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Best Digital Music Streamers: 2022 Buying Guide

Looking for an affordable way to get into hi-res streaming this Christmas? Our picks for Best Digital Music Streamers are all winners.

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 Network Audio Streamer

Our 2022 Buying Guide is going to focus on digital music streamers that are more affordable and offer most of the bells and whistles that you need right now to enjoy the myriad of digital music streaming platforms that are available.

But understand that there isn’t a single affordable digital music streamer that can do it all and offer support for every platform, casting technology, MQA, DSD, or 32-bit/384. And that’s perfectly fine.

The Bluesound NODE is probably the best all-around affordable digital streamer right now and as we discovered recently with our first listen to the Bluesound Pulse Mini 2i and Pulse Flex 2i wireless speakers — it is also a fantastic digital hub to support a multi-room system in your home.

That dilemma also applies to high-end digital streamers as well. A high price does not guarantee support for every streaming service like Qobuz or Tidal, or support for AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Tidal Connect, Spotify Connect, Bluetooth aptX or aptX HD.

There will be hiccups along the way when it comes to support for MQA, DSD, or new casting methodologies like Tidal Connect — which allow you to stream directly from the native app on your laptop, iPad Pro, or mobile phone to a 3rd party hardware device like a streamer.

The recent introduction of Apple Music with lossless streaming, and the forthcoming release of Spotify HiFi will force manufacturers to make a choice (and pay a hefty licensing fee) in regard to which streaming platforms they want to support natively with the best possible sound quality.

Will existing digital streamers support Apple Music with Spatial Audio? Will they require firmware updates for that to happen and when will that support show up?

Another feature to pay close attention to is the quality of the control app. They are not created equal and some of them are quite rudimentary in their functionality and often wonky from an operational perspective. Firmware updates often fix one problem and create another.

Andover Audio Songbird – $149

Andover Audio Songbird
Andover Audio Songbird

Affordability is one of the best ways to get new people interested in high-end audio and this streamer delivers. It doesn’t do 24-bit/48.1kHz or higher but it sounds so good for the money with almost everything that who really cares.

The Andover Audio Songbird (review) offers high-resolution digital audio playback for the paltry sum of $149; making it one of the least expensive digital streamers available. The digital output of the Songbird is limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz so it will not pass 24-bit or higher to an external DAC. The analog output, however, sounds better in our honest opinion and it’s what we use to listen to Qobuz or Tidal through a number of excellent integrated amplifiers.

Another useful addition to the Songbird is the Optical TOSLINK input which users can connect to something like a Roku streaming box. 

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Wireless connectivity includes support for AirPlay and Bluetooth. The Songbird does not offer gapless playback with Tidal or Qobuz just yet through its own control app. AirPlay is also limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz.

Andover Audio Songbird Hi-Fi Streamer Back

The best way to use the Songbird is with a hardwired Ethernet connection and using the Andover app; which offers support for Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify.

The Songbird isn’t a very forward sounding streamer which I think was a smart move on the part of the manufacturer. It gives you some wiggle room when it comes to selecting a DAC.

Bluesound NODE – $599

Bluesound NODE Wireless Music Streamer Front

The NODE is one of the most comprehensive streamers with support for MQA, all of the major streaming services, AirPlay 2, voice control through Amazon Alexa, and now comes equipped with an internal 32-bit/192kHz DAC which means that you can run it directly into your amplifier as a source.

The new NODE carries over the TOSLINK and Coaxial digital outputs from the previous Node 2i streamer, but we’re more curious about the addition of a USB digital output for the first time. Bluesound and NAD have included USB on other components but they’ve only been used previously for firmware updates.

There have been promises before about USB on the NODE so we’re not commenting on its performance until Bluesound enable it with a firmware update.

The NODE now features an HDMI eARC input on the back panel, to keep your setup flexible and future-friendly. Designed to be as comfortable in a two-channel TV system or gaming console as it is in an audiophile’s dedicated listening room, the NODE provides a hi-res experience no matter where it’s used.

Bluesound NODE Music Streamer Back

Wi-Fi connectivity, a Gigabit Ethernet RJ45 input, and support for two-way Bluetooth 5.0 aptX HD makes the NODE a very comprehensive solution for most users. This Roon-ready device also plays well in the sandbox with other ecosystems aside from BluOS and sounds decidedly analog for a digital component. New compatibility with Tidal Connect is just additional icing on your Vachon cake. 

The NODE may not deliver the same degree of resolution as some of the more costly digital streamers in our survey but we’re big fans of this unit for its functionality, access to almost every single music streaming service available, and how easy it is to make this work with all types of systems. The more expensive POWERNODE ($949 at Crutchfield) network amplifier from Bluesound sounds better, but the NODE is a very well-designed product.

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 – $1,099

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 front view

The CXN V2 is the least expensive network streamer in the Cambridge Audio line-up, but don’t let that get you down because it’s one of the best below $2,000 right now for a number of reasons. Being a Roon-ready endpoint is a great feature but that’s only relevant for those who want to be locked into that specific ecosystem. Cambridge offers the StreamMagic app for iOS and Android which works just fine with streaming services like Tidal, Spotify, or Qobuz. The CXN V2 has a very readable display which is sufficient for viewing album art, and the app is quite responsive.

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 rear view

From a connectivity perspective, the CXN V2 offers USB, TOSLINK optical, and S/PDIF coaxial digital inputs which means that you can run a CD player or other legacy digital device through the network player and utilize its 24-bit Wolfson DAC. With support for Chromecast and Apple AirPlay 2, the CXN V2 (aptX Bluetooth requires an adapter) offers a comprehensive way to connect to the world of digital streaming. The unit is easy to operate, reliable (it doesn’t freeze very often – something I can’t say for every network streamer), and it feels like you’re getting a solid piece of audio engineering. 

The CXN V2 sounds very impressive on its own which will make it a practical option for a lot of listeners, but when you connect it to an external DAC that can put some additional meat on the bones while carving out a very defined soundstage – this network streamer will quickly make you question the need to spend anything more. 

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Sonore ultraRendu – $875 + PS (which adds an additional $50-$300 depending on model)

Sonore ultraRendu front view

In the plug-and-play streamer category which includes the ability to hide inside a cabinet and control remotely with access to your music collection and streaming services via your home network, the ultratender from Sonore is one of the best and most reliable streamers available. The ultraRendu utilizes high grade parts, including an ultra-low jitter FEMTO oscillator, has a customizable OS, and offers excellent resolution, a warm tonal balance, and excellent sense of momentum. 

Sonore ultraRendu rear view

There is a learning curve associated with this, but the ability to tweak the ultraRendu to meet your specific needs will be a bonus for many users. Not every streaming customer uses Roon and there is something to be said about not being tied into one specific ecosystem. Run a single USB cable into your DAC of choice after connecting the ultraRendu via an Ethernet cable to your router and you’re good to go.

Roon Nucleus/Nucleus + 

Roon Nucleus front angle view

Roon Labs have introduced two generations of music servers based around its playback and library management platform and there is no question that it’s the best choice if you utilize multiple streaming platforms like Tidal, and Qobuz and want to use Roon exclusively. The Linux-based server is set-up and managed through your smartphone, tablet, or computer and the learning curve is not too severe. Technical support offered by Roon is excellent and there is a growing community of users online to help you based on their own experience with the product. The Nucleus and Nucleus+ come pre-loaded with Roon’s software, but you still have to pay to activate your subscription. Roon is now offering a 1-year subscription included in the price.

Roon Nucleus rear view

The library can hold more than 10,000 albums, and the server can handle up to 6 simultaneous zones of playback.

The Nucleus+ also includes PCM and DSD upsampling and multi-channel support.

We do wish that the Nucleus included an internal CD ripper; listeners with a large CD collection that has already been ripped to an external HDD can connect it via the USB port. If you own a large CD collection that is not already ripped to an HDD, you may want to consider the next model in our list which offers that level of functionality. 

Innuos ZENMini MKIII – $1,249 (1TB) – LPSU adds $700

Innuos ZENMini MKIII Music Server 1TB + LPSU

Designed and manufactured in Portugal, the ZENMini MKIII is both a music server, Roon-endpoint, and Roon Core platform if you require a hub for a multi-room system. This two-box system will rip your CD collection, organize your metadata, and give you enormous long-term flexibility running Roon along with streaming services such as Tidal, and Qobuz. The ZENMini MKIII can be run as a music server into an external DAC, via its analog outputs directly into your amplifier, or from its Ethernet output into your router for distribution to Roon endpoints scattered throughout your home.

Innuos ZENMini MKIII Music Server 1TB + LPSU (rear view)

Connected to something like the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil or Holo Audio Spring KTE DACs, the ZENMini MKIII is capable of delivering outstanding digital sound quality for under $4,500; which is not inexpensive but you would have to spend a lot more in the high-end space to achieve a lot more. If you prefer a more analog sounding presentation – this is the combination to consider. 

HiFi Rose RS201E Network Streamer – $2,195

Rose RS201E Professional HiFi Media Player Apps Screen

The HiFi Rose RS201E (review) has to offer a lot of performance, features, and connectivity options to be competitive in this space – and for the most part it succeeds quite well at all 3 tasks.

Its ability to stream and play back video will be of obvious value for people who want an easy way to connect a media player to a HDTV. It’s very easy to run a HDMI cable and one set of loudspeaker cables from the RS201E to a television and pair of loudspeakers and you’re done. Yes — it can power loudspeakers as well.

The unit demonstrated superb Wi-Fi stability in a home filled with wireless devices that are always competing for bandwidth. That might sound trivial, but I’ve reviewed far more expensive media streaming devices that struggled with such a task. 

HiFi Rose RS201e Back

The decision to include both USB and S/PDIF digital outputs was the smart choice with the RS201E because many users are going to consider connecting the media player to an external DAC, A/V receiver, or active loudspeakers with digital inputs.

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The HiFi Rose supports MQA, 32-bit/384kHz PCM (with native support for DSD 256), and is Roon-Ready.

The HiFi Rose RS201E’s touch screen interface is one of its strongest features and it was not far behind the Naim Uniti Atom in that regard. Album art when streaming from Tidal or Qobuz looked quite impressive on the wider screen.

A very compelling digital music streamer that only continues to improve with each firmware update.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. ORT

    February 27, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    I own two and have given as gifts to friends and family 4 more of Grace Digital’s excellent Grace Link.

    $179.99 and every time they get in they are soon SOLD OUT. The last time I bought a couple, Grace Digital said they had 500 hundred arrive and they sold out in a day or two. Why? Because this is an excellent product that makes (Buddha but I loathe this term) “streaming” easy and affordable.

    I have no doubt that Andover Audio’s device is nice, I have three of their Spinbase turntable platorms and have given away one to my daughter and her family. They make an excellent product.

    At this moment I am listening to one of my all-time favorite albums – The 50th Anniversary Edition of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”. It is being sent from one of my Grace Links to an affordable DAC my S.M.S.L. (no stoopid MQA allowed!) and from there to an S.M.S.L. SP200 and then to a pair of Sennheiser HD6XX from Drop. What does this more than affordable, more than competent set up sound like playing George Harrison?

    George Harrison.

    People do not want to (Paraphrasing Alert!)”…strain at a bit to swallow a lie”. They desire to listen to the soundtrack that IS their lives.

    The Grace Link does that. That is really all any audio device need do. I do not count bits. I do not look in on the sampling rate. I do not want MQA. I could give an airborne intercourse about what I shall now call Romper Roon Ready.

    What I do want is to see the Album artwork (if available) and the artist’s name along with song and album title. I am now well in to being a seasoned citizen and on weekends I often go and mount TVs for friends and family. I even did one for a Buddhist Temple a couple of years back as a friend is Buddhist. I also set up modest home theaters for a great many folks. I do not charge people as it is a pleasure being of service to these folks.

    What this has shown me is that people, young and old alike, want simplicity in their entertainment. They want to push a button and turn on their personal musical WayBack Machine (Mr. Peabody and Sherman!) and hear their music. They want to see the artwork and associated information if available. They don’t give a hoot about the sampling rate, the number of bits or what frAudiophile (NOT you guys and you know that) feeeeels about a circuit that neither they nor said frAudiophile understand.

    Push “ON” button of WayBack Machine, select preset and volume – ENJOY! My older brother used to be more in to audio and he is now on his third AV which I have given him. He had some problems with the internet tuner and when I visited him and his wonderful wife, I fixed it and showed him how to do so. Then to make certain that would never happen again I sent them a Grace Digital Grace Link to hook into one of the digital (coax) inputs.

    He and his wife really like it. I also sent them two of Grace Digital’s stand alone radios for use in other rooms.

    Trust me on this. I am not come to make waves, I am here to simply state what I know. Exempli gratia? I used to own and use a Squeezebox Radio. It was great but is now kinda sorta OOB. Out of Bidness. Some folks will go on and on (kinda like I am doing here, LOL!) about how the Squeezbox was “light, airy, full of presence, blah, blah, blah… ad nauseam. I call B.S. it is just a box of parts and has no genie inside. It either works as advertised or does not.

    I am certain every thing you mention in your list does just that. So too does the Grace Link. I think, not feeeeeeeeeeeeeel, it is as good as any device you noted above and far more affordable than many and easier than all of them.

    Do I have to order one (when they are available again – SOLD OUT!) and send it to you? I may just do that. I know some of the folks at Grace Digital and have met them face to face. They are good people who work hard to make a fine product and sell it at a very affordable price.

    Let me know, brother. By the belly of the Buddha, I can ramble on, eh? I do not expect this to make it to being posted but I do hope you do me the honor of reading it. I am sincere in my words and as they sang in “The Music Man”, “How can there be any sin, in sincere”.

    In all ways and for always, be well.

    ORT

  2. BobPM

    February 27, 2022 at 4:32 pm

    If you are not looking for it to be a DAC, then the key to choosing the best streamer is the software and the extent you believe that software will be maintained and upgraded into the future. I am a fan of the Bluesound OS since it is comprehensive in its access to services (unlike ROON that only has two streaming service choices), has a intuitive interface, and is with a company that has been around awhile and appears committed to maintaining the software.

    I will reserve judgment on how the streamers actually “sound.” A competent DAC should clean-up and problems with the digital signal. This is one of those areas where sound quality differences are likely pretty subtle.

    • Ian White

      February 27, 2022 at 5:03 pm

      Bob,

      BluOS is excellent. I’ve used it daily for almost two years and it only continues to get better.

      I have 5 different streamers at home and they all sound “different” but I think that has more to do with the design of the output stage and choice of DAC chip than anything else.

      Best,
      Ian White

      • Bob

        February 28, 2022 at 5:03 pm

        Couldn’t agree more. The sound of the streamer, in my opinion, is mostly dependent on the DAC/output and not the streamer itself. I use an excellent Schiit DAC that I prefer over the MQA enabled internal one on the Node.

        My real point is that steamers should be evaluated more as software than hardwware. Is it functional, stable, and what are the features.

        • Ian White

          February 28, 2022 at 5:36 pm

          Bob,

          The Schiit DACs are really nice. And I have zero use for MQA.

          Ian White

      • GordM

        March 4, 2022 at 1:36 am

        Likewise…I have used BluOS since 2017, and I should add that for a computer audio neophyte like myself, it was great to have available Bluesound’s excellent support, which is unfortunately now getting somewhat less responsive to both increasingly strong sales and the fact that it is handling all of NAD’s support issues as well.
        I just recently acquired the new NODE which has a distinctly improved physical interface, although I don’t use that so much since my iOS devices are everywhere. I have lost count of how many updates Bluesound has issued in the past five years.
        Be forewarned though, my 2017 Node 2 bricked and I was informed that the repair would be too costly to consider and the manufacturer offered me the new NODE at a discount, which I went with. Hopefully the defective power supply problem is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, avoid buying a used Node 2 because it probably will be a doorstop before long.
        I also have a Nose 2i expansion card in my C388 integrated amp for a backup 🙂
        I tried out a Cambridge EVO 150 a while ago which was a terrific amp, but I ultimately rejected it due to the cheesy app and returned home to BluOS.

      • GordM

        March 4, 2022 at 1:37 am

        Ditto re MQA. I have a handful of MQA files on my drive…whoopdedoo

      • Drew

        May 20, 2022 at 10:10 pm

        The streamer does matter a bit. The typical way to hear an amp is to use a full range speaker without a driver. The typical was to hear a dac or streamer is to use headphones. You can follow the logic for order of importance.

  3. Daron

    February 27, 2022 at 8:54 pm

    What about the Wiim Mini for $99? Stream Qobuz and everything else at 24/192 without buying a PC or spending 500+, and an expected firmware update to output optical at 24/192 to an external DAC. Shouldn’t cost thousands just to use a streaming service on your gear.

    • Ian White

      February 27, 2022 at 11:44 pm

      Daron,

      I have one. It’s on our to-do list for early March. Along with another 20+ reviews coming in the next 2 weeks.

      It’s decent. Not awesome but certainly ok from the digital output.

      Ian

  4. Steven Denfeld

    March 8, 2022 at 9:27 pm

    The field of streamers is a confusing one; too many devices focusing on wireless and other over complicated future-fi’d hoopla. I want a simple device that plugs into my Ethernet and streams Qobuz at its highest resolution into my DAC while I remote-control it from my iPhone. I have zero need for multi-room wireless, no Bluetooth, no file storage, just simple high quality streaming into my system. The Andover is hardly enough but the Node, excellent though it may be, is maybe too much. Anything in between? A Raspberry Pi feels a little too project-y at this particular point in my life.

    • Ian White

      March 8, 2022 at 11:17 pm

      Steven,

      That’s a fair question.

      I own both the Songbird and NODE and consider the Bluesound streamer to make the most sense for me personally.

      I don’t think there is a better option below $550 if you don’t want to build your own. Sonore get rid of the microRendu which was quite solid once it was properly configured.

      Best,
      Ian White

      • Steven Denfeld

        March 8, 2022 at 11:23 pm

        Thanks for the reply, Ian. Seems there’s a sizable hole for some manufacturers to fill but they’re all too busy chasing the not-quite-there promise of wireless.

        • Ian White

          March 8, 2022 at 11:39 pm

          Steven,

          I think Andover or Schiit Audio are the most likely to fill that hole. I’ve heard rumors about a forthcoming one from Schiit. We will see.

          Best,

          Ian White

  5. Errol

    March 9, 2022 at 11:31 pm

    If you don’t mind a little DIY Raspberry Pi running MoOde Audio (or another similar OS) into your DAC of choice is hard to beat from a purely sound quality perspective. I spent $100 to set up an RPi streamer that runs into my CXA81 DAC I can’t justify paying 5x,10x more for a streamer. Seems like the DAC is a bigger factor in SQ based on my testing of the RPi into other DACs I own.

  6. Alex Bennett

    March 10, 2022 at 6:57 am

    so few streamers offering Chromecast, but more than half the world using Android phones. What gives?

    • David Rogers

      June 28, 2022 at 3:50 am

      I have an audioengine B-fi that I like. But recently switched from apple to Android. The audioengine app works for tidal, but I can’t get radio options. All my searching and I can’t find a decently priced chromecast streamer, which is annoying because Spotify connect can see the audioengine B-fi from the app, so it’s a software not hardware issue.

      I’m an inch away from a raspberry pi and schiit dac. But I am not certain that’s the direction I want to go. As a network admin by day, I don’t want to mess with crap at the end of the day. I just want to hit “cast” and go at the end of the day.

  7. John

    March 11, 2022 at 11:38 am

    Any plans for testing windows systems I too am looking for a simple streamer that just works.
    What about windows based systems. I look on amazon and I see little windows mini pc’s,I would also like to run app’s like Kodi,and a small pc seems like my best option,not mention that I already know how to operate it.

    • Ian White

      March 11, 2022 at 12:02 pm

      John,

      Short answer is yes.

      Ian White

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