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. Be warned that it may take a little work to connect it to a service like Roon - Cambridge calls the player Roon Capable, rather than Roon Ready.
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
Amp: Yes - Headphone Amp
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 Music Streamer for MQA
Amp: Yes - Headphone Amp
App: Yes - Desktop Only
What We Like: Terrific sound quality, especially for headphones.
What We Don't: Rough-and-ready quality that belies its price tag.
We’ve lived with the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge for a couple of months now, and we adore it. It’s the upgraded version of the Brooklyn DAC+, with a streaming card that allows you to connect to Roon, Tidal and other services. It has gorgeous, eye-catching design, as well as some of the best sound of any streamer we’ve heard - even more so than the Naim Uniti Atom. Its headphone amp is easily the best on this list, outdoing the much more expensive Auralic G2. Connect a good pair of headphones to the Brooklyn Bridge, and you’ll have one of the best single box systems around. It really is mind-blowingly good. It’s also an incredible system for Tidal's MQA format, with a built-in decoder that can transmit at the original sample rate.
However, despite its high price and great features, the Brooklyn Bridge feels a little rough around the edges. For example, it comes packaged with an Apple remote, rather than a Mytek-branded one, which feels a bit strange. It’s also a little tricky to set up, and we dearly wish there was an accompanying mobile app. And that antenna! Good God, guys, this isn't 2005. Despite these issues, the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge remains a top five option and one of the best streamers available.
See the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge
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 - 125W/8Ω
What We Like: Excellent sound and design for the price.
What We Don't: Wi-Fi issues, limited inputs.
It may be more mass-marketed than most streamers on this list, but the Sonos Amp absolutely deserves to be here. The Sonos Amp’s ability to stream music from Spotify and Tidal qualifies it as a streamer, and it’s more than capable of delivering excellent sound to your speakers, with 125 watts of Class D power. It’s not as simple or effective as the Amazon Echo Link, and it’s much more expensive, but the Sonos Amp has better design and functionality. This model is also a total breeze to set up.
We did have a few issues with our test model. Chief among these issues were Wi-Fi dropouts, which were frustratingly common, despite flawless connection on other devices. There’s also a limited range of inputs and outputs, meaning the Sonos Amp isn’t as versatile as other streamers on this list. However, we would still rate it in our top ten, and can honestly say we had a blast testing it. One thing worth noting is, while the Sonos Amp technically isn’t Roon Ready, our Roon Core picks it up as an audio zone without any problems...Read our in-depth review
See the Sonos Amp
Amp: Yes - 100W/8Ω
What We Like: Huge range of features, gorgeous touchscreen.
What We Don't: Sound quality isn’t remarkable, no room correction at launch.
The M10 is NAD’s shot at competing with the Naim Uniti Atom and Mytek Brooklyn Bridge. It’s an excellent streamer, and we particularly like the touchscreen, which is a detail where Naim falls short. The NAD M10 comes with a staggering range of features, including Amazon Alexa control, Apple AirPlay 2, and even an HDMI eARC port for use with a TV or home theater system. This model will also incorporate Dirac Live room calibration in a future firmware update, which is something no other streamer on our list features.
However, while the NAD M10 has excellent features, we felt just a tad let down by the sound quality. While the NAD M10 delivers excellent audio for the price, when compared to the Naim Uniti Atom or even the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge, we just felt like there was something missing. The sound was punchy and enjoyable, but didn’t quite have the stereo spacing we were looking for. This may have something to do with the fact that the NAD M10 only supports up to 32 bit / 192kHz resolution files, which is a little lower than other models on this list. Regardless, the M10 has plenty to recommend about it. And, like the Sonos Amp, the NAD M10 is not technically Roon Ready, but the software has no problem picking it up.
See the NAD M10
Amp: Yes - 70W/4Ω
What We Like: Good range of features, excellent design.
What We Don't: Not Roon Ready, poor remote.
Denon have traditionally made gear that looks quite frumpy compared to other models, but the PMA-150H is a welcome exception. We love the sleek look and little details like the recessed rear. The interface is simple, but effective, and offers an excellent range of features. You can stream via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, connect to Denon’s HEOS wireless speakers, and power your own speakers with a 70 watts per channel amplifier.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems which keep the Denon PMA-150H out of our top ten. The sound is good, but can come across as a bit thin and analytical. We prefer the Marantz PM7000N, which sounds more full. And for all its undoubtedly great features, the PMA-150H isn’t compatible with the Roon streaming software. We also loathe the remote, which feels like it’s stuck in the 1990s. This is an excellent start for Denon, and a great way to shake off the dowdy image, but they have some improvements to make with this model before it places higher on this list.
See the Denon PMA-150H
Amp: Yes - 60W/8Ω
What We Like: Super-clean sound with great imaging.
What We Don't: Atrocious looks and build quality.
The Marantz PM7000N is all about sound quality. There are some stunning components within this streamer, including an Asahi Kasei AK4490EQ DAC chip, which is an improvement over the one offered in the older ND6006. There’s also been a complete overhaul of the amp circuitry, including a redesigned final stage. The result is a sound that beats several other streamers on this list, including more expensive ones from Denon and Primare. The Marantz PM7000N has a ridiculously wide soundstage and delivers audio that feels clean and crisp.
Despite the stellar sound, there is one big black mark for the Marantz PM7000N. We don’t think we’ve seen an uglier, less enchanting build in any music streamer before it. It’s ripped straight out of the A/V receiver playbook – something which Marantz make a lot of, by the way. Ugly buttons, zero imagination, and poor display make this music streamer hard to look at. However, if you can get past the awful design, you’ll find a capable and very functional streamer with the Marantz PM7000N.
See the Marantz PM7000N
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 Mytek Brooklyn Bridge. 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 - 60W/8Ω
What We Like: Excellent design and useability, good features for the price.
What We Don't: Very dry sound.
We first heard the Primare I15 Prisma at an audio show, and it impressed us enough to include on this list. Primare, a Swedish manufacturer, aren’t very well-known outside of Europe, but perhaps they should be. They offer some fantastic audio products and we love the I15 Prisma in particular. It combines a powerful amplifier with a sleek design, including a clear front-end display with large text. The display certainly isn’t as effective as something like the NAD M10’s touchscreen, but it still looks superb.
One thing, however, that didn’t impress us with the I15 Prisma was the sound quality, which felt dry and characterless. If you want something with a little more warmth and agility, we suggest the Mytek Brooklyn Bridge. And for all the great features the I15 Prisma offers, it never feels like it stands out enough to separate itself from other models. It’s a decent music streamer, but there are better options available.
See the Primare I15 Prisma
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. 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
Amp: Yes - 40W/8Ω
What We Like: Sleek design, great features for the price.
What We Don't: Sound is a little dull.
It feels a bit strange for ELAC to produce a music streamer - we’ve always associated them with speakers. Then again, the DS-A101-G is a solid entry to the market. It looks superb, with its offset display and industrial aesthetic, and we appreciate the range of features. With its 40 watt amp, capable DAC, outstanding companion app (with helpful room calibration), and Dolby Digital decoding for a home theater, there’s a lot included for the $750 price. Even higher-end streamers, like the Denon PMA-150H, lack some of these features.
The problem is that, for all its bells and whistles, the ELAC DS-A101-G still sounds pretty dull. The audio quality is fine, but unexciting, and we kept wishing for more liveliness – especially in the bass. This is doubly surprising given how competent the app is, and the room calibration settings it offers. The issues with the sound mean that this capable streamer ultimately isn’t a first choice, being beat by models from Sonos, Bluesound, and more.
See the ELAC DS-A101-G
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 Mytek Brooklyn Bridge, 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 Mytek Brooklyn Bridge. 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
What We Like: Great app, solid sound.
What We Don't: Presets feel clunky, could really use a display.
Audiolab aren’t very well-known in the US, so consider this insider knowledge. They make some great products, one of which is the 6000N Play streamer. Like the ELAC DS-A101-G, Audiolab offer a great app to get you started. But unlike the DS-A101-G, the sound quality lives up to the promise. The sound of the 6000N Play feels dynamic and engaging, and is coupled with PlayFi technology, allowing you to connect this streamer to any number of compatible wireless speakers.
However, the 6000N Play does have a few issues that prevent it from ranking higher on our list. Unlike many other streamers on this list, the 6000N Play lacks a front display. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker – the app is excellent and other streamers in this price range, like the Bluesound Node 2i and the Sonos Amp, don’t have displays either - but it does become more difficult when considering the overall lack of intuitiveness of this music streamer. Audiolab complicate things further with clunky presets and a design that makes us want to yawn. We enjoy the 6000N Play, but it’s certainly not a viable contender just yet.
See the Audiolab 6000N Play
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, useability issues.
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
See the Chord Poly
New Music Streamers Coming Soon
New music streamers are consistently being released, which means there’s a never-ending parade of them marching through our office. Not that we’re complaining! This time, there are two models in particular that we’re excited to get our grubby little paws on. The first is the Bryston BDA-3.14, which is one of the first streamers from the venerable Canadian manufacturer. It packs a wealth of features inside its housing, including Bryston’s outstanding DAC chip technology. It’s pricey, however, at over $4,000. We’re interested to see how it places on this list.
We’re also hoping that the Meridian 210 makes it to the United States. Meridian is a British company, who know exactly what they’re doing, and the 210 is a sub-$1,000 streamer that we can’t wait to test. Like the expensive Mytek Brooklyn Bridge on our list, the Meridian 210 supports MQA files from Tidal, making it ideal for budget-minded streaming fans.
|Naim Uniti Atom||$3,295||40W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Cambridge Audio CXN (V2)||$900||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 96kHz|
|Yamaha WXAD-10||$160||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Auralic Vega G2||$5,999||Yes (Head.)||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 384kHz|
|Mytek Brooklyn Bridge||$2,995||Yes (Head.)||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|
|NAD M10||$2,499||100W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||No||32 bit / 192kHz|
|Denon PMA-150H||$1,099||70W/4Ω||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Marantz PM7000N||$999||60W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Linn Selekt DSM||$6,825||No||Yes||No||No||Yes||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Primare I15 Prisma||$1,999||60W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Aurender A10||$5,500||No||Yes||4TB||Yes||No||32 bit / 384kHz|
|ELAC DS-A101-G||$750||40W/8Ω||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Sonore Signature Rendu SE||$2,995||No||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||32 bit / 768kHz|
|Audiolab 6000N Play||$550||No||Yes||No||Yes||No||24 bit / 192kHz|
|Chord Poly||$649||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.
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 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 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.