Reviews of AV receivers are longer than ever. And that often has to do with the very extensive streaming possibilities that are present on these devices. It is high time, therefore, to review these platforms separately from concrete devices and to investigate where each one is strong. Useful information, since the streaming options per brand are usually the same for all models, from cheap to expensive.
An AV receiver is without a doubt the most complex audio device you can buy. In addition to his role as a switch for video sources (with accompanying video processing) and audio devices, it has grown into a real handyman in recent years. In terms of streaming, almost every AV receiver has a huge range of possibilities. So much so that it becomes difficult to view and mention everything in our extensive reviews. That is why in this article we want to go over and compare the streaming options from a distance.
Functions vs platforms
Things like Bluetooth and AirPlay can be found on receivers of multiple brands. Which does not mean that they do exactly the same thing everywhere. But you could argue that Bluetooth, Chromecast and AirPlay are more or less standard streaming options because a receiver manufacturer has built in a certain chip. In addition, there are brands that are more ambitious and have developed a whole streaming platform. HEOS from Denon / Marantz and MusicCast from Yamaha are the typical examples of this. It is important for a good understanding to distinguish between a streaming function and a streaming platform, because such a platform offers many more possibilities. Consider, for example, the forwarding of the two rear surround channels to wireless speakers (such as Yamaha’s MusicCast Surround). You can speak more generally about a streaming function, while a platform almost always hangs on a brand. HEOS is from Denon / Marantz, MusicCast is from Yamaha. Only Play-Fi from DTS is built into competing brands.
An important difference is how you use it: a function like Bluetooth or Chromecast can be controlled via the settings of your mobile device or an app from a music service itself. With a platform you work with an app from the receiver manufacturer, with a variety of streaming options.
Another important term in this discussion is ‘multiroom’, or the possibility to operate multiple music devices (including your AV receiver) together from one app. If you wish, you can pair multiroom devices in one zone (so that you hear the same song everywhere) or even send a connected audio source (such as a CD player) to a speaker elsewhere in the house.
If you If you are looking for the most universal streaming technology on this planet, then you have found it. Bluetooth is practically present on every receiver, with the exception of brands that target the more professional side of the market, such as Arcam or Anthem. Bluetooth is often the only streaming option on the most cheap models of the mainstream brands.
We mainly mean ‘receiving Bluetooth streams’ with Bluetooth. That you stream music from a smartphone to a receiver. But it can also be different: a receiver can output audio via Bluetooth. Yamaha and Sony are currently the only ones that also incorporate a Bluetooth transmitter, so you can stream the audio from the AV receiver to a wireless headset or Bluetooth speaker. It may not be the most important option, but useful if you want to hold a game session in the evening.
Bluetooth streaming is always lossy, with an inferior audio signal. But there is a difference in the level of lossyness, depending on which codec the receiver and the transmitter can handle. The audio stream can be encoded with more or less loss. Unfortunately, most AV receivers only support the old SBC codec, so Bluetooth streams often sound noticeably worse than other streaming options. An exception are the NAD receivers with BluOS; working with the excellent aptX HD codec.
Pros: always works
Disadvantages: lossy quality, limited range
AirPlay and AirPlay 2
AirPlay is also present on most receivers. It is a streaming technology that is relevant for Apple users or for people who use a) iTunes on a Windows machine or b) people who have added AirPlay to their mobile device or PC via a hack. With AirPlay you stream audio from one device to the receiver.
Until recently, almost nobody was really interested in AirPlay, although the technology itself works well. For example, it uses lossless streams in CD quality, better than Bluetooth. The moderate interest has now been fueled with the introduction of AirPlay 2. In terms of quality everything has remained the same, but devices with AirPlay 2 do have multiranguage possibilities. A receiver with AirPlay 2 can play a stream that can also be heard in the kitchen via a Sonos ONE, for example. However, you can not “re-stream” physical sources that hang on your receiver. Thanks to AirPlay 2, voice control via Siri is also possible. But when it comes to receivers, there are restrictions; you can only speak to Siri to stream music to your receiver, not to operate it in other areas. “Siri, switch to HDMI3” is therefore not an option.
AirPlay is available for almost all receivers of all brands. However, AirPlay 2 can only be found with the latest AV receivers from Denon and Yamaha. Onkyo has announced that it will provide the necessary support in the spring for existing and future receivers. By the summer we expect that even more brands with AirPlay2 will unpack.
Pros: very stable, good quality, multiroom (AirPlay 2)
Disadvantages: especially an Apple story
Chromecast is a technology from Google that is on a steep rise. It is present on many soundbars, speakers and also more AV receivers. The audio quality is excellent: lossless, and even hi-resstreaming is possible. Technically it is quite unusual. When you stream from an app to your receiver, the music stream flows directly from the music service server to the AV receiver. It therefore continues to play when you leave the room with your smartphone. Unlike AirPlay and Bluetooth, the battery of your mobile phone is much less loaded. That is why we often talk about ‘casting’ instead of ‘streaming’ when it comes to Chromecast. With receivers, only audio is cast, streaming video from the Netflix app, for example, goes exclusively to a separate Chromecast stick or an Android TV product.
Chromecast enables multi-room use even though this aspect is less user-friendly than for example with HEOS or MusicCast. If you want to send music to your receiver and speakers elsewhere in the house, you have to create a group in the Google Home app that includes the desired audio devices. Then you can select that group from the app of a music service. It works, but at HEOS or MusicCast that grouping is much smoother.
Like Bluetooth and AirPlay, Chromecast is a technology that works towards the receiver, but can not stream sources that are connected to the AV receiver. You can not play your turntable on other Chromecast speakers.
Chromecast can be found at Onkyo / Pioneer and Sony, and this year we are going to have another receiver brand that we are not yet allowed to announce. Chromecast can also be inexpensively added to a receiver by connecting a Chromecast dongle to an optical input on your receiver (audio only) or an HDMI input (if you also want to cast video and want to see music information on the TV screen).
Pros: high streaming quality, versatile, good app support
Disadvantages: mobile-centric, sometimes cumbersome
Spotify Connect is becoming as universal as Bluetooth, it seems. As the only streaming service, Spotify has developed its own platform that manufacturers can install in their receivers. You sometimes see it appear in the proprietary apps of brands, fraternal to other streaming services. But as soon as you click on the Spotify option, you go to the Spotify app. There you choose music and you control the volume.
Until recently, Spotify Connect was reserved for paying subscribers, but can now also use free accounts. You stream to the quality that your subscription allows. Premium users thus get 320 kbps streams. It is unclear whether this is in the MP3 or OGG format.
Pros: works fine, you stay in the Spotify environment
Disadvantages: sometimes loss of control, sometimes poor quality
DLNA / UPnP
DLNA or UPnP is a near-primal technology that is based on almost all devices. Due to his age, however, it is not so slick and the user experience is very changeable. Sometimes it works fine, sometimes not at all. Basically, DLNA was created to stream music files over your own network from a server running DLNA server software. That is usually a NAS. However, it depends on the specific server software whether certain functions are present. Think of a search function, which is indispensable for a large music collection. It is also possible that certain file formats are not (or incorrectly) indexed by the server, as a result of which the receiver does not play them – although the device can actually handle it.
With the right DLNA server software and DLNA app on your mobile device however, this technology can work fine. For example, Arcam has built its own, good app on top of UPnP. Other smart apps know how to misuse the DLNA technology to make new things possible, such as streaming from music services or cloud storage. The best example of this is BubbleUPnP, an app for Android that you can use with most receivers and that allows streaming from Google Play Music, Qobuz and Tidal.
Pros: everywhere, a lot of software choice
Disadvantages: old-fashioned and changeable user experience
Works with Sonos
Onkyo and its sister company Pioneer started this year with the label ‘Works with Sonos’. Anyone who hoped for a real integration of an Onkyo receiver with their Sonos system would be disappointed. Actually, it comes down to connecting the receiver to a Sonos Connect and then using the Sonos software you can activate the correct input on the receiver and adjust the volume. However, streaming TV sound or other sources to other Sonos speakers is not possible. Read more in our first test of Works with Sonos.
Pros: integration with Sonos
Disadvantages: the integration is only partial
Of course we know DTS from the surround codecs and algorithms. With Play-Fi it also has a streaming platform that manufacturers can build. The operation is done via a private Play-Fi app. It is not the most beautiful app in the world, but it offers access to streaming services, internet radio and own files. The streaming services include the most important services for the Benelux: Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz and Tidal. Play-Fi does offer multiroom capabilities, but because it is a platform that floats on top of the receiver’s hardware, you can not stream physical resources to other zones. Play-Fi can be found on the AV receivers of Pioneer / Onkyo, Integra and Anthem.
Pros: many streaming services, hi-res support
Disadvantages: not the best app
AV receivers from Pioneer and Onkyo also have the Flareconnect platform on board. It is an outsider because it works as a gateway to, for example, Chromecast and Play-Fi. On other points it is very similar to HEOS and MusicCast, and you can play music and control multiple devices. There is ingrained support for Deezer, Tidal and TuneIn internet radio. You can play your own music files (in which quality depends on the device) and send physical sources to other zones. You have to check for each device which inputs can be forwarded. This is possible here.
Pros: nice app, stable user experience
Disadvantages: multiroom part is somewhat complex
BluOS is the platform name of Bluesound, a brand with better wireless multiroom speakers and sound bars. The BluOS platform can also be found at other brands, mainly companies linked to Bluesound via the Lenbrook holding. One of these is NAD, which builds on both its Classic line and the high-end Master series BluOS. You can take that literally: on the existing NAD receivers, this is done via MDC plug-in cards. The BluOS module immediately provides all streaming options on the NAD receivers. Since this is a multiroom platform, you simply work via the Bluesound app. This beautiful app you use to play music from streaming services or select your own files over the network. Unusually, DLNA servers are not recognized; BluOS can handle SMB / AFP shares. It is not really a problem, it just works a little differently. You can combine a NAD receiver with Bluesound speakers, but you can not use them as surround channels. It is possible to transfer Bluetooth streams to a NAD receiver to other Bluesound devices.
BluOS supports the playback of own files in lossy formats (MP3, AAC, WMA and OGG), lossless PCM formats up to 192 kHz / 24-bit (FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF) and WMA-L up to 96 kHz / 24-bit. There is also support for the MQA format. When it comes to the number of supported music services, BluOS may be the champion. Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz and Tidal are among them, but also many others.
Thanks to BluOS, the NAD receivers are the only ones with built-in support for the audiophile Roon software. This allows you to also enable the NADs in a multiroom setup consisting of Roon-compatible devices from many other brands.
Pros: supports many services, great app, audiophile options
Disadvantages: no DSD support, no DLNA
In contrast to all the foregoing, HEOS is a real streaming platform of a brand . It is ingrained in the receivers of Denon and Marantz (both part of the same holding company). There are also HEOS products, such as wireless speakers and CI products, all of which work seamlessly with a receiver with HEOS. In the HEOS app you will see an AV receiver appear along with other HEOS speakers or devices. For example, drag a HEOS 1 on your Denon AVR-X4500H and the source that is active on the receiver will also be heard on the small speaker. The HEOS app is clearly organized via three tabs: rooms, music sources and current number (in the selected zone).
If your Denon or Marantz) receiver has several (wired) zones, they will appear in the HEOS app under the main zone of the receiver. You can enable or disable that zone 1, 2 and 3, but not let each play its own music stream.
HEOS makes it very easy to transfer audio from an external source (such as a CD player or video source) to another zone. Condition is that the audio is 2-channel PCM. If you send Blu-ray player bitstream Dolby Atmos, it will not work. You can also connect USB storage to your receiver, after which the music files on this stick or disk are available for any other HEOS device. HEOS can also be operated with Alexa voice commands, including certain receiver functions (such as select inputs).
HEOS supports lossy files (MP3, AAC, WMA), hi-res lossless PCM formats up to 192 kHz / 24 bit (FLAC, ALAC, WAV) and DSD up to 5.6 MHz. The relevant supported streaming services are Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn, SoundCloud and Tidal.
Pros: stable and user-friendly, hi-res support, streaming of physical sources, good app
Disadvantages: AV Receiver zones can not be operated separately; HEOS is primarily a music solution, not for surround
MusicCast is the Yamaha platform. In terms of possibilities and user-friendliness, it is perhaps the most advanced. That is probably because MusicCast is really ingrained in the Yamaha products. It is not software from third parties that was added afterwards. Because of the high degree of integration, things that are impossible elsewhere can be. For example, you can stream audio via Bluetooth to a MusicCast receiver and then forward it to a MusicCast speaker. The streaming of physically connected sources to other zones is also very easy. With a receiver with multiple speaker zones, you can control each zone separately via MusicCast, a plus. MusicCast Surround is a unique feature, a feature that is present on most Yamaha AV receivers from 2018. With this function you can use one or two MusicCast speakers as wireless rear channels in a 5.1 setup. It is also possible to connect a MusicCast subwoofer wirelessly. In short, it is extremely flexible.
MusicCast is controlled via the MusicCast app, which is much more convenient on a tablet than on a smartphone. With a smaller screen, the options are overwhelmingly presented. But that is actually the only criticism of the app. Because it is full of nice details and settings. For example, you can give each zone its own photo and gradual volume changes gradually, so that an unintended swipe does not lead to a sound explosion.
MusicCast supports lossy music (MP3, AAC, WMA), hi-res lossless PCM formats up to 192 kHz / 24 bit (FLAC, WAV, AIFF) and Apple Lossles (ALAC) up to 96 kHz / 24 bit. The MusicCast-compatible AV receivers also play DSD up to 11.2 MHz. Supported services are Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz and Tidal.
MusicCast works with Alexa. There are two skills with which you can also operate receiver functions.
Pros: excellent app, MusicCast Surround, each receiver zone can be operated separately, hi-res support
Disadvantages: slightly less useful on smartphone screens, linking zones less smoothly
Overview per brand
DLNA / UPnP
Denon / Marantz
HEOS (Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn, SoundCloud and Tidal, files on mobile device, USB)
DLNA / UPnP
DLNA / UPnP
Bluetooth (aptX HD)
BluOS (Deezer, Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, TuneIn, files on mobile device, USB, own files via SMB / AFP shares)
Onkyo / Pioneer / Integra
AirPlay (AirPlay 2 from spring 2019)
DLNA / UPnP
Works with Sonos (requires external Sonos Connect )
Flareconnect (Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, TuneIn)
DLNA / UPnP
DLNA / UPnP