High-Res Networked Audio: Are We There Yet?
A four system software shootout.
March 2, 2017
Sonos is the king of networked home audio, but its inability to play high-resolution music has been an ongoing source of frustration for some of its customers. The market for high-res digital downloads remains small, the province of audiophiles who keep large collections on home servers. But the market for high-res streaming is about to take off, bolstered by new services from Tidal and a consortium of major record labels. And yet Sonos continues to refuse to cater to high-res enthusiasts. This has opened a door for competitors.
Denon’s Heos 2 and Yamaha’s Musiccast are two of the biggest brands ready to fill the void. The companies offer players and powered speakers configured almost identically to Sonos, with comparably priced models ranging from $199-$499. Unlike Sonos, however, Heos and Musiccast stream DSD audio and high-resolution lossless files at 24/96 and 24/192.
To test Heos and Musiccast, I spent two months playing them alongside Sonos. For good measure, I threw in a much less expensive option, Google’s Chromecast Audio. Priced at just $35 and coming in only one model, Chromecast has a do-it-yourself flavor. But its low price makes an appealing entry point.
The hardware of the models from Sonos, Heos, and Musiccast is very similar, aside from Sonos’ lack of high-res. All three brands sell digitally amplified units that can power bookshelf speakers, and also preamp models you can connect to your hi-fi. Their powered speakers are good, but they don’t rival the bass or accuracy you get from audiophile speakers and high quality amplification. All of the systems achieve good sound through their internal DACs. You can get excellent sound with digital cables connected to an external DAC, which is my preferred listening mode.
Rather than focus on the hardware of these broadly similar models, the way to tell them apart is to look at their software — their basic functionality and overall usability. The user experience can make or break a digital music system, or any software-intensive device for that matter. The iPhone’s hardware specs, after all, aren’t that distinct from its rivals, but iPhone is by far the best-selling smartphone because of its usability — its software.
The table below rates the systems from 0-3 on 19 usability attributes, from click-efficiency (the number of clicks to get somewhere), to search, to how the system handles playlists. Any one of these attributes may seem trivial on its own. Added together, they’re the difference between a gadget you use from time to time and an immersive music system you can’t live without.
Usability, of course, isn’t the only aspect of a great digital audio system. The reviews that follow focus on user experience but also touch on a few other factors, including sound quality, which is a potential concern with Chromecast. One other note on Chromecast: because it only works when paired with an outside app, its usability ratings have as much to do with the app chosen for this test (Plex Server) as with Chromecast.
Heos 2 by Denon
Heos 2, the second generation of Denon’s multiroom line, is easy to set up and use. I tested a Heos Link 2, their non-amplified unit, connected to my network via Ethernet. Listening to files off my home-server was a complete joy when the Heos was connected digitally to my Marantz preamp, allowing the Marantz to handle the digital-to-audio conversion.
Unfortunately, Heos has a hardware glitch that will be painful for some customers. Specs claim Heos plays Apple Lossless (alac) files, but Denon and I confirmed that Heos only plays alac files created with very recent versions of iTunes, from about November 2016 on. If you have older alac files, you will have to convert them. All other files played as advertised.
The free Heos app – like all the apps in this test – works similarly on iOS and Android devices. The app is stable and attractive, with many pros but some noteworthy cons.
- Multiroom function is easy and intutitive.
- Scrolling large collections is fast and easy.
- Search works quickly, except for searches by track name in big collections.
- Many online music services are available.
- There’s little customization. In particular, you can’t configure how artists sort, which leads to —
- “Duet syndrome.” Albums featuring more than one artist show up under multiple artist results. Kanye West’s Graduation shows up under Kanye West and Chris Martin, Kanye and Lil Wayne, Kanye and Mos Def, and so on. Willie Nelson duet albums? Scroll on.
- It takes five clicks to get to the albums by artist field on a server, even though this is a common task.
- You can’t add to a current playlist while browsing – you have to create new playlists from scratch every time.
- You have to exit the app to go Spotify, Tidal or other services.
- There’s no desktop app for customization and maintenance.
The Denon app is nice looking but fairly generic. If Denon studies the best interfaces and commits to improving the user experience, Heos could become the high-res alternative to Sonos. It’s not there yet.
“Duet syndrome” makes it a chore to scroll through multi-artist albums on Heos.
Yamaha makes a Musiccast preamp unit similar to the Heos Link 2, but I tested Musiccast bundled into a Yamaha receiver, the R-N602 networked stereo receiver. Once again I connected it to my network via Ethernet. Sound quality was outstanding through this 80 watts-per-channel mid-fi unit, relying on its internal high-resolution DACs. Denon and Marantz also offer Heos bundled into receivers. It’s a great way to entice customers already shopping for new hardware.
In functionality, Musiccast is similar to Heos, except it handles all Apple Lossless files perfectly. The Musiccast app, however, has some head-scratching shortcomings that make you wonder if Yamaha is committed to networked audio.
- Multiroom works easily.
- Click-efficiency is good to the artist field, just one click.
- Playlists allow you to add songs to an existing list.
- Imported playlists from iTunes or Mediamonkey add flexibility. (Heos and Sonos have this too.)
- Click-efficiency is poor (four clicks) to the common field of albums by artist.
- “Duet syndrome” results from the inability to customize artist sorts (as with Heos).
- Scrolling is slow. And you have to scroll a lot, because somewhat amazingly there are no handy A-Z shortcuts to jump you from ABBA to ZZ Top. This is a Design 101 error.
- Search does not work on file servers. You can search the contents of your phone but not a hard drive. Most software developers solved this problem about the time Al Gore invented the Internet.
- Playlists: You are limited to five and you can’t name them, which is just plain bizarre.
- There are fewer online music services to choose from than with Heos, and none are well integrated into the app.
The Musiccast hardware works well, and bundled into a Musiccast receiver with discrete circuitry and high-res DACs, it sounds fantastic. But until Yamaha dramatically improves the app, it’s hard to recommend a Musiccast system, because the user experience feels like an afterthought.
Musiccast rations you with a max of five playlists, none of which you will remember anyway, since you can’t name them.
Google Chromecast Audio
There is at least one very compelling reason to try Chromecast Audio: It’s cheap. At only $35, plus a bit more for cables, adapters and premium apps, Chromecast Audio is the low-cost, guerilla warrior of this group. It has limitations but will be the preferred option for certain customers.
A small, puck-like device, Chromecast is not ideal for techno-phobes. Whereas the other products are easy to set up out of the box, Chromecast works best if you understand your audio system, follow instructions carefully, and are willing to spend time exploring software options.
The exploring is necessary because Chromecast does not come with its own music interface. Instead, you choose a third-party app from many available (including Google Play Music, for online or cloud-based audio), install it on your mobile device, and pair it with Chromecast.
User reviews suggested that the best app for connecting Chromecast with a hard drive full of music is Plex Server. In my experience, Plex brought the system to life. Well known for streaming video, Plex is a free file server that comes with a well-designed player you can run on a media player, like Roku, or off your mobile device if you buy a $5 app. Once you’ve installed the server on a computer or networked hard drive, you can “cast” files to a sound system, using your mobile device or media player as a remote.
Pros (when used with Plex Server)
- Search is speedy and works well.
- Interface is clean and attractive.
- There’s one-click access to artists and albums by artist.
- Customizable sort fields help avoid “duet syndrome.”
- Lyrics are available for extra cost, something none of the other brands offer.
- A desktop app eases maintenance and customization.
- Playlists have all the functions you’d want.
- The first time Plex scans a music collection on a drive can take a long time, days even.
- There are no imported playlists.
- Plex has no access to online music services, although you can access most music service apps directly and “cast” to Chromecast.
- Chromecast customers should be ready to explore technical issues.
- High-res playback is limited to lossless files at 24/96. No support for 24/192 or DSD.
- Then there are issues of sound quality and direct play of digital files ….
This shootout wasn’t a hardware test, so I didn’t take any measurements, but I did conduct level-matched, blind listening tests. Listening to music through their own DACs, I could not reliably distinguish any of the systems from each other except for Chromecast. It sounded less detailed, clear, and dynamic than the others. And channel separation was muddled, diminishing the three-dimensional stereo effect of great recordings.
Unfortunately, things did not improve when I used the toslink-digital out cable with Chromecast to bypass Chromecast’s internal DAC. In theory, a digital out cable should deliver bit-perfect, pristine digital audio to the DAC of your choice. In practice, this didn’t work for me. The Chromecast never sent direct digital flacs to my preamp — it always transcoded them to PCM. After two hours researching and trying to resolve the problem, I gave up. Maybe others can fix it, but in my “user experience,” you could not transport direct digital files from Chromecast to an external DAC, although you could play high-res flacs as transcoded files.
Combined with Plex as its app-interface, Chromecast Audio creates an impressive user experience. The sound quality works for a portable speaker. Since I like to send digital files to my own DACs for optimal sound quality, Chromecast was not my preferred option. But if you want to get into wireless audio cheaply, I highly recommend it.
Sonos, King of the Hill
If James Carville sold networked audio systems, he could tell you why Sonos dominates the market: It’s the app, stupid.
Where Yamaha and Denon settle for fairly generic software, Sonos offers a customized interface that’s clearly built around the user experience. Sonos may not be the ultimate in audio software, but among networked systems, it’s by far the most user-friendly. Competitors have almost slavishly copied Sonos’ hardware. They would do well to study the virtues of its software.
- There’s one-click access to albums by artist.
- You can customize artist sort fields, minimizing “duet syndrome.”
- It quickly searches your home server, even with massive searches of track names – and searches your online music services at the same time.
- Overall, it’s speedy in all functions. This may be because Sonos indexes your database, and for most browse and search functions it searches the index, not the database itself.
- Sonos has all the best features of everyone else’s playlists, then adds the ability to combine tunes from Spotify or other music services alongside tracks from your home server.
- Sonos has by far the most music service options, and they are seamlessly integrated into the app.
- A desktop app eases customization and maintenance.
- Customer service and documentation are excellent, which is not always the case for the competitors.
- No lyrics.
- No support for high-res audio.
Sonos’ inability to play high-res files is a major bummer. Aside from this, it’s the complete package, with solid hardware, a great range of models, and by far the best user experience in the market.
Unlike the other brands, Sonos searches your music collection and online music services all at once, making it easy to find exactly what you want. This is just one example of how music services are well integrated into the Sonos app.
So are we there yet with networked, high-res audio? If Sonos is the standard for user experience, then no, we’re not there yet. Sonos is so much more intuitive and easy to use than the other systems, it’s hard to recommend any of them without reservations.
Chromecast’s price makes it an attractive, low risk option, but you can’t play high-res files above 24/96, and you’ll be spending time researching software and visiting online forums. With Heos, the problem playing older Apple Lossless files will be a dealbreaker for some. Aside from that, the system works well and sounds great. For the expense, however, the app should be better. Nonetheless, you could buy a system anyway, gambling that Denon will improve the Heos app.
What all of these companies should learn from Sonos — and from other successful purveyors of digital entertainment, like Apple and Netflix – is that digital music is a software business as much as a hardware business. The best brands orient themselves like software companies, and they create great user experiences.
The good news is that high-resolution streaming appears to be here to stay. As more and more customers pursue high-res streaming — and a few audiophiles continue to build digital high-res libraries — competition will mount to give these customers the best systems possible, so they can enjoy their music.