Chord Co’s electronics division English Electric launched with the 8Switch network/data switch two years ago, the company has now followed that with two 8Switches in one box aptly named the 16Switch. It costs a bit more than a pair of 8Switches and contains pretty much exactly that but inhabits a full width steel case and is supplied with rack mount brackets for installation in a smart home with ethernet cable running here there and pretty much everywhere. The importance of network switches in streaming system has been well established and there are a number of audio specific examples on the market, many at higher prices than that being asked here. Switches intrinsically offer a degree of isolation from the high frequency noise that ethernet networks seem particularly good at picking up and running with, and at the very least it’s worth putting a switch between a streaming system and the rest of a domestic network.
Each of the switches within this device has its own switching power supply, apparently most linear power supplies are not fast enough for this job, and each has its own high accuracy TCXO clock. This separation of power supplies keeps noise down and the quality of the clocks reduces jitter or timing errors in the data being transmitted. English Electric have essentially taken the basic building blocks of a peripheral network switch and used better parts, much better parts in fact. Unfortunately they don’t have the economies of scaled enjoyed by Netgear and others so the price is high compared to commercial 16 port switches, but you are not buying quantity of ports you are paying for better sounding streamed audio.
The 16Switch is designed to be used in two ways, primarily it is a whole house hub with two isolated zones that can send audio and video to any ‘endpoint’ (streamer or TV). The two zones can be linked with the Chord C-Stream streaming cable supplied in the box or each zone can take a separate feed from the router. English Electric recommend using the 16Switch near the router and an 8Switch near the audio system in this situation. The other approach is to have the 16Switch next to the system and use its two zones to separate audio and non-audio feeds with the link between them. In my home studio situation I connected the PC, wireless access point and router to one zone with the C-Stream linking to the second zone where Melco N10 and Innuos Zenith SE music libraries were connected, I also hooked up a Auralic Altair G2.1 streamer for some of the listening.
Connecting up the 16Switch does not provoke the sort of light show produced by standard switches, there are no blinking LEDs but rather pin hole lights above each port that indicate its status, which extends to green or yellow, on or off. Initially I contrasted it with the 8Switch that usually provides switching duties in the system but normally has its its plugtop PSU in a a mains conditioner. For this comparison both switches were plugged straight into the wall and all the ethernet cables connected to one zone on the 16Switch, so theoretically the two should have sounded very similar. In practice the 16Switch proved to be more vivid and bright, enlivening the music and delivering a cleaner view of the proceedings with excellent timing. Why it produced this extra clarity is not clear but this was the case with a number of tracks having better defined leading edges thanks to clearer high frequencies. Imaging was also strong with a classical piece providing good perspective on the performers whilst providing superb musical flow. The 16Switch has a characteristic I find with many Chord products of making the music more engaging, there is little inclination to press pause or skip to the next track as can often be the case when reviewing.
When I linked the two zones on the 16Switch with the C-line cable and separated the audio and non-audio devices things improved further with better separation of instruments and voices, and more nuanced playing. It became clear that this was because the noise floor had been pushed down as the backgrounds were quieter and the music became calmer to the point where perceived volume seemed to drop – usually a sign of reduced distortion. Now the English Electric switch was beginning to sound like the high end offerings from Melco and Ansuz, not quite as sophisticated but pretty close considering the price difference. Making this comparison with material streamed from Qobuz (all previous listening was from my own library) revealed an increase in contrast, clarity and dynamics which are all signs of higher resolution and result in a more engaging musical experience.
Using the Altair G2.1 streamer/DAC, whose time on this site will be coming soon, I compared the 16Switch with a Cisco C2960, an almost vintage but well regarded network switch among audio enthusiasts. Here the difference was not subtle at all with the English Electric delivering better pace, dynamics, depth of image and all round groove power that even the bits is bits brigade might admit to hearing. Again there is a sense of cleaner high frequencies enhancing the definition of notes across the board with piano gaining a stronger sense of body and clearer reverb. What previously sounded bright and clangy became far more musically coherent, timing being the key difference here. What sounds like a tonal relaxation is produced by reducing jitter and allowing the notes to attack and decay at the right time rather than smearing one another. It makes a CD res recording sound more like 24/192.
Talking to Alan Gibb at Chord about the 16Switch inspired him to suggest I try one of the new Ground ARAY devices that the company recently launched. These are designed to absorb high frequency noise and work in a similar way to the CAD Ground Control units that are already in the system but not connected to the streaming components. The Ground ARAYs take the shape of an aluminium cylinder with one of a number of plugs at one end, I tried the RJ45 equipped one and placed it close to the ethernet cables for the Melco server and Altair streamer in the switch. This had a distinctly relaxing effect on the results, opening up the character of voices and instruments and revealing quite a lot more about the piece of music in an effortless fashion. Now we were getting considerably closer to the results found with the aforementioned high end switches, which given the £1,500 package price is impressive. The removal of any sense of the digital from the sound was very enjoyable indeed and highlighted just how coherent and well sorted the music was, it reminded me why I have been playing Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell’s version of The Man I Love for so long; it’s a great performance by highly skilled musicians. I tried the same comparison with a Qobuz stream and got a similar result that brought weight, solidity and definition to the bass in particular of a fairly thick sounding track from Laura Marling’s latest release with Lump.
The English Electric 16Switch is probably a bit large for average streaming system but the ability to isolate one half from the other is a clear benefit, anyone who can use one close to the router and create an isolated feed for the system will probably gain more, especially if they have a smaller switch close to the system. It certainly produces a markedly better result than non audio oriented switches and with the addition of the Ground ARAY gets very close to results found with considerably pricier options, all the while making the music that much more engaging and entertaining than most streaming systems achieve.