What’s the Best Way to Stream Music from My PC?

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Q I’m wondering about the best setup to stream music from my computer. I currently use an Apple TV connected to an Onkyo receiver to stream Apple Lossless files from my Mac via AirPlay. Is there a better way? Should I add an outboard DAC or switch to a different network streaming device? —Rafael Cremonese / via e-mail

A I don’t see anything wrong with your current setup. The Apple TV receiver is a snap to get up and running and provides mostly glitch-free wireless music playback. Unlike many other streamers, it also decodes Apple Lossless files. That said, there are other options to consider that might improve your system’s audio performance. The first and most obvious is to add an outboard DAC to decode digital music files before passing them on to the Onkyo. DAC prices range from around $100 to loads more than that, so the limiting factor will be your budget. You can check out our reviews of outboard DACs here.

As for upgrading your network streaming device, there are plenty of good mid-price step-up models to consider. Pioneer’s Elite N-50 (shown above), which has a good buzz among audio enthusiasts, provides both AirPlay and DLNA support and for less than $600 is relatively affordable. Similar options are also available in the same price range from Cambridge Audio, NAD, Marantz, and others.

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COMMENTS
mardukes's picture

I have an Asus motherboard with HDMI out. I run an HDMI cable from there my Yamaha AVR. I play files anywhere from MP3s to Flac files within the MediaMonkey. The AVR says it's receiving PCM stream and it sounds pretty good to me. While the Dacs and devices and such?

Now if only someone could tell me how to keep my PC from going into sleep mode while playing I would be all set.

chebner's picture

To prevent your PC from entering sleep mode while streaming any type of media there is a setting in your Power Options in the Control Panel of Windows. If you have Win7 go into your Control Panel and select Power Options. There may be multiple power plans listed with radio buttons but the one you are using will have the radio button selected. To the right there will be a link to 'Change plan settings'. In the next window you want to click on the 'Change advanced power settings' link. This will open a small 'Power Options' window. Scroll to the bottom and there are 'Multimedia settings'. Under 'When sharing media' select 'Prevent idling to sleep'. Click 'Apply' or 'Ok' to close all the windows and you should be good to go and your sleeping problem will be solved.

livengood1's picture

If you listen only to 2-channel music (or can bypass your home theater receiver) and you don't mind an omnipresent computer in your listening room, the best quality can be achieved with a good USB DAC directly feeding a power amp. Empirical Audio, for example, makes state-of-the art products suitable for this application. If you share music listening (2-channel or multichannel) and movies or if you just want a hassle-free way to enjoy music without a computer in the room, Sonos is an excellent choice, with a great, simple user interface and flawless streaming from all of your networked computer or hard drive sources, as well as Mog, Rhapsody, etc. and unlimited Internet radio. Sonos can also be improved (for a modest price) with mods or add-ons to improve the clock and other circuitry.

chebner's picture

I've seen several articles lately about streaming music from a computer. These articles have included a lot of praise for the use of outboard DACs and/or receivers with built in asynchronous USB DACs. Most of these articles spend very little time on the Ethernet streaming capabilities that are built into many of today's receivers and pre/pros. Most time is spent praising the afore mentioned methods. What's missing is a clear description of the negatives (if there are any) of streaming over Ethernet and using the player built in to the receiver/pre/pro.
So if it is assumed that Ethernet streaming could negatively impact sound quality, how much of an impact would there be? What differences would be easiest to hear? One thing that steers me away from letting an outboard DAC do the processing is that I would now have an analog input into my system. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with analog, but in my situation I like to avoid it. My room isn’t set up the best to promote audio reproduction. It is squarish (19x17) with nothing on the walls. You haven’t heard a slap echo if you haven’t sit in my listening room. I have an Integra DHC 80.3 with Audyssey MultEQ XT32 and it works wonders. It makes me dream of the day when I give the room some acoustic treatment; I wonder how good it will sound. But the fact that it sounds so good now (for both 2 channel music and 7.1 for movies) it makes the extra cost harder to justify.
So back to streaming over Ethernet vs an outboard DAC. If I went with an outboard DAC, the signal would just get converted back to digital for the Audyssey processing and then go through the internal DAC in the pre/pro. Does it really make sense for anyone using Audyssey to choose an outboard DAC over the Ethernet player built into their receiver or pre/pro?

buckchester's picture

No, it doesn't. The benefits of Audyssey can be noticable. I am sceptical of the improvements an outboard DAC could make. Hopefully the author of this article has some experience comparing the two. It would be nice for him to post a response.

Al Griffin's picture
I agree that Audyssey processing should take priority over an outboard DAC when you're listening in a problematic room. I use Audyssey correction myself in one such room, and the difference it makes is more audible than what I've heard from simply swapping out DACs. That said, I've also heard improvements when using outboard asynchronous DACs (specifically the Meridian Explorer, Audioquest Dragonfly and HRT microStreamer) to listen to music sourced from my laptop in a different, less problematic room. And the quality boost was notable when compared with the same tracks played via an AppleTV (with my pre/pro handling digital-to-analog conversion). Which brings us back to the original question: Is there another, possibly better way to stream music from a computer than via an AppleTV? If wireless is important, then any of the products I suggested in my response would apply. If wireless isn't important, then using a USB DAC could be the ticket, and it wouldn't necessarily be an expensive one.
livengood1's picture

In my earlier comments, I mentioned that using a separate DAC with asynchronous USB input would give a very high quality result. I was not claiming that this is the way to go for everyone--in fact, it is not the route that I have chosen. But, for perfectionist audio, it is a great breakthrough. The objections made by chebner and buckchester are valid, but look at it from another perspective. Sure, room correction is important. In fact, I believe that without it, all other efforts to get good sound are worthless (except for headphone listening, about which I will comment further). My room is treated with bass traps and diffusion, as well as equalization and thought-out placement of speakers and seating, and I recommend this step before any equipment upgrade. If your room correction includes Audessey then yes, you need to stream to a product that includes it, preferably one with a great DAC. But those taking the outboard DAC route have at their disposal parametric equalization built into the music programs used by most of those adept at using these systems. And, in my opinion, this equalization can be far superior to Audessey if the time and frequency responses are measured before correction with the sophisticated tools now available at low cost to smart phone users. (Aside: the version of Audessey used by professional installers is far superior to the versions in receivers and I have heard awesome results from it.) For those who listen through headphones only, asynchronous USB is the best way to go. Just try the Audioquest Dragonfly to see for yourself how even a cheap implementation offers a great improvement in sound. To the other point: The question posed by chebner about streaming via ethernet through the receiver itself, is a good one. I have an answer for that question, having been there myself. Eight years ago I bought a Denon 4306 receiver, in part so I could use this feature. And it worked. The only problem was that there were dropouts every night, around one an hour. This drove me crazy, especially when listening to long classical pieces. Because of this, I sprang for Sonos, which has never had dropouts for me. The other benefit of Sonos was the great user interface, far superior to having to use the TV to read the clunky Denon type. The solution is not to have ideological disputes, but to see what your needs are and to do what works for you. Sonos does work for me, and I have improved its performance to the point that I am very happy using it for 2-channel music. There are other solutions out there, all along the price/quality spectrum. I think that in the future, most receiver manufactures will offer the asynchronous USB option, which can be used with the room correction software in the receiver. Pioneer already does. Anyway, my advice is to go to a dealer with a good listening room (rare, I know) and compare. And then, once you pull the plug and buy, enjoy the music and don't look back.

chebner's picture

I would agree that depending on your configuration Ethernet streaming can have issues with dropping out and early user interfaces were clunky at best.

When I first started streaming I was sharing via Windows Media Player on a WinXP computer streaming to an Onkyo TX-NR906. I was using this configuration for 10-12 months. During that time it was frustrating at times with the Ethernet connection dropping or resetting at random times. I then built a new computer with Win7. Ever since moving to Win7 I have had no such issues; the Ethernet connection is rock solid reliable.

The user interface has also improved greatly. A couple years ago I upgraded to an Integra DHC 80.3 that works with the Integra/Onkyo Android remote app. It is a huge improvement over using the Pre amps menu on the TV; it is also much quicker. Early on there were some stability issues with the app, but this never interrupted playback. Those issues have since been resolved and it is now very stable as well.

Sounds like the best setup for me at this time is to continue to stream to my Integra. I have been very happy with both the sound quality and the interface. Next upgrade cycle I'll look for something with an asynchronous USB DAC, or maybe there'll be something better by then.

Thanks for your input and feed back.

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