WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN CHOOSING A STREAMER
If you’re already using a particular service, such as Spotify or Tidal, you should clearly pick a streamer which offers that service. Note that many streamers will only work with paid Spotify subscriptions, though some do work with free Spotify. The higher-quality plans and services cost significantly more, often double the price of the lower-quality subscription. The joys of streaming in high-res can be worth the money on a good hi-fi system, but remember to include this in your budget.
All streamers use apps for control, given the need to browse through enormous lists of available music. Some apps are better than others, as you’ll read in our reviews, and there’s sense in selecting an established platform with a track record. We always note that a product which lives by its app could die by its app if the brand or platform is discontinued. In this regard there is strength in a major brand.
While you’ll be using the app to select music, we neverthless give bonus points when a physical remote control is provided. The convenience of being able to grab a wand and pause playback when the phone rings should not be underestimated.
In addition to online music services, most streamers can play from files shared over your home network from computers or networked drives. Some platforms do this far better than others, especially those which index drives rather than using simple DLNA protocols. Check our reviews for details.
To stream from online, your streamer needs a network connection. Pretty much every streamer offers either Wi-Fi or cabled Ethernet. Both are fast enough for streaming music, even at high-res, but Ethernet is inherently more reliable, and often simplifies set-up considerably.
BLUETOOTH & AIRPLAY
While playback over your network from the internet assures best quality and reliability, there are times when direct streaming from your phone, tablet or laptop is useful. Base-level Bluetooth delivers lowquality music, but other codecs can improve this — Apple devices benefit from AAC, Android devices from aptX’s various codecs provided these are supported by both your device and the streamer (if not, your stream will fall back to the base-level SBC codec). AirPlay is far better for Apple devices, which are then able to stream at full CD quality.
Streamers may offer additional inputs for other sources, which can be extremely handy for expanding a system now or in the future, especially where an older amplifier lacks digital inputs. Analogue lovers should, however, be aware that some streamers will digitally sample analogue inputs, often doing this very well, but still...
Many streamers belong to a particular multiroom platform which allows sharing of streams and other inputs around the home. If you’re already using such a platform, it makes sense to stick with it, so long as the product meets your needs.
DAC QUALITY & OUTPUT CIRCUITS
The main difference between an entry-level streamer costing $350 and a high-end streamer costing $35,000 is not the music they can access or the sophistication of their apps, but the quality of the digital conversion and the subsequent audio circuits to the output sockets. This is as true for streamers as for any hi-fi component, and the best way to judge the quality of the output signal is to listen. We always recommend an audition with a dealer prior to purchase, but our reviews can help point you in the direction of a short-list.