Which device makes for a better digital music source? Computer or streamer?


I have been using a streamer for both my audio systems. A buddy of mine uses his Macbook Pro and software as a source for his audio system. I use Bluesound Node2 in one audio system and Bluesound Vault with the other. Each has an external DAC attached. My Ipad is my controller. Which source has the potential to yield the best sound? The computer as a source or the streamer? What are you using?

128x1282psyop

I have been into digital since the first CD player (yuck). Over the last 15 years I have used a plethora of portable devices, PCs with various software, MACs… and intermediate and high end streamers. In general,, purpose built streamers significantly outperform PC / MACs / MacBooks.

I, like probably most people, scratch their heads when looking at a streamer and think… yeah, but it is just a PC with a different case. Yeah… no. The performance level of streamers is far superior to computers. The are built from the ground up to isolate from the network, power grid, internal noice, and vibration.

My first good streamer was an Aurlic Aries G2 ($4K?)… the difference was like night and day. The sound went from good for a streamer into the realm of audiophile… then I got and Aurrender 100N ($3.5)… and after auditioning an Aurender 10N (~$10K) I bought an Aurender W20SE ($22K). The Aurender W20SE bested my vinyl system and CD player… both of which are very high end.

 

I use my Aurender 100N for my headphone system and my W20SE for my main system. You can see my stuff under my user ID. After decades of fooling around with digital it has finally achieved the goal of equaling or besting vinyl (of course you have to choose all the right and compatible stuff). For both analog and digital your first piece in the audio chain must be the best possible of you are not going to get the best out of your system.

 

I use a 2014 Mac mini w/ Kodi in the living room system and a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ w/ moOde in the basement system. I haven’t heard a compelling reason to change either out. The Mac stores all the music in a shared folder which is mounted in moOde. I control everything from my phone or a browser and can cast Qobuz or YouTube Music from my phone to either setup without a hitch.

 

 

The streamer’s job is to send the bits to the DAC intact. Digital errors are fairly noticeable - for some audible examples, have a listen here - link. In my opinion, I think the most important thing about streamers is that they offer the convenience and features you want.

 

Why not test your Bluesound head to head against the Macbook Pro? Connect both to a system, close your eyes, and have your friend switch between the two. See if you can guess which is which. Try it 10 or 15 times yourself and have your friend write down your guesses, then trade places.

 

I like Yage’s test. In any event, whenever I've done a laptop vs. streamer audio face-off (err, ear off), the streamer has always come away the winner. More clarity. Better imaging. Better tone quality. Higher fi.

@2psyop 

IMO, both Node and Vault should sound better than a general purpose laptop. Even with a software like Audirvana, mass produced 'stock' laptop remains inherently noisy. The noise generated from laptop circuitry and on ethernet line greatly impacts the sound quality of any streaming setup. Whether you can discern the audible differences between a Node/Vault vs laptop is largely depends on rest of the components in your system. 

Before you go down chasing audio nirvana with a four figure streamer or DAC, optimize your current streaming setup with noise filters if you haven't already done so!

I cannot say anything about streaming because i never use streaming...

But it is possible at low cost to have our way in controlling minimally vibrations, noise and interferences, so much that i am glad to use my computer...

It is not certainly the ideal possibility...

But the ratio S.Q. /price play for me... i will not say the exact figure no more because no one believe me and take me seriously if i say that audiophile experience minimal treshold of satisfaction exist at a low price...

If my speakers/room /computer beat  or rival my 8 headphones on all acoustic counts (  better bass,  almost on par clarity and  details, better mid frequencies same  intimacy with more naturalness and a better soundstage filling the room with sound coming around me) it is enough...

Use you computer the right way before giving money...

I will never upgrade...

For the OP question logically i think that a streamer would be better than a well controlled computer but at which price? 😁😊

And anyway i will never use one then it is only my useless impression...

 

 

By the way i am sure that ghdprentice is right...It is a good advice for those who can afford it...

The Aurender W20SE bested my vinyl system and CD player… both of which are very high end.

 

All very useful and educational comments and tips. It is pleasing to know one can spend little and one can spend alot but those at the extremes and those in the middle can still enjoy digital systems. I may try the filters for my own audio rig and share these comments with my computer source friend.

We are both happy with the sound we are getting....

Dedicated music server and a streamer.  The streamer coupled with a DAC is what I use to avoid usd connection but there are many great options. 

I have tried a number of PCs, both custom built using standard components and "audiophile" PCs like the Antipodes. I have tried low powered PCs and high powered PCs. I have used linear PSUs and standard switch mode PSUs (but good quality, such as Seasonic). I have used audiophile USB cards and standard USB outputs, along with audiophile USB cables, and a variety of software such as Roon, JRiver, LMS and others. I have also used quite a number of streamers - SOTM, Lumin, Ultrarendu and OptricalRendu, currently Bricasti M5 (and others).

My conclusions are:

  • A decent streamer always sounds better than any PC. This is true regardless of whether it is a NUC powered by a linear PSU, a high end gaming PC, or an audiophile server such as an Antipodes. Adding an audiophile USB card is a marginal improvement, but not enough to make it as good as a streamer.
  • If you must use a PC as a source, a high powered PC (eg with an i7 or i9 CPU) with a standard switch mode power supply sounds better than a low powered PC (eg a NUC) powered by a linear PSU. Most "audiophile" servers are just low powered PCs with linear PSUs and a few tweaks.
  • USB is not a good means of transmitting audio, despite its theoretical advantages. I  have consistently found that AES or SPDIF from a streamer sound consistently better than USB from either a streamer or PC.

These are the conclusions I have drawn from my listening experience over years. I am not suggesting these are absolute truths, and others may have different experiences. Other equipment may also produce different results. But these are the consistent conclusions I have drawn from my own experience.

 

 

The definitive answer without question is:  it depends.   Like most things the devil is in the details and generalizations do not carry much weight. 

Stands to reason streamer generally going to be superior to most server/streamer combo and far superior to general purpose computer. Noise is the enemy, segregating streamer from server or computer results in least amount of noise just prior to dac, certainly one of the most important links in network chain.

 

I really prefer no rendering taking place within servers, in this way they become simple network devices, minimize signature on sound quality.

Streamers are computers. So is your iPad and phone. Using a computer that's designed for streaming can be better than a laptop or desktop but there's no hard and fast rule. I'm using a NUC running ROCK if I'm going through Roon. I can also connect my speakers to my network and stream direct to them. I use a tablet as the controller. 

Streamers are indeed computers, but run relatively few processes which means less noise generated. Add better rendering capabilities vs most computers, servers/streamers, wins on two counts. Streaming dacs are also nice, foregoes external rendering which can be advantage.

really; there are three different circumstances regarding this question; "it depends".....

1--at the entry level it’s a horse apiece.....computers are servers. servers are computers. maybe a dedicated server has slightly less noise, and maybe a better power cord than a sever; but likely your network bandwidth, network switch, ethernet and usb cables will have a greater effect than other choices at this level.

2--mid level dedicated servers will outperform regular computers and laptops since they eliminate much of the peripheral noisy processing duties of the normal computers. there is a clear difference to go dedicated.

3--price no object server levels they far outperform any computer or laptop. but you are talking $20k to $100k for a music server. i own a $76k music server and it is awesome sounding and significantly outperforms my previous $30k+ music server. once i heard the difference i could not 'unhear' it. and took the plunge.

No surprise everyone has a different generalized answer.

The correct answer is still the devil is in the details so it depends. Cost or product category alone assure nothing.

I will say from personal experience that $3k spent wisely on a digital front end can get one very very far these days. Maybe less if your amplification is already in order. After that you are splitting hairs most likely. But only if spent wisely. That means sticking to the latest and greatest technologies from proven vendors because the technology has come a long way in recent years and still moving.

I went from node to a dedicated NUC computer to stream via roon.  I then tried an Allo USBridge sig streamer.  While sound seems to be slightly better, then more enjoyable improvement is seamless streaming.  Never does the streamer fail to deliver the requested digital bits.

I personally think the decision on if you should have a dedicated streamer or computer is dependent on what you are looking to do. If you want no fuss and your main concern is just listening to music then by all means a dedicated streamer will make your life easy with little hassles. On the other hand if you like to tinker and tweek things, you may be happier with a computer.

In my instance I wanted to do extreme oversampling (DSD1024X) with HQP and also wanted to use convolution filters designed for my headphones. This isn't possible with a dedicated streamer. I have a Holo Audio May KTE DAC that has a VERY GOOD USB implementation with very low jitter so using a computer for streaming wasn't as much of a concern for me. I think this choice will be dependent on your USB quality of your DAC. In my case my DAC has Galvanic Isolation. You could always try streaming from a computer and see how it goes. Startup costs to do this will be very minimal.

 

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I don't stream in my listening room.  Uncompressed flac or wav files are stored on a ssd in a small form factor i5 running Euphony Stylus OS. DAC is a Bifrost 2. I'd have to spend many thousands more in hopes for a marginal improvement with a dedicated server.  No desire at all. My configuration wouldn't be taken seriously here since my monetary investment in it isn't 30,000.00 or more.

Using a Cambridge Audio CXN version 1.  Sound is as good or better than my NAD CD player.  I can connect my PC (HP laptop) to the CXN through a USB cable but I cannot tell the difference between that and streaming directly from the CXN. 

The OP's question is a bit complicated because the "computer" and the "streamer" functions can't be separated easily from all the other functions built into (or added to) each device. You may have to consider everything you want to accomplish in the context of your whole rig. For example, if you want to run digital signal processes (say, software like HQPlayer) then you'll likely need a full-function computer in the loop, Maybe you just like to tinker, in which case you can do a whole lot more with a computer tied in.

I have a BS Node 2, a Mac Mini, a sonicTransporter i9 music server, and a Matrix Element X (integrated streamer/DAC/pre). After experimenting with numerous configurations in the past ~2 years, I still switch around sometimes.  But the configuration I tend to prefer, for "serious" listening not background music, uses the Mac Mini running HQPlayer or BACCH4Mac with a USB connection to the Element X. On the other hand,  Qobuz HiRes tracks sound pretty darn good with a more direct ethernet connection to the Element X (and no full-function computer in the loop.)  There's something to be said for using as simple and direct a connection as possible. 

But do dedicated streamers necessarily sound better than a full-function computer, if all you want to do is stream Tidal/Qobuz with no DSP? I dunno for sure, but I doubt there's a very noticeable SQ difference. 

 

Why is it when people are asked to compare an audio component we are asked to do an apples to apples comparison but in pc to streamer this is thrown out the window. In general I would sure hope s $22,000 streamer would sound better than a $2000 pc. Just as a $22,000 speaker, amp, dac, and pre amp will sound better than a $2000 one. The question should be does my $2000 pc equal or beat the performance of a $2000 streamer. Can I achieve the performance on the pc by looking down stream for my upgrade ( dac, fiber, usb upgrades) to achieve a result that gives me the best bang for my buck and save a lot of money? I will never be critical of anyone who wants to spend as much money as they please in this hobby, but when a question is posed for what will help me achieve a favorable outcome let’s offer opinions that are apples to apples!

Having done a fair bit of reading on the subject of streamers vs computers, I haven't found much hands on info about using a MacBook pro or Mac Mini. 

I use a MacBook Pro because I really like Apple Music and there is no other way to get that streaming service. No streamer out there supports Apple Music so if you want that service then you need to use Mac computer.

I am getting really good sound on my system but I am open to suggestions for improvements and would love to communicate specifically with other Mac/Apple Music users to get their experiences

I stream from my Microsoft Surface Pro 7 (fan-less) through an AudioQuest Carbon USB B to C Cable to a Denfrips Iris and then to a Denafrips Ares II DAC.

This analog signal goes to my Ayon Scorpio XS amp and then to my Tekton Perfect Set 2-10 speakers.

A great sounding system!

 

On the apple front I can add some input. I've used various iterations of mac mini as server over the years. In order of sound quality, worst to best.

1. 2009 Stock mini, no optimization of OS, usb out.

2. 2009 Stock mini, partially optimized OS (some processes disabled), usb out

3. 2014 mini, I5 Intel, El Capitan OS, sata ssd, Uptone MMK and JS2, usb out, major upgrade on above, really in different league.

4. 2014 mini, same as above with some optimization (again, some processes disabled), Uptone usbRegen, nice upgrade on above

5. 2014 mini, same as above with more optimization (go into terminal and shut down more processes), thunderbolt bridge for network out vs usb out. At this point requirement to go to streamer, in this case SOtM SMS 200 Neo.This is major, major upgrade, eliminating usb rendering within server lowers noise floor greatly.

6. Same as above, add generic FMC just prior to SOTM, more lowering of noise floor, very worthwhile upgrade

 

2014 mini, I7 Intel PCIe ssd, Monterey OS, Uptone MMK and JS2, 3rd party wipe of unneeded apps, disable system integrity protection. Still using FMC and SOTM as streamer, pretty substantial upgrade over I5 and sata ssd. Faster processor and PCIe vs sata very nice, disabled SIP absolute necessity.

7. Same exact sertup as 6. Replace SOTM with Sonore OpticalRendu, major upgrade, further lowering of noise floor, jitter, sound quality entering realm of extremely nice analog.

 

Concurrent, to above mini upgrades has been continuing network upgrades, all contributed to gradual lowering of noise floor.

 

My analysis of servers/streamers at this point. Faster processor, OS optimization and ssd quality critical for server. Streamer quality critical as well as entire network. But for me, greatest upgrade was eliminating all rendering from server. Servers are likely noisiest component in streaming chain (router up there), not good place to do rendering with exception of the rare server that has fully optimized internal rendering. IMO, server is best as simple network device, dedicated streamer or streamer dac place to do rendering. Exception would be atx motherboard based servers with Pink Faun, JCAT usb cards, or exceptional servers such as Wadax.

I started with the Node 2i, then moved to using the Node with with an external DAC (Shiit Modi Multibit). The rest of the system is Primaluna EVO 300 pre into two Primaluna EVO 100's used to biamp a pair of B&W CM7's, plus a Sunfire True sub sourced from the pre. The difference was quite noticeable in both the crispness of the bass and the detail in the highs. This made me swap out the Shiit for a Denafrips Pontus II. Major difference. But... Alvin Chee told me the Denafrips really sings on the I2S input.

So I build a RPI4, powered with a Shanti LPS, and installed MoOde, routing the USB output of that into a Denafrips Iris DDC, then I2S to the Pontus. The result is bass where you can feel the players' hands slide on the strings, a very strong midrange, and a detailed, but not too bright, high end (which is good, given the B&W's). The soundstage improvements are palpable. I think, since so much of soundstage dimension comes from small timing differences in sound origination from the speakers, the DDC helps significantly.

My main complaint is that the Qobuz native app doesn't recognize MoOde's UPnP renderer. So I listen to Qobuz over Airplay for background listening, and use Linn Kazoo (which supports UPnP but has a terrible interface for browsing) for critical listening. 

My other main complaint is the setup as-is reveals my speakers and sub as the weakest components now, so I'm getting the upgrade urge...

In summary, though, I've found that having the simplest, dedicated streamer (with LPS for noise reduction) seems to work well for me...

Why is it when people are asked to compare an audio component we are asked to do an apples to apples comparison but in pc to streamer this is thrown out the window. In general I would sure hope s $22,000 streamer would sound better than a $2000 pc. Just as a $22,000 speaker, amp, dac, and pre amp will sound better than a $2000 one.

I would say the above comment where ’will’ is used, would be for the best, if not taken literally, it is a speculation from the poster.

If a Buyer can do their homework and take the time to experience a selection of devices through a demonstration, it will be discovered there are options on offer in the HiFi Market where extremely impressive systems can be produced for a very reasonable outlay, especially when considering used items as a purchase.

 

@4greatmusic

If you want to get the most out of streaming… then first step is to get a high end streaming source. Sorry, I know you like Apple… that is not going to do it. Qobuz is the audiophile standard… it has well over 500,000 high resolution albums and tne quality of streaming is the best. The only serious other streaming service is Tidal… but it only has less that 20% the high resolution titles of Qobuz.

I used a Mac / MacBook and a PC and get good sound… but nothing in comparison to Qobuz with a dedicated streamer. Hey, if you are happy with what you have, that is great. But there is better… there always is.