It feels as though we’ve now accepted streaming and welcomed it into the hi-fi community. Fears were real, and often founded, that it would replace physical media to detrimental effect, offering up inferior performance in return for perceived convenience.
In many ways, though, streaming has helped us fall in love all over again with those cumbersome old discs. Being able to throw music from your palm to your speakers can be wonderful, but our desire to savour an album’s cover artwork and actually hold it has far from been quelled. That speaks for vinyl more than CD, of course, even if sales of the silver disc are somewhat on the rise.
And actually, it is the rise and ubiquity of CD-quality streaming, not to mention the ever-increasing range of hi-res streaming options, that means you don’t need physical media for decent sound.
So yes, you can have it all. That’s why this piece is titled ‘How to add a streamer to your existing hi-fi system’, and not ‘How to replace it’ or ‘How to get the best price for your CD player on eBay’.
There’s a short answer, of course, which would be to head to our best music streamers guide, make a choice depending on your budget and requirements, and then plug the thing into your system. But, as ever, there are more important things than money when it comes to getting the best sound and feature set for you.
And what do we mean by a music streamer? It’s any component that allows you to play music wirelessly – using a streaming service app and/or network storage device – to your hi-fi system. Many streamers work with Bluetooth as well, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here; we want this device to use our home network rather than sending music directly from a smartphone, tablet or computer. This way we have the potential for even better sound and greater flexibility.
Oh, and if you're already enjoying quality, wireless music streaming at home but you'd still take comfort in What Hi-Fi?'s experience, we'd also recommend this feature: adding a music streamer to my hi-fi system has been a revelation (and a frustration).
Better than Bluetooth
If multi-room is your bag, whether you have a system or not, then there are plenty of ways to bring a traditional hi-fi set-up into your house-wide system. The big hitters usually have a solution, and that includes the multi-room families of Sonos and Audio Pro.
This is where we’d point anyone already with a hi-fi system but yet to invite a wireless family into their home.
Audio Pro is the cheaper of these two favourites, and in terms of its standalone wireless speakers will offer the best sound quality elsewhere around the house.
The conduit for tethering it to your offline system, and streaming music through it, is called the Link 1. It’s a fairly basic proposition; similar to the now-discontinued Google Chromecast Audio in terms of physical features, but sounds just about as good as you’re going to get from a £95 (opens in new tab) ($129, AU$160 (opens in new tab)) streamer.
For Sonos’s equivalent, the Port (£399, $449, AU$549), you’ll have to raise your budget, but those favouring its speakers or who are already fully immersed in the company’s eco-system will enjoy a more mature, hi-fi-like performance. There is also the Sonos Amp, which can be a fine option for those who want their streamer to drive a pair of speakers in a hi-fi set-up or even a home cinema system, provided you add other Sonos speakers for surround channels.
While such a set-up wouldn’t be capable enough to sway home cinema purists, it would certainly produce a more engaging, immersive sound than most premium soundbars we’ve heard.
These aren’t traditional, dedicated hi-fi streamers – though even the idea of any streamer being considered ‘traditional’ at this point might seem a tad obscure – but there is a multi-room brand currently manufacturing one of the most capable streamers at the budget end of the market. That’s Bluesound, with its impressive Node.
Entering the realm of hi-fi
It’s at this point we begin purring over the kind of sound a streamer can make.
Timing and dynamics are areas in which streamers can struggle when compared with similarly priced sources playing physical media, but the Bluesound Node (2021) (£549 / $599 / AU$999) really ties everything together such that it doesn’t sound out of place, even in capable mid-priced systems – and it really makes use of its hi-res compatibility. At this money, it represents one of the most entertaining and comprehensive ways of adding music streaming to your hi-fi system – and that's why it's a current What Hi-Fi? Award winner.
On the next rung down on the performance ladder at this entry-level price, you also have Audiolab’s understated but hugely capable 6000N Play (£449 / $649 / AU$840 approximately, pictured above). Rather than develop its own control software, Audiolab has chosen to use DTS Play-Fi. This opens up multi-room capability so that the Audiolab can be used alongside products from other manufacturers that also feature the DTS software.
If you’re after an amplifier as well as a streamer, ideally in one box, you should really have a look at the Marantz PM7000N. It looks just like the company’s Award-winning PM6006 UK stereo amplifier to our eyes but packs a hugely capable streaming module and excellent connectivity into the package. This unit is priced at £999 ($1400 / AU$2000), though you can find it for less if you look around – and for that price, it’s a truly tempting proposition.
It is from here we begin rising through the ranks – and if you want something that sounds better than a Bluesound Node, you’re looking at spending a fair bit more. The Award-winning Cambridge CXN (V2) music streamer (£999, $1299, AU$2499) has long been one of our favourites at the mid-range price point and offers a noticeable step up in the sound department.
If your budget stretches further, Arcam has proven its streaming skills with the ST60 streamer (£1199 / $1650 / AU$2495, pictured above), which is another deserving What Hi-Fi? Award winner. It offers AirPlay 2, Google Cast, uPnP playback and internet radio at their fingertips, as well as analogue and digital connections and support for MQA and Roon – a sweeping offering in today’s music streamer market. And it sounds suitably self-assured in its delivery, too – big, full, solid and expressive.
It's here that performance becomes the focus even more. Naim has even gone as far as deleting a display so as not to compromise the ND5’s internal circuitry, just to meet the price point. The lack of a display isn’t as big a deal as it may initially seem, either, as the unit is controlled by an app that can be viewed on a phone or tablet. Either of these devices has a vastly crisper and more informative display than that fitted to any streamer.
When it comes to performance, at this level you're getting what an audio enthusiast (and we) would describe as ‘proper hi-fi’ – marvellously detailed and incredibly precise sound quality. We’d challenge even the greatest sceptic to guess the music was coming from the ether.
We mention the products above because they are simply the best music streamers currently available in terms of value, before the sums become somewhat eye-watering, and because they could slot into any well balanced and comparably talented systems. But let’s not forget that a streamer is just like any source, and so can be flawed in all the same ways.
That means you’ll need to think beyond the streamer itself. If your current set-up is particularly lively, or easy to provoke in any area, you’ll need to think seriously about system matching. What’s more, there may be a streamer we haven’t considered to be a five-star product – in the sense it isn’t quite an all-rounder – but that, for your particular needs, could be a much better fit than the top scorers.
So, as ever, this is a case of careful selection and plenty of auditions at your local hi-fi dealership. Don’t read ‘best all-rounder’ as best for everybody.
Supported streaming services and platforms
Music streamers have many streaming services and platforms to tick these days. Does it support AirPlay 2 and/or Google Cast? Does it have Spotify and/or Tidal Connect? Is it MQA-compatible so it can play ball with Tidal's hi-res Masters streams? Is Bluetooth on-hand for quick and easy offline streaming? Does it have physical connections that you can plug your CD player or TV into? It's crucial to check these things, of course, depending on what services and platforms you want to use, though it's worth noting that going up the price spectrum typically means greater performance rather than wider streaming support. You shouldn't be surprised if a budget streamer ticks just as many streaming feature boxes as one five times its price.
Most of the music streamers these days support the vast majority of hi-res music formats, though the upper limit can vary between 24-bit/96kHz PCM files up to 32-bit/768 kHz. We wouldn’t get too hung up on the numbers, though, as the vast majority of music isn’t available in those more extreme file types. CD quality is 16-bit/44.1kHz, and a capability of 24-bit/192kHz should be more than enough to meet the needs of most audiophiles.
To get the best user experience, you’ll really need a smartphone or tablet to control your streamer. Using such devices and your streamer's app is the best way to navigate large music libraries and the quickest way of making playlists. If that doesn't appeal, you may want to look for models with a display and traditional remote control.
Follow the usual system rules
There are, of course, a number of musts when it comes to introducing a new streamer to your hi-fi system.
First and second on the list are where you place it and how you wire it in.
Again, just because there’s nothing spinning inside or on top of this kind of source, it doesn’t change the fact that it will perform to the best of its ability only when offered proper support and some high-quality interconnects.
Most options will be able to connect to your home network via wi-fi, which is mighty convenient; but we would always suggest wiring your streamer in by its ethernet port where possible. It will simply be more stable, offering greater bandwidth, thus improving performance and avoiding buffering issues.
After that, you’re free to enjoy the music. In truth, the list of considerations when choosing a streamer is the same as with any other hi-fi component, but the key take-away is that, whatever your situation, there is one for you.
- See our pick of the best hi-fi systems 2022: micro, hi-fi, vinyl
- Follow our guide on how to build the perfect hi-fi system
- And also how to choose the right pair of speakers
- On the fence when it comes to streaming? Consult hi-res music streaming services compared: which should you sign up for?