Streaming music on a budget: the Gramophone Guide
Monday, December 4, 2023
As the choice of ways to stream becomes ever wider, it’s never been more affordable to add network and online music to your system. Here are some bargain ways to do it
The really good news is that there’s no shortage of hardware now available to bring streaming to just about any system with a spare input and, provided you have home Wi-Fi and preferably a smartphone on which to run the apps controlling the streaming, it’s very easy to do. Even better, there’s a growing choice of very affordable options, selling at a fraction of the price of the very high-end network players, joining a market where you can pay well into five figures for a network player from the likes of Linn and Naim.
One of the new arrivals is US-based company Linkplay Technology, with its range of WiiM products: the entry-level WiiM Mini is a disc-shaped device, looking similar to one of those Alexa ‘pucks’. Just 69mm across and 24mm tall, and can deliver Spotify Connect, Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music, Deezer and SoundCloud, as well as TuneIn, iHeartRadio and vTuner internet radio, and files at up to 192kHz/24bit resolution. It also has Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay 2 to connect to handheld devices, outputs to your hi-fi system using either optical digital or analogue, using a 3.5mm socket, and will support multiroom audio using multiple WiiM units. And best of all, it costs just £89, making it a very affordable way to find out whether streaming is for you.
Move up to the £149 WiiM Pro, still very small at 140mm square and 42mm tall, and you gain enhanced processing power and audio circuit quality and outputs on both optical and coaxial digital, plus a conventional pair of RCA analogue outs, along with analogue and digital inputs. Like the Mini, it has built-in self-calibration to tailor the sound to your speakers and room, and there’s even Bluetooth output to let it feed music to earphones or speakers wirelessly.
Finally there’s the Pro Plus version, able to play music at up to 768 kHz PCM and DSD512 thanks to its upgraded AKM Blue Velvet digital converter. For just £219, it’s a very powerful streamer in a very compact form.
The latest network players from Cambridge Audio may not be as small, but they are designed for seamless integration with existing hi-fi systems. The MXN10 is a half-width (21.5cm wide) unit, complete with Spotify Connect, Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz, plus music playback via Airplay 2, Chromecast, Bluetooth, USB or UPnP. Depending on the source, it can play music at up to DSD512 thanks to its high-grade ESS Sabre digital-to-analogue conversion, and there’s even internet radio with four programmable preset buttons on the fascia for favourite stations. Audio connections are digital and analogue to suit most amplifiers and receivers, and the MXN10 sells for £449.
Want to match your streamer with full-size components? The Cambridge Audio AXN10 is £100 more: based around the powerful StreamMagic Gen 4 network audio module, it’s designed to match the company’s other full-width separates, and like all these streamers is controlled via an app running on phones or tablets.
One of the long-running leaders in network audio and multiroom hi-fi is Sonos, and its £399 Sonos Port is another of those clever little boxes designed to turn any amplifier or system into one capable of streaming music. And when you use multiple Sonos units, it sets up its own mesh network independent of your home Wi-Fi or less interference and better sound. You can control it using the Sonos app or via Apple’s AirPlay, and it has both analogue and digital outputs for your audio system.
Not to be outdone, Bluesound offers the latest version of its Node streamer, selling for £549 and able to stream local and online music into any amplifier, system or receiver. It can access all the popular streaming services, will play music at up to 192kHz/24bit from a computer or store on your network, and combine with other BluOS-based products to set up a complete home music system.
And yes, it’s that easy …