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: the best streaming DACs, which you plug in to your 'hi-fi stack' – or whatever the cool kids call them nowadays.
They can also be added to a soundbar, or an older powered speaker, to allow streaming via Wi-Fi or, in some cases, Bluetooth. You could also add them to one of the best Bluetooth speakers, for streaming via Wi-Fi instead, which can be more reliable and sound better. You could even, I suppose, at a push, plug a Bluetooth streamer into a Wi-Fi speaker to make it into a Bluetooth speaker. But maybe that would be a bit weird.
These are not to be confused with ye olde worlde, hi-fi wired DACs, which let you convert digital audio sources from CD players (remember them?) to Apple TVs (remember them?) 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 are more portable – often battery powered – and which you use to get better sound from your laptop or mobile via, obviously, headphones.
All clear? Excellent, on with the list of best streaming DACs, then!
What is the best streaming DAC?
It doesn’t look much, but Sonos Port offers an extremely smooth transition from the wired to wireless world. Just plug in your turntable and stream it to a Sonos speaker, or plug it into your amp and speakers and stream via Airplay 2 or the Sonos app. If you've got a Google Home or Alexa speaker you can even have voice control of it.
The Yamaha WXAD-10 is another 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, to Apple AirPlay and even Bluetooth.
Why you need a streaming DAC
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.
The best streaming DACs
Sonos Port is a great little streamer, especially if you're among the millions of people who already own a Sonos speaker. It's actually a multi-purpose device, since it has an analogue input and output, as well as being able to stream to any Sonos speaker wirelessly.
This means you can plug in a source – a turntable being the most obvious one, although you will need a pre-amp if yours isn't able to output at line level – and then stream it around the house to your network of Sonos speakers and soundbars.
Alternatively, you can plug the Port into your amplifier/soundbar/powered speaker and stream to it via Sonos or Apple AirPlay 2.
With careful positioning, the Port can even pull off both its party tricks at once.
Sound quality is really excellent, despite the absence of support for hi-res audio. The Sonos app supports pretty much every streaming service known to humanity and lets you build playlists fairly seamlessly from all of them, as well as streaming music stored on your phone, or a NAS or laptop. There's also now Sonos Radio, which pulls off a similar trick with most of the world's leading radio stations.
The Sonos Port is perhaps a little testing on the pricing front compared to the Yamaha at #2, but it's a brilliant little box of tricks.
• You might also consider the Sonos Amp which is pretty much the same thing but – no surprises here – with an amplifier built in.
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 supports AirPlay and gives access to Spotify, Tidal, Qobuz and other streaming services.
Unlike Sonos, it's only AirPlay that's supported, not AirPlay 2, and at this point the original version of Apple's streaming system is barely fit for purpose. There is also Bluetooth connectivity, however, which the Sonos Port doesn't have. The sound quality takes something of a dip if you use Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi but some will find it a handy backup streaming method.
However, also unlike the Sonos, you can only stream to it. You can't input a turntable or other source and stream from it to a MusicCast speaker.
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 and barely bigger than the Port. 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. This is one area where the much newer Sonos Port has it beat, as wireless connectivity is not as good.
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 is also now supported via your Echo speaker.
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 Tidal or Amazon's hi-res streams or, even better, hi-res files from a NAS, up to 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 a great balance between price and performance here. Since it's been on sale for more than three years now, it can often be found extremely cheap.
You can read more about the iFi xDSD in our list of the best portable DACs (and headphone amps/DACs) – it's at #1 in that particular chart. I'm a massive fan of this dinky little combined Bluetooth receiver, DAC and headphone amp.
Only after owning one for quite some time, however, did I realise how able it is as a Bluetooth streaming DAC. Simply switch it to line level output mode – don't forget to switch back when you want to use it as a headphone amp, or bleeding from the ears may occur – and it can be plugged into any amplifier or powered speaker. iFi's advanced Bluetooth circuit supports AAC and aptX and sounds really superb.
Considering that this also has a battery and can be used to massively improve the audio from your phone and pour it into a pair of the best wired headphones, the iFi xDSD is an absolute bargain at its usual asking price.
This is more of a 'proper' hi-fi product. It's got an isolated power supply and it's 'proper' hi-fi sized, so it will sit in a stack with your amp and CD player. It's probably impractical if you don't have a hi-fi stack, in fact.
There's support for audio up to 192Khz/24-bit and sound quality is noticeably better than the Sonos and Yamaha streamers further up the list. The quality gap between the considerably smaller and slightly cheaper Arcam DAC below is not so noticeable, but it offers more stable connectivity than that one.
Size aside, my only slight reservation is with the DTS Play-fi app that the Audiolab 6000N forces you to use. It's not the most evil piece of software ever by any means, but it's also not without its quirks – those preset buttons that are the sole feature of the 6000N's front plate are none too easy to setup, for a start.
Even so, for a bit of proper hi-fi kit, this is very keenly priced and comes highly recommended to Audiolab fans in particular.
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. It also supports AirPlay 2, which iOS users in particular may find more straightforward.
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.
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.
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.
• Update: for some reason, Google decided to discontinue this delightful little dongle, but you may still be able to find one on eBay.
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.