Streaming is not a new format, nor even new technology, but it has taken the place of the CD in many enthusiasts systems, so has the characteristics of a format in our world. In fact its strength is that its almost format free. In theory and often in practice as well you can stream existing audio formats on a piece of hardware that can also accommodate future formats. This may require a hardware update but often a software update over the web is sufficient, it is tremendously flexible in that respect.
But why has streaming proved so popular? There are number of reasons prime among them being the ease of access to your music collection. We no longer wear hair shirts and expect to fine tune the LP12 every time we sit down for a session (praise the lord), we want easy access and good sound. And there’s nothing quite as easy as selecting your music on a tablet computer from the listening seat. That’s not to say that sound quality is secondary however, a good streaming source is extremely resolute and engaging. The majority of streamers sound more refined than the majority of CD players, pound for pound they are a revelation in this respect. If the harsh glare of digital audio has kept you in the analogue fold you might be pleasantly surprised by the presentation of a decent streamer. Pitting the best streamers against the best CDPs will split opinion of course, but in my experience streamers excel at low level detail, refinement and openness while disc spinners have the upper hand at timing and the emotional engagement that good timing delivers. The fact that Naim uses its NDS streamer to demonstrate the megabucks Statement amplifiers rather than the more costly CD555 CD player should tell you something. It’s clear from sales data that CD players are being squeezed out by the revival of turntables and the ascent of streamers.
The other obvious advantage they have in the digital arena is the ability to playback higher bit and sample rate recordings, unlike CD players streamers are not restricted to the 16‑bit/44.1kHz red book format. Chipsets exist that can replay sample rates up to 384kHz and quadruple DSD (DSD256), and quite possibly higher by the time you read this. Higher bit and sample rates are not in themselves a panacea for good sound of course, you can probably remember numbers races in the past such as THD where better figures did not mean better sound. I heard recently that the BBC used to send FM signals to its transmitters at 13‑bit in the seventies, and FM was considered pretty good back then. Today’s DAB broadcasts stretch to 128kbps if you’re lucky.
Streaming started in what is now called the CI or custom installation world back in the nineties, when you want to send audio to multiple rooms and control it from a single point you can ‘t beat transmitting through a network. The CI industry used computer platforms and storage systems to develop means of providing multiroom audio without multiple sources, and companies including Naim and Linn started out in streaming this way. Both have now abandoned CI and concentrate on domestic streaming hardware, Linn doing so in the most dramatic fashion when it announced that it would stop making CD players in late 2009.
The more affordable entry point in the early days was Squeezebox’s range of rendering devices or players. Squeezebox released a full size streamer called the Transporter but it was the smaller and rather more affordable Touch that captured the attention of enthusiasts. The brand itself has been absorbed into the Logitech fold and this hardware is no longer around but the Touch remains a popular player with numerous mods and tweaks available to the enthusiast, you can even get it to stream the latest music services.