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, it has helped us fall in love again with those cumbersome old discs; being able to throw music from your palm to your speakers can be wonderful, but our desire to fall for an album’s cover and actually hold our music has far from been quelled.
That speaks for vinyl more than CD, of course, with the latter’s sales dropping dramatically for the first time in the past year or so. But that doesn’t have to make for wholly miserable reading: more likely it is the rise and ubiquity of CD-quality streaming, not to mention hi-res options, that mean you don’t actually need the disc any more for comparable sound. But how cassette tapes have risen again we’re still struggling to fathom.
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 read some of our reviews around your budget, make a choice and plug in. 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 streamer? Well, 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 of them work with Bluetooth as well, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here; we want it to use our home network rather than sending music directly from a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Better than Bluetooth
Let’s start with the most basic and cost-effective solution, Chromecast Audio, because if you’re going to find one you’ll have to be quick. Google discontinued this puck-like peripheral after its second generation, which, for £30 ($30) at launch, allows you to cast music from any compatible device straight to your system via its hybrid 3.5mm aux/ optical output.
It hooks onto your wi-fi network, operating similarly to other Chromecast devices, and brings active speakers, soundbars and integrated amplifiers online. It couldn’t be easier to use, a true plug-in-and-play device, and can also effectively work as a multi-room module if you have other Chromecast products in the house.
Most importantly, though, it sounds great for the price. It is far more detailed and dynamic than using Bluetooth, as well as aiding the battery life of your control device, as it doesn’t actually have to control any data.
If multi-room is your bag, whether you have a system or not, then there are also 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 our two Award-winning multi-room families in the shape of Audio Pro and Sonos.
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 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 Chromecast Audio in terms of physical features, but sounds just about as good as you’re going to get from a £100 streamer.
For Sonos’s Connect Amp you’ll have to raise your budget somewhat, 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 option of the Sonos Amp, which can be a fine option for those who want their streamer to drive a home cinema system as well – just add other Sonos speakers for the surround channels.
These aren’t traditional 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 the finest streamer you can currently buy for less than half a grand. That’s Bluesound, with its Node 2i.
Entering the realm of hi-fi
It’s at this point we begin purring over the kind of sound a streamer can make. The Node 2i, which had no wholesale changes from the make up of the Node 2, absolutely puts its predecessor to shame. Timing and dynamics are areas in which streamers can struggle when compared with similarly priced sources playing physical media, but Bluesound really ties everything together such that it doesn’t sound out of place even in our reference system – and it really makes use of its hi-res compatibility.
That isn’t to say that you need to spend this much to get a half-decent streamer, nor that you need a system akin to our own to get the best from the Node 2i, but it is at this point that we’re really starting to iron out many of those inherent fallibilities of streaming with a weighty, cohesive and entertaining presentation.
In the market for an amp as well? The Powernode 2i has one built in and sounds even better, outperforming any suitably priced combination we tried when we were testing. Bluesound may no longer be our pet multi-room brand – not that they’re our least favourite, either – but there’s no denying it has designed class-leaders with its hi-fi separates.
It is from here we begin rising through the ranks – and if you want something that sounds better than a Node 2i, you’re looking at a CD-player-sized box. That does often mean added features, too, such as Chromecast being built in and native support for hi-res streaming services such as Tidal and its MQA files.
Our Award winners around the mid-range belong to Cambridge Audio, with its full-bodied and innately musical CXN V2 and Azur 851N streamers. Both also double as pre-amps, meaning you can plug them straight into a power amp, and as such feature a range of digital inputs and, in the case of the 851N, RCA analogue connectivity as well.
Further up the chain is Naim’s ND5 XS 2, a cousin to our reference ND 555 streamer but at a fraction of the cost, which really starts to take us towards the high end. It doesn’t have the full colour screen of the two Cambridges, nor many of the Naims for that matter, but this is what your audio enthusiast would describe as ‘proper hi-fi’: marvellously detailed and incredibly precise, we’d challenge even the greatest sceptic to guess the music was effectively coming from the ether.
We mention these because they are simply the best performance-per-pound streamers currently available before the sums become somewhat eye-watering, and 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.
Follow the usual rules
But 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 also 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 cut-outs. Think buffering Netflix when your cohabiter is updating their Facebook status and it’s essentially the same thing.
After that, you’re free to enjoy. In truth the list of considerations when choosing a streamer is the same as with any other hi-fi component – or longer perhaps, given the various types available – but the key take-away is that, whatever your situation, there is one for you.