You tend to forget that the convenience of streaming music directly from your phone doesn’t have to come at the expense of sound quality. There is no need to settle for a small all-in-one speaker in the living room. Instead, you can put it in another room and dedicate your favourite seating area to a proper hi-fi system. With proper speakers. All you need is a stereo amplifier with built-in streaming.
A streaming amplifier works like any other hi-fi amplifier, connecting to speakers with cables. The difference is that the amplifier has wireless network connectivity and built-in support for streaming services.
Some amplifiers have their own app that lets you control all your music independently of your music subscription. Others use a more generic interface, such as AirPlay and Google Cast (Chromecast), where you are referred to the original apps for the services you want to use.
Even if you use the apps you already have on your mobile to play the music you want, the actual music streaming happens in the amplifier. The exceptions are Bluetooth and the first version of AirPlay, where the digital audio signal was streamed from the phone to the amp.
Because the streaming device is in the amplifier instead, you get a more stable signal, and even if your phone rings, the music will continue to play on the system. You can also control music from your phone in multiple zones in your home, for example if you have multiple Chromecast or AirPlay speakers around the house.
Six amps with networking
In this test we look at six streaming amplifiers, all of which have network connectivity and streaming capabilities built in. Some rely on Chromecast or AirPlay 2 (or both), while others have their own interface. All can be paired with other compatible products to set up audio in other rooms that can be synced.
Five of the amplifiers are in mini format, while one (Marantz NR1200) is in full 44cm rack-width. That needn’t matter for either sound quality, muscle or functionality, but in this case the amp has multiple inputs, including a whopping five HDMI inputs. Some prefer full width, while others appreciate the smallest possible footprint.
How we tested
Over time, the usability of streaming amplifiers has become pretty streamlined, and there aren’t any that are notably difficult to use. For this test, therefore, we focused on sound quality. The amps were tested with a varied selection of CD-quality music from streaming services Tidal and Apple Music.
The speakers we’ve used are the fabulous Dynaudio Evoke 20 compact speakers and the floorstanding Bowers & Wilkins 603 S2 Anniversary Edition. The latter are a little harder to drive than the Dynaudio’s and therefore good at distinguishing between amps, especially in the bass register.
Products in this test
A host of features
None in its class has the same connectivity options as the Marantz NR1200. It also sounds really good.
Bluesound Powernode (N330)
Improved giant slayer
The tiny Powernode streaming amp from Bluesound has got even better and is definitely the strongest in its class.
Cabasse Stream Amp
Cabasse Stream Amp is not a new product, but it performs well in the modern streaming world.
Has become too expensive
The Sonos Amp is powerful enough to drive decent speakers. But the price has gone up too much lately.
All you need
The NAD Amp1 is small in size, but makes up for it with good, rich sound.
Harman Kardon Citation Amp
Big amp in small package
The Citation Amp can stream just about anything, and it does so with better and bigger sound than most in its class. Watch out, Sonos!