streaming version of their amazing Brooklyn DAC (get it?) and offers streaming functionality in the familiar ridged housing of Mytek's products. Truth be told, we like the idea, and we can't wait to hear it…but we are a little concerned. It takes a lot of effort to make a streamer really good, and we do wonder if simply tacking one onto an existing DAC is enough. Still, we shall see, and we'll let you know when we do.
One more streamer we're excited for is a slightly shadowy SACD network player being released by turntable maker Technics. The model doesn't actually have a name yet, but a prototype was shown at the recent IFA show in Berlin. From what we understand, it includes uPNP support, and Chromecast functionality.
|Naim Uniti Atom||$3,295||40W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Cambridge Audio CXN||$900||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||24 bit / 96kHz|
|Yamaha WXAD-10||$160||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Auralic Vega G2||$5,999||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Amazon Echo Link||$200||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 96kHz|
|Bluesound Node 2i||$549||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Marantz ND8006||$1,199||Yes (Head.)||Yes||No||Yes||No||32 bit / 192kHz|
|Arcam rPlay||$799||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Linn Selekt DSM||$6,825||No||Yes||No||No||Yes||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Moon by SimAudio Neo Ace||$2,900||50W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Aurender A10||$5,500||No||Yes||4TB||Yes||No||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Naim ND5 XS 2||$2,900||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Sonore Signature Rendu SE||$2,995||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 768kHz|
|NAD M50.2||$3,999||No||Yes||2TB||Yes||Yes||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Pioneer N-70AE||$1,457||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Onkyo TX-8250||$649||135W/6Ω||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Chord Poly||$749||No||No||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 768kHz|
- Why Should I Buy A Music Streamer?
- How We Chose our List of Music Streamers
- Music Streamers vs. DACs
- Music Streamers vs. Network Players vs. Music Servers
- NAS Drives Explained
- uPnP Explained
- Audio Formats and File Types Explained
- Chromecast vs. AirPlay 2
- Music Software: Roon vs. JRiver vs. Audirvana
- Using a Smart Speaker as a Music Streamer
For starters, you probably already have a music streamer. You may even be reading this article on it. Your smartphone actually qualifies as a music streamer. It is capable of taking audio files stored in another location, like a music streaming service, and playing them. It won't necessarily do a brilliant job – its internal circuitry, like its Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC), probably cost less than a dollar to manufacture - but by the strictest standards of what qualifies as a music streamer, it is one.
Think about that for a second. Think of how useful it is to be able to retrieve music this way, without necessarily having to rely on physical media. If you are serious about your music, then you want this retrieval to be as seamless as possible. You want to extract the maximum amount of information from that audio file, no matter where it is located. You don't want there to be any weak links in your audio chain, which means thinking about how you actually retrieve your music. A dedicated music streamer is the answer here: a single-box solution that can make sure your music is delivered in the purest possible way. In many cases, you don't even have to put down your phone to use them: almost all of the options on our list above come with a control app, which makes selecting and playing music a breeze. And if you don't believe us, if you think this kind of audio product is a total waste of money, then we have a suggestion for you. Pick up the Amazon Echo Link, for $200, which allows you to stream music wirelessly to any hi-fi system or powered set of speakers. We guarantee you'll be wanting something a little bit more intense before long – and once you're sucked in, you won't believe just how rewarding music streamers can be.
A quick refresh of what we mean by "music streamer". It refers to a device that has the ability to play audio stored in another location. That can be over the Internet, in the form of a streaming service like Spotify or Tidal, or an external hard drive. This means that all the music streamers below have the ability to retrieve audio from a separate location. They may also have the ability to hold music files on an internal drive, but unless they can access media from elsewhere, they won't qualify. We will go into the distinctions between music streamers, music servers, and network players in the buying advice below, but for now, this is the definition we are working with.
To create our list, we considered several different factors – Unsurprisingly, sound quality wasn't the most important. Not all music streamers have built in amplification, for one thing. They all have an impact on the sound, but it's not our primary consideration in comparison to something like speakers. At the front of our minds, we put useability, value-for-money, and design. This helped us to generate a list with several unique winners, and we think you'll agree with our choices. If you don't, feel free to fight us in the comments below.
We've already mentioned DACs - Digital-to-Analog Converters. You'll see the term thrown around a lot in the world of music streaming and high-end audio, so it's worth taking a minute or two to understand the difference between a DAC and a music streamer.
A DAC's job is to convert a digital music file into an analog signal; to take the 1s and 0s that make up a file, and convert them into an electrical impulse that the human ear can actually pick up. What it does not do is actually retrieve music from anywhere. It will take any file you feed it, and convert it into an audible signal, but it will not actually go and hunt down its own food. That's what a music streamer is for. A music streamer will retrieve a file from somewhere - a streaming service over Wi-Fi, a USB stick, an SD card - and then feed it to a DAC for conversion.
The confusion comes because of the fact that many music streamers have DACs included in them, meaning they can both retrieve and convert audio. The $549 Bluesound Node 2i is a good example. It has the ability to both stream music and to convert it to an analog signal - something it shares with many of the streamers on our list. It pushes this signal through a set of analog outputs, meaning you can connect it directly to an amplifier or a set of powered speakers. But – and this is the clever part – it also contains digital outputs, meaning you can bypass its DAC entirely. You'd do this if you have a DAC already, one you are comfortable with and wish to continue to use. Essentially, what you need to understand is that a streamer and a DAC are two separate things, but it is entirely possible for them to both be contained in the same box.
By the way, you will sometimes see companies marketing their products as streaming DACs. They do this because they like confusing people. We kid: it's because they wish to market their product as a DAC, first and foremost, only one that has streaming capabilities. For all intents and purposes, you can consider these music streamers.
If we had one wish…well, we'd wish for a private island, and $1 billion budget to build our dream audio system. But if we are talking streaming audio, then our wish would be for companies to agree, once and for all, on the terms they are going to use. Nothing is more confusing than stumbling across the term network player, and wondering if it means the same thing as music streamer, or if it's something different, and whether or not a music server will actually stream music. So let's demystify this, once and for all.
The key thing to bear in mind is that music streamers and network players are exactly the same thing. There is literally no difference. The terms can be used interchangeably. You'll also sometimes see them called things like network media players, media streamers, and delightful whizbang machines (one of those is made up). We've already explored what a music streamer/network player does many times in this article, but once more with feeling: a music streamer is a piece of audio gear that retrieves audio files from another location. That location can be a Spotify playlist, a hard drive, a USB stick, anything - as long as it's not actually contained in the housing of the music streamer itself. Our top music streamer, if you haven't read yet, is the stupendous – and stupendously expensive – Naim Uniti Atom.
A music server is slightly different. It contains an internal hard drive, on which you can store music files. A dedicated music server will not have the ability to retrieve audio from elsewhere – all the audio will come from files stored on its internal drive. The best of these have a CD ripper, and they are absolutely ideal if you want to convert a CD collection to digital files in high quality. We made a conscious choice not to include music servers on our list above, but there is at least one pick that is very close to the line. The Sony HAP-Z1ES ($1,998) may not have the ability to stream from Tidal or Spotify, but it does have the ability to access any other hard drives you have on your home network, as well as a sizeable internal storage of its own.
NAS stands for Network Attached Storage, and it's a term you'll see often when looking at music streamers. A NAS drive is a hard drive, or a bank of hard drives, connected directly to your router via an ethernet cable. You can store anything on these drives – photos, videos, whatever, including music. What this means is that you can use a NAS drive as a giant library for your music streamer to wirelessly pull from. It's ideal if you've converted your physical music collection to digital and need somewhere to store the files.
You might reasonably ask why you would use a NAS drive instead of storing your files on the cloud. For starters, you don't need to rely on a Wi-Fi connection to upload or download them. You also won't have to pay for additional space if you exceed limits – something you are unlikely to do with the physical hard drive, which is often much larger than a cloud server. Storing files and retrieving them can be a lot quicker, and that means you are less likely to have a dropout when playing music from a music streamer. Setting up a NAS drive and getting it to work with your streamer is a bit beyond the scope of what we want to do here, but there are several guides online. If you want to buy a NAS drive, the best one available, in our opinion, is the WD My Cloud Personal. $160 gets you 4TB of storage, which is enough for all but the most massive of music collections.
uPNP - Universal Plug 'N Play - is a revelation if you haven't tried it. It's essentially a common language between devices, allowing them to talk to each other. They can discover each other on a home network, and access certain services. If a music streamer is set up for uPnP, it means you will be able to directly access any uPnP servers you have nearby on the same network, and control the files on them. This makes for an easy and effective way of dealing with huge troves of files.
uPnP is different to NAS drives, described above. A NAS drive is an actual physical thing, whereas uPnP is a method for that physical thing to talk to another physical thing. It's a piece of software, and if you can get a handle on it, it works very well. We don't really want to go into how to set up a uPnP server here – there are plenty of ways to do it, and it's a little bit outside of the scope of this article. Be warned: not all music streamers have the ability to use uPnP, so definitely check before you buy. One of the best uPnP-capable streamers you can get is the Arcam rPlay, which costs $799, and will happily work with a uPnP server.
One additional wrinkle. You will sometimes see the term DLNA. This stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, and it's an actual organisation with people who work in it. It was created to define standards for digital media transmission, and it uses – you guessed it – uPnP. If you see the particular streamer is DLNA-certified, you can be sure that it works with uPnP.
We actually have a full explainer that breaks down not only how audio files work and what they're made of, but just about every file type you can imagine. However, that explainer is for a much more general audience, and deals with file types you probably won't find on many streamers (such as straight-up MP3s, for example). So, let's take the time to very briefly explain what audio files are made up of, and which ones you are likely to encounter if you buy a music streamer.
There are two main things you need to know about a music streamer, and those two things are the largest bit depth and sample rate it can take. Sample rate refers to the amount of times a computer has taken a digital snapshot of a specific second of a music file – obviously, the more snapshots it takes, the more detailed the audio will be. You'll find this measured in Hertz (Hz), with the occasional abbreviation of kiloHertz (kHz), or a thousand Hertz. Bit depth refers to how much information is found in each snapshot, and again, the higher the number, the better. The Auralic Vega G2 (which costs $5,699) has a bit depth and sample rate capability of 32 bit / 384kHz, which means it can take audio files of that resolution or less. As you can imagine, those numbers are pretty good!
There are many different types of audio files available, but the most common in the world of music streamers, we'd argue, are FLAC and MQA files. This is because these are the files used by the streaming service Tidal, which is easily among the most popular and wide-ranging high resolution streaming service – although it is being challenged by startups like Qobuz. FLAC files are compressed, like MP3s, and manage to pull it off while losing very little data. This means they are both quick to stream, and suitably detailed. MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) is a FLAC file on crack. It uses some truly magical digital wizardry to deliver a very high quality file that is also slim enough to be streamed without interruption. If you have a music streamer, these are the two file types you'll encounter the most – although you may wish to experiment with DSD, which is a whole different ball game. Check out the explainer linked above for a full breakdown of that.
When we talk about Google's Chromecast and Apple's AirPlay 2, we are referring to two different transmission protocols. They are simple and effective ways of sending audio from a mobile device to a music streamer – or a TV, wireless speaker, or video streaming stick. Given how protective Apple is of its ecosystem, you might expect that AirPlay 2 would only work with Apple speakers, like the $349 Apple HomePod (full review here). However, that's not the case. Both AirPlay 2 and Chromecast are available on multiple different streamer models and brands, and using either of them is as easy as selecting your streamer as a source.
It must be said that, for most music streamers, you won't encounter either of them unless you absolutely want to. This is because most streamers on our list have the ability to access services like Spotify and Tidal direct, without having to rely on an external mobile device to do the streaming for them. As such, there's no you need to use either transmission protocol. But they do certainly accommodate for them, if you want to experiment.
We are the first to admit that many of the music streamers on our list are expensive. Unfortunately, that's just the nature of this particular product category. If you want this much technology in your life, you have to pay to play. And if you really demand perfection, then the basic interfaces of Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Music aren't going to cut it. You need a dedicated music interface – something that can handle both your digital library, and that of a streaming service. You need Roon, JRiver, or Audirvana. These dedicated software programs will not only let you extract the absolute most out of your audio, but will also give you a very pleasing interface to play around with.
You'll notice in our comparison table above that we have a specific column for whether a particular streamer is compatible with Roon. There's a very good reason for that. Roon is, by some margin, the most popular streaming interface on the market right now, with thousands of devoted users. On the surface, what it does is simple. It takes files from a given source, such as a hard drive or a streaming service, and relays it to what is known as a Roon Core – a complicated term for a music streamer that happens to be compatible with Roon ('Roon Ready' to use the technical term). It's worth noting that a PC or Mac can be used as a Roon Core, too. This means you don't necessarily need to invest in an expensive music streamer to take advantage.
If that was all it did, then we wouldn't get nearly as excited about it as we do. Because what Roon does with its user interface is quite extraordinary. Instead of just displaying track information, it turns what you're listening to into a fun, well-designed digital magazine, with a wealth of information about the artist. Displayed on your phone, tablet, or PC, it's an exceptional way to listen to music, and one that is highly rewarding. The downside? We're not talking about iTunes here – this is not a free software program. You'll pay $119 a year, or $499 for lifetime membership. As such, it's the kind of thing that only the most dedicated listener will want to go for. Generally speaking, any music streamer above the $1,000 price mark should be Roon Ready – although there are exceptions, like the $1,199 Marantz ND8006.
At the time of writing, there's really no service on the market that can compete with the comprehensive nature of Roon, but there are options available – and many of them are significantly cheaper. JRiver is quite an old school pick, but it handles video and images as well as audio, and offers a lifetime license for as little as $60. Those looking for a Roon-like experience without the pricetag should consider something like Audirvana. We may not be entirely sure how to correctly pronounce it, but it offers much the same experience that Roon does, albeit in a slightly clunky interface. A licence for a copy will cost you $74.
The smart-asses among you are probably thinking that you don't need a music streamer, because all you need to do is buy a wireless speaker or smart speaker to get the same effect. After all, if the definition of a music streamer is something that pulls audio from an external source, then surely wireless speakers and smart speakers count?
It's true: they do. We didn't say it was a perfect definition, but just because you can use a smart speaker as a music streamer doesn't mean that you should. Here's why. The music streamers on our list above aren't concerned with actually playing audio. They are not built to produce music through a set of speaker drivers. They are concerned with receiving audio files, and transmitting them to a separate destination in the cleanest and most efficient way possible, while providing as much information as possible. That means that all the research and development performed on them has gone into this one goal, rather than trying to act as a set of speakers as well.
Does this mean that only music streamers will satisfy? Of course not. If you're on a budget, or want to simplify your life, then by all means invest in a wireless speaker or smart speaker. They will do an excellent job. But you're kidding yourself if you think that something like a $199 SONOS One sounds better than a $160 Yamaha WXAD-10 that has been hooked up to an amp and a pair of bookshelf speakers. It's chalk and cheese. And the point is this: music streamers are tools for those who demand the absolute best from their sound, and part of the way they achieve that is by focusing on a specific goal. This doesn't mean that you need to spend the earth – there are several affordable streamers on our list. But it does mean that, if you want to really boost your sound, you'll need to invest in an additional set of speakers as well.
Before we wrap up: a big thank you to Mark and staff at The Soundroom in Vancouver, BC. Getting all the models mentioned here together in one place would have been tricky if weren't for them. Go check them out.