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.
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.
Naim Uniti Atom
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.
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.
Audiolab 6000N Play
The Audiolab 6000N Play is definitely one of the best digital music streamers to buy if you don't want to spend big. It lacks a display and the fancy control knobs of other components on this list, but it does the basics well. It has the same built-in DAC as the company's 6000A integrated amplifier, and can connected to any amplifier or pair of active bookshelf speakers. It's compatible with most streaming services, including Spotify Connect, Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz and Amazon Music and it can stream high resolution audio (up to 24-bit/192kHz). It also supports DTS's Play-Fi wireless streaming, so you can make the Audiolab 6000N Play as the hub of your home's multi-room audio system.
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.
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.