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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 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.
What to Look for
Connectivity: Digital music streamers are a diverse breed. They come in a lot of different forms and with a lot of different abilities, so before buying one you need to check its analog connections — both its inputs and outputs – to make sure the streamer will work for needs and with the current equipment in your home. Some are able to connect to TVs via optical or HDMI inputs, and some are able to connect to multiple speakers and playback components (like CD plays and turntables).
Built-in amplification: It’s quite common for digital music streamers to have built-in amplification, meaning you can just hook them up to a pair of loudspeakers and — boom — you’ve got a little hi-fi system. But not every one acts as its amp and needs to be integrated in a larger system. Also, if you are getting a streamer with an amp, you want to make sure it outputs the right amount of power for your loudspeakers.
Compatible services: Digital music streamers can support a wide range of streaming services and smart ecosystems. Some natively support Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, AirPlay, Chromecast built-in or Roon support, for example, which makes it easy to use the services you’re familiar with as well as integrate it into a wireless system you already have.
Max resolution: Lossless streaming is more readily available than ever before, but not every lossless streaming service has the same resolution of lossless audio. Some services just support the baseline of lossless audio, which is 16-bit/44.1 kHz (or CD quality), but others offer significantly higher-resolution tracks, such as Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) tracks that are up to 24bit/96kHz or “Ultra HD” tracks that are up to 24-bit/192kHz. Basically, you want a digital streamer that supports the digital files you stream.
- Max resolution: up to 24-bit/192kHz (including MQA)
- DAC: Yes
- Built-in amplifier: No
- Wireless connectivity: Spotify Connect, Tidaly Connect, AirPlay 2, Roon Ready, Bluetooth aptX HD
The 3rd-generation Node 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 improved internal DAC that supports up to 24-bit/192kHz and MQA files. 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 newest Node 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.
Cambridge Audio CXN V2
- Max resolution: up to 24-bit/192kHz (including DSD64)
- DAC: Yes
- Built-in amplifier: No
- Wireless connectivity: Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, Qobuz built in, AirPlay 2, Chromecast built-in, Roon Ready
The award-winning CXN V2 retails for significantly less than the Cambridge Audio’s extravagant Edge series 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 2, 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.
Cambridge Audio Evo 75
- Max resolution: up to 32-bit/192kHz (including MQA)
- DAC: Yes
- Built-in amplifier: Yes
- Wireless connectivity: Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, Qobuz, AirPlay 2, Chromecast built-in, Roon Ready, Bluetooth aptX HD
The Evo 75 is one of Cambridge Audio’s newest all-in-one digital music streamers. Released in 2021, the Evo 75 is an amplified streaming box that’s designed as a “just add speakers” system — it gets its name from the 75 watts per channel it’s able to drive. Along with the amp, the Evo 75 has a built-in DAC and supports any wireless streaming option you’d want (including AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect Chromecast), as well as numerous analog connections (coaxial, optical, RCA, USB, HDMI ARC). Throw all that in a beautifully designed box with a gorgeous display and a wonderfully large volume knob, and you’ve got one of the best digital streamers out there.
(Note: Cambridge Audio also makes the Evo 150, which doubles the power and has a built-in phono stage, which is one of the few things that the Evo 75 lacks.)
Naim Uniti Atom
- Max resolution: up to 32-bit/384kHz
- DAC: Yes
- Built-in amplifier: Yes (40-watts per channel)
- Wireless connectivity: Apple AirPlay 2, Tidal Connect, Spotify Connect, Chromecast built-in, Roon Ready, Bluetooth aptX HD
Naim Audio’s Uniti Atom is a stunning all-in-one digital streamer for your home that’s super easy to set-up and use — just add a pair of great speakers and the Atom takes care of the rest. At 40-watts-per-channel pumped from a Class A/B amplifier, the Atom can handle many high-end applications. On the connectivity front, the Atom doesn’t pull any punches. It’ll serve as a hub to your primary entertainment with built-in support for Tidal or Spotify, multi-room audio, an optional HDMI port (that’s isolated from disturbing the rest of the audio circuitry), and every other modern input. It also looks stunning. Monolithic in black with a beautiful LCD, the Atom’s pièce de résistance is its sauce-sized volume knob on top. Not a single person will walk by the Atom and not want to touch or modulate it.
If you’re looking for life beyond the soundbar, but not quite ready for a massive component-based system, you really should look nowhere else than the Uniti Atom. It soars.