If you are not going to use a computer to get your precious bits to the DAC, you will need a file player instead. For all intent and purposes, those beasts all are customized computers stripped down to the bare essentials necessary to perform their musical tasks. They often have more or less improved parts to minimize undesirable noise artifacts. After that, things get very complex. A first fork in the road is deciding whether your files will be hosted locally or streamed to the device from elsewhere. If hosted locally, the next question is whether the files will be in the device itself or on an attached external hard drive. My Auraliti PK90 only plays files hosted on an external drive which is directly attached to the device. It is a stripped-down Unix computer that does pretty much nothing else. It sounds amazing but is as deprived of features as a Benedictine monk's cell. There are many options for file players with built-in hard drives. SoTM offers one but Aurender's line is probably one of the most complete and certainly a pioneer of the category.

When it comes to streaming, options abound. To keep things overly simple, the files are usually hosted on a shared device somewhere on your home network. Differences will come from the software used to retrieve, catalog and play the music. As high-end pioneers in this area, Lumin and Linn have developed their own software but I would be remiss if I did not mention the pater familias of the category, the original and now defunct Squeezebox. Most other players  leverage other open platforms or more recently, the third-party solution developed by Roon. Streaming obviously does not have to be limited to files you own and store at home on a storage located away from your hifi system. The advent of faster Internet connections has enabled external streaming of CD-quality files from subscription services like Tidal or Qobuz. Those are usually offered as plug-ins into the software which already runs on your streaming device. Not all streaming devices are compatible with all providers. If one music provider matters to you, make sure the equipment you purchase is compatible with it.

Going back to Roon for a minute, it has been the talk of the last 18 months and is certainly a successful growing platform. Roon is a third-party provider of software solutions for gear manufacturers which aim at providing a seamless user experience and feel amongst all sorts of digital file sources and system setups. It is a very well thought-out server/client library management system with a great interface that delivers enhanced content related to what you are listening to - very much like the content we used to find inside LP jackets or CD boxes eons ago but updated with Internet functionality. What the Roon server does is retrieve your files wherever on your network they are located and pass them on to a Roon client that will play them. The most common configuration is to have files on network-attached storage (a smarter than average hard drive connected to your network); a Roon server running on a computer somewhere on the same network that does all the cataloguing, naming and indexing of those files; a tablet to control the whole thing; and a remote Roon client to be the recipient of those files before they get passed to the DAC.

When you see a component listed as 'Roon Ready', more often than not it means that it can serve as a Roon client. It can receive data from a Roon server and pass it in to the DAC. It does not mean that it is running Roon and operating as the server, file catalog and controller of the Roon environment. You will still need to add that component to enable the system. This just scratched the surface on possible Roon configurations since today, dedicated Roon servers like the Sonore MicroRendu are becoming more common instead of running Roon on any computer attached to the network. After all, if generic computers are not good enough to play music, how could they possibly be good enough to run a server? Of course skeptics might reply that although computers were never designed to ideally play back music—requiring all sorts of workarounds to sound their best—they were indeed designed to run servers. I will simply stay out of this argument. With the multiplication of NAS devices dedicated to supporting music playback, of late a newer generation of devices has tarted to appear which supports Roon server directly on the NAS. QNAP is probably the most active manufacturer in that space.