AudioStream Editor's Choice Components 2018 – Under $500

Thanks to a lot of hard work from contributor Grover Neville, AudioStream brings you the first of three in a series of the 2018 AudioStream Editor's Choice Lists. This little list is sure to please some of you and sure to disappoint more than a few. But we just can’t fit everything we’d like to. Regardless, here it is.

We hope you enjoy reading about them as much as we enjoyed (and struggled over) choosing them.

This is the Under $500 USD List, so I'll get to the point and let you read on.

– Rafe Arnott

Cambridge Yoyo Large – $399 USD

Cambridge Yoyo

Many folks know Cambridge for their lineup of excellent and relatively-attainably priced two-channel electronics. They’ve also recently launched a lineup of Bluetooth speakers, something that’s become quite popular with big name hi-fi brands lately. The good news is that this is not just another ‘me too’ Bluetooth speaker. In my experience makers of electronics and speakers tend to do the best work with Bluetooth speakers, primarily because these units require extensive use of DSP for both operation and also to achieve decent sound quality from minuscule and less-than-ideal enclosures. Cambridge’s largest entry does a great job of this, and it has a somewhat warmer, inviting sound than many Bluetooth speakers. Its big enough to fill up small spaces with sound as well, and although not cheap for a Bluetooth speaker, really does quite a lot for its price and form factor. Best of all, its still reasonably sized enough to make taking it on-the-go a possibility.

AudioQuest DragonFly – $100-$200 USD

AudioQuest DragonFly

AudioQuest’s DragonFly has been around for a while in various iterations, but it remains one of the smallest, best-sounding options out there. Few other dongle devices can manage the micro size of the DragonFly, much less at a price point and sound quality bracket that make it a compelling product. The DragonFly works phenomenally for heapdhones, but also small portable desktop speakers, and it can’t be overstated just how convenient it is. The DragonFly comes in Black and Red versions to suit your particular budget.

Kanto YU4 – $330 USD

Kanto YU4

I had the good fortune to hear a number of inexpensive desktop speakers this year, and love the fact that we have more choices than ever before. Compared to the Audioengine speakers which dominated this market for several years, and which I’ve owned in the past, the Kanto is a little smoother, a little more v-shaped. I found this combo to work quite nicely on desktops, which of course wreak havoc on speakers, but the Kanto’s perform well in this regard. I’m Inclined to say that I prefer front-facing ports on desktop speakers however, and my one major complaint was that the Kanto’s rear-port could make some desktop setups a bit too boomy. Otherwise, a great speaker. (Edit* – I have these in in-house now for review and am extremely impressed with them so far – Rafe Arnott).

Roon Labs – Prices range from $119 USD to $499 USD

Roon Labs

If your streaming content via Tidal, or have a NAS system in place, or just use your laptop or PC to play music, then chances are you’ve heard of Roon. The music-playback software was born from the minds of the people who brought the world the Sooloos system and collates your music files, searches out lyrics, reviews, photos, bios, connections between artists, performers, producers, conductors, composers and even concert dates online or on locally-stored drives to put together a holistic metadata-rich picture of every artist, album or song in your library or on Tidal to turn your music into a curated visual, digital magazine-like experience. With seamless integration with dozens of hardware partners, it takes what used to be a tedious, time-consuming and technically challenging endeavour into a no-brainer of set up. – Rafe Arnott

Riva Stadium – $450 USD

Riva Stadium

Riva has been making excellent bluetooth speakers before the bluetooth ‘high end’ had much other than Devialet. Their original Turbo X is still a fantastic Bluetooth speaker. If you’re looking for an alternative to something like the Cambridge device, perhaps finding it too warm, too polite, this is an excellent alternative. The Riva may lack the level of refinement of the Cambridge, but it makes up for that with tighter bass, and a slightly leaner, more neutral sound thanks in part to its mostly-wood enclosure. It also comes with a plethora of Alexa and smart-speaker functions. Not inexpensive, but well worth the price.

iFi Nano iOne – $200 USD

Nano iOne

I’ve long been a fan of iFi – they make great products at great prices. This little unit is new(ish) from them, and it’s essentially a multibit transportable DAC with RCA outs and USB in. There’s not much to say about it except that if you’ve been wondering what all the multibit fuss lately has been about, and you’re looking for something small, but smooth and mighty in sound, you really can’t go wrong with this unit. It’s got a whole host of connection options, and will even do Bluetooth, making for a great combination of features and functional sound quality.

Allo USBRIDGE – $162.50 USD

Allo USBridge

Unless you’re tinkering with a Raspberry Pi yourself, it really doesn’t get much cheaper than this when it comes to streamers. Allo has a number of nifty options, and seems to always be working on something new. The irony here is that Roon, which I recommend over Volumio unless it’s out of your budget, is quite a bit more expensive than the unit itself. If you’re looking to get a taste of what all the streaming fuss is about for a reasonable cost, this is your ticket to the realms of cloud-based computer audio.

Bluesound NODE 2i – $499

NODE 2i

The Bluesound NODE 2i wireless music streamer has more than enough connections to be the digital heart of any computer-audio, or cloud-based music-provider service (Spotify, Amazon Music, Qobuz, Deezer, Tidal to name a few) or players (Roon Ready) for the high fidelity consumer. With dual-band wi-fi and Bluetooth aptX HD the 2i can support 24-bit streams from any of your wirelessly connected smart devices, or transmit to headphones or speakers. DAC specifications supporting up to 32/192 and MQA means there’s plenty of future-proof built in. I’ve heard previous iterations at shows and always been very impressed, NODE 2i will be here in the New Year for review. – Rafe Arnott

Vanatoo Transparent Zero – $360 USD

Vanatoo Zero

Much like the Riva offers an alternative to the Cambridge yoyo, the Vanatoo Transparent Zero offers an alternative to the Kanto YU4. The Vanatoo is kitted out with Bluetooth wireless, aptX USB, Toslink Optical, and analog inputs, so it’s a one-stop-shop: all you need is a source. Somewhat the opposite in personality of the Kanto. Wher the Kanto is somewhat v-shaped, the Vanatoo is more about the midrange, the Vanatoo is more midrange focused, with slightly less boomy bass thanks to the passive radiator configuration. The treble digs up a little more detail than the Kanto, although the Kanto has a little better sense of smoothness. Vanatoo raised some eyebrows at this RMAF, and for good reason – although a little dry sounding for my tastes, these puppies really do sound quite good for the price.

Jriver Media Center – $60 USD

Jriver

Jriver is another product that has been around for a while, that just keeps getting better. The community support is great, and the user interface, while somewhat cluttered and a tad dated, is really great once you get used to it. The real reason to get Jriver nowadays is the remote control Smartphone app. Jriver is now a mini-tablet/phone controlled media player. Even if you don’t intend to use Jriver as your player, the library management and disk-ripping functions make this a highly useful program for anyone playing not just audio, but any media through their computer.

COMMENTS
Everclear's picture

A single HomePod or a single Google Home Max smart speaker are also under $500 ......... Google Home Max was rated as the best smart speaker by Consumer Reports :-) .........

Milesian's picture

Now you’ve got me puzzled. Are you calling the Audioquest Dragonfly a Firefly or is there a new model we haven’t heard of.

Rafe Arnott's picture
Thanks for heads-up.
Dick James's picture

...an accessory to DragonFly. It's a USB power filter that is around $50. In this article, the author is only writing about DragonFly and accidentally called it FireFly.

Milesian's picture

The USB filter is called the Jitterbug.

Everclear's picture

Woo Audio makes Fireflies :-) ..........

geoffalter11's picture

Rafe,

Happy New Year! I am interested in evolving away from using my iMac as my music server. I use VOX for my FLAC and then convert using xACT into my Itunes folder. I then use a Schiit Wyrd into my Metrum Musette to my Wells Audio Milo Amp. What do you recommend for my first music server as I want the sonic upgrade over using my iMac?

Thank you,

Rafe Arnott's picture
What's your price range and what do you want to be able to do with your music server? Wireless? Wired? AirPlay, Bluetooth, UPnP, etc. Let's go from there!

Happy New Year to you as well my friend!

–R

geoffalter11's picture

Hi Rafe,

Thank you for the response. My price range depends on whether or not it would double as my DAC. I would ultimately like to do a couple of things with my system. First, improve my DAC. Although, my Musette is a very capable DAC, I know I can improve it. I was hoping to get a Qutest as my next DAC. If I were to use the Music Server as the DAC, I would need to spend more to get into something of commensurate quality to a Qutest or even my Musette. Ultimately, I am looking for a wired music server. I started to realize I was missing a key link in my chain when I read your article recommending the Aurender N10. At $8k it is probably out of my budget right now, but I would like to see my system improve. I don't feel like I am maximizing my DAC or AMP currently. I listen with headphones solely. Either through my desktop system of the Metrum and Milo, or with my iQube V5.

Everclear's picture

You could check NAD M50.2 music server $4,000 .......... It has 2TB x2 RAID1 built-in storage and a CD ripper .......... No DAC .......... Stereophile reviewed it :-) ...........

geoffalter11's picture

Hey Rafe,

Any thoughts on the music server?

Rafe Arnott's picture
Apologies, been very busy.

I'd say from a bang-for-buck standpoint, and (at this point in time) if you don't care about Roon, then the Aurender X100 ($2,999 USD) offers a lot. The Conductor App is great, it's got up to 12 terabytes of storage... I could go on, but check for yourself.

X100

If Roon is a priority – and it is for many – then I think the Roon Nucleus at $1,398 USD (or Nucleus+ for $1,000 USD more) would be the way to go.

Nucleus

geoffalter11's picture

Sounds great. Thank you! How would the X100 compare to the Sonore MicroRendu? I know it isn't a fair fight from a price stand point.

Thanks again!
Geoff

Rafe Arnott's picture
... the X100 and Nucleus to offer considerable improvements over the Sonore on several fronts, but I have never heard them in comparison, nor have I spent time with the Sonore in my own system, so I can't definitively answer you Geoff.
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