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Best network music players for 2021

Our top picks, from simple to more full-featured streamers

In this article: I’ll look at some of our favorite network music streaming devices for 2021.

  1. Best budget streamer — Audioengine B-Fi
  2. Best value network streaming receiver — Yamaha R-N303
  3. Best for high-res streaming — Bluesound Node 2i
  4. Best powered multi-room streamer — Sonos Amp
  5. Best CD player/streamer — Marantz ND8006
  6. Best audiophile component streamer — Cambridge CXN(V2)
  7. Best integrated amplifier with built-in streaming — Naim Uniti Atom

Before we get down to it, I’ll talk about some general features all network players have in common.

Most of us are familiar with streaming services like Spotify. A whole generation has grown up streaming music on their phones, but not everyone has integrated network streaming into their home audio setup. What does a network streamer do that your phone can’t?

A streamer’s DAC (digital-to-analog converter) will generally decode higher resolution digital music. And a streamer will do it with less distortion and electrical interference than your phone or even your computer. In most cases it will also connect to your existing audio system without adapters or dongles.

They also let you access popular streaming services and free internet radio stations from across the globe. But it’s not only about streaming services. A network streamer lets you play your drive-stored music via Wi-Fi, Ethernet or USB connections.

Easy app control

App control is the way to play, and different streamer brands use proprietary technology, but all the major players have the same basic features. They allow you to stream from a variety of music services like Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, and others.

App showing how to control different rooms

Streamer apps like MusicCast let you connect with and control like devices throughout your home.

You can also use your streamer's app to play music stored on your local hard drives. And in many cases it will let you add additional streamers and control them independently or together, so you can have music playing throughout your home.

Which streaming service do you use?

It’s definitely worth checking which streaming services are compatible with any network streamer you’re considering. It might make your decision for you. All streamers will operate at least at CD quality, and some can even play high-res files. We expect that most will evolve toward working with the maximum number of music services, at the maximum resolution available.

But it makes sense to find a streamer that works with what you’ve got — and what you want — in the present. Here at Crutchfield, opinions are split as to which platform is best. We’ll cover a few below.

The best music streamer for you

It took me a while to realize that I wanted a component network music player. I love filling in the gaps and finding new music on Tidal and Qobuz. I’ve tried streaming via Bluetooth through my hi-fi systems, with mixed results. After some experience testing a few different streamers with Wi-Fi, I’m in the market. And I’m still figuring out which one — or ones — I prefer.

Room located in house called spaceship

The Sonos Amp has a small footprint and enormous flexibility, but here in "the spaceship" it's connected only to a pair of floor-standing MartinLogan speakers.

Do you want to stream music in different rooms? I know that after I get one streamer connected to the hi-fi system in my living room, I’ll want to be able to connect to our other system, in the room we call "the spaceship.”

Many of the streamers on this list have the ability to connect with like devices and stream music throughout your home. If user-friendly multi-room connectivity is at the top of your wish list, some models will give you a better experience than others. If your goal is to get high-quality streaming audio in your main listening space, we’ve got you covered there, too.

Here are my top picks for different users.

Audioengine B-Fi on top of speakers

Best budget streamer — Audioengine B-Fi

The Audioengine B-Fi has a tiny footprint, but delivers big results — and won’t break the bank. Off the bat, you’ll hear better resolution than you get from Bluetooth.

It has Wi-Fi and Apple AirPlay connectivity, plus it gives you the choice to use its built-in CD-quality DAC, or bypass it to get higher resolution by connecting via optical digital cable to your favorite DAC. The B-Fi fits in your hand and has simple back-panel digital or RCA outputs for connecting to your receiver, preamp, or powered speakers.

The Audioengine app may not be as well-known as some of its more popular peers, but it does the job with a minimum of fuss. It’s a great way to get your foot in the door of network streaming. And if you decide to upgrade later, there’s bound to be someone in your life who is just waiting to be shown the light.

Details:

  • Wi-Fi music streamer
  • adds streaming capabilities to your existing system
  • free Audioengine Control App lets you control up to 12 B-Fi streamers on the same network
  • compatible streaming services include Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz
  • maximum resolution: 16-bit/44.1kHz
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV
  • analog and digital output connections to your amplifier, receiver, or powered speakers
  • works with Apple AirPlay, DLNA, and UPnP to stream files stored locally on your network
Front shot of Yamaha R-N303

Best value network streaming receiver — Yamaha R-N303

The Yamaha R-N303 gives you an amazing feature set in one value-priced box. It’s a more traditional-style AM/FM stereo receiver with Ethernet and Wi-Fi network connections and Bluetooth streaming, plus CD, line and phono inputs.

This pretty much checks all my boxes. I want the amazing content of the streaming sources, but still need my vinyl and FM radio. And if I want to expand to multi-room, I’m covered.

Yamaha’s MusicCast app gives you great control over the receiver and your music sources, and you can seamlessly connect to other MusicCast devices. It’s kind of cool that you can use your own photos to identify each room that contains a connected device.

I tested an R-N303 in “the spaceship.” With just the receiver and a pair of MartinLogan floor-standing speakers, Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights sounded detailed and huge. Delicate clavichord notes stood out with clarity against thick one drop rhythm fundamentals.

A and B speaker connections and a front-panel 1/4" headphone output give you more listening options. It comes with a remote, but I controlled it solely using the app on my iPhone. If you want to get into the world of streaming and keep your old-school components — on a budget — this could be your answer.

Details:

  • network stereo receiver
  • 100 watts x 2
  • free Yamaha MusicCast app lets you control up to 32 MusicCast devices
  • compatible streaming services include Spotify, Pandora, and TIDAL
  • maximum resolution 24-bit/192kHz
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV and AIFF
  • works with AirPlay, DLNA, and WiFi Direct
  • voice control with Amazon Alexa (sold separately)
Bluesound Node 2i

Best for high-res streaming — Bluesound Node 2i

The Bluesound Node 2i packs a lot of features into a component about the size of a trade paperback book. Connect it to your receiver or powered speakers and voilà, you can stream from most popular music services, play high-res files, and get music from drives via USB. Stream wirelessly using either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or use a hardwired Ethernet connection.

Bountiful output choices include RCA, optical and coaxial digital. There’s also an RCA subwoofer out and a 3.5 stereo headphone output. You can connect to other Bluesound devices wirelessly, or via hardwire. Bluesound is the brand of choice for many critical listeners looking for multi-room streaming. The app is easy to navigate and gives you flexible control when you’re working with connected rooms.

I had a chance to test a Node 2i on our living room hi-fi system, powered by a PS Audio Sprout 100 integrated amp through a pair of vintage Dynaco A-25s. Unboxing is a minimalist, design-oriented experience, and setup is simple. The BluOS controller app is flexible and user-friendly, and I was up and listening in about five minutes.

It was easy to pick out the Gibb brothers’ different voices in the deliciously syrupy production of Trafalgar, and the emphatic timpani really rang out. It also handled the trashy production on the proto-black-metal band Venom’s Welcome to Hell with aplomb — intelligible vocals and articulate riffs that from a lesser source often sound muddled.

Details:

  • streaming music player with analog and digital output connection to your amplifier, receiver, or powered speakers
  • free BluOS app lets you control up to 16 wirelessly connected Bluesound devices, and up to 64 hardwired
  • compatible streaming services include Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz, and HiResAudio
  • maximum resolution: 24-bit/192kHz
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF and MQA
  • works with Apple AirPlay2, Roon, and 3rd-party smart-home control systems including Control4, Crestron, Lutron, ELAN, and RTI
  • voice control with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant (sold separately)
Sonos amp placed on a desk

Best powered multi-room streamer — Sonos Amp

A Sonos Amp and a set of passive speakers makes a great standalone streaming stereo system. It’s small, but sounds big. And you can connect a turntable with a built-in or outboard phono preamp, or a CD player — or whatever component you choose — using the rear-panel line-level stereo RCA input. That’s pretty cool — to be able stream vinyl via your home network. There’s also an HDMI input port for playing your TV’s audio.

You can connect to your network using Ethernet or Wi-Fi, and use Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa for voice control. Sonos and Apple work really well together. You can play music with Apple AirPlay2 from any Apple device, and if you subscribe to Apple Music, you can use Siri to tell the Amp what selection or playlist to play.

Basic front panel controls and an optional remote work fine, but for optimum control, it’s still all about the app.

Sonos arguably makes multi-room audio easier than any other platform. You can connect other Sonos devices via Wi-Fi, and their line includes a wide variety of products that work together seamlessly — standalone and portable speakers, subwoofers, sound bars, network hubs, component streamers. If you decide to go Sonos, it will be really easy to connect your whole home.

My hands-on experience started with a pleasant unboxing — Sonos has taken an Apple-like approach. Easy-peasy setup and in minutes I was streaming some golden-age punk rock through the Amp in “the spaceship”— the Damned’s and Devo’s first albums.

Both of these records love to be played loud, and the Sonos amp is definitely up to the task, delivering lively and detailed audio that made me want to bounce around the house. Which would be even more fun if I had another connected Amp in the living room.

Details:

  • amplified streaming music system
  • 125 watts x 2
  • free Sonos “S2” app lets you control up to 32 Sonos devices
  • compatible streaming services include Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music, Apple Music, Tidal, and Qobuz
  • maximum resolution: 24-bit/48kHz
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV and AIFF
  • works with Apple AirPlay2
  • voice control with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant enabled devices, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam (sold separately)
Marantz ND8006

Best CD player/streamer — Marantz ND8006

If you’ve already got an amp or receiver that you love, the Marantz ND8006 will make your digital sources sound fantastic. It’s a network streamer controlled by the HEOS app. It also features a great CD transport. Build quality is substantial, with a heavy curved aluminum faceplate, powerful toroidal transformer and shielded construction inside the chassis.

HEOS app control puts you in the Denon/Marantz family of multi-room streaming, and there are several components and standalone speakers you can get to expand. Setup and connection were easy for me, and the app has the features you’d expect from the best multi-room platforms — stream from your favorite service, create and control groups, play the same or different music in separate rooms, and more.

It has a particularly great-sounding DAC — worth using its optical or coaxial digital inputs to convert other outboard digital sources to analog. There’s a fixed stereo RCA output for sending a signal on to a receiver, powered speakers or other component with volume control, and a variable stereo RCA output if you’re using it as a preamp and connecting directly to an amplifier.

It’s a great option if high-res music is your thing, with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Ethernet streaming at 24 bit/192kHz. The front-panel USB port allows you to connect and stream from a computer or thumb drive at up to 32-bit/384kHz.

When I listened the ‘8006 running through my living room system, the sound was detailed and muscular. Rush’s “Cygnus X-1 Book 2” had satisfying punch and richness. And Glyn Johns’ production on Joan Armatrading’s self-titled third album sounded stunning, with a spacious 3D soundstage.

Details:

  • CD player/streamer
  • analog and digital output connections to your amplifier, receiver, or powered speakers
  • free HEOS app lets you control up to 32 HEOS devices
  • compatible streaming services include Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music, and Tidal
  • maximum resolution: 32-bit/384kHz (using front-panel USB input)
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, and WAV, plus DSD and PCM via USB input
  • works with Apple AirPlay2, DLNA, and Roon
  • voice control with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant (sold separately)
Cambridge system on top of furniture

Best audiophile component streamer — Cambridge CXN (V2)

Attention to detail is what sets Cambridge components apart, and the CXN (V2) is no exception. Balanced XLR — and unbalanced RCA — outputs and twin Wolfson 24-bit DACs deliver audiophile-quality stereo imaging with high-res for all incoming digital sources. And your digital input options include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming, optical and coaxial digital, USB and Ethernet.

Other details like full-metal construction, toroidal power transformer, isolated componentry, and a detachable power cable work to keep output distortion-free. The dimmable, full-color screen that displays album art and track information is icing on the cake.

If you’re looking at the CXN, you might be less interested in multi-room, and more into focused listening. You might even like to use the music aggregator platform Roon to sort, annotate and play your streaming music. You will be rewarded with textured and musical sound.

Like my friend Jack, who got a CXN for Christmas. “I plugged it in,” he says, “stuck an Ethernet cable into it, turned it on, and it said, ‘Hey, want me to play your music? I found Roon.’ Off-the-charts user-friendly. Anyone can figure it out. I’ve never had to reboot.”

Details:

  • network audio streamer with analog and digital output connections to your amplifier, receiver, or powered speakers
  • free StreamMagic app lets you control volume and source selection
  • compatible streaming services include Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz
  • maximum resolution: 24-bit/384kHz
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, DSD and PCM
  • works with Apple AirPlay2, Chromecast, UPnP, and Roon
  • voice control with Google Assistant (sold separately)
Naim Uniti Atom

Best integrated amplifier with built-in streaming — Naim Uniti Atom

The Naim Uniti Atom is an audiophile-grade choice for powered streaming. Reference-quality sound by design, with a massive toroidal transformer, thick aluminum top and bottom plates, burly heat sinks, and isolated circuitry. It can power your favorite set of speakers, or work as a preamp when connected to a power amplifier.

The built-in Burr Brown DAC works with Naim’s software to reduce jitter and up-sample incoming digital source material for nuanced sound, with up to 32-bit/384kHz resolution, depending on your file format. In short, to the max.

The large backlit top-mounted rotary volume control and full color 5” front-panel display are the kinds of details that make the Atom, as one customer says, “addictive.”

Naim prioritizes audio quality, but also features multi-room connectivity. You can connect up to five Naim wireless music devices. While the Atom might be geared less for background music, and more for sit-down, attentive listening, it’s definitely invited to the party.

Details:

  • stereo integrated amplifier/streamer with built-in DAC
  • 40 watts x 2
  • free Naim app lets you connect up to five compatible Naim components and speakers in different rooms
  • compatible streaming services: Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz
  • maximum resolution: 32-bit/384kHz
  • supported high-res music formats: FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and DSD
  • works with AirPlay, Chromecast, UPnP, and Roon
  • voice control with Google Assistant (sold separately)

Need more details to figure out which streamer is best for you?

Contact one of our advisors for help choosing which network music streamer will work best for your situation.

Last updated 5/18/2021
  • Samir from Cherry Hill

    Posted on 5/28/2021

    This a great comparison article. As a cost-effective alternative to the Naim Uniti Atom in the "Best integrated amplifier with built-in streaming", I would suggest the Denon PMA-150H. I've owned one for just over a year, and it offers built-in support for a variety of streaming services (I've primarily used TIDAL HiFi on it), in addition to excellent sound quality.