Adding a streamer updates any hi-fi system with the ability to play from online subscription music services, internet radio and a whole lot more. But which to choose?
Adding a streamer updates any hi-fi system with online subscription music services, internet radio and a whole lot more. But which to choose?
Streamers are the newest breed of hi-fi component — like a CD player or a turntable, but instead of playing a physical disc they specialise in going online and playing music from free and subscription streaming music services like Spotify and Tidal, from internet radio and podcast providers.
As such, a standalone streamer is most often used as an additional source for an existing system, adding the modern wonders of these streaming sources to a ‘dumb’ amplifier or all-in-one system. If you’re building a system from scratch, you may instead opt for a ‘smart amplifier’, which has a streamer built in, rather than having a separate unit.
But a separate unit may still be preferable, because it allows you to upgrade more easily, and lets you choose exactly what you want. Each platform offers something different — access to different services, a different app with which to control them, a different ecosystem from which you can link devices around the home. If you’re going multiroom with Sonos, or Bluesound, or HEOS, or Yamaha’s MusicCast, it makes sense to continue with that platform when considering a streamer.
One thing that notably differentiates streamers is how well they achieve network streaming — playback of files which are on a hard drive or NAS drive somewhere on your home network. Some systems do little more than primitive file browsing, while others create an index which can offer a richer browsing experience. If this is a priority, and depending on your budget, it may be worth considering the subscription software Roon (see p14) and a Roon-compatible streamer.
Other features can make streamers more flexible. To stream music direct from your phone or tablet, most include Bluetooth streaming, but basic Bluetooth is not high quality, so is there a higher level Bluetooth codec such as aptX which both your phone and the streamer supports? Apple devices will benefit in streaming quality from the inclusion of AirPlay or AirPlay 2. A digital output will allow you to bypass the digital-to-analogue conversion inside the streamer and later upgrade to a better DAC, either standalone or in your amplifier.
There is a danger of duplication with streamers — you don’t need two in the same system. You don’t need a streamer and a smart amplifier. If your computer or TV is plugged directly into your hi-fi, you might be able to use those for your streaming needs instead of a streamer.
So plan your system, check our reviews (which are in ascending price order), and then prepare to enjoy access to a whole world of music, streaming to your home under fingertip app control. Happy streaming!