By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
During the pandemic, I found myself turning more frequently to streaming music services and looking for ways to get the most out of them. My daily pastimes included haunting online audiophile forums and purchasing way too many Bluetooth-enabled audio components. I was driven by a desire to move beyond a portable, monaural table-top Bluetooth speaker and to replace a temperamental—and discontinued—Apple Airport Express Wi-Fi station that I’d used for a decade to stream music from a MacBook Pro to a proper stereo equipped with high-end speakers.
Certainly, there’s no denying the popularity of streaming music or the role Bluetooth has played in that growth: Spotify (which dominates the streaming-music market), Pandora, Apple Music, Amazon Limited and Prime Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, and Sirius, among other streaming services, have attracted a total of nearly 500 million subscribers worldwide. That trend is driving robust annual growth in the multi-billion dollar recorded music business. For consumers, these streaming services, sometimes free or for as little as $10 a month, each can offer 75 million songs, as well as podcasts and original music-related programming. Most feature classical recordings, and such niche services as IDAGIO, Primephonic (newly purchased by Apple), and the Naxos Music Library cater exclusively to classical-music lovers. To help sort out these services, Consumer Reports offers a comprehensive online guide to streaming music.
Just remember that Bluetooth is all about convenience, though these devices can be fussy. If you’re looking for high-quality sound and reliability, it’s still best to play CDs or vinyl. But Tidal, Qobuz, and Apple Music are among the streaming services that offer high-resolution files and some of the devices listed below can accommodate those hi-res streaming formats. For example, the Bluetooth aptX and aptX HD formats can reproduce CD-quality sound when played through a Bluetooth device that is compatible with those codecs.
Wading through all the options and investing in the right hardware is a handsome holiday gift indeed. To help you in your search, here are some pros and cons of five wireless ways to stream music.
Say What? A Glossary of Terms
- Bluetooth Codec: Compression technologies with two components: an encoder to compress the files and a decoder to decompress. There are two kinds of audio codecs: lossless and lossy. Lossless codecs, like aptX, reproduce the exact file as the original upon decompression with no loss of data. Lossy codecs, like MP3 or AAC, produce a facsimile of the original file upon decompression, but not the original file. Thus, lossy codecs are lower quality than lossless files.
- DAC: A circuit that converts a digital signal to an audible analog sound file that can be played over headphones or speakers. You can’t hear a digital signal until it is converted to analog sound.
- DAC Chip: Same as a DAC
- DSD Direct Stream Digital: is similar to, and often regard as superior to, PCM (see below), though the numbers alone don’t support that conclusion.
- Dual Band Wi-Fi: Allows you to connect to two Wi-Fi networks at the same time and has a dual-band for 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz. A dual-band device can offer up to 100 times the bandwidth of a single-band device.
- MQA: One of the newer audio formats, Master Quality Authenticated is used by streaming music services as a premium subscription offering. It is the subject of considerable debate within the audiophile community.
- Output Stage: Delivers signal power on an amplifier with acceptable levels of distortion.
- PCM Pulse Control Modulation: is the conventional method for converting analog sound into stereo digital audio (it is standard on DVR audio tracks). It is regarded as a “pure,” high-quality digital sound.
- Phono Stage: This pre-amp circuit, either built into an amplifier or available as an add-on unit, connects a turntable to the amplifier.
The ABCs of Bluetooth
Bluetooth is an evolving technology: Before you purchase a device, familiarize yourself its capabilities and with the alphabet soup of Bluetooth codecs—or formats—ranging from standard MP3s to aptX and beyond. But as a 2020 New York Times guide to Bluetooth audio pointed out, the subtle differences in such codecs as Bluetooth 4.0, 4.1, and 5.0 might be less important than audio equipment manufacturers—and audiophiles—want you to believe.
“One important thing to note right from the start is that the Bluetooth audio technology you’re hearing has a much smaller effect on sound quality than the design of the device itself,” the Times noted. “If you try different wireless headphones or speakers, you’ll hear obvious differences. If you try different Bluetooth codecs, the difference will be small and possibly inaudible. In other words, you should choose Bluetooth headphones or speakers based on their fundamental sound quality—as reported in reviews or as you’ve determined yourself—and not based primarily or even secondarily on the Bluetooth audio technologies they support. The codecs don’t make a big difference.”
Bluetooth Headphones & Earbuds
What you get
Arguably the easiest way to stream music is with a pair of Bluetooth-enabled headphones or earbuds that pick up the signal from a mobile device or Bluetooth-enabled amplifier. The commercial success of Apple Beats headphones and AirPods show the popularity of these products. And thanks to the development of the consumer-electronics market, a pair of affordable earbuds can be purchased for as little as the price of a few cups of coffee (Monoprice TrueWireless Earphones with Bluetooth 5 cost just $19.99). Of course, it costs more for added comfort, construction, sound quality, and status. Expect to spend $200 to $400 for decent earbuds—high-end models, like the Shure SE846 Pro, can cost close to a grand ($899) while a decent pair of wireless headphones can be had for under $300 (top audiophile company Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Bluetooth headphones retail for $230). Overall, the resulting sound can be detailed and punchy—you just need to find a pair that suits your musical taste and budget.
How it works
Headphone technology is well established, and battery life has improved over the years, as has the quality of the tiny neodymium speakers used in many earbuds. These days, such top audiophile companies as B&W, Klipsch, Sennheiser, Grado, and Shure—known for high-end headphones, speakers, and audio components—are manufacturing top-rated earbuds.
To improve the sound quality, add a digital-to-audio (DAC) dongle, like the $199 AudioQuest Dragonfly Red or the $299 Cobalt model, which connects to a mobile device, tablet, or laptop via USB to deliver cleaner, clearer, more natural sound. But even modestly priced headphones or earbuds can rival an expensive pair of speakers for sound quality. Perfect for an immersive experience.
Bluetooth-enabled Powered Speakers
What you get
Numerous brands—AudioEngine, Edifier, Kanto, KEF, and Peachtree, to name a few— offer active speakers with a built-in Bluetooth-enabled integrated amplifier. Some even include a phono stage. Prices vary widely: Peachtree’s M25, with built-in phono and subwoofer output for additional bass, retails for about $459 while the KEF LSX wireless speakers go for about $1,250.
How it works
Compact, powered-speaker systems are perfect for a dorm, bedroom, home office, or small living room because you can either physically connect a laptop or desktop computer (in the same way as any pair of wired powered-computer speakers), or you can connect a mobile device or computer via Bluetooth to stream music. Most are equipped with a pre-out connection for a separate sub-woofer.
Bluetooth Antenna: iFi ZEN Blue V2
What you get
This impressive-sounding Bluetooth 5.0 and Apple AAC-compatible device is one of the most effortless, reliable—and affordable, at $159—ways to stream music to an existing stereo system. It connects to your amp or preamp through either an auxiliary (AUX) or digital input. iFi Audio claims the ZEN Blue V2 is designed to support “all current and future Bluetooth audio formats.” Updates can be added over the air. That’s good news, since Apple just scrapped its proprietary AAC Bluetooth format for a new lossless codec that promises to surpass the quality of the compressed formats it has used in the past.
The V2 includes a high-quality ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC; a USB-C port for charging and playing hi-res 24/96 audio devices (through a thumb drive or digital music player); and both analog and digital inputs.
How it works
This is a true plug-and-play device. Plug into an outlet; connect with RCA cables to the AUX input on the back of an amp; pair the ZEN Blue V2 with your smart phone, digital music player, tablet, or computer; and select it from your device’s streaming menu. Then enjoy your hi-res PCM-, DSD-, or MQA-quality sound. It’s that simple.
Multi-room Streamer: Bluesound Node 2i
What you get
Many hi-fi buffs regard this Bluetooth-enabled multi-room music streamer (which also features Wi-Fi) to be the Holy Grail of Bluetooth Audio—capable of streaming uncompressed 24-bit files to two or more rooms. Here’s what the company, a spin-off of NAD Electronics, claims: “The Bluesound Node unlocks the world of hi-res music streaming and multiroom audio to create a modern addition to existing hi-fi systems or your favorite set of powered speakers. Discover all the music ever recorded with access to hundreds of internet radio stations, dozens of streaming music services, or even your own digital music library, with a few taps of the BluOS Controller app for iOS, Android, or Mac or PC computers.” It retails for $549.
How it works
My experience has been less rewarding than Bluesound’s marketing pitch. The Node 2i has both digital and analog input and output options, and can be used as a simple streaming device, like the iFi ZEN Blue V2, or in conjunction with the BluOS controller app to manage a music library or a multi-room streaming-audio system. I found the set-up a bit daunting and decided to forego the controller app, preferring to use the device to stream high-resolution master files from the Tidal app on my iPhone to a stereo. The sound quality was fantastic, and the device is packed with features—it has dual-band Wi-Fi, allowing you to stream the highest-resolution files, and supports two-way Bluetooth aptX HD to send a signal to headphones or Bluetooth compatible speakers.
Then, after three weeks, the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals started stuttering, then dropping out, and eventually the Node stopped working altogether. I contacted the company, but customer service proved unsatisfactory. No replacement was offered, despite a two-year warranty. I know others who have shared my experience, but audio forums are also full of folks who are enthusiastic about their Bluesound Node 2i.
Network Streamer: NAD C368
What you get
This Bluetooth-enabled, hybrid-digital integrated amp from NAD Electronics ($999)—like its bigger siblings, the C388, M12, M32, and M33—is one of a growing number of network streamers, including the Marantz PM7000N ($1,199) and the Hegel H90 ($2,000), with built-in Bluetooth and multi-room network capabilities. The NAD C368 differs from other brands in one respect: For $499, you can add a Bluesound Node module (the Bluesound Node was first developed for these NAD network amps and later spun off as a separate product).
How it works
NAD has kept the number of knobs to a minimum with most of the control functions handled through a somewhat awkward digital display screen or the remote control. At 80-watts per channel, the C368 is hefty enough to drive the most power-hungry speaker. It has a customized Hypex UcD output stage that reduces distortion and noise, a sophisticated eight-channel DAC chip, a phono stage for a turntable, and onboard aptX Bluetooth that allows you to stream CD-quality music from a smart phone or tablet, or to a pair of Bluetooth-enabled speakers, headphones, or earbuds. It also has two slots for upgrade modules, including a slot to add audio-visual HDMI connections and type-B USB digital inputs for a laptop; and a second slot to add the aforementioned Bluesound multi-room streamer.
It’s worth consideration if you’re shopping for a great-sounding, well-built network streamer, with or without the added Bluesound module. And a working Bluesound function does have its charms. I’ve found the basic C368 has that signature NAD sound, dark and warm, though the amp can be fussy when it comes to staying paired to an iPhone and, because the basic unit lacks Wi-Fi and AirPlay 2, the C368 won’t connect to an iOS laptop or desktop (you need to add the Bluesound module to do that).
Of the other network streamers mentioned above, the Marantz PM7000N streamer is Apple-compatible, reliable, and capable of producing a warm, musical sound—and it has proprietary music-management software. The Marantz PM7000N is the best network music streamer I have reviewed.
Please note the above article includes affiliate links, meaning Strings will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!