In this second part of my review of Ethernet cables (see part 1 here), I am continuing my research into differences between various types of AudioQuest Ethernet cable. This time the most expensive ones are compared to the best of the cheaper types assessed earlier. For this second test I have changed the set-up of my network due to the experience last time.
The various devices on the network are connected via four switches as shown in the diagram above. 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. The M50 feeds an Esoteric DAC and Audia Flight amplifiers. Speakers are a pair of PMC fact.12 speakers. The second system in another room is a Naim UnitiQute with NAP 100 feeding PMC Twenty.23s. The cable between switches 1 and 2 and 1 and 3 is normally cheap CAT-5 wire. It took me some time to remove the old cabling and upgrade to AudioQuest Carbon CAT-700 wires with Telegärtner connectors. This cable is for installations and sold off the reel. The infrastructure is now ready for AudioQuest Vodka and Diamond cables between the switch 2 or 3 and the network players and between my NAS and switch 1.
In each case I will change the cables between my NAS and switch and between the device and the nearby switch all at once. For the test I will swap from my Supra CAT-7+ to AudioQuest Cinnamon, Vodka and Diamond along with the installed Carbon. The AudioQuest cables all have solid core conductors. Cinnamon has normal terminations and is 1.25% silver. Carbon is made of copper with 5% silver, Vodka with 10% and the Diamond has 100% silver conductors. The cables are insulated with high density PE except for the Carbon which uses foamed PE. Terminations on the more expensive cables are high end shielded types with silver connectors. Every CAT-7 cable has a shielding for each pair of conductors and an overall shielding. Diamond makes use of AQ’s patented Dielectric Bias System with a 72 Volt battery to create and I quote AudioQuest on this: “A strong, stable electrostatic field which saturates and polarizes (organizes) the molecules of the insulation. This minimizes both energy storage in the insulation and the multiple nonlinear time-delays that occur.” All my switches are Linksys SE2800 (£39) Gigabit types.
Lend me an ear
My first change is from Supra Cat-7+ to Audioquest Cinnamon playing a piece from Eric Satie, a performance by Alexandre Tharaud of Gnossienne No. 1. I immediately notice an increase in air and a wider stage with the Cinnamon. The recording room has grown and the playback is a little more fluid, more natural I would say. This change is far easier to hear (since last time) now that I have AudioQuest Carbon rather than ordinary CAT-5 wire elsewhere in the network. This is an excellent result for a cable that is, to say the least, affordable for most of us. Moving up to AQ Vodka gives a big step up the ladder, even the first note shows that dynamics can be increased with a better Ethernet cable. The recording room does not alter in size, nor is the stereo stage larger than before. The cable does however add more drama to the music; enough to be worth the extra money? Yes, even with my Naim it’s easy enough to hear that it will give you more listening pleasure. The last step is from Vodka to Diamond. This preserves all the gains had stepping up from less expensive to very expensive, at the same time the Diamond is even more fluid on the ear and has a better defined and more stable stereo image. I have to admit that the steps from Supra to Cinnamon and to Vodka are greater than from Vodka to Diamond.
Like everything else in hi-fi the last step costs the most and adds just a little bit. At the end of the track the Diamond reveals more, the piano sustain will hold on longer. Playing the same track again shows that the piano is further away from the listener than with the other cables, resulting in less stress, like you moved from the front seat to a better place in the concert hall. With every step the music became more subtle and fragile. Be careful what you wish for, going back to Supra CAT-7+, which is a good cable no doubt, is not a pleasure after the Diamond. The piano is suddenly unnatural, harsh, standing in a small room and lacks harmonics and overtones. To compare this to whisky drinking, Famous Grouse tastes fantastic until you enjoy Glenmorangie or Glenlivet.
On solo piano it was quite easy to hear the alterations, let us see what a large orchestral work brings. I choose from 2L The Nordic Sound a violin concert played by the TrondheimSolistene, recorded in high resolution FLAC at 24 bit and a sample rate of 192 kHz, for what it matters the Satie was ripped from CD into FLAC. Moving from Supra to Cinnamon brings more weight, removes harshness and adds the acoustics of the recording room. Once again the Vodka is a major step in gaining realism, the stereo image is wider in every direction, far beyond and outside the speakers. It’s a little in your face I would say, like you are sitting between the musicians. Details are added immediately and the bass is further extended together with more impact in that region. The solo violin is a little softer, easier on the ear and more fluid. The Diamond does its trick again, moves the orchestra a little backwards, adds more weight without the bass getting too loud, gives you the extra detail you look for and the music flows into your room with extra smoothness overall. Sure, the Diamond is the best of the lot, the Vodka is the best value for money I would say. But be careful, Vodka in a system that is already upfront might become too much.
The main system
In this case with the M50, Audia Flight and fact.12 I pick a CD made by Rachelle Ferrell, one of the best female jazz singers around in my opinion. Her Live in Montreux 91-97 CD was partly recorded on her debut at the festival in 1991 and she became at once everyone’s favourite. Prayer Dance opens with the public applauding, the bass comes in followed by piano and drums before Rachelle starts singing. The step up from Supra to Cinnamon redefines the applause, the piano gets more dynamic, but the overall sound gets rough and I want to lower the volume. This is a different result to my first test some months ago and I can only relate it back to the change from standard CAT-5 cable to Carbon between the switches or from upgrading my room switch to SE2800. Vodka does the trick, the harshness has gone and the public is better defined and bass is tighter. Piano is better separated from the other instruments and Rachelle comes closer to me. The stereo image gains in height, a result that’s very close to results with the Naim system, although the Audia Flight and fact.12 put the results under a magnifying glass. The Diamond knows every trick in the book. Moving Rachelle back to the stage, the cable warrants the applause to be lifelike, piano is dynamic but less overexposed than with the other AudioQuest cables. The voice is rough where it should be, soft when Rachelle cuts the volume. In the recording every fault comes forward, including a microphone that is not fully up to the volume the can produce. It’s a very fine results that make a costly set-up shine even more.
We should have expected a famous cable manufacturer to make its best sounding cable the most expensive, but this is not always the case I can assure you. Sometimes cables are made more and more expensive for export markets and the increased price has nothing to do with sound quality. AudioQuest proved to me that we still have honest manufacturers around the globe. This Ethernet cable comparison was mainly between Cinnamon, Vodka and Diamond cable. The conclusion is that Cinnamon is certainly a step in the right direction compared to ordinary CAT-5 cable or even to some CAT-7 cables. Vodka is in my opinion on the edge of affordable and very interesting, but its tendency to move the soundstage forwards limits an overall recommendation. It has to match with all other components around it. But if it does fit in you become very happy. The Diamond cable is the best. Period. But very expensive indeed and I would only use it in extremely high end systems.
So do Ethernet cables have their own sound? This is no longer a question but a statement. 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.
This is not the end of the story, I want to point out that for the previous and above tests I made use of a NAS and streaming devices. If you add the cost of cables and switches to both the NAS and the streamer, you might pay the same for a very good music server with storage on board and digital out (such as the M52). In that case only commands are send over the LAN and access to the internet is limited to metadata and covers. A decent CAT-5 like Pearl will be fine. One limit in the case of a music server, as soon as you add a second device in another room to play music from the server the cable party starts for you too. Act wisely and make a plan before you invest. One room or more rooms, high end or background music? Use AudioQuest or another decent brand but please, not the cheap CAT-5 with its flimsy connectors that came along with the router.