Bluetooth and Wi-Fi streaming speakers are all the rage, and old-school hi-fi separates remain popular. But there is a third way that allows separates owners to have their audiophile stereo cake and eat digitally streamed music: streaming DACs.
These are not to be confused with standard, wired DACs, which let you convert digital audio sources such as CD or Apple TV into an analogue signal that can be put into a standard amplifier or all-in-one speaker.
Nor are they to be confused with headphone DACs, which you use to get better sound from your laptop or mobile via, obviously, headphones.
Confused yet? Excellent, on with the list of best streaming DACs, then!
What is the best streaming DAC?
It doesn’t look much, but the Yamaha WXAD-10 is a superb value upgrade to your music system. It supports hi-res audio, allows the possibility of Sonos-like multi-room and is compatible with every streaming service most people could possibly want, from Spotify to Qobuz, Apple AirPlay to Bluetooth.
It's also at a more than reasonable price, although if you want something really cheap and effective, try Google Chromecast Audio, which practically comes free with cornflakes.
If you've got an existing hi-fi with decent speakers, CD player and Amplifier, but crave the digital delights of wireless audio, you need a streaming DAC.
These simple plug-and-play receivers connect to a spare phono or 3.5mm input and instantly upgrade your kit. Sound quality can be anything from MP3-level to better-than-CD hi-res audio, and all the convenience of Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music etc.
All the kit we've reviewed features a DAC (or digital-to-analogue converter) that improves, to varying degrees, the sound quality of streamed music. While none will match a wire for hi-res file compatibility and playback, you'll often notice the difference with a lowly MP3.
Many streaming DAC receivers can also be used to integrate your old kit into a wider multi-room set-up – some also with voice control support - whether that's Chromecast, Sonos or MusicCast, breathing yet more life into your antiquated audio kit. You will, of course, need more compatible speakers (or streaming DACs plugged into hi-fi systems) to achieve this life goal.
1. Yamaha WXAD-10
The best wireless streaming DAC
With its MusicCast system Yamaha has one eye on multi-room market domination, and with the simple to install, superb sounding WXAD-10 wireless receiver they've got the gateway drug to get you hooked.
The WXAD-10 also gives access to Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz and other streaming services, and unlike Sonos, the options don't end there as Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth connectivity are also included.
Connect to your dumb old hi-fi via 3.5mm or phono and you'll be streaming anything from MP3 to hi-res in seconds. Even if you don't want to create a multi-room system it's a great tool to upgrade your existing audio equipment, and sounds significantly better than the dinky DAC found in the (admittedly far cheaper) Google Chromecast Audio.
Measuring just 130mm wide it's unobtrusive, smaller than the Arcam boxes and better looking than the iFi One, and while it can’t hide away like the Chromecast Audio dongle, it's hardly offensive. Around the back is a pair of stereo phono outputs and a 3.5mm mini jack. There's also an Ethernet connection if your home Wi-Fi isn't up to it.
Using the Yamaha MusicCast app, set-up is serenely simple, and Wi-Fi passwords are shared within seconds. If you've got other MusicCast products – amazingly there are now over 50 to choose from – a couple of taps is all it takes to group them for multi-room playback.
The MusicCast app allows you to stream a from the usual suspects: Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Napster, Qobuz and TuneIn, plus it will happily access NAS drives and play nicely with AirPlay. Amazon Alexa support is also imminent.
Yamaha is using a high-precision, low-jitter Burr-Brown PCM5121 DAC and streamed sound quality is superb as a result. I was surprised by just how precise and engaging the WXAD-10 was. Obviously, quality depends on the source material, so while Spotify, Tune-In et al sound better than without the DAC, if you stream hi-res files (24-bit 192kHz) you're in for a real treat. It can’t handle DSD or MQA files yet, but that's a minor quibble for most users.
There are cheaper ways to get streaming, and there are more high-end ones, but Yamaha has struck the perfect balance between price and performance here.
2. Chromecast Audio
Google Home voice control
You could buy five Chromecast Audio dongles for the price of one Sonos Play 1 speaker, and create a complete multi-room system. Well, okay, so long as you've got five old speakers lying around. Now THAT is a deal.
This Oreo-sized dongle is arguably aimed more at upgrading Bluetooth speakers than hi-fi systems but it's still unbeatable value for money.
Connected to your home's Wi-Fi it streams effortlessly from a clutch of apps – Spotify, Tidal, Google's own Play Music, etc – across Android and iOS platforms. Using Google Chrome it can mirror and 'cast' virtually any audio content, and it also works with Google Home voice control.
Best of all, it doesn’t sound like filth, which is remarkable given the price.
The dongle has a hybrid 3.5mm/optical port and it comes with a 5-inch, 3.5mm cable to connect to your old active/Bluetooth speaker. You will need a slightly obscure type of adaptor to use it with the phono inputs found on most hi-fis: a female 3.5mm to twin phono, to be precise.
The Chromecast app is slick and intuitive, which makes finding compatible apps to stream from and the actual set up a breeze.
Google Play Music, Deezer, TuneIn, Sondcloud and Spotify are all catered for nicely on Android and iOS, although Apple Music/AirPlay and Amazon Music users are left out.
As for sound quality, file types up to 24-bit/96kHz are supported, which is good enough for most of us, and despite the size and price, it does sound really good. If you stream 320kbps from Spotify for instance, it sounds on a par with a wired connection. You won't be unearthing anything new from the recordings, but your ears won't hate you either.
3. Arcam rDAC
Best AirPlay and UPnP DAC
Supporting files up to 24-bit/192kHz and compatible with DTS' excellent audio-buffing Play-Fi codec, this is a step up in sound quality and cost from the Yamaha and Chromecast.
Even without Play-Fi, just using Spotify streams or decent quality MP3/AAC files from your usual player of choice, this minimalist charcoal box works some pretty deep magic. It gives an immediately noticeable boost to sound quality and connectivity is rock solid via either Wi-Fi or ethernet.
Audiophiles can choose to bypass the DAC's volume controls and also send hi-res files via Play-Fi with "no compression, down-sampling, or network distortion", using its Critical Listening Mode. Mmm-mm.
However, please note that unlike irDAC II, Arcam's other DAC on this list, there are only streaming inputs (N Wi-Fi and ethernet) to the rPlay, so you can't use it as a more traditional, wired DAC.
4. iFi Nano iOne
Best value Bluetooth streaming DAC
This cig packet sized DAC is Bluetooth rather than Wi-Fi. Weighing in at a feather light 141g, it outperforms Chromecast over Bluetooth and gives greatly improved results to your laptop when plugged in via USB.
Streaming via Bluetooth (AAC/aptX) and plugged into the spare phono socket on your amp the iOne makes the most of a piss-poor MP3, and while you'll never discover unheard detail in your favourite tracks, you will enjoy listening to it. In fact, I'm betting you'll be excited and entertained by the dynamic upgrade provided, which sounds impressively grown-up.
Despite the potential portability offered by the size, there's no battery or headphone output, but my only major niggle is that the supplied USB cable is too short to be much use. A very nice, if niche, product.
5. Arcam irDAC II
Best premium Bluetooth DAC
It's getting on a bit design wise, but this chunky black box offers not just a quaint antenna in order to receive aptX/AAC Bluetooth, but also a very respectable spread of inputs: USB, one wired and two optical digital inputs. There's also fixed and variable phono and 3.5mm headphone outputs.
The upshot is you can connect it to just about all your devices, instantly upgrading the sound and giving your traditional hi-fi the convenience of Bluetooth streaming.
The headphone output has been borrowed from Arcam's flagship A49 amplifier and will drive the meatiest cans with ease while the ES9016 Sabre DAC delivers detail, space and an impressive amount of welly.
Obviously, the wired connection sounds superior to streaming Spotify (even over aptX), but the Bluetooth performance far from offends, wringing the most from even the most compressed MP3.
While we wait for the Chord Poly to give the exceptional Mojo streaming freedom, the Arcam irDAC II fills the gap very nicely.
6. Sonos Connnect
Upgrades anything to Sonos, albeit at a stupid price
Amazingly, the Connect network audio player has been on sale since 2012, but remains about the only way to integrate your existing hi-fi into the Sonos multi-room family. This simple bridge connects to any spare input on your amp, hooks into your Wi-Fi and streams up to CD quality audio.
It's Sonos, so set-up is pretty painless, followed by a few app 'quirks' that are irritating but not deal breakers. You can pull audio from over 30 sources – including Apple Music, these days – and you can even physically plug in another analogue or digital source and then stream that around the house too.
If you've already invested, or have plans to invest in the Sonos family, the Connect will breathe new life into your existing hi-fi.
The only caveats are that hi-res audio isn't supported and that the price is so weirdly high, compared to its all-in-one speakers, that we can only assume Sonos doesn't really want you to buy the Connect at all…