Streamer with digital out

bernhard

Novice Member
I am contemplating a purchase of new active speakers, which means I may need a streaming device.
I am new to music streamers (my Marantz has Spotify integrated and a number of speakers in my house have streaming services integrated too).

Now I would only need the digital output of the streamer. That would mean I do not need the any DAC, correct?
I can see that there are numerous streamers (with good reviews) costing hundreds and thousands of pounds.
So assuming I find a device that supports the services that I need (Spotify, Tidal, xyz), what would I be missing with a cheap device compared to the more expensive devices?
I can see several cheap solutions that seem to fit my use case.
Raspberry Pi, Teufel Connector, Xiaomi Mi Box

For instance, the Teufel device plays numerous lossless codecs (it seems MQA is not on the list).
So how come the vast majority of reviews and recommendations are for much more expensive devices?
Is it because most people need a 'good' DAC?
 

jamieu

Active Member
I am contemplating a purchase of new active speakers, which means I may need a streaming device.
I am new to music streamers (my Marantz has Spotify integrated and a number of speakers in my house have streaming services integrated too).

Now I would only need the digital output of the streamer. That would mean I do not need the any DAC, correct?

Not necessarily, it depends if your speaker have a USB (DAC) or digital S/PDIF input.
  • USB input (this has to be one that is a DAC input ie. can play music via it form a PC) and you can use a vanilla Raspberry Pi with most of the RPi audio OS's Volumio, Moode, PiCorePlayer, RoopieXL, HiFiBerryOS etc. (that's all you need)
  • If you only have a S/PDIF input you need a Digi HAT + one of the above audio OSs
  • If you only have analog RCA inputs you'll need a DAC HAT (to convert the digital signal to an analog RCA output) + one of the above audio OS.
If your speakers have balanced XLR inputs you may want to look at a XLR DAC HAT.

(you can also plug a vanilla RPi — option 1 above — directly into an external USB DAC of your choosing to give you an analog RCA output, but that's two devices and getting more complex)

But yes, if your speakers have a digital S/PDIF input then your speakers will be doing the digital to analog conversion (DAC) and so no point it paying out for a streamer device with an expensive on-board DAC.

(commercial devices are similar, I just used the RPi HATs example as it makes it clear how the different output stages work, most commercial devices will have both a digital S/PDIF and analog RCA output)

For instance, the Teufel device plays numerous lossless codecs (it seems MQA is not on the list).
So how come the vast majority of reviews and recommendations are for much more expensive devices?
Is it because most people need a 'good' DAC?

MQA needs a dedicated DAC capable of decoding MQA — my advice, don't caught up in the marketing hype there and use a service that can supply uncompressed FLACs like Qobuz.

And yes, the key differentiator will be a) the quality of the the control apps/interface and the devices ability to scan/index metadata well b) the quality of support and updates to their software and devices over the long term c) the quality of the digital to analog conversion (DAC) and the devices analog output stage (if your using a digital output you won't even be using this). But there are diminishing returns there, never used the Teful myself but most posts seem to suggest it has a pretty decent DAC/output stage and most of the RPi DAC HAT are of pretty good quality nowadays.

If you're up for a bit of simple DIY the RPi are easy to put together and make for a nice, flexible little streamer (loads of advice on here) and depending on the HAT you use decent sound quality up there with well designed commercial devices. The key differentiator — in terms of usability, not sound — will be the audio OS you run on it.

If you're using USB then it will be the DAC in your speakers that are doing the job of decoding the digital stream back to analog, the streamer is just sending the digital signal to the speaker, much like your PC would send a file to your USB printer. Don't get caught up in nonsense about jitter / noise etc. the USB interface on the RPi 4 is now more than adequate for the job. The difference between the various Digi HATs will be absolutely minimal, if at all perceivable, again your active speakers will be doing the actual digital to analog decoding, all the streamer is doing is outputting a digital signal to be decoded upstream. Even with DAC HAT the difference between the best HATs from the key manufacturers is minimal and up there with commercial products — despite all you may read the difference between different DAC chips isn't a night and day difference, although you would expect the better devices to have better analog output stages — although as with all HiFi there are diminishing returns there.

My experience is (at a certain point) the interface and usability of the accompanying apps trumps any perceived difference in sound quality in the long run. Or in other words unless you're doing a A/B test you'll not likely to notice a improvement/decrease in sound quality, but if the app you use to find and play your music is rubbish it will continue to irk you as long as you use it.

The RPi audio OSs all have large communities continually adding and fixing features and even if one goes way you can install a different audio OS — so long term support is less of a concern with RPi streamers. If you want a commercial device, then you may find that companies like NAD/Bluesound and Sonos are better at supporting their software and apps long term over a company like Teufel or even worse, fairly unknown brands like Xiaomi who may drop support and updates for their control apps and devices at any point.
 
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FaxFan2002

Well-known Member
I am contemplating a purchase of new active speakers, which means I may need a streaming device.
I am new to music streamers (my Marantz has Spotify integrated and a number of speakers in my house have streaming services integrated too).

Now I would only need the digital output of the streamer. That would mean I do not need the any DAC, correct?
I can see that there are numerous streamers (with good reviews) costing hundreds and thousands of pounds.
So assuming I find a device that supports the services that I need (Spotify, Tidal, xyz), what would I be missing with a cheap device compared to the more expensive devices?
I can see several cheap solutions that seem to fit my use case.
Raspberry Pi, Teufel Connector, Xiaomi Mi Box

For instance, the Teufel device plays numerous lossless codecs (it seems MQA is not on the list).
So how come the vast majority of reviews and recommendations are for much more expensive devices?
Is it because most people need a 'good' DAC?
You'll need streamer -> DAC -> AMP -> Speakers.

Assuming the active speakers have the (DAC -> AMP -> Speakers) part, which is worth checking but almost certain if they have an optical input. You'll just need the streamer part which is well covered in the first reply but I'd throw in the Project S2 streamer as well (a rebadged Pi but well supported with tweaked bits).
 

bernhard

Novice Member
Thanks. I have not read the entire answers yet, but wanted to clarify that I am looking at active speakers (Dutch Dutch 8c, Buchardt A500, possibly studio monitors from Neumann, Adam or Genelec). I am well aware that these have different features and inputs, but digital inputs are a common feature. Albeit some genelecs only have digital xlr input (and analogue xlr which I would rather not use) which seems rare in streamers.
 

bernhard

Novice Member
Thank you both for the detailed answers. I would love to rate or like your answers, but the forum does not seem to support that.

I see your point regarding
“If you want a commercial device, then you may find that companies like NAD/Bluesoundand Sonos are better at supporting their software and apps long term over a company like Teufel or even worse, fairly unknown brands like Xiaomi who may drop support and updates for their control apps and devices at any point.”

As a side note: Ironically I have a first gen Sonos 5 which is not supported anymore in the S2 apps. That is a well documented “flaw” of Sonos software update strategy (ie to drop support for a device which was sold 5 years ago, due to limited computational capabilities).

I have noticed that the node 2i is rather popular.
 

jamieu

Active Member
Thanks. I have not read the entire answers yet, but wanted to clarify that I am looking at active speakers (Dutch Dutch 8c, Buchardt A500, possibly studio monitors from Neumann, Adam or Genelec). I am well aware that these have different features and inputs, but digital inputs are a common feature. Albeit some genelecs only have digital xlr input (and analogue xlr which I would rather not use) which seems rare in streamers.

Digital XLR AES/EBU inputs (which you'll find on pro monitors like the Genelecs) are in fact just a S/PDIF input (at least for the purpose of short distances with well behaved kit) so you can easily use a cheap S/PDIF to AES/EBU convertor.

In fact you can probably get away with just using a RCA Dig-Coax to AES/EBU XLR cable for short distances — that's where I would start and is actually what Genelec recommend themselves for short runs in consumer settings.

That will require that you use a streamer that has an RCA (or BNC digital Coax) output. You can optionally add a BNC connector to the HiFiBerry boards but it won't gain you anything for short runs. I would just use the digital-coax RCA output the board comes with.

If you really want a AES/EBU XLR connectors on your HAT, you can get them. Although you may struggle to find a nice case for it. I'd also double check how well that HAT is supported.

You're unlikely to find a consumer streamer with XLR AES/EBU connectors (as it's not used in consumer devices). But — and this depend on how much you want to spend — you can get external USB DACs with an AES/EBU port. You'd then (likely want to) connect it to a vanilla Rasberry Pi via USB to handle the streaming side of things (with the RPi running the streaming software/OS of your choice and outputting the digital PCM stream to the DAC via USB). If you wanted a nicer case the Flirc one doubles as a heatsink.

If you really want an all-in-one streamer that has AES/EBU XLR output connectors then MiniDSPs SDH Studio is the cheapest I can think of.

Personally I would't get to concerned about the physicality of AES/EBU connectors for short distances (<3 meters). It's just another digital S/PDIF input. Much like S/PDIF can be sent over a cable that terminates in an optical, BNC or RCA connector, it can also be sent over a cable with an XLR connector (obviously into a digital AES/EBU XLR input, not an analog XLR one).
 
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jamieu

Active Member
Thank you both for the detailed answers. I would love to rate or like your answers, but the forum does not seem to support that.

I see your point regarding
“If you want a commercial device, then you may find that companies like NAD/Bluesoundand Sonos are better at supporting their software and apps long term over a company like Teufel or even worse, fairly unknown brands like Xiaomi who may drop support and updates for their control apps and devices at any point.”

As a side note: Ironically I have a first gen Sonos 5 which is not supported anymore in the S2 apps. That is a well documented “flaw” of Sonos software update strategy (ie to drop support for a device which was sold 5 years ago, due to limited computational capabilities).

That's a whole different thread ;-) But my point being that you would hope/expect well known manufacturers to not take those decisions lightly and for them to still be around in 5 years times.

Unless something has changed the older Sonos devices still work with the S1 apps (and 3rd party software like Roon). Which is more than I suspect we'll find happening with some of the low-cost streamer manufactures in that same time period. I expect many of them will simply stop updating their apps or devices without a word.

In short you're buying into software as well as hardware and the software is the part that will change over time. For a start they'll likely need to support changes to the streaming services and protocols. If the company is no longer around you'll almost certainly end up with an expensive paperweight.

Which is why, personally I like the idea of running the software myself on a low-cost devices like a Rasberry Pi where I can switch to a new piece of software in the future if needed, yet offload the digital-to-analog conversion and analog output stages to an external DAC, but realise that isn't for everyone.

I have noticed that the node 2i is rather popular.

Yes, if you want an all-in-one, do-it-all, off-the-shelf device and money isn't the key consideration, the Node i2 is probably your best option and is fairly future-proof.

It has the backing of NAD, a pretty decent app and can be easily integrated with 3rd party platforms like Roon down the line if you want.

You should be able to connect it to pro-monitors like Genelec with an AES/EBU XLR input just using a cable like this although it will depends on how well the Node 2i behaves with a slight impedance mis-match (this won't effect sound, it will either work or won't and an impedance transformer/adaptor will almost certainly fix any issue if they do crop up).

If your looking at using analog XLR inputs you might be better off looking for a DAC/Streamer that has balanced XLR outputs, or combining the Node 2i with an external DAC that has them. Although if your monitors have an input gain control you should be able to go from a standard line level RCA output to balanced XLR input (over short distances) using an appropriate cable without issue.
 
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jamieu

Active Member
Now I would only need the digital output of the streamer. That would mean I do not need the any DAC, correct?
I can see that there are numerous streamers (with good reviews) costing hundreds and thousands of pounds.
So assuming I find a device that supports the services that I need (Spotify, Tidal, xyz), what would I be missing with a cheap device compared to the more expensive devices?

As a succinct answer to your original question ;-)

If you're using the digital input on your speakers then your only major concern is does it support the streaming services & protocols you need (and if you have a local music library can it see it and how well it indexes it) and the quality the control app/software (IMO this is the key differentiator).

In terms of audio quality all the work (of converting the digital stream to analog) will be done by your active speakers so no point paying more for a device with an expense DAC or analog output stage.

Think of a streamer as basically computer, albeit one in the case of commercial streamers where the software can't be changed by an end user. If you're connecting to it digitally ie. USB, S/PDIF etc. you're (hopefully) bypassing anything internally that could affect the sound quality and simply passing a digital PCM stream to the speakers to be decoded.
 
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T1berious

Member
Thought I'd chime in with my own experience.

I used to use Sonos (still have a bag full of their stuff to give away) and would advise not going down that path.

Next up, I've got a couple of systems based on Raspberry Pi / DAC HAT's. Also got Node 2i's in other systems. I use Tidal and Spotify presently with PiCorePlayer and LMS. If you like tinkering it's brilliant but currently it doesn't support MQA, you'll play stuff via it but it will play as 16/44.1. It isn't a big deal for me but might be for you, so just keep it in mind (that only applies to Tidal).

Next up is the Bluesound Node 2i it isn't cheap, comparable to Pi 4 with decent DAC Hat but it will support MQA out the box and the App is really good. (You'll have to use material skin on the Pi for a similar experience). The Node 2i is decent and if you pair it with a nice DAC further down the line really shines.

They both have their place but if it was me, I'd make the jump onto Node 2i if only because its less of a faff and once you factor I'm a DAC as an upgrade later down the line is a bit of a keeper. The OS also is being picked up by alot of manufacturers so I don't see it going away soon.

I hope this helps!

T1b
 

Paul7777x

Member
I’d go for the Macbook or netbook root.

Inexpensive used and perfect streamers of anything.

You likely need a usb to coax converter. They are inexpensive.

Any phone or tablet can control the apps you’ll be using so you’d never need to touch the computer after setting it up.
 

bernhard

Novice Member
Thanks. Any apps (for Windows) you can suggest? I think I would mostly be interested in Tidal and Spotify. I actually have an old macbook, but I am wondering if that would draw too much power if it is running 24/7.

Admittedly I am not set on the speakers (whose choice is possibly related to the streamer choice). I currently have a slight preference for the Buchardt A500 which come with a hub that satisfies the streaming part.

Also, how can I react on a post?
 

Paul7777x

Member
Both Tidal and Spotify are their own apps, as it were, so you’d simply download the app to the netbook, or the Mac, and then use the corresponding download for your phone to control the apps on whichever you choose.

Personally I’d choose the Mac, it’s what I’ve been using for the last 7 or 8 years and its power draw is negligible.
 

Paul7777x

Member

This is the Spotify for Mac download.

Ps, I haven’t heard the A500, but by so many reports they are a formidable speaker.

PPS, if you’re set on active speakers, and I would be, then it would be criminal to not check out these.


Arguably the most experienced and lauded active speaker makers in the world.

An impressive reduction here too.


My dream speaker incidentally.

There are two further versions to consider, the stand mount 20XD and the smaller floorstander, the 30XD.
 
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bernhard

Novice Member
Both Tidal and Spotify are their own apps, as it were, so you’d simply download the app to the netbook, or the Mac, and then use the corresponding download for your phone to control the apps on whichever you choose.

Personally I’d choose the Mac, it’s what I’ve been using for the last 7 or 8 years and its power draw is negligible.
Thank you.
Silly me. I should have know.
I have actually noticed in the past, that I can select my 'computer' as an output on my phone, when the app was running on the computer (which is rare though).

Yes, the Focus XD, those are/were on my radar. The XD 20 are a fair bit pricier than the A500 and - I THINK - lack the room correction features of the Buchardt's. The only downside of the A500 (in my view) is the fact that the company is very young. Also, because of toddlers I have a preference for bookshelves (although I also not 100% decided on this yet...).
 

Going Grey Now

Active Member
Another very happy Raspberry Pi 4 user here. If I were in need of taking a digital signal (other than USB which I currently use), then I’d probably opt for a HAT from ALLO (Digione probably).
Although not of any direct interest in view of the speakers you’re looking at, up until about a year ago I was happily running the output (via a DAC HAT) into a pair of Audioengine powered speakers.
 

the groundsman

Active Member
I've been following this thread but have got a bit lost on the "using a computer as a streamer" part. I use an old netbook as a dedicated media server with a rarely used player and have thought about using this as a digital input to my system. That will free up a Chromecast audio for somewhere else.

The bit I'm confused about is how I take the digital signal from the netbook to my amp optical digital input.
You likely need a usb to coax converter. They are inexpensive.
I'm stumped by what one of these is or how it works or where you can buy it from. Is it as simple as plugging in the usb to the PC and coax to the amp? Would prefer to use optical in.

How do i get the digital stream to output via the USB rather than the netbooks speaker?

Sorry if this is obvious but I'm a bit lost
 

Paul7777x

Member
I've been following this thread but have got a bit lost on the "using a computer as a streamer" part. I use an old netbook as a dedicated media server with a rarely used player and have thought about using this as a digital input to my system. That will free up a Chromecast audio for somewhere else.

The bit I'm confused about is how I take the digital signal from the netbook to my amp optical digital input.

I'm stumped by what one of these is or how it works or where you can buy it from. Is it as simple as plugging in the usb to the PC and coax to the amp? Would prefer to use optical in.

How do i get the digital stream to output via the USB rather than the netbooks speaker?

Sorry if this is obvious but I'm a bit lost

Hi, you’ll need one of these.


You’ll need to plug it into a usb out on your computer and select it as the preferred ‘sound output device’.

What netbook are you using?
 

the groundsman

Active Member
Thanks Paul.

I have Logitech Media Server installed on a 10 year old Samsung N210Plus netbook with 2GB of RAM. It's so underpowered that it's useless as a windows 10 PC but it runs LMS and stores my library quite well. Almost everything is streamed from Spotify and I fill any gaps with locally stored stuff or BBC Sounds. I've been toying with a Raspberry Pi based alternative as the Samsung won't last forever.

I actually bought it as a replacement for a Roku Soundbridge which streamed my old Itunes library using firefly media server. It was too unreliable and dropped the connection constantly so I gave up on streaming back then in favour of having all the music locally. Spotify had only just become available back then of course and I was distrustful of streaming services compared to owning the music (still am tbh)
 

Paul7777x

Member
Thanks Paul.

I have Logitech Media Server installed on a 10 year old Samsung N210Plus netbook with 2GB of RAM. It's so underpowered that it's useless as a windows 10 PC but it runs LMS and stores my library quite well. Almost everything is streamed from Spotify and I fill any gaps with locally stored stuff or BBC Sounds. I've been toying with a Raspberry Pi based alternative as the Samsung won't last forever.

I actually bought it as a replacement for a Roku Soundbridge which streamed my old Itunes library using firefly media server. It was too unreliable and dropped the connection constantly so I gave up on streaming back then in favour of having all the music locally. Spotify had only just become available back then of course and I was distrustful of streaming services compared to owning the music (still am tbh)

Very little computing power is necessary for playing music, next to none in fact, as long as the download speed is adequate for Spotify, it will be as good a player as anything with the optical output adaptor.
 

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