I agree with the OP. Any computer can do what a streamer does.
The advantages of streamers are basically 3 fold. First they eliminate the noise that a computer, which has many functions to do besides transmitting musical data to a DAC, will introduce. Secondly, they tend to have software bundled in that provide easy access to what Music consumers want—Internet Radio, Organizing the Music with a software interface, and others. Finally, they look like Audio components, not a computer added to a system.
How much is all of the above worth? As always, ymmv. However, when I see 5 figure streamers sold, I can only shake my head
Great question and one I’ve been wondering as well. My thinking is aside from what the streamers actually do, e.g., receive data packets over WiFi, Ethernet, etc., I do know that the design matters and the quality of the components matter. I personally don’t have enough experience in comparing different streamers to know how much all this affect the sound quality but I would not be surprised if they did.
As long as what they deliver is bitperfect digital output (they should and they nearly always do) there is no sonic impact (nor is there with computers). That is the thing with digital, a bitperfect copy is a bitperfect copy, and you can copy it a thousand times, send it to the other side of the world and back, and it will still be identical.
Personally I do not like the fancy dedicated streamers by audio companies. They nearly always lock you into their dedicated applications, and if there is a service you want and they do not have an app for it, your are out of luck. Here using a small (fanless) computer has definite advantages, and so do streamers like Apple Aiport Express or the Chromecast Audio (my personal favourite). These are by such big companies that no streaming service provider can ignore them. The Chromeast Audio is just $35, and delivers either a good analogue signal through its internal DAC (OK for 16/44, not quite as impressive at higher resolutions, but who streams those?) or a bitperfect optical digital output up to 24/96. What is there not to like?
The only reason to get a streamer over a computer IMO is if you don't have an Ethernet interface on your DAC. Then, the streamer does the Ethernet or WIFI to S/PDIF conversion and feeds your DAC with S/PDIF coax. Then, the Master Clock is in the streamer, not in the Ethernet interface in the DAC.
Why would you want a streamer or a computer to act like a streamer these days? I got rid of my dedicated Mac mini running various audio software (pure music, audirvana) years ago. This setup bettered than a multi thousand $$ CD player which I sold. It is foolish imo to have a computer in your audio room.
i moved to a dedicated streamer the Auralic Aries which bettered the Mac mini setup by quite a bit. The drawback was using usb to an external dac.
for a year now, I have been using a bridge that’s built in to a ps audio directstream dac. Internally it uses an i2s interface between the bridge and dac. I use roon and SQ is fantastic. Last month, an audio publication had a review of a DCS bridge which they really liked.
if you don’t want the best setup using a bridge, the Aries with its DS Lightning software was very good.
+1 on Aries.
I purchased Auralic Aries Femto to streamline and simplify my music listening - but some of my gear already had streaming capabilities. I was never satisfied with minim server on my NAS and used JRiver. To my surprise Aries also greatly improved sound quality. The most glaring difference in quality was AES/EBU out from Auralic compared to OPPO 105 SPDIF out (I for years use Jriver and BubbleUPNP to play my collection via OPPO).
In fact, to my amusement OPPO-105 as a DAC (I am not using it now in that capacity, but it is still a pretty good one) sounded better when fed from Aries then if used build-in streamer. Dunno why.
To sum up I do not believe that "all streamers" are the same and "digital is digital". Will the difference in sound justify the price - it is a different story.
On a similar note, what is the best option for internet radio these days? I don't want to stream from my computer, and listed to my local radio stations a good deal (most of them have internet radio presence). I might want to stream some music from Amazon Music from my iPhone. What would be the best solution here?
@willemj I do not see a digital output listed on the Chromecast Audio specs.
Let me reassure you. I have a few Chromecast Audio streamers, some using the analogue output from the internal DAC, others using the optical digital output. The digital output uses the mini optical connector into the same little slot as the little analogue output does, in the same way some Apple products do. For a test, see here: http://archimago.blogspot.nl/2016/02/measurements-google-chromecast-audio_27.html
The digital output is a relatively unknown feature. I have heard from several people who, like me, were told in a store that the Chromecast Audio only has an analogue output.
On the software side, I am happy with the TuneIn app. It even has a sleeptimer.
@willemj thanks for the reply. I'm not sure if the Chromecast Audio is for me as I wish I had the control of the Chromecast Audio using TuneIn and a dedicated ethernet and power plug like the Apple Airport Express. Does this type of box exist for less than $99? Maybe I will just get an Apple Airport Express (want one in black).
Not sure what you want with the ethernet and power plug and why. The Chromecast can use an additonal/optional wired connector if your wifi is not strong enough, and it comes with a power plug (in fact the wired connection uses a special net adapter). What it will not do (unlike the Airport Express) is serve as an additional router to beef up your wifi network (you will need something else for that).
One other difference is that the Chromecast only uses your smartphone or tablet to extablish the connection and as a remote. The actual streaming is done directly from your router to the Chromecast. The downside is that if you want to give it a new command that may take a litle while (and not all apps are very good at this), but the advantage is that it does not need your phone/tablet to actually stream, so youir phone's battery is not drained and you may even turn it off.
Finally, the AE is only 16/44 while the CA goes up to 24/96 (if you care about this).
Many thanks for a lot of inspiring responses. I must admit, though, that I still do not understand, how a streamer can enhance the bitstream.
If the streamer is a transporter that connects the music sources with the DAC then how can it make the output any better than the input?
I understand that if the input is provided in higher format than a streamer can manage, then a better streamer can do a better job. But if a cheap streamer can manage the input stream from say Tidal and provide it to the DAC bitperfect, then the job is done - isn't it?
I doubt a new DAC will give much better sound quality, if any. If you want better sound I would look at the speakers, as they are responsible for by far the largest part of sound quality (but I don't know what speakers you have). Do you have enough amplifier power (Musical Fidelity has many amplifiers)? What size is the room and does it have a hard acoustic, or not?
@willemj I need your advice re. Chromecast, again!!! It is now connected thru mini-Toslink to an external DAC (Wadia 781i) and I cast Tidal using iPad. I noticed only today that when streaming I can change volume with iPad volume control. It seems that SQ is at its best when volume on iPad set at max, or is it my imagination?!? Wadia has its own digital volume control and they promise that if you stay above 75% then SQ is not getting affected. Could find nothing about this from Chrome.
I was thinking the same way and for years I was happy with a Pioneer N-30 streamer and the nice Metrum Octave dac. Than I decided to give Aries Mini a try. It really made a big difference. In my system soundstage and seperation improved a lot. In fact the improvement was so profound I upgraded again to Sonore microRendu. In my system these upgrades did more than a change of amplifier and a change of dac. I'm convinced now for a good sounding streaming system a good source with quality power supply matters a lot.
@jaaptina -agree with you totally, and was in the same "streaming is streaming" boat, and was also very surprised on a difference quality streamer makes.
I read a lot of explanation why - and found most of them unsatisfactory, but fact remains. IMHO (and I am not an expert) no matter how everyone claim to be jitter-immune, reclocking, restoring and bla-bla-bla - somehow corrupted output signal from poorly made steamer simply cannot be restored to a proper quality, with all audible (clearly) issues follow. I cannot however back this up with calculations or empirical data.
@sevs In effect this is a question about which of the two digital volume controls it would be best to use. To be honest I don't know. These days, with DAC's with a 32 bit internal bit depth, digital volume control should not be an issue. Intuitively, I wouold concur with the idea to keep the volume on the Ipad at (near) max, and also on the Chromecast (it also has a software volume control). But this presumes that the Wadia has enough bit depth to do the job (75% is a troublingly modest claim). I wonder if Shadorne can inform this discussion.
@willemj thank you! For now I will keep volume at 100%, to be on the safe side. Strange that Chrome has no mention of this, and when asked at Chromecast chatroom they dismiss or ignore the question.
Sorry, I misquoted Wadia, the manual actually says 65%: "If you find that your typical volume level during critical listening is below 65 on the volume display, it will be advantageous to use a different [internal gain] setting" Since I keep volume at 100% and use NAC52 volume knob, I was not paying much attention to the exact number.
Wadia manual says that their "Glass optical, as implemented by Wadia" input gives the best results (then AES/EBU--Coax_BNC--coax_RCA--TOSLINK plastic-optical) Right now I am using $6.99 plastic mini-Toslink, should receive WireWorld glass mini-Toslink tomorrow.