Network players vs. Bluetooth adapters (Week 35, 2023)

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 35, 2023

Q. I have Magnepan LRS speakers driven by a Cambridge Audio Azur 851A amplifier and would like to add streaming to the system. My plan is to access Spotify and TIDAL on my phone and iPad and stream the audio over Bluetooth. I would play the music library on my phone as well. A friend of mine uses the Mass Fidelity Relay Bluetooth receiver and she likes it a lot. It is nicely made (I don’t want cheap-feeling components in my system) and it sounds very good as well. Unfortunately it is no longer available and I don’t know where else to look for a quality Bluetooth receiver, since most components have Bluetooth built-in these days. What do you recommend with a max budget of $750 to $1,000?

-L.R., Castle Shannon, PA

A. I suggest getting a network player rather than a Bluetooth receiver. You will get better sound quality, more functionality, and get more available content, leading to greater overall enjoyment. I will explain the basics before making a recommendation, as well as provide a Bluetooth receiver recommendation if you still want to go that route.

A network player is an audio component that connects to the Internet and is controlled by an app or remote control. Connecting the playback device directly to Internet avoids the sound quality degradation that can occur with Bluetooth transmission, and the component itself typically has much better digital and analog circuitry so a cleaner, clearer signal is sent to the amplifier for playback. This all works to make a difference you can hear, especially with a high quality system like yours. As prices have gone down and quality has gone up I have come to consider a network player a must-have for the serious audio enthusiast and music lover. Besides the utility, they are great fun!

An excellent choice for you comes from Cambridge Audio, a company you are familiar with. The Cambridge CXN series network players have been perennial award winners, and this year Cambridge introduced two new network players that have already received critical acclaim and significant success in the marketplace. The Cambridge AXN10 and MXN10 both share the exact same circuitry inside, but the AXN10 is a full-sized component about as wide as your amplifier and the MXN10 is half-width, which makes it very easy to place in your audio rack. Both use ESS Sabre digital-to-analog converters, which are some of the best available and found in some of the finest audio components you can buy, included the widely loved, but now discontinued Oppo disc players. The excellent circuitry guarantees excellent sound and the Cambridge StreamMagic app makes finding great content easy. Spotify, TIDAL and Qovoz are built-in and you will be delighted to see the great many Internet radio stations that are available. The AXN10 and MXN10 also act as Bluetooth receivers for playing the music library from your portable devices.

All this goodness comes at reasonable prices. The AXN10 sells for $599 and the MXN10 sells for $499, and I find the MXN10 in particular to be an exceptionally good buy for under $500. Given the Mass Fidelity Relay sold for $249 ten years ago, $499 for more capability and even higher quality is a bargain.

If you want to stick with a Bluetooth receiver the Audioengine B1 is a proven performer for $199. You may even want to try a budget model as the sound quality can be very good, and you don’t have much interaction with the component itself. The Besign BE-RCA is under $20 on Amazon and I have had good luck with it in a modestly high-end system.