Editor’s note: Rene’s last piece on Ethernet cables whipped up quite a response, it would seem that there are those who’d rather these things all sound the same. However if it were just ones and zeros then we would indeed have had ‘Perfect sound forever’ back in 1982. As it is file streaming is widely acknowledged as being superior to the silver disc and there are distinct differences between network streamers and computer audio over USB. So, hopefully, it will not come as too great a surprise to discover that the switches in a network also play a part. And when you have a system that’s as revealing as René’s such things are very clear.
Making the switch
During the second part of my Ethernet cables review I collected several 10/100/1000 Megabit switches to see how they effect the sound of a network streamer.
The various devices on the network are connected via four switches as shown in the diagram below. The yellow switches are the important ones, switch number four is only used to connect our computers without more than one long cable run across the room. All files are stored on a NAS for this test with my Vortexbox (ripNAS) used as a back-up source. Players are a NAD M50 with music stored locally in the M52 vault and a Naim UnitiQute. The cable between switches 1 and 2 and 1 and 3 is AudioQuest Carbon CAT-700 wire (CAT7) with Telegärtner connectors. This is a nice cable to work with since it is stiff enough not to curl yet flexible enough to make installation an easy job.
Let us switch
All my own switches are Linksys SE2800 (£39) Gigabit types to maintain a standard. I have on hand in the 10/100 Mbit range a 3Com Office Connect, Allied Telesyn AT-FS705L Cisco/Linksys SD208 and SD205 and for professional use a HP ProCurve 1400-24G Gigabit switch.
To find out what kind of influence a switch has I pick from Stacey Kent’s Au coin du monde (from Raconte-moi), it has a deep bass, nice hi-hats, well recorded voice and piano. From SE2800 to Allied Telesyn adds a little more definition to the bass but makes the stereo image much smaller, removes air and makes the sound more technical and less human. Compared to the SE2800 both the SD205 and 208 sound a little less open and airy. Better than Allied Telesyn and more like the SE2800, but still that little bit extra gets lost. The 3Com is positioned between the small Cisco’s and Allied Telesyn. Air has gone and stereo image is smaller than with the SE2800 from Linksys. Every time I go back to my reference SE2800 I prefer it from note one. The last in line is the HP ProCurve, a Gigabit switch and I am curious what that will do since it handles fast data transfer just like the SE2800. Well it proves one thing clearly, the Gigabit switches perform better than 10/100 types. The HP and the Linksys sound the same to me. Even though the UnitiQute has only a 10/100 Mbit interface inside. Repeating the switch test with the best Ethernet cable I have tried, AudioQuest Diamond, gave about the same results except for one, the HP ProCurve is the clear winner of the test. Indeed with the extra detail the Diamond supplies the ProCurve is a bit easier on the ear, has a little better stereo image and some more air. This might be due to a better power supply in comparison to the SE2800. Where the SE2800 draws about 2 Watts from the mains, the ProCurve uses 18 Watts continuously. I have to admit too that the 10/100 Mbit switches gained from the better cable, but nevertheless the Gigabit switches are the clear winners in this contest.
So do Ethernet switches alter the sound? Yes, they do but not as much as cables. Gigabit switches sound superior to 100 Megabit versions, I do not know why, cannot explain it, and the funny thing is that the end points in my case are limited to 100 Mbit (NAD and Naim). The cable between switches is less important than the ones connected to the end points (NAS and/or streaming device), but a decent type like the AudioQuest Carbon is certainly worth the price in high end systems.
René van Es