Streaming music is more popular than ever and you already own a device that can do it: your smartphone. However, there’s a big difference between your iPhone or Android and a dedicated music streamer, and it’s one anybody with a good ear would notice.
The first difference has to do with the quality of the Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC). Most smartphone manufacturers — specifically LG and Samsung — have made a concerted effort to put better built-in DACs into their smartphones, but they’re still relatively terrible. Dedicated music streamers, by comparison, have way superior DACs and other internals that allow them to retrieve the music files more seamlessly and without losing as much data. That means higher-resolution audio.
Most dedicated streamers or servers also offer a multitude of connectivity options for both wireless devices, Ethernet-connected computers or NAS drives and CD players. They act as a hub for your entire digital music collection. With their internal DACs, you can also plug them directly into an amplifier or active pair of loudspeakers. Accessing your music collection is made easier through a dedicated control app like Roon or BluOs.
Finally, dedicated streamers offer better streaming support. Even though there isn’t one digital playback device that supports every single streaming service, format or codec, most of these streamers come close. Manufacturers are continuously updating their products with support for new formats such as MQA, higher bit/sample rates and new streaming services like Qobuz; there are now dozens of products that are Roon-ready devices if you are considering that playback/library management platform.
Deciding which streamer to buy can be confusing but our picks offer the best options for both the music listener with thousands of CDs or streaming subscriptions such as Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz.
Best Streamers Under $500
Allo DigiOne Signature
It’s always a positive when entrepreneurial designers take something as simple as a Raspberry Pi computer and use it as the basis for a remarkably good streamer. The DigiOne Signature offers a genuine alternative to more expensive streamers with a few caveats. You can go the DIY route or buy the finished product; we recommend the latter with the knowledge that you need to add two power supplies to the device for it to work. The DigiOne Signature can be ordered with a Wi-Fi dongle for wireless connectivity, but we suggest sticking with the Ethernet connection. The end user can select from multiple OS options and the device is DLNA and Roon-ready.
Unlike some streamers, the DigiOne offers only a coaxial digital output and support for 24-bit/192kHz digital playback. Most external DACs and amplifiers with internal DACs support SPDIF as a connection option. Sonically, the DigiOne Signature offers an impressive level of resolution and open sounding presentation that only gets better depending on the quality of the DAC on the other end.
Bluesound Node 2i
The 3rd-generation Node 2i is Bluesound’s most comprehensive streamer. It supports MQA, all of the major streaming services, AirPlay 2 and Amazon Alexa. It comes equipped with an internal 32-bit/192kHz DAC. It also comes with Wi-Fi connectivity, a Gigabit Ethernet RJ45 input and support for Bluetooth 5.0 aptX HD. The Node 2i is also a Roon-ready device making it compatible with that ecosystem aside from its own BluOS. The Node 2i is a very confident sounding streamer with all types of music and is a great option for home theater systems and multi-room set-ups.
Sonore was founded on a simple premise: offer a simple but great-sounding hardware platform for high-resolution audio. And computer-based audiophiles jumped at these Ethernet-connected streamers. The microRendu was designed to vanish in the dark recesses of your dusty equipment rack and connect via USB cable to an external DAC. It’s a Roon-ready streamer that operates on Sonore’s Sonicorbiter OS, and supports BubbleUPnP, OhMedia, Squeezelite, DLNA, Tidal, Qobuz and native DSD formats with select DACs.
The microRendu’s sound quality improves significantly with a better power supply; Sonore offers a selection of external power supplies and there is a multitude of opinions in various online forums debating the issue. Read at your peril. One thing for certain – the microRendu offers a significant step-up in sound quality over the other streamers below $500. It is a genuine high-end playback device at a very affordable price.
Best Streamers Under $1,000
The ultraRendu is almost double the price of its entry-level sibling and needs to be significantly better to justify the $450 premium. Having listened to both units with the same iFi power supply and our reference Schiit Audio Multibit Gungnir USB DAC ($849+), there’s a definite difference between the two units.
The more expensive streamer offers better resolution, a warmer sounding presentation, tighter bass, and a much larger sounding soundstage. Both units operate on the same operating system and support the same formats and codecs. We did substitute a much more expensive external power supply from Sbooster (at great expense) for our own edification and we think it’s a mandatory upgrade. That depressing reality is that it also put more daylight between the two models. If your system is up to the challenge, the ultraRendu is a superb sounding digital streamer competitive with products well above its asking price.
Cambridge Audio CXN V2
Cambridge Audio’s recent introduction of its Edge series, which includes the impressive Edge integrated amplifier and Edge network streamer and preamplifier, was more than just a demonstration of its audio engineering capabilities. It was an acknowledgement that consumers want single-box systems; even at the highest price points with advanced streaming performance.
The award-winning CXN V2 retails for significantly less but offers a comprehensive list of features making it one of the best available. With its 24-bit/384kHz Wolfson DACs, the CXN V2 delivers great sound quality and support for Internet Radio, Tidal, Spotify Connect, AirPlay, Bluetooth aptX, and your networked music collection. The CXN V2 has three digital inputs, two digital outputs, analog (single-ended and balanced) outputs and one Ethernet input. It also supports every audio format including FLAC, ALAC, AAC+, and DSD. If you’re looking for a warm and punchy sounding streamer that can also serve as a DAC for your older CD player, this needs to be on your audition list.
Best Streamers Over $1,000
The Nucleus is the best choice for anybody who has a large CD collection and utilizes multiple streaming platforms. It’s a Linux-based server that you control with your smartphone, tablet, or computer. The server comes pre-loaded with Roon’s software but you still have to pay to activate your subscription. The Nucleus is also available with internal HDD storage but does not offer internal CD ripping. That being said, you will need to rip your CD collection to an external HDD that you connect to the Nucleus. The server is connected via Ethernet to your home router and the app allows for seamless integration of Tidal and Qobuz.
Even though the Nucleus was designed to be connected to your network, it also offers the option of connecting directly to a DAC through a USB digital output. It is one of those products that perform flawlessly and quietly offering a level of performance well worth its asking price.
Innuos Zen Mini MK III
There’s no better product under $3,000 that offers this level of performance, ease-of-use, upgradability, and level of functionality. The Zen Mini MK III functions as a high-end CD ripper with 1TB of storage in the base unit. All Innuos products are Roon-ready; the Zen Mini MK III can function as both a Roon-Core or Roon-Endpoint making it a hub for a single system or multi-room home audio set-up. Innuos has created one of the best control apps in the marketplace making the server/streamer very easy to use for iOS, Android, and Windows users. Roon integration gives users access to Tidal, and Qobuz, with additional support for Internet Radio and Spotify Connect.
The Zen Mini MK III includes a 24-bit/192kHz DAC, 3 digital outputs (coaxial, optical, USB), support for DSD, and Sonus-based systems. We have heard better sounding digital sources for a lot more money, but it would take something extraordinary to pry the Zen Mini MKIII from our system; the levels of resolution, transparency, and pace make this Portuguese one-box wonder a true end-game product. Audiophiles looking to squeeze even more performance out of the Zen Mini MK III can add an optional external linear power supply (LPSU) for $700.
Auralic Aries G1
From a wireless perspective, there are very few high-end audio streamers that offer sound quality better than a hard-wired device. Until now. It took Auralic almost four years to bring this product to market and its Wi-Fi capabilities are quite remarkable. With support for Spotify Connect, Apple AirPlay, Roon, Tidal, Qobuz, and Internet Radio, the Aries G1 makes an excellent high-end server with reference level sound quality. The ARIES G1 offers nearly universal connectivity for access to all your digital sources. Tri-band Wi-Fi and Ethernet open your system to UPnP/DLNA media servers and shared network folders. The Aries G1 also integrates a 4” display to view album art and includes the Lightning OS which runs a rather close second to the Roon interface. You do need to connect the Aries G1 to an external DAC which is something to consider, but it is legitimately one of the best digital audio streamers on the market priced well below its competition.