For millions of music listeners, the smartphone has become their primary source component; digital music streaming services now represent close to 80% of the market with more than 50 million subscribers in the United States alone. Consumers put greater value on convenience vs sound quality and that shift has been a rude wake-up call for the high-end audio industry that has marketed expensive separates, loudspeakers, cables, and accessories for decades.
The reality is that consumers no longer see a need for so many expensive boxes; wireless active loudspeakers and one-box integrated amplifiers which include both wired and wireless digital streaming connectivity have made them unnecessary. The good news for consumers is that while prices at the top end have escalated beyond the cost of a luxury automobile for some audio components, there have never been as many affordable high-end components than what is available right now and that makes it a great time to assemble a system.
Bluesound Node 2i – $499.00
It took a few versions to get things right, but the Node 2i is one of the most comprehensive streamers with support for MQA, all of the major streaming services, AirPlay 2, Amazon Alexa, and now comes equipped with an internal 32-bit/192kHz DAC which means that you can run it directly into your amplifier as a source. Wi-Fi connectivity, a Gigabit Ethernet RJ45 input, and support for Bluetooth 5.0 aptX HD makes the Node 2i a very comprehensive solution for most users. This Roon-ready device also plays well in the sandbox with other ecosystems aside from BluOS and sounds decidedly analog for a digital component. BUY NOW
Sonore ultraRendu – $924.00 (with iFi power supply)
If your preference is to own a music server or streamer that you can hide inside a cabinet and control remotely with access to your music collection and streaming services via your home network, the ultratender from Sonora is one of the best and most reliable options available. The ultraRendu utilizes high grade parts, including an ultra-low jitter FEMTO oscillator, has a customizable OS, and offers excellent resolution, a warm tonal balance, and excellent sense of momentum. There is a learning curve associated with this, but the ability to tweak the ultraRendu to meet your specific needs will be a bonus for many users. BUY NOW
Roon Nucleus – $1,399.00
Roon Labs has introduced two generations of music servers based around its playback and library management platform and there is no question that it’s the best choice if you have a substantial CD collection, and utilize multiple streaming platforms like Tidal, and Qobuz. The Linux-based server is set-up and managed through your smartphone, tablet, or computer and the learning curve is not too severe. The Nucleus comes pre-loaded with Roon’s software, but you still have to pay to activate your subscription. The library can hold more than 10,000 albums, and the server can handle up to 6 simultaneous zones of playback. BUY NOW
Innuos ZENMini MKIII – $1,249 (1TB) – LPSU adds $700
Designed and manufactured in Portugal, the ZENMini MKIII is both a music server, Roon-endpoint, and Roon Core platform if you require a hub for a multi-room system. This two-box system will rip your CD collection, organize your metadata, and give you enormous long-term flexibility running Roon along with streaming services such as Tidal, and Qobuz. The ZENMini MKIII can be run as a music server into an external DAC, or via its analog outputs directly into your amplifier. Digital music flows out of this silent box with the warmth, and fluidity you might expect from the best analog sources. BUY NOW