Yes, Hi-Fi Music Streaming Boxes Are a Thing You Can Buy—and Probably Don’t Need

Your phone will do the job just fine

  • Hi-Fi network streaming boxes offer convenience, but may not sound better than a phone or laptop.
  • The important part is to use a good digital to analog converter. (DAC)
  • Your Hi-Fi amp probably already has a great DAC built-in.
An NAD box attached to a stereo receive and speakers, sitting atop a brown entertainment center.

NAD Electronics

Why on Earth would you buy a dedicated music-streaming box instead of using the phone you already have?

NAD's new $350 CS1 can stream audio over your network, from Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, or your Roon server, to your fancy Hi-Fi amp and speakers. That's cool, but some Hi-Fi amplifiers already have Bluetooth for streaming from your phone, so why not just do that? The answer is, it depends on how fussy you are.

"Streaming has profoundly altered the way people discover and experience music," Cas Oostvogel, product manager of NAD Electronics, said in a statement provided to Lifewire via email. "Streaming doesn't get simpler than this."

Separate Devices

The easiest way to get great streaming music at home is to go for something like a Sonos system, which is built for multi-room streaming of digital audio and has an easy, intuitive interface for doing it. In some ways, its the modern equivalent of flicking through shelves full of records, and is just about as convenient as you can get

But what if you are already a Hi-Fi nerd and want to play your MP3s from a computer somewhere in the house or from Spotify or Tidal? That's what network streaming boxes are for. They are purpose-built to take the digital stream from compatible sources and hand it over to the amplifier, whereupon it is sent to your speakers.

The NAD CS1 Network Streamer.

NAD Electronics

The idea behind setups like these is that each component–the record player, the amp, the speakers, and so on–is custom-built to do its job. Then, you can mix and match the separate components to get the balance of features, audio quality, and price that fits your needs. The upside is better-sounding music. The downside is that you'll have to plow through a ton of Hi-Fi gear reviews to get what you want.

This is all great and lots of fun, but there's one big question. Digital is digital. Those ones and zeros are the same whether they come from a spinning CD, your home music server's hard drive, or over the internet. The only way a streaming box like NAD's CS1 can change the music is when it converts it from digital to analog—and that is something a Hi-Fi amplifier probably already does. So really, why not just hook up your phone to the amp via USB?


There are a few points of view here. One is that the music from a streaming service is already compromised, thanks to being compressed into a lossy format. MP3, and AAC (used by Apple Music), are music formats designed to have smaller file sizes, and they do this by throwing away data and only keeping what the listener will be able to hear. 

The argument here goes that if the source material isn't full quality, then why bother with fancy equipment? But that argument falls short in a few ways. 

MP3s etc., are like JPEGs for music, and while the lossy (data is lost during the conversion) compression will definitely make a huge difference if you come to edit these files when listening, most people can't tell the difference. 

An NAD Streamer Sitting with other stereo equipment on an entertainment center with vinyl records on a shelf below.

NAD Electronics

The other problem with this argument is that Apple, Spotify, and Tidal all offer lossless or high-quality options, which can be fed into your fancy Hi-Fi boxes and heard as the mastering engineer intended.

The next point is that if your Hi-Fi amp already has a DAC (digital analog converter), why bother with a dedicated streamer? It doesn't matter if the digital bits arrive via iPhone, your laptop, or a Hi-Fi streamer.

The answer here is that it doesn't make any difference, sound-wise. But is may make a big difference in other ways. Having a permanent setup can be more convenient than using your phone. And while you could buy a dedicated iPad for the task, it'll cost more than this NAD box anyway.

"DACs can make a big difference (I use external DACs always into my system), but even the DACs in newer smartphones are pretty good," says audiophile and phone music fan Mapman on the Audiogon forums

In the end, it comes down to preference. If all you want is the ultimate convenience, your iPhone combined with a pair of AirPods Pro will take you a long way, music-wise, and a HomePod or two will let you share that music. But if you are already well down the path of Hi-Fi nerdism, you might find the dedicated box more enjoyable or just more fun to use. Just don't buy one unless you really, really have a good reason. Spend that money on vinyl instead.

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