With the development of streaming and digital music, the network audio player has become the central element of many hi-fi systems. This device allows you to play all your music stored on a NAS or a remote computer. The music is then streamed to the local network via DLNA. Network media players are versatile and allow you to access thousands of web radios and a wide range of online music services such as Deezer, Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz. Designed to complement or replace CD, SACD and Blu-ray players, network audio players must be carefully chosen to ensure they work harmoniously with your hi-fi system and your favorite music service or audio files. So which network audio player should you choose? Find out in this comparative guide about the best network audio players of 2021.
What is a network audio player?
Today, there is a wide range of connected hi-fi amplifiers that can directly access music shared over the local network and streaming services. Network players are dedicated devices that allow you to benefit from these same features with an older amplifier or an amp that doesn’t feature a WiFi, Ethernet or Bluetooth connection. Adding a network audio player lets you modernize your hi-fi installation to enjoy a greater simplicity of use, a vast musical catalog and excellent musicality.
Network audio players have also revolutionized the way music playback is controlled. You no longer have to get out of your seat to use the controls on your amp or rummage for the remote control behind the cushions on the sofa. Now you can select, sort and play all your music using a smartphone or tablet. Each manufacturer has its own mobile app that provides access to music shared over the network, compatible streaming services and web radios.
Network player or Bluetooth receiver?
When you want to enjoy digital music on your living room hi-fi system, it is not unusual to hesitate between a network player or a simple Bluetooth receiver. However, these two solutions don’t offer the same advantages, even when it comes to musicality. In practical terms, a Bluetooth receiver is the simplest solution because you can directly transfer the audio stream of any app from your smartphone, tablet or computer. However, Bluetooth transmission always generates compression, even with higher quality codecs like Bluetooth aptX HD and LDAC, whose bitrate is incomparable to the audio quality of a WiFi connection. Moreover, the range of a Bluetooth connection rarely exceeds 10 meters, causing playback to cut out when moving from room to room. For all of these reasons, a network audio player with a WiFi connection is a more reliable and effective solution, and the device to opt for to enjoy genuinely hi-fi audio quality. Music playback is then handled directly by the player and not the smartphone, which is only used as a remote control.
DLNA network audio players
If you own a vast music library shared over the local network from a NAS, a hard drive connected to the internet router or a computer, then it is necessary to choose a DLNA compatible network audio player such as the Bluesound Node 2021 or Yamaha WXAD-10 in order to listen to your music. In most cases, the network player uses a mobile app to allow you to browse through shared audio files. It is very easy to use. The advantage of DLNA playback is that you don’t have to connect multiple hard drives to the network, reducing clutter and making the system easier to install. It is also possible to play Hi-Res tracks without any compression or file alteration. The transmission is therefore lossless, which is essential for listening to studio-quality audio files.
Roon network audio players
Roon pushes the concept even further by allowing you to index and stream all audio files shared over the local network or stored on a computer. It is possible to install the Roon software on a computer, or to purchase a Roon server. The Roon mobile app lets you control the server as well as playback on compatible network audio players. Roon’s strength lies in its exemplary indexing of audio content, as well as artist and album information. Roon is to music what Plex is to movies and TV series: a very user-friendly indexing and playback system. To enjoy Roon, you must choose a network player that is certified Roon Ready, such as the Denon DNP-800, Bluesound Node (2021) and Marantz NA-6006.
File format and resolution
In addition to DLNA compatibility, it is important to make sure that the network player supports the format and resolution of your audio files in order to enjoy music shared over the local network. Generally, the majority of players are compatible with PCM streams like FLAC, WMA and WAV. However, you should check the maximum resolution at which the player supports these files. To simplify your choice, we recommend the Elipson Connect WiFi Receiver and Yamaha WXAD-10 for playback up to 24-bit/192kHz, the iFi Audio Zen Stream and Cayin IDAP-6 for playback up to 32-bit/384kHz, or the Marantz NA-6006 and Atoll ST200 Signature for DSD playback.
If you’re a Tidal user, it is also important that MQA files are supported so that you can enjoy the best possible sound quality. We recommend the Bluesound Node 2021, which is particularly suited to the American platform’s master files.
Network audio players for streaming
Music streaming services are now the norm for many users as they provide access to tens of millions of tracks directly from a smartphone or computer. The network player further expands possibilities by allowing you to find these huge catalogs directly on your hi-fi system. However, there are so many streaming platforms that few network audio players are compatible with all of them. They are generally compatible with the most popular services such as Deezer, Spotify and Amazon Music. Higher-end network audio players are compatible with more services, and often support HD services like Qobuz, Tidal and Amazon Music HD. Opting for a player that is compatible with one of these HD services guarantees a richer and more detailed listening experience. Either way, it is important to make sure the network player you choose is compatible with your preferred service. To do this, you can use the selection filters available in the left-hand margin of the network player page.
AirPlay and Chromecast network audio players
If you use a music service that isn’t as mainstream or want to enjoy music from all of your mobile apps including YouTube, an AirPlay or Chromecast compatible network audio player is a great choice. These two protocols are even easier to use than Bluetooth, as they let you cast any audio stream from a smartphone, tablet or computer, the difference being that the stream is transmitted over WiFi. This means you can easily stream music from the garden or from one room to another in the house, without any interruptions. Listening to HD files is possible up to 16-bit/48kHz for AirPlay and 24-bit/96kHz for Chromecast.
Choosing between an AirPlay or Chromecast network player should be based on the mobile devices you use. AirPlay is developed by Apple and is only designed to be used with the brand’s devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod, Apple TV and Mac). If you use one of these devices, we recommend the Bluesound Node 2021, Yamaha WXAD-10 and Nuprime Omnia WR-1, which are among the most effective players for AirPlay playback. Chromecast is the protocol for Android devices, with reference network players like the iFi Audio Zen Stream and Cambridge CXN v2.
Multi-room network audio players
Multi-room connectivity emerged with the advent of digital music and wireless streaming. Many network players take advantage of this technology so that they can be paired with other compatible players, wireless speakers and equipment to create a multi-room ecosystem. Several elements can therefore be associated to stream the same music throughout the house. Each network player manufacturer has its own transmission system for synchronized streaming. This is the case for Yamaha MusicCast, Denon/Marantz Heos and Bluesound players, for example. It is important to keep this in mind, because once you buy your first device, if it uses a proprietary technology you will have to choose elements from the same brand in order to create a multi-room audio system. The only exceptions are network audio players that feature DTS Play:Fi, Chromecast or AirPlay 2 technology.
Which network audio player is the best?
Throughout this guide, we’ve examined the different factors to take into consideration when choosing a network audio player. As we have seen, the choice depends first and foremost on your audio files and listening habits. Consequently, it isn’t possible to name one device “best network player of 2021”, but using these different elements and our many reviews, we have compiled a selection of the best network players in each field and for every budget.
The best network audio players under €500
- Advance Microstreamer : 24-bit/192kHz, WiFi, DLNA, Qobuz, Spotify, Tune-In
- Elipson Connect: 24-bit/192kHz, DLNA, Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, Tune-In, Elipson multi-room
- Yamaha WXAD-10: 24-bit/192kHz, MusicCast, multi-room, Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz, web radios, WiFi, Bluetooth
- Nuprime WR-1: 24-bit/192kHz, WiFi, DLNA, Bluetooth aptX HD, Qobuz, Spotify, web radios
The best network audio players from €500 to €1000
- Bluesound Node (2021): 24-bit/192kHz, WiFi, Bluetooth aptX HD, DLNA playback, web radios, Deezer, Qobuz, Spotify, Tidal, AirPlay 2 and Bluesound multi-room
- Marantz NA-6006: 24-bit/192kHz, DSD, Heos multi-room, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, Alexa and Google Assistant compatible
- Cayin IDAP-6: 32-bit/384kHz, DSD, AirPlay, DLNA, Bluetooth aptX and WiFi
The best network audio players over €1000
- Cambridge CXN v2: 24-bit/384kHz, USB DAC mode, AirPlay 2, Chromecast, DLNA, Spotify Connect
- Atoll MS120: 24-bit/192kHz, DSD128, WiFi, DLNA, Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, web radios
- Atoll ST200 Signature: 24-bit/192kHz, Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, WiFi, DLNA, web radios
- Naim ND5 XS 2: 24-bit/384kHz, DSD, Chromecast, AirPlay, Roon, all online music services