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Streamers – A Comparison

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A view from the retail mainstream

Streaming is quickly becoming the next big thing in audio these days. My intent in writing this article is to give a brief description of each of the major players in today’s market.

There are three approaches to streaming. The first is from those companies whose products are compatible with their own equipment. Sonos was the first of this type of product. Then there are the licensed-technology products. These are companies that license their technology to hardware manufacturers whose products allow you to mix and match to your own personal preferences. And finally there is software-based products.

The one type of technology I won’t be talking about is Bluetooth which is part of the third group. I do appreciate Bluetooth’s capability and it is used as an adjunct technology to most of these systems, but I want to concentrate on the gear and not so much the nuts and bolts of how they work. That being said let’s get to it.

 

Sonos

About 4 years ago, one of my oldest HiFi industry friends, Geoff Marks, moved from his long time position in management at Velodyne Acoustics selling some of the finest subwoofers on the market to Sonos. Even though I wasn’t selling streaming technology at the time, he convinced me that streaming was going to be the next big thing in the market. So, I, like many other dealers across the country, bought into Sonos with a full commitment to the line.

In case you have been living in a cave for the last few years and didn’t know this, Sonos was the first company to produce a simple, easy-to-install solution for streaming music from various music sources like Pandora, Spotify and Napster amongst others.

The Sonos smart speakers connect to one another over the existing WiFi network in your home. Wi-Fi, the other major application, has greater range than Bluetooth and works with multiple devices. Sonos allows playing different music to each speaker or the same music (in sync) to all speakers. You can control any Sonos speaker via the Sonos App on your computer, smartphone or tablet, etc.

 

Heos

Heos is the brain child of D&M Holding, which is Denon and Marantz’s parent company. I spoke with Mardi Gino (D&M’s Western Director of Sales) about the line recently at CI Expo 2016. Scattered around their demonstration room were various Heos products. Heos is one of Sonos’ main competitors in the streaming market, but Sonos apparently didn’t feel that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery by their response to the introduction of Heos. They sued Heos and now two plus years later it is still in the courts. Time will tell what happens next. Since then, two other major audio competitors (Yamaha MusicCast and DTS Play-Fi) have also entered the market.

Heos to date has expanded their line to 10 products. That includes 4 speakers and a sound bar, a battery pack for their Heos 1 speaker, a single zone and 4 zone amp, a single zone pre-amp called a Link and a wireless network extender.

I had the opportunity to listen to several of the speakers. The first speaker I listened to was a pair of their Heos 3 at $299 each. Imaging was good and the bass was surprisingly respectable for their size, considering each cabinet only uses a pair of 2.5″ full-range drivers powered by a two-channel Class D amplifier, but there was a definite lack of air or openness to them.

I should point out all the Heos speakers amplify each driver separately, have Bluetooth® integrated for control and can be used individually for mono or as pairs for stereo.

The second demo was much better musically. The presenter fired up a single Heos 7 ($599 each), which has a small 4″ woofer, 2 x 2.5″ mids and a pair of tweeters. Hurray for high frequencies. Highs were much better, but separation was limited. Technically, I would call this a tri-amped speaker system.

If you consider the selling prices, I would ether go high-end and use the Heos amp ($499) and hook up a pair of good, small $1500 range monitors like KEF LS50s, Nola Boxers or Martin Logan Motion 35s. Or in the $600 range, I would also use the Heos Link pre-amp ($349) with a pair of Edifer S330D ($199) 2.1 Multi-media speakers, 18W x 2 + 36W x 1, 6½” Woofer, 2″ mid, 19mm silk ring radiator tweeters or maybe a pair of small Swan multimedia speakers. Far better performance for just a little more money. I guess what I am saying is that I really like the electronics, but not blown away by the speakers, but a little better than the comparable Sonos models I have heard.

 

DTS Play-Fi

DTS Play-Fi is one of the most recent entries into the streaming community. Like the other systems on the market, Play-Fi sends audio from mobile devices to speakers throughout the home using their proprietary streaming, synchronization and authentication technology.

The technology allows Loss-less audio transmission via standard Wi-Fi, Ethernet or Power-line networks to multi-room, multi-zone with multi-user options. They also give the option of allowing speakers to be either monaural or selectable as either a left or right speaker. PlayFi offers support for high-resolution audio of 24bit/192kHz. Control is accomplished with either Android, iOS, Kindle Fire or Windows PCs.

The unique thing about PlayFi is it is a licensed system with multiple partners. The list is rather broad and includes Definitive Technology, Polk, Onkyo, Integra, Klipsch, McIntosh, Pioneer, Rotel, Martin Logan, Arcam, HP, Dish, Sonus Faber, Acer and more. This opens up personal choice for consumers to pick from their favorite brands as compared to being committed to just a specific brand.

They promote choice. Play-Fi comes with a wealth of music options from around the globe that include Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Deezer, Songza, KKBox and Sirius XM, to name a few. Like its competition, Play-Fi also lets you browse thousands of internet radio stations and podcasts, or stream from your home media server.

Another unique feature is if you have a product that supports Play-Fi Surround (like a Play-Fi sound bar), all you need to do is add any two other Play-Fi products. You’ll then be able to quickly and easily configure them as surround, left and right to make a true 5.1 home theater system.

 

Yamaha MusicCast

Yamaha’s entry into the market is designed for use with 23 Yamaha devises from AV receivers, separates, mini systems and soundbars. Like GoogleCast, theMusicCast system uses WiFi, but unlike other systems it also uses bluetooth. They have developed an apparently seamless marriage of the two technologies.

Yamaha stresses ease of use with a simple one-button operation to connect your MusicCast device. Every additional product, whether by ethernet or wi-fi, connects this way. Similar to pairing via Bluetooth. One of MusicCast’s cooler functions is that their system allows every product the capability of sending and receiving over Bluetooth.

You can plug a CD player into your AV receiver in the one room and stream that over to one of their micro systems in another part of the house, like the kitchen or bedroom. You could also plug in a USB stick full of your favorite songs and stream the music to a small wireless speaker on the patio. If you have music on a mini system in the office you can access the music in your home theater. Total access is the key.

The Yamaha MusicCast, like everyone else, supports music services that range from internet radio, Spotify (via Connect), AirPlay (Apple Music), Napster and Pandora, Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz. If that isn’t enough there is more on the way.

From what I understand, MusicCast is a crucial part of the company’s future plans. At this point in time they only interface with their own products. A MusicCast AV receiver interfaces to your phone, speakers, computer. I assume as new Yamaha products hit the market they will include MusicCast in them.

As for musical performance, the music streamed over their AV systems with high quality speakers is excellent. OK, like every other streaming system it falls short of even a basic turntable/cartridge combination source, but so does CD. And as long as your streaming source is not full of compressed music, the overall result is capable of entry level high-end quality.

 

Google Cast

The last system is Google Cast. I honestly have never used this system. So I won’t comment on its sonic capabilities.

Google Cast speakers allow you to stream your favorite music, radio or podcasts from your mobile device to your speakers. It also connects to Spotify, Google Play Music, Pandora and a growing list of other providers. Tap the CAST button from your favorite music apps to start casting to your speakers. Adjust the volume or change the song, right from your android or Apple phone.

They do offer the capability of adding a Chromecast Audio adapter so you can use any (hopefully high quality) speakers. “Chromecast Audio is a small device that plugs into your speaker for streaming music through WiFi. Use your iPhone®, iPad®, Android phone and tablet, Mac® and Windows® laptop, or Chromebook to cast your favorite tunes to the best speakers in the house.”

Like DTS Play-Fi, Chromecast has multiple partners (or licensees) like JBL, Harman Kardon, Philips, LG, Sony, Polk Onkyo, B&O and more. So assuming a high quality stream, performance should be excellent.

Unlike Bluetooth setup, Google Cast works over WiFi so you can connect more than one device to your speakers at a time and control what’s playing from anywhere in the house. The advantages include much wider bandwidth than Bluetooth, long range capability (where Bluetooth is limited to 30 feet) and allows multiple speakers and control units within a system.

 

Conclusion:

When we compare the basics, all the systems have their high and low spots. Overall, they uniformly set up relatively easily. System setup has been a problem the audio industry has been struggling with for years. For the most part very unsuccessfully.

The one downfall of the streaming systems, like every system I talk about in this article, is the speakers. I have yet to hear a wireless amplified speaker system from any of these companies that offers more than acceptable performance capability. I have heard speakers that image well but lack detail or is missing an open soundstage. Every one I have heard so far may be satisfactory for a secondary area, like a bedroom or office. Even the very best like McIntosh, Arcam, Sonus Faber, B&O or Martin Logan have raised the bar to a fairly high level but still fall short of what I personally would be happy with as a primary system for my music listening. Then again, the convenience they all offer is rather enticing. Like CDs were to vinyl records, the streamers offer a lot of very cool advantages, but at what cost? I can only hope that as time goes by and technology advances these streaming products don’t go the way of the CD and continue to improve.

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3 Responses to Streamers – A Comparison


  1. Rojellio says:

    I am not following the concluding paragraph. The Sonos system allows users to output the digital stream to a separate DAC and then to one’s own system and speakers. I assume some of the others do as well. The benefit of a simple, easy to use streamer is to integrate and transmit digitized music selections — those stored at home and those streamed over the Internet into a holistic experience.

    There is no intrinsic limitation on the DAC, amplifiers or speakers of any properly designed streaming service.

  2. Why no mention of Bluesound by NAD? It’s super-popular and streams fully unfolded 24 bit hi-res files from Tidal; sound quality to die for. And no one is sue-ing them for copyright infringement.
    Sonos made the road, thank them for that. Now Bluesound gives us the faster vehicle to travel on.

  3. WSHart says:

    Just get a Grace Digital Internet Radio and use the output to an Aux input on your receiver/integrated amp and be happy.

    Or buy one of the many Home Theater or Stereo Receivers (Pioneer Elite SX-N30 or Onkyo TX-8160 for example) that have built in Internet Tuner capabilities and, again, be happy. Bits are bits and if decoded properly, they are just that, decoded. We can’t hear a bit of objectively provable difference, why not just enjoy instead of obsess?

    Why indeed? Because people want to believe they are special.

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