Network music players
In this category we were looking specifically for network music players that will fit into a conventional hi-fi system — so hi-fi component width, effectively replacing or augmenting a CD player with this new type of source, one that can stream from music shares on your network at hi-fi quality.
Many such units also provide digital inputs so that the streamer can double as a DAC — but our winning Denon specifically does not do this, other than having a USB slot into which sticks or drives of music can be plugged, and perhaps most useful for the connection of iPods, iPhones and iPads.
By omitting the DAC functionality, Denon has managed to hit a price-point of $849, significantly lower than rivals offering similar levels of sound quality. We reckon that’s a smart choice, since you might have a standalone DAC anyway, or a modern amplifier with digital inputs. Why pay to double up on these?
What you do get is four main types of streaming — DLNA audio, AirPlay audio, Spotify Connect and internet radio. So the first covers Windows and Android-style households. The second covers Macs and iOS devices. The third, Spotify Connect, will require that service’s ‘Premium’ subscription (about $12 a month) and provides your choice of just about any music at fairly good quality. The fourth allows access to just about any radio station throughout the world that streams its services over the internet (that’s 36,358 of them at the time we had the Denon in for review).
The unit packs a Burr Brown/Texas Instruments PCM1795 32-bit 192kHz DAC, and supports sampling rates up to 192kHz and 24 bits, where available. The lossy formats it will handle are WMA, MP3 and AAC (including the iTunes version). For lossless it handles WAV, FLAC, ALAC (up to 96kHz only) and AIFF. It also handles DSD with both 2.8 and 5.6MHz sampling (aka DSD64 and DSD128). A close look at the PCM1975 datasheet suggests that the DAC chip switches to a proper DSD mode when handling such signals, so DSD purists can be happy that the signal isn’t being converted to PCM along the way.
The only issue we really had was with the app you can use for control (Denon Hi-Fi Remote app), which was glitchy in both its iOS and Android versions. But you get a conventional remote control, all AirPlay streaming worked fine, and Android users have a wealth of other UPnP/DLNA apps they can use. For iOS users, we used the Sony Remote App to serve DLNA shares to the Denon. Obviously we hope Denon will release a better set of apps.
That aside, the Denon DNP-730AE performed wonderfully. The hardware and internal software worked swiftly and effectively with everything. It popped up as an AirPlay device on iTunes and iPad, and when music was sent to it via AirPlay it typically took three or four seconds to switch over. Likewise with Spotify.
It networks via either wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi (2.4GHz band), and the unit fully supports gapless playback. Crucially, the sound quality from its analogue outputs was wonderful, its sonic performance up there with rival units at $1500. (There are digital outputs, but we can’t see why you’d need them, unless you have a spectacular DAC elsewhere, in which case a different solution might be possible anyway.)
What this Denon DNP-730AE network audio player provides is a straightforward way to bring all the wonders of new online and networked media sources into your existing stereo hi-fi system, in a suitable physical form factor, and with intuitive controls, app notwithstanding. More info: