Is There Such a Thing as a Better Sounding Streamer?

prime minister

Site Owner
Staff member
In my oddball system, I'm running my Node 2, not 2i, using the digital output, directly into my speakers. So I'm not using the DAC from the Node at all. Just the digital stream into the DAC in the speakers. I've also got a USB hard drive connected to it, with my ripped CDs on it.

While I do enjoy this setup a lot, I'm curious to know if the the streaming side can actually be made to sound better. The choice of the Node was more an experiment then anything else. It's been a successful one, as I find I'm listening to Tidal more then anything else, by far.

So is there better sound to be gotten out of Tidal? Can I do better from my ripped CDs?

And in case you are wondering, the DAC in the speakers is not the problem. Playing records through the same speakers, through the same electronics, sound notably better. Tone, texture, imaging , etc. All are better. It sounds like a really good analog front end, vs a good cd player.

I have read that the upgraded wifi in the 2i supposedly makes a big difference in sound quality, which makes sense I suppose. But I'm pretty well out of my depth with this stuff
 
I have progressed from my first streaming setup - to my latest one and the biggest change is convenience.

It may sound better and likely does - but my old setup sounded pretty great.

My first streaming setup:
Old iPhone 4s - sitting on iPure dock - with digital output into a Cambridge Audio 840CD (pretty awesome DAC) -> into my hifi setup - this worked well except I had to get down on hands and news to change Pandora on the docked iPhone. Spotify was awesome with Spotify Connect - I could control everything from my iPad sitting on my lap. I had both Spotify and Pandora setup for High Quality sound - something like 300Kbps. I came to find out later that Spotify downgraded the sound quality on iPhones - so I was likely getting 160Kbps (this is the part that annoys me.)

My new system is a Marantz ND8006 CD/Streamer - where I no longer need to dock an ancient iPhone. It is much more convenient and sounds I "think" better. The old system sounded really great so tough to really hear any kind of noticeable difference.

So I'd say convenience is the main improvement - being able to do everything remotely from your lap - vs getting down and looking at the actual streaming device that is plugged in.

Also - reading your comment:
"And in case you are wondering, the DAC in the speakers is not the problem. Playing records through the same speakers, through the same electronics, sound notably better. Tone, texture, imaging , etc. All are better. It sounds like a really good analog front end, vs a good cd player. "

I didn't have that issue with my old setups - the oldest still sounded pretty comparable to CD. Probably slightly less detailed than a CD or Vinyl - which I have noticed when I've gone out and bought the record.
 
So, I've went from a Sonos to a Dragonfly to a Node 2 then to a Gungnir (sp-1) with the Node just streaming. In between I tried out a Chord Mojo and another Dragonfly. In all of these Dacs the streamer has been either the Sonos or the Node or a dedicated computer (Intel Nuc) or a cell phone. Maybe I'm missing it but for the streamer, all you need is a good connection to deliver those 1's and 0's, I've only had poor performance using Blutooth vs wireless or hard wired. All my sound improvements have come from improving the Dac and improving the connection to/from the Dac (from Blutooth to USB to Optical to Coax). Maybe one of our experts will chime in and help.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
While I do enjoy this setup a lot, I'm curious to know if the the streaming side can actually be made to sound better.

I'm relatively sure that answer would be a yes, however at what cost and complexity beyond your current BlueOS setup?

Further, it becomes a multifaceted question involving the combination of both playback software and hardware (eg. Roon, or perhaps Audirvana+ for instance on the software side) and then various different hardware options (the "streamer" or what some might also call a "server").

While that's a complicated question in general and certainly involves end-user preference in terms of complexity and ease of use (or lack thereof), for you in particular it does narrow back down pretty quickly based on your speaker/amp choice.

I believe it's safe to say that speaker/amp part isn't changing, although I'm guessing there might someday be an upgrade available that could involve a different digital module. Pat had already alluded to 24/192 capable boards, and I had asked out loud at one point about different connection options for those boards but don't recall any response. I had also asked at one point what the current board's input options are but also don't recall any response.

So maybe an initial look at this within the context of the current set-up needs to define the input options on your active speakers. What are the inputs? SPDIF coax, and analog RCA that gets digitized at 24/96?

What about AES/EBU balanced via XLR? How about Ethernet, and if so, which protocol? AES67, Ravenna, Dante? Which digital inputs the speakers currently have and/or may someday have will largely dictate what streamer options to consider.

I'd say in the "right here and now" realm an interesting option might involve trying to supercharge the SPDIF output of the Node 2.

I have heard Sonos and Squeezebox products that had modified SPDIF implementations (power supply and clock) and they are clearly better than the stock offering. While I don't think I've ever heard of any Bluesound SPDIF modification offerings, they may exist, or you might even try that with an add-on box such as the Wyred4Sound Remedy, or the M2TECH hiFace Evo Two.

But an extra box, cable, and power supply, not to mention the added cost, does fly in the face of the current setup's simplicity. Dare I suggest you won't be considering any of that? If so, you are likely then waiting for the potential of swapping the digital input board in your active speakers for something with Ethernet, USB, or perhaps I²S, which would open up other options on the streamer side.

Audio over IP (AoIP) does appear to be the wave of the future there. But like with so many things in audio, getting the industry as a whole (or even any great majority of it) to agree on one standard is probably a pie in the sky, and that's very frustrating for confused consumers who rightfully fear buying the wrong thing and thus risk future incompatibility or rapid obsolescence. But a direct network connection to the speaker via Ethernet (bypassing the need for any SPDIF, USB, etc...) is likely ideal, maybe a future digital input board for your actives using Ravenna or some other AES67 compliant solution would be that end game.

Until then, maybe try supercharging the SPDIF of Bluesound, or consider other more complex/less tidy software/hardware combos that offer better SPDIF or even AES/EBU output (assuming the speakers actually have that input).

Bluesound is of course quite nice, but it is certainly designed and built to a price point, not entirely unlike that of Sonos (or once upon a time Squeezebox). It can be bettered, but at what cost and complexity do you throw in the towel?

I've read a few threads here of late where there is a stated level of intolerance for almost anything beyond just sitting down and listening to music with as little fuss as possible. That seems to increasingly be the rule of the day. Thats perfectly OK if it's what makes one happy, hobbies are supposed to be fun, and no one need feel that a hobby (or indeed just the mere act of listening to music) be an arduous or annoying thing. But it also likely means off-the-shelf "finished" digital solutions like Bluesound, and whatever costs, compromises, and limitations they inevitably entail.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
I think the M2Tech HiFace Evo two might be an interesting solution.

I don't know, I don't want to be one of those ones and zeroes guys but I had USB running out of my computer through a jitterbug into an April Music Stello U3 ReClock/usb to AES-EUB converter into a DAC and...the Bluesound spdif output sounds functionally the same to my ears. By functionally the same, I mean the same in every meaningful ways that I feel matter. Not exactly identical but not better or worse in a meaningful way.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
I had USB running out of my computer through a jitterbug into an April Music Stello U3 ReClock/usb to AES-EUB converter into a DAC and...the Bluesound spdif output sounds functionally the same to my ears.

I fully appreciate that experience, but I don't think it can be applied broadly in terms of conclusions. USB out of a computer is almost always mediocre at best, even in a chain like the one you described, unless the computer has a custom sound card output to begin with (i.e. JCAT, Paul Pang, SOtM, etc), and probably some power supply modifications too.

A computer just has too many other grungy processes and noisy motherboard components (like switching regulators) for great audio, even if it's just ones and zeros at the output, despite what ASR may claim.

That said, it's entirely possible that the Bluesound stuff has a really great SPDIF implementation, the only way to know for sure is to try it against something like the hiFace EVO Two. That W4S Remedy unit also gets tremendous praise, and both of them probably take another leap upward in performance when paired with a linear power supply.

It's worth a try if one has the funds available, though expectation bias can play a role there too. If one expects the sun/moon/world at xyz $ spent, one will often be left wanting if the perceived difference isn't dramatic enough. That's too bad as there is no benchmark for what = $1 of sound quality, no way to quantify that at all.

I know people who state upfront before ever receiving what they just ponied up for, they are on an absolute hair trigger to return it: "I better hear a HUGE difference or this thing goes right back!" kind of declarations. Thats a self fulfilling prophecy, buyer's remorse has stricken before they even unbox it, and the outcome is never in doubt. Those folks probably should just stand pat with what they have assuming it isn't broken.
 
Very educational for this non ones and zeroes guy....
I am still in wait on my digital implementation until I get past my " year of the house " I am forging through right now on repairs and some remodel, and the bank drain that goes with it.
Thanks Miikey for the insight.
 
The best upgrade for my streaming experience has been dropping Spotify and using Amazon Music HD....that was a big gain in SQ over Spotify's 320k files. If they would have just gone to higher res, I would have stayed with them as their user interface is far better. But, I prefer the SQ over all the convenience features. Maybe one day Amazon will catch up and make that part more user friendly. But for now, that was the next big step up. I tried Deezer and Tidal and hated both of those.

DAC's....waste of money for me, personally, as I can't hear the differences with my tinnitus and HF loss. I figure feeding the digital out from a Chromecast Audio into the Onkyo P-3000R preamp and using its separate per channel Burr Brown DAC's is good enough for me.
 

prime minister

Site Owner
Staff member
I'm relatively sure that answer would be a yes, however at what cost and complexity beyond your current BlueOS setup?

Further, it becomes a multifaceted question involving the combination of both playback software and hardware (eg. Roon, or perhaps Audirvana+ for instance on the software side) and then various different hardware options (the "streamer" or what some might also call a "server").

While that's a complicated question in general and certainly involves end-user preference in terms of complexity and ease of use (or lack thereof), for you in particular it does narrow back down pretty quickly based on your speaker/amp choice.

I believe it's safe to say that speaker/amp part isn't changing, although I'm guessing there might someday be an upgrade available that could involve a different digital module. Pat had already alluded to 24/192 capable boards, and I had asked out loud at one point about different connection options for those boards but don't recall any response. I had also asked at one point what the current board's input options are but also don't recall any response.

So maybe an initial look at this within the context of the current set-up needs to define the input options on your active speakers. What are the inputs? SPDIF coax, and analog RCA that gets digitized at 24/96?

What about AES/EBU balanced via XLR? How about Ethernet, and if so, which protocol? AES67, Ravenna, Dante? Which digital inputs the speakers currently have and/or may someday have will largely dictate what streamer options to consider.

I'd say in the "right here and now" realm an interesting option might involve trying to supercharge the SPDIF output of the Node 2.

I have heard Sonos and Squeezebox products that had modified SPDIF implementations (power supply and clock) and they are clearly better than the stock offering. While I don't think I've ever heard of any Bluesound SPDIF modification offerings, they may exist, or you might even try that with an add-on box such as the Wyred4Sound Remedy, or the M2TECH hiFace Evo Two.

But an extra box, cable, and power supply, not to mention the added cost, does fly in the face of the current setup's simplicity. Dare I suggest you won't be considering any of that? If so, you are likely then waiting for the potential of swapping the digital input board in your active speakers for something with Ethernet, USB, or perhaps I²S, which would open up other options on the streamer side.

Audio over IP (AoIP) does appear to be the wave of the future there. But like with so many things in audio, getting the industry as a whole (or even any great majority of it) to agree on one standard is probably a pie in the sky, and that's very frustrating for confused consumers who rightfully fear buying the wrong thing and thus risk future incompatibility or rapid obsolescence. But a direct network connection to the speaker via Ethernet (bypassing the need for any SPDIF, USB, etc...) is likely ideal, maybe a future digital input board for your actives using Ravenna or some other AES67 compliant solution would be that end game.

Until then, maybe try supercharging the SPDIF of Bluesound, or consider other more complex/less tidy software/hardware combos that offer better SPDIF or even AES/EBU output (assuming the speakers actually have that input).

Bluesound is of course quite nice, but it is certainly designed and built to a price point, not entirely unlike that of Sonos (or once upon a time Squeezebox). It can be bettered, but at what cost and complexity do you throw in the towel?

I've read a few threads here of late where there is a stated level of intolerance for almost anything beyond just sitting down and listening to music with as little fuss as possible. That seems to increasingly be the rule of the day. Thats perfectly OK if it's what will make one happy, hobbies are supposed to be fun, and no one need feel that a hobby (or indeed just the mere act of listening to music) be an arduous or annoying thing. But it also likely means off-the-shelf "finished" digital solutions like Bluesound, and whatever costs, compromises, and limitations they inevitably entail.

Hey Mikey.
Thanks very much for sharing all of that. Much to digest and understand.

The first thing that jumped out at me was your comments on the Node being built to a price point. That raised to me the idea of what streamer is not built to as aggressive a price point. Did you have something in mind?
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
Hey Mikey.
Thanks very much for sharing all of that. Much to digest and understand.

The first thing that jumped out at me was your comments on the Node being built to a price point. That raised to me the idea of what streamer is not built to as aggressive a price point. Did you have something in mind?

Lots of choices, but you'd need a different server arrangement too as nothing is compatible with BlueOS, except BlueOS.

In terms of actual streamers that are designed/built to a higher-end price point, off the top of my head those would include:

Antipodes
Linn
Naim
Roon
Lumin
Sonore
Innuos
Auralic
Melco
Bryston
Bel Canto
exaSound
Aurender
Marantz
SOtM

Plenty of others I no doubt forgot, and still others that are worthy of consideration despite being at somewhat the same price points as Bluesound, for instance Cambridge or Arcam, no doubt Denon, Onkyo, Yamaha, etc...

But the permutations become dizzying when the server and playback software question is thrown into the equation. Lack of any one unified industry standard confuses things for the consumer.
 

JohnVF

Administrator
Staff member
What exactly is the variable we are dealing with? Would it just be jitter on the output and then however its dealt with, reclocked, etc, on the receiving end? As in, the DAC will play a part in it, not just the Node? That Audio Science review place has measurements of the coax output into a Topping D30 but I really have no idea what they mean.

And I'll be honest, I don't get the price-point thing..there are too many variables in the scale of production. The more popular devices can charge less for the same thing, not that the BlueSound isn't meeting a price point.

I've looked under the hood of some Linn products over the years and they (at least the ones I saw) were as cheap as anything.
 

MikeT.

Senior Member
I’m using an iFi iDAC2 from my Mac Mini, running Roon software, which is directly connected to Ethernet via my Xfinity modem/router which I had installed in the listening room. Using Roon and WiFi I can stream to devices that that Roon recognizes as an endpoint, SONOS Play One for example.
If I move music into the living area, outside my dedicated sound room, streaming to a different endpoint or set up may become more important (possibly), but Roon may take care of that as well as long as I use a Roon partner endpoint.

I’ve tried LOTS of DAC’s, Wyred4Sound DAC1 LE > iFi iDAC2 > inexpensive Dragonfly Red > Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus > Chord Qutest all while keeping the iFi iDAC2 as a reference. The only one that is still here is the iFi.
The biggest difference was the step from Wyred4Sound to iFi, I think mostly because I owned the W4S for several years and so many improvements were made in DACs within a 2 or 3 year time frame. I honestly cannot tell much difference between a $379 iFi and an $1800 Chord Qutest (the Chord hit the road and I used the money for something else, like a down payment on a beater commuter car).

For now, the biggest requirement for anything new is that it is compatible with Roon. My computer skills are limited and I’m being kind to myself.

So my take away is streamers take an all in one approach (DAC included) which is where I might end up. DACs have gotten just so damn good. Then the user interface would be of primary importance, again back to my computer skills.
 

prime minister

Site Owner
Staff member
Lots of choices, but you'd need a different server arrangement too as nothing is compatible with BlueOS, except BlueOS.

In terms of actual streamers that are designed/built to a higher-end price point, off the top of my head those would include:

Linn
Naim
Roon
Lumin
Sonore
Innuos
Auralic
Bryston
Bel Canto
exaSound
Aurender
Marantz

Plenty of others I no doubt forgot, and still others that are worthy of consideration despite being at somewhat the same price points as Bluesound, for instance Cambridge or Arcam, no doubt Denon, Onkyo etc...

But the permutations become dizzying when the server and playback software question is thrown into the equation.

I'm not married to Blue OS. If there is a different platform that works as well, or better, and sounds better, I'd be great with it.

I'm also ok with paying more money. I'm spending a lot of time listening to streaming music, so paying for a killer streaming source would not be an issue for me.

However, if I paid a lot more, I'd want a lot more. Not in features, but rather in sound quality. I realize that we now start getting into smaller and smaller levels of improvement. But if I drop $2500 vs $500 into a cartridge, I get a pretty good idea of what I would hear. I have no clue what that price differential would mean to me on a streamer front. Especially as the DAC is not an issue.
 

prime minister

Site Owner
Staff member
What exactly is the variable we are dealing with? Would it just be jitter on the output and then however its dealt with, reclocked, etc, on the receiving end? As in, the DAC will play a part in it, not just the Node? That Audio Science review place has measurements of the coax output into a Topping D30 but I really have no idea what they mean.

And I'll be honest, I don't get the price-point thing..there are too many variables in the scale of production. The more popular devices can charge less for the same thing, not that the BlueSound isn't meeting a price point.

Very good questions. And it highlights one of my problems in understanding this. I can plug different DACs into my system and pretty easily hear the differences between them. I can maybe even look at spec sheets and reviews and be able to guess if I like something, or at least what kind of sound it might produce.

However, on the streaming side of the issue, I don't know what the problems are that I'd be trying to solve, or what components/systems effect how much of the sound.

I guess it comes down to this for me. If I use Brand A streamer in my system, and with everything else staying the same, replace it with Brand B streamer, would either of them sound notably different/better streaming Tidal. Or audio files.
 

Olson_jr

Active Member
I fully appreciate that experience, but I don't think it can be applied broadly in terms of conclusions. USB out of a computer is almost always mediocre at best, even in a chain like the one you described, unless the computer has a custom sound card output to begin with (i.e. JCAT, Paul Pang, SOtM, etc), and probably some power supply modifications too.

A computer just has too many other grungy processes and noisy motherboard components like switching regulators for great audio, even if it's just ones and zeros at the output, despite what ASR may claim.

Quoted for truth.

I went from Computers (Mac Mini, MacBook Pro) using USB, to a dedicated Small Green Computer -Sonictransporter I-5 using Ethernet, and it was probably the biggest digital sound improvement I have encountered.
 
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MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
What exactly is the variable we are dealing with? Would it just be jitter on the output and then however its dealt with, reclocked, etc, on the receiving end?
With all due respect, that seems headed squarely in the direction of "it's just ones and zeros so nothing else matters". I simply refuse any/all such arguments, but they are there for the taking on ASR, AS (formerly CA), and other online fora.

There isn't just a single variable that we're dealing with, the sum of the parts, exactly how they are implemented, and even the accompanying bits such as the playback software and necessary cables all have an effect on sound. It's not just ones and zeros. How do I know? My ears tell me, I need no further validation than that, and I could care less about attempts to invalidate what I know I'm hearing by some group of know-it-all pseudo science and engineering bullies at ASR.

Am I saying everyone needs to run out and buy a high-end streamer? Of course not, but there is more to streaming than just SPDIF, or Bluesound, or Sonos. Thats all I'm saying.

I'm also certainly not trying to indicate that we can easily decide which is the "correct" price point to be at, or even the one that offers the most bang for the buck. That's for any given individual to decide based on their own budget and subjective preference, and sound quality being a big part of any perceived value means this can't easily be quantified.

With regard to Linn, or many of the other brands I listed at Erik's request, the streamer category won't be hugely different than any other in that the higher price points are typically associated with just a few things, and one of them is almost purely cosmetic, that being the face plate and chassis. There are exceptions, but generally you get into big bucks by means of fancy face plate and box. The other is power supply, and that's not entirely unrelated to the chassis/box aspect in that a big power supply places requirements on the enclosure that drive up the cost.
And I'll be honest, I don't get the price-point thing

In the context of the OP and the question of is there better sound available from streaming (can the Node 2 be bettered?), the answer is a resounding yes but that isn't necessarily going to be the same price point as the Node 2. Thats all I was trying to say with regard to price point, not make some broader assertion. Everything is built to a price point, and some of the best engineering examples are lower priced gear that performs well, like Bluesound. Most audio design engineers will say that the easy designs are the ones with the blank check on the BOM, and it's much harder to design something really good that fits in under a stringent cost constraint.

I never once dinged Bluesound, this isn't an attack on Bluesound, there is no need to come to their defense. Value can be found at many different price points, other than perhaps the rarefied air of ultra high-end, and even there it's all in the eye of the beholder, if one has the bank account necessary for buying flagship audio components, more power to them.

But SPDIF is a 35 year old technology that was never in any way considered to be fantastic, or irreplaceable. It's seen it's better day, and even a good many years ago the recording studio side started to reject it in favor of FireWire, or more recently USB. At a minimum, SPDIF needs to be optimized, and there are a number of ways to do that. AES/EBU is essentially the same scheme using a different impedance and connectors, and in general I've thought it sounds better than SPDIF, though there are good SPDIF implementations too, many of which have utilized BNC rather than RCA connectors.

Everything I wrote was in response to the OP's first question, not intended to make broad assertions or attack Bluesound. Then the OP asked what other streamer brands were worth considering, so I listed them as I see it. Linn makes fantastic streamers, in fact they are the Granddaddy of the entire category.

It is known that I play at both ends of the spectrum. Want a sub-$100 streamer, either DLNA/UPnP, Squeezelite, AirPlay, or Roon Ready? One that sounds great and uses almost no power? Easy... but that doesn't mean I don't also want a Sonore Signature Rendu SE. That's one fine sounding unit, as it should be for just south of $3,500.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
I wonder if this thing is any good?

I have one, though I've never tried to judge it on a sonic upgrade level. I bought it to use in a living room video based system, where I needed to convert one source from Toslink to Coax, because I had run out of Toslink inputs to use on the DAC.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
I went from Computers (Mac Mini, MacBook Pro) using USB, to a dedicated Small Green Computer -Sonictransporter I-5 using Ethernet, and it was probably the biggest digital sound improvement I have encountered.

So not surprising to me, as you said... a big improvement, not subtle at all.

It should be noted that the ST-i5 is not very expensive, so it's not all about price by any stretch of the imagination, it's the implementation that counts. With Sonore's products, the stripped lean and clean Arch Linux operating system they call Sonicorbiter has quite a lot to do with it, evidenced by even lower cost hardware such as the ST-i5 vastly outperforming any computer excepting one that is purpose built for audio. No contest, I've compared MacBook air, Mac mini, Windows 7 tower, Windows 7 and 10 laptops, and even a repurposed Win7 laptop now running Linux, the Sonore microRendu blows them all out of the water rather handily.

The broader implication or takeaway then is that it can't just be all ones and zeros. If it were, any old computer would make a fine server or streamer. But they don't.

Do you still have the Sonictransporter i5? If you do I'd be curious to know if you ever connected both it's USB, and Toslink outputs to the very same DAC to compare. Most streamers don't have both USB and SPDIF outputs, but that one does and so all other variables can be made to stay exactly the same, the only comparison is that unit's USB vs. Toslink into the same DAC. Assuming the DAC has a good Toslink input (genuine Toshiba module and proper power supply arrangement), the Toslink can often sound better due to optical inherently having 100% galvanic isolation, use of it removes one source of ground loop, and that's no small thing, even though on a pure bandwidth basis USB is the clear winner.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
If I use Brand A streamer in my system, and with everything else staying the same, replace it with Brand B streamer, would either of them sound notably different/better streaming Tidal. Or audio files.

Yes, although in your case you can't just change only the hardware, there is also a requisite software change too. BlueOS only works with Bluesound products, so if you make a change to something else to compare, you are changing both the hardware and the software by default. Yes, the software also makes a difference.

N.B. - I'm not a Tidal subscriber, so I can't answer the question in that specific context.
 
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