What the FLAC? Wi-Fi Streaming vs. USB

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Q I have a question about streaming audio from my PC to an A/V system located in another room. I want to be able to stream my vast collection of FLAC audio files along with Internet radio to an Integra DTR 5.9 A/V receiver. Running an Ethernet cable wouldn’t be my first choice; I have a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout the entire house and would like to use that instead for streaming. I've looked at the Sonos and Nuvo systems and the WD TV Live box. Each of these options seems to have good and bad points. But I’ve also thought about buying an inexpensive laptop and connecting it to my A/V system with a portable USB DAC. Can you recommend a solution? —John Hanlon / Encinitas, CA

A It seems as though we’re looking at two possibilities here: one long-range/wireless, the second local/wired.

As for option one, Sound & Vision has reviewed a handful of network music players, including Cambridge Audio’s NP30 and Pioneer’s Elite N-50, that should meet your needs. Both models feature wired Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity, FLAC decoding, and 96/24-capable DACs (up to 192/24 on the Pioneer). While I’m with you on the idea of tapping a wireless network to send music from one place to another (what could be more convenient?), I should add that I’ve found Wi-Fi in my home to be less reliable than a hardwired connection for music (and video) streaming. Your experience may be different, but you might also want to reconsider running that cable.

Looking at option two, there are plenty of inexpensive high-performance USB DACs that can be used to tether a laptop loaded with music to your Onkyo receiver—as long you can tolerate a computer sitting in your system. Three such models have been reviewed positively by Sound & Vision: Meridian Explorer , AudioQuest Dragonfly, and the HRT microStreamer. Depending on what software you choose for computer playback (at least two options, Audirvana+ and Pure Music, let you play high-res FLAC files from within iTunes, which doesn’t otherwise support the FLAC format), you can use an app on your smartphone or tablet to control track browsing/selection from your seat, which will make things very convenient indeed.

jnemesh's picture

Theoretically, running your audio over USB from a computer will give you better results than using a Sonos or Nuvo system, but on most systems, you are not going to notice the difference. If you are looking for both convenience AND quality, I would suggest using the Sonos CONNECT (the one with a digital output! Formally called the ZP90) and running the digital output from that into the DAC of your choice. Personally, I REALLY like the Parasound ZDAC at about $475 MSRP, EXCELLENT sound for the money! Once you plug everything in and select the proper input on the DAC, you never have to touch it again...simply select your music from the Sonos (or Nuvo) app, and put your Onkyo on the corresponding analog input that the DAC is plugged into, and enjoy!

Also, I second Al's opinion that Wifi should be avoided. If you can't run an actual Cat5 or Cat6 cable through your home, look at using an Ethernet over Powerline adaptor, or use a MOCA (Multimedia over Coax) adaptor to get a hardwired connection to your equipment. It will be FAR more stable than a wireless link!

Good luck and happy listening!

Al Griffin's picture
@jnemesh: Thanks for your comments. Definitely are tons of options to consider for this kind of setup -- so much so that I felt a need to limit my recommendations. NuVo and, I believe, Sonos, support FLAC, but don't stream files at resolutions higher than 44.1/16. BTW, I started using Ethernet over Powerline after becoming frustrated with Wi-Fi hiccups and it works perfectly for A/V streaming.
jnemesh's picture

Well, there are 2 ways to go about this. First, you could get a dedicated "audiophile" music player. Meridian has a really good one, and Sony just released one as well. These will generally be VERY expensive, but are easy to operate, and offer "plug and play" functionality, along with app control for your smartphone or tablet.

I, personally, went the other way. I use a $340 Asus laptop (unfortunately running Windows 8), and it's plugged into the Parasound ZDAC I mentioned earlier. I use the excellent JRiver Media Center 18 software for playback ($50, well worth it!). I control the system with a remote desktop app on my phone, which gives me full control of my computer from across the room. If you want great quality without shucking out thousands of dollars, this is what I would recommend. If the ease of use and convenience is worth the money, then look at the dedicated players.

jupitreas's picture

Consider the Raspberry Pi + a USB DAC as a very cheap and quite capable solution for your problem. The only caveat is that the Pi is not powerful enough to handle hi-rez audio files so you might need to resample for that. On the upside, there is no real conclusive proof that using hi-rez audio formats results in an audible gain in audio quality, so I personally would not worry about this.

jnemesh's picture

Seriously, just go to HDTracks.com and download their free sample album! If you have a good DAC, you WILL hear a difference! It's not subtle!

Ken C. Pohlmann's picture
I'm a big fan of Wifi Audio. Cables on the floor - not so much. Personally, I'd invest in a solid WiFi setup throughout the house, then look at Wren, etc. Reliable music and internet throughout the house - win, win. The WiFi audio in my house is bombproof.
Al Griffin's picture
Wi-Fi is bombproof? You must live in an underground bunker. ;)
Rob Sabin's picture
You guys both make good points. Signal strength is super critical to Wi-Fi streaming, as I found out when I was running my install business and in my own home. A good booster midway between the router and destination device(s) can make a huge difference in performance and eliminate video stuttering and audio dropouts, even though the Wi-Fi works fine for general web-browsing and email without it. (I can highly recommend the late generation Amped Wireless products.) Of course, the device receiving the signal is also part of the equation. One of our readers wrote in looking for help when he eliminated his standalone Roku box for a TV that had built-in Wi-Fi streaming. Roku has optimized the antenna and circuitry in those boxes to make the most of every signal and has honed the performance of their industry-leading streamers. Nothing this guy did -- changing out the router, adding boosters -- would give him the same glitch-free performance from the TV alone.

jnemesh's picture

It sounds like the "booster" you are talking about is a WiFi repeater. Yes, it will extend your range, but at the cost of cutting your ENTIRE wireless network bandwidth IN HALF! Beware using these!

Mark Ulrich's picture

An Oppo BDP-103 connected to your Integra DTR 5.9 via HDMI would provide network media support, and the Integra DTR can provide the DAC function. If you want a higher quality DAC the Oppo BDP-105 is an option.

Wireless, done properly, should not be a problem. I run multiple concurrent music and video streams using 802.11ac modems and bridges without any problems.

stodgers's picture

I tried connecting my Oppo BDP-103 via wireless and it was a no-go on a strong connection. When I contacted Oppo for support, they said it wasn't designed for wireless and thus they didn't support that, and I should run an ethernet cable. It now works fine. So while I think it is a great option, particularly for those who are looking to upgrade a BD player, I would not say 'wireless should not be a problem' for a device where wireless isn't supported.

10basetom's picture

If you have a little bit of money and a lot of patience, then you should preorder the Mini Aero (http://www.moosaudio.com/).