Single-Subscription vs. Broadcast Streams

Written by Florian Loitsch
January 2014

Dart features two different flavors of Streams: single-subscription streams and broadcast streams. This article discusses the differences between the two and provides recommendations on when to use which.

If you aren’t already familiar with Dart streams, you can learn the basics from the tutorial Asynchronous Programming: Streams.


Single-subscription and broadcast streams are intended to be used in different contexts and have different requirements. In many aspects they’re similar to TCP and UDP: single-subscription streams are stable with guaranteed properties (like TCP), whereas broadcast streams can lose events and listeners don’t have a tight connection to the source (like UDP).

The following list summarizes the main differences between the two:

Single subscription Broadcast
Number of listeners 1
Can lose events No Yes
Well-defined life cycle Yes No
Ease of use Hard Easy

Let’s look at each difference in detail.

Number of listeners
Single-subscription streams allow listening only once to the stream. This includes internal listen calls (such as calls to isNotEmpty). Broadcast streams don’t have this limitation.
Can lose events
Single-subscription streams do not lose events. If necessary they buffer their data until a listener appears. Broadcast streams are free to drop events if they don’t have any listeners.
Well-defined life cycle
Single-subscription streams have a well-defined life cycle: they start when a user starts listening, and they end when the user cancels or when the stream sends a close event. Broadcast streams generally don’t give the listener any means to influence the lifetime from the listener’s end.

Getting the lifetime of streams right is very important: in dart:io the lifetime of the stream determines how long the Dart program holds on to the system resource it uses to deliver its data. The wrong choice of stream type can lead to resource leaks.

Ease of use
Internally, many Stream members (for example first) start listening to the stream. Because single-subscription streams allow only one listener, invoking getters and methods on them can automatically use up the stream. As such, single-subscription streams are less convenient to use than broadcast streams, which do not have this restriction.

Broadcast streams have their own pitfalls, though. For instance, isEmpty returns false only after consuming an element. The user can then continue listening to the stream, but the first event is lost.

Before discussing the stream types in detail, let’s take a closer look at subscriptions, which are fundamental to understanding how both kinds of streams work.


The easiest way to receive events from a stream (single-subscription and broadcast) is to invoke its listen method: stream.listen(onDataCallback). In fact, listen really is the only method where the implementation is different for different streams. It connects a stream’s listener to its event source. All other methods can be (and usually are) implemented on top of the listen method.

The listen method creates a new stream subscription, connects it to the stream’s event source, and installs the callbacks (if given) in the subscription. This stream subscription is then returned from the listen call. The installation of the callbacks is just for convenience. The handlers on the subscription can be changed at a later time. It is not uncommon to see a stream.listen(null) just to receive the stream subscription.

Once a stream creates a stream subscription, it hands off the event generation and propagation to the subscription. Most implementations of Stream don’t even keep track of their listeners. As soon as a stream creates the subscription, the stream doesn’t need to know anything about the listener anymore.

The following diagram explains the listen call:

Before listen, Stream points to Event Source; after listen, StreamSubscription and Event Source point to each other

Note that a single-subscription stream does not need to keep a reference to the event source, once its listen method has been invoked. That’s why the arrow from the Stream to the event source is dashed in the “after” picture. Also note that the event source never sees (or needs to see) the stream. The event source only needs a reference to its subscription(s). In return, a stream subscription needs a pointer to its event source, so that it can cancel its subscription and thus shut down the event source.

Another consequence of this setup is that Stream instances are unaware of the state of the event source. In particular, they do not know if the event source is paused or not. The StreamSubscription instance takes over this task. In fact, the stream subscription ensures that pause requests are respected. If the actual event source can not be paused (for whatever reason) the stream subscription must buffer the events. In general, streams should inform their users if the created subscriptions are able to pause their event source, or not. Not knowing could easily lead to excessive memory use.

Single-subscription streams

A single-subscription stream allows only one subscriber. Use a single-subscription stream when the consumer can trigger the generation (“production”) of events and when losing events would be an error. The best example for such a stream is File.openRead(): the user starts the stream by listening to it, and the user generally doesn’t want to lose events.

The fact that single-subscription streams can be listened to only once has some important implications. First, and most importantly, with a single-subscription stream it’s extremely obvious when the stream should produce events, and when it should stop doing so. Second, and more annoyingly, many Stream getters and methods are less useful for single-subscription streams. For example, just using the isNotEmpty getter internally listens to the stream and cancels its subscription after it gets data. At this point a single-subscription stream is finished: the stream has already had a listener (the isNotEmpty getter), and no other listener is allowed. Similarly, the first getter can be invoked only once.

Creating single-subscription streams

The easiest way to create a stream is to use a StreamController where the default constructor instantiates a controller with a single-subscription stream.

A controller implements the StreamSink interface with methods like add, addError, and close. Event sources, such as native I/O extensions, simply invoke the corresponding functions when they have new data. StreamControllers provide an easy abstraction for implementers of streams, but fundamentally the concept explained in the Subscription section is still valid, as the following figure shows.

Before listen, Stream points to StreamController (and vice versa); after listen, StreamController and StreamSubscription point to each other

Because controllers exist before a user listens to its stream, the event source can add data to the controller before the user starts listening to it. To avoid data loss, the controller buffers the data until a subscriber starts listening.

This safeguard is one of the most abused features of a stream controller. When instantiating a controller, you can register an onListen callback to be notified when a listener is present. Only after this callback is invoked should the event source add events to the controller. Similarly you should register an onCancel callback that shuts down the stream. The onCancel callback is invoked when the user cancels the subscription, or when the controller is shut down with close().

Note that generating events only when the stream has a listener is not a strict rule, but a good guideline. Some perfectly valid use cases exist for adding data to a controller before any subscribers are listening. Be aware, however, that StreamSubscription’s buffering approach is optimized for just a few events, and don’t abuse it.

Frequently, a good way to avoid data generation is to delay computations until a listener exists. For example, File.openRead() doesn’t touch the file system until a listener exists. A strange implication of this fact is that File.openRead() doesn’t throw if it’s invoked on a nonexistent file. Only when a user starts listening for the file contents does the stream open the file on the hard drive. If the file is created (through some other means) in the time before the listener subscribes, the stream works normally. A direct corollary is that calling File.openRead() doesn’t lock the file on the hard drive.

As a good guideline, assume that a stream is never listened to. Exceptions to this rule are small, local code snippets, such as tests, where the subscription is guaranteed to happen. If a stream must be listened to (to avoid memory leaks) clearly state this fact in the comments of the function that creates the stream.

Broadcast streams

As a counterpart to single-subscription streams, Dart also comes with broadcast streams. Their intended use is for event sources that produce output independently of listeners, and where missing some events is not a problem. Typically all DOM event sources are broadcast streams.

We can extend our subscription diagram for broadcast streams after multiple listen calls:

Before listen, Stream points to Event Source; after listen, Event Source and multiple StreamSubscriptions point to each other

The StreamSubscription instances have, again, the responsibility to ensure that pause requests are respected. Since stream subscriptions generally don’t know of each other, the easiest solution is to buffer all incoming events at the subscription level. This can lead to memory leaks if the subscription is not resumed or canceled.

Being able to listen multiple times to a stream has some nice implications. One of them is that first, isEmpty, and so on don’t make the stream unusable. In return, determining the life cycle of a stream is more difficult. Should the stream ever shut down? If yes, should it shut down after it lost all its subscriptions (making the stream multi-subscription only as long as it has at least one subscriber), or should it allow subscribers only as long as a specific, crucial data event hasn’t been emitted? All of these proposals are valid, so broadcast streams should document their closing behavior. Generally we assume that no documentation means that the stream has an infinite lifetime.

Creating broadcast streams

The StreamController class comes with a factory constructor StreamController.broadcast that has been designed for broadcast streams. Contrary to single-subscription streams, it does not buffer events. It either sends events directly to subscribers or, if none is present, discards events.

The StreamController.broadcast constructor also has two callbacks: onListen and onCancel. They are invoked whenever the controller switches from unsubscribed to subscribed and from subscribed to unsubscribed, respectively (including when the stream is closed from the event-source side).

A more dangerous way of creating a stream controller is to view a single-subscription controller through asBroadcastStream(). Invoking asBroadcastStream basically tells the single-subscription stream that the user wants to take over the lifetime management of the stream. In combination with cancelOnError subscribers, this can easily lead to single-stream subscriptions that are never closed and thus leak memory or resources.

The following example demonstrates such a case:

import 'dart:io';
import 'dart:async';

main() {
  ServerSocket.bind("localhost", 4999).then((socket) {
    socket.asBroadcastStream()  // <== asBroadcastStream.
       .map((x) { throw "oops, my mistake"; })
       .asFuture()  // Automatically cancels on error.
       .catchError((_) { print("caught error"); });

In this example, the single-subscription stream socket is viewed as a broadcast stream. The asBroadcastStream does not shut down after its only listener cancels, and the socket remains open. This is a typical case of resource leakage. If the asBroadcastStream() call was left out, the single-subscription stream would get notified that its subscriber has disappeared and would close the socket.

Remember: asBroadcastStream is dangerous. Use it only in rare circumstances. We have seen asBroadcastStream used in circumstances where listener changes and StreamIterators are the better choices. See the next section for examples.

Alternatively, use the callbacks that can be given to asBroadcastStream. They allow managing subscription changes (similar to the StreamController.broadcast constructor) and provide means to cancel the subscription to the single-subscription stream.

Alternatives to asBroadcastStream

Commonly asBroadcastStream is (ab)used so that Stream getters and methods, such as first and take, can be invoked multiple times. As shown above this is a dangerous trade-off. This section shows some safer alternatives.

Listener swapping

Stream subscriptions allow exchanging their listeners. Instead of calling first multiple times on the stream, you can often just exchange the listener callback on the subscription. For example:

var bstream = stream.asBroadcastStream();
bstream.first.then((x) {
  return bstream.first;
}).then((x) {

could be written as:

StreamSubscription subscription = stream.listen(null);
subscription.onData((x) {
  subscription.onData((x) {

This introduces some nesting, but some abstractions (or using methods instead of anonymous closures) can easily get rid of them. A popular abstraction is, for example, a state machine. Another one is the StreamIterator class.


Frequently, different events of an asynchronous stream are destined for different parts of a system. In such a case, a StreamIterator is often convenient. Events of StreamIterators are pulled one by one, and each part can pull the event it needs separately. The operation is still asynchronous, though: contrary to synchronous Iterators, moving to the next event can take time, and the moveNext function therefore returns a future.

Future moveNextAssert(iterator) {
  var future = iterator.moveNext();
  return future.then((hasNext) {
    if (!hasNext) throw new StateError("missing element");
    return iterator.current;

var lines = new File(...).openRead()
    .transform(new LineSplitter());
var iterator = new StreamIterator(lines);
  .then((line) {
    print("First line: $line");
    return moveNextAssert(iterator);
  .then((fileName) {  // Assume second line is a file.
    return handleFile(fileName)  // Wait for it to finish.
      .then((_) => moveNextAssert(iterator));
  .then((line) {
    print("Last line: $line");
    return iterator.moveNext();
  .then((hasNext) {
    if (hasNext) throw "More lines than expected";


Despite their similarities, single-subscription and broadcast streams have important differences. You need to understand these differences, so you can avoid resource leaks and unnecessary memory consumption.

Single-subscription streams are designed for use cases where events must not be lost, and/or where the stream must have a well-defined lifetime. Broadcast streams are tuned for event sources that are not necessarily controlled by the listeners and where some events can be lost or ignored.

Using asBroadcastStream on single-subscription streams can lead to resource leaks. Consider safer alternatives such as listener swapping and StreamIterators.

For more information, see the API documentation:

Thanks to Lasse Reichstein Holst Nielsen, Anders Johnsen, and Kathy Walrath for their suggestions and help to improve this article.