Ethernet vs. USB

August 1, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

If you’re looking for the best sonic solution for streaming music it matters how that music gets delivered.

For example, if you’re connecting with USB then the computer matters: faster, quieter, better built will sound better. And the USB cable matters. And then there’s the requirement of an interface buffer to maximize sonics (the Matrix works great).

Or….

If you connect via ethernet or WIFI then everything’s in reverse. The computer doesn’t matter any more than does the cable.

The problem with USB is pretty simple. It is a hard-wired two-way communication link between a noisy computer and a quiet-demanding DAC.

Ethernet, on the other hand, doesn’t care. You could have the noisest of ancient computers spitting out the data and you can send that signal through multiple switches and routers and miles of cable. It all comes out the same—often regenerated over and over again along the journey.

Take for example Octave Studios. Everything in that studio is connected via ethernet. There’s absolutely zero sonic difference between long or short ethernet runs or the many switches in its path or the type of NAS it is stored in, or whether or not we use POE (power over ethernet – and yes, we do).

None of that matters.

If you have a choice, go with the better sonics.

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

58 comments on “Ethernet vs. USB”

  1. Well now that you’ve said that, have you tried the switches from Synergistic Research and others to determine that they in fact make no audible difference?

    Just curious.

  2. My first streamer (Linn) had only one input – ethernet. That was a wise decision back in 2009 when the obvious choice was noisy usb from a conventional consumer computer. It was a lesson learned not to use a consumer computer in the audio chain, and I never have. Move on several generations and Innuos (used since 2019) still requires wired ethernet input, because wifi is considered far too noisy, as is any sort of video or screen. Outputs? Ethernet and usb, the latter with its own linear power supply. I’ve used both and never noticed any difference in sound quality. I currently use usb with a £5 cable (Chord usb-C on promotion about 10 years ago).

    When I got my first streamer in 2009 it was readily apparent that this was going to be very bad news for the premium hifi market, because all the constituent components are so cheap, and transparently so, units often being built to order from a parts menu. There is no magic involved. Innuos uses a modified $50 motherboard and a very cheap NC4200 processor, and the audiophile fibre cable costing more than $0.50/m has yet to be invented. I can’t think of any sensible reason why you would need more than one box to receive an ethernet data input and provide an analogue output. I don’t know why anything more is needed and I don’t know what an “interface buffer” is.

    Even my Innuos is now redundant because I can run Roon off a business server. I only keep it because of my library of purchased downloads and they would probably fill up my server. Hard drives are noisy, SSD much more than SATA, and as people cease to have music libraries (or use a separate network store), internal storage is disappearing.

    So get rid of the noise and you get rid of the problem, and the main requirement seems to be an extremely efficient and pared down operating system. Then cabling is a bit of a non-issue.

  3. So why is there audiophile Ethernet cable and audiophile routers. I tried it and even if I’m not sure sound is better it is different. Ethernet is not so quiet and stay an electric flow

    1. $$$$$

      It’s price differentiation in its purest form. I learned about it in college in the 1980s, when the classic example was washing power companies using multiple brands to get market share, sell the same product in different markets at different prices, and to create different pricing in the same market.

      I would love to sit behind an audio system with a bunch of Audioquest ethernet/usb cables and see if the Audioquest guy can notice the difference when his cables are swapped in an out (or not swapped), let alone tell if it is a more expensive one or not.

      It seems fairly innocent compared to the scandal going on at the moment with surge pricing for Springsteen tickets. I suspect that is here to stay.

      1. Better yet, why not try it yourself?

        At least then you can say you tried it and heard no discernible difference and it adds more credence to your musings.

        1. I bought a used Tellurium Q usb and sold it shortly thereafter. I also bout an EE8 switch and will probably sell it as well. It’s in its box.

  4. Hello Paul,

    Thank you for your advice on ethernet over USB.

    I have no knowledge of, and little interest in, the details of setting up a computer audio music source. However, I think it’s fun to be able to hand to visitors to the stereo room an iPad so they can listen to their favorite songs. So I will be getting a streamer and a DAC.

    Do you believe there should be a section of optical cable immediately prior to the streamer to scrub any sonic nasties which were picked up by the ethernet cable on its long route from the Internet service provider at the street, or for any other sonic reason?

    Thank you!

    1. Yes, in theory using a piece of optical cable as the last leg of the journey solves all the noise problems. And if TOSLINK didn’t suck as an optical cable option then that would have been all we needed. Unfortunately, TOSLINK became the standard we’re stuck with. It hasn’t the bandwidth for high-speed audio.

      1. Why not provide a proprietary optical link between the dedicated PSA products that offers the required bandwidth. I appreciate there would be increased cost and complexity issues but it could provide a solution.

      2. Thank you very much for your reply, Paul! I appreciate it!

        So am I correct to understand that your bottom line advice is to not use a length of fiber optic cable anywhere in the line?

        1. If you can get it to work and run the stream then yes! I just use a lot of high bandwidth digital, like DSD 256 and PCM 352 where TOSLINK won’t work. Your mileage may vary depending on what you stream and listen to.

      3. Paul,

        Have you tried using a pair of inexpensive Ethernet to SFP converters and a short run of fiber to see if you can detect an audible difference?

        You should be able to pick up the components for under $100 total from the usual sources like Amazon or Micro Center.

        This is not unlike using a pair of USB to optical converters back to back to provide galvanic isolation.

  5. Sound like a good topic for the next book. ‘Digital in the Audio Universe’. Maybe a chapter on cable routing, another on IP setup, and still another on TCP/IP protocol.

    At least with the USB / Matrix set up things are relatively simple. No routing cables behind walls…. No planning on where the wall sockets go, no worries about configuring when power is lost, minimal intimidation for those not so IT savy….

    1. TCP/IP etc. – you’re joking? Never understood a word of that stuff. Just get a network that is remotely managed, then plug-and-play.

        1. Yes, managed by the seller: “Our UniFi Cloud Hosted Controller service is perfect for users looking to harness the power of the Ubiquiti UniFi software without the hassle of running our own controller. All our Ubiquiti UniFi Access Points come with the option of a 3 year FREE UniFi Cloud Controller Service. The Access Points are fully provisioned prior to dispatch so you simply have to connect them to your network and enjoy your new seamless roaming WiFi.”

  6. I wish you were correct Paul. But concerning Ethernet not being affected by switches, cables, and linear power supplies you are mistaken.

    Ethernet theoretically shouldn’t be affected. One can clearly hear differences.

    Products I use are two Uptone Etherregens with outboard clocks, and individual Uptone LPS 1.2s. The brand and type (CAT 5-8) of Ethernet cables is important too. Even the operating system on the server makes a difference. I’ve not tried this but many use a stack of 3 Buffalo switches in their Ethernet system. Even the type of power cord used to connect to power is audible. Many people I know even use PS Audio regenerators for their Ethernet system. Why? Because the difference with or without can be heard.

    I believe of course it’s not the ones and zeros that are changed. That’s impossible according to the definition of Ethernet.

    It’s probable that jitter is the culprit and it affects the above systems in an analog way.
    Remember we discovered something you termed ‘software jitter’ when the team worked on eLyric? I do. You coined the term if I remember correctly.

    1. The problem with these arguments is that there is no clock associated with an ethernet signal. This uses a packet system that is pretty much the same as how the internet works. There are no clock associated with the data traveling over ethernet, thus there cannot be jitter. (Jitter is always associated with clocks).

      So your network layer (layer 3) consists of the IP addressing – this is where a packet lives, with its ‘header’ containing source and destination IP info (where its coming from and where its going – and because there’s no clock, and if we’re not worried about latency – it can hang out for a few years if you want).

      This packet gets encapsulated into a frame as it moves down to layer 2 – the frames contains source/destination MAC addresses.

      To fold this info routers vs switches – switches forward frames based on their destination MAC address.

      Routers forward packets by looking at their destination IP address.

      Hubs work only at layer-1 – they don’t look at MAC or IP – they just repeat electrical signal to all the ports.

      So, unlike the internet protocols, in LAN communication (ethernet) IP packets are still used, but your PC will forward directly to the MAC address of the device (like an AirLens), it doesn’t need to use a gateway because they’re on the same network.

      The main point is to say that over ethernet there can be no jitter or timing related problems. They simply do not exist. If you’re hearing differences then those must be attributable to something else – like noise introduced into the device and that noise might be causing jitter in the receiving device (which is why the AirLens exists to get rid of it).

      I would just say that while some of the measures people take with ethernet to get it to sound better are backwards. Better that the unit connected to the ethernet or WiFi stream isn’t bothered by noise.

      1. That’s exactly my findings. I even tried putting my standard ethernet switch & router on a high end Panamax Power Unit, checking to make sure that there was no impact. Indeed, there was no difference. The nature of the work being performed by networking devices like switches and routers were in no way impacted. They performed consistently through the Panamax or standard power strip.

  7. Yes. Indeed. That’s why power cords, regenerators, shielding and all make a difference. The dirtier the electricity the more noise gets through. And if you’re using switching power supplies even the ones not involved directly in the audio system pollute. I’ve switched all wall watts in my home to linear supplies made by Jensen. They don’t cost much. Just be careful to purchase the correct value.

  8. Agree with Paul. My hookups are all ethernet from router to Roon Nucleus and DAC as suggested by dCS Bartok. But, just to be sure I had the best and quietest, I used Wireworld and Audioquest’s best Cat 7 internet cables. And, got rid of the cheap computer grade switch and went to the Chord 8 Switch.
    Then I read an article on high end ethernet cable grounds transmitting noise, so sent away for Blue Jeans Cat 5 cables. Cost about the same as the tax on one of the fancy cables. What a nice difference. Belden makes those cables and they are excellent and without the grounds, silent. Go ethernet and lower Cat number cables, better than any tweek, and cheaper. Still like the quality of the 8 Switch though.

  9. I’m looking to dump my USB DAC after recent experimentation with rendering device/DAC combos. I agree with what Paul says above.

    From a networking perspective, I have tried ethernet -> optical -> ethernet converters (which supposedly reduces “noise”), high end ethernet cables, short vs. long, high end ethernet switches, etc.

    I noticed no difference with any of those changes vs. my regular router, standard ethernet switch (that has 8 devices connected to it) with well rated CAT8 wire from Amazon.

    It’s actually quite a refreshing departure from most every other audio connection.

  10. Well each to his own.

    I know all the arguments about Ethernet. Even before it was used by audio guys there were Ethernet filters that are still in use today.

    It’s not the digital signal 1s and 0s that are affected.

    But what happens in the “analog” after digital transmission.

    There are plenty of products out there if you would want to try. Almost all have at least a 30 day return service.

    And did the LAN Rover work? Yes indeed. Put a linear power supply at one end and it became better. I know I owned one. Sadly that piece of equipment is antiquated and doesn’t work well in todays systems. The OS issue is the culprit I believe.

    And yes Fiber Optical cables make a difference too. And Single mode seems to sound best. I use one of those too.

    And if you have access to high speed fiber into the home instead of cable based systems that can certainly affect Quboz and Tidal.

    I know, “Say it isn’t so”!

    Computer Audiophile is full of things to try.

    The best servers at the shows like Axpona have separate Ethernet units available and are included with their servers: Wadax, Innuos, MSB, DCS, Taiko, and many others.

    One doesn’t have to own an expensive system to hear what I’m describing.

    Most of those companies got their ideas from posts on Computer Audiophile.

  11. The sound of my DSD DAC when streaming from my computer was significantly improved by switching the DAC input from Ethernet to USB. Most notable was the improvement in bass, but clarity also improved. To bridge the 15’ run from my computer to my DAC, I first inserted a cheap USB hub to keep the cable lengths to spec (and maybe cut down noise from the computer?) and then, near the DAC, a good reclocker (Ciunas Audio – which circuitry is driven by a battery hooked to a recharger that’s fed by quality power). I figure the reclocker should atone for most audio sins that have been committed to the data stream that it receives. I don’t really understand why the bass got so much better, but my intuition says the reclocking.

    1. I did A/B testing of some Nordost & DH Labs ethernet cables vs. well rated CAT8 ethernet cable from Amazon, and I could not tell a difference in audio streaming of various types or quality of 4K Atmos streaming of movies.

      Additionally, I could not notice a difference in either format’s quality going through an ethernet switch or direct to the router.

      1. understood. I find this issue vexing as you “hear” and read so much about cables in the analog connection, and now, in the digital domain.

        I had a 15′ cheapy amazon cable connecting my modem to the dac. sounded fine but took the bait and installed a $100 audioquest cable. somehow it sounded better. after a few days I used a decibel app to check the dB’s and found that the more expensive cable produced 2 dB’s more sound; it also sounded brighter. I asked my much better half to listen to a favorite song (of hers) and tell me if she heard any difference – she immediately said that the audioquest cable sounded better. a week later I switched out the audioquest with a $200 wireworld cable and measured again- another dB in volume and not as bright. my wife listened – she nailed it again. trust me when I state that she has no interest whatsoever in any of this audiophile stuff and was simply giving a listen at my request; and no, she didn’t peak. so, what is going on?

        1. I have noticed changes doing A/B testing with interconnects, USB cables and power cables (despite a strong hope they would make no difference). I’m not in the hard core “cables make no difference camp”.

          Consistent with Paul’s comments, I didn’t find any difference for the ethernet ecosystem. Nor did I find plugging the router or ethernet switch into my high end Panamax Power Conditioner vs. normal power strip to make a difference.

          Additionally, through USB to a DAC, Audirvana through my home made audiophile PC was superior to Audirvana through my MacBook Pro Laptop. Through a rendering device/DAC, they were much more similar in quality.

  12. This is confusing to me. I am running Qobuz/Audirvana on an older laptop which connected via USB to my GDAC.
    Is this an okay configuration or what should be done to enhance it?

    1. I’m not into computer audio, but I do watch music YouTubes on my laptop in my home office. I hear a very noticeable improvement in sound quality when I use Synergistic Research MiG footers under the Dell laptop and a Clarus Coda headphone/DAC with cheap ($100) headphones. This is just my workstation rig, not my high-end system, but it sure is fun late at night. 😎

  13. I agree with sgrowan: Paul’s argument is correct in theory but I, at least, hear differences in an ethernet wired system depending on cable, equipment and equipment location. For example, I heard an obvious difference when I switched to industrial grade switches; when I substituted fiberoptic for high quality CAT 7 and 8 cables; and when I relocated my Roon streamer from close to the modem to close to the DAC (roughly 30 feet away).

  14. Twisted pair ethernet premise wire has come a long way thanks to precision manufacturing equipment.
    The speeds we see advertised today on twisted pair were once only attainable with fiber.

  15. Ground loops are the biggest problem with this stuff because there’s no audible hum to tip you (not to mention manufacturers) off to the problem.

  16. Hi Paul and audiophile community. First, Thank you Paul for clarification on today’s blog.
    Second, I’m looking for help in getting my computer music flac and wma lossless files wirelessly via home Wi-Fi (rather than Bluetooth) to my Holo Spring 3 dac.
    I’m also considering Roon, and I understand that my computer can function as a nucleus, so preferably this streamer could act as an endpoint. I would also like my Android phone to be able to control the selection of music from my phone and the computer. Last of all I would like to have this device transmit the files so it “sounds” terrific. Any recommendations?

  17. OK – just trying to understand what Paul is saying. USB bad, Ethernet good. My DAC does not have an Ethernet input. So is Paul saying that for best sound you need a box that has an Ethernet (or fiber optic) input and Analog outputs? THIS IS MY MAIN QUESTION.

    I would prefer to have my “renderer” or “steaming device” separate from my DAC, just like I like my phono preamp separate from my control preamp.

    I’m trying to get the best sound from Qobuz and don’t think I should have to use Roon to achieve this. I am using a Sonore microRendu which is connected to my network with a 4″ long CAT6 ethernet cable. The microRendu feeds my Gustard x26 DAC with an inakustic USB cable. I’m using the Sonore LPS (the one for around $150)

    I’m not real happy with the sound I’m getting. Compared to playing WAV files with Foobar2000 a lot of Qobuz has a lot of glare. The Sonore guy wants me to upgrade my renderer. They have one that takes a fiber optic input and I am OK with using a media converter. I’m OK spending $1000 – 2000 on a renderer (with my $1500 DAC) since that’s close to what I have invested in a turntable, cartridge and preamp….

  18. I was installing enterprise networks back in 1989 (token ring/ethernet/appletalk) and I have been saying the same thing that Paul states for years, ever since I purchased my initial DS jr dac then the DS sr dac: ethernet sounds much better compared to USB. You can spend thousands on tweaks/gimmicks to try to improve USB. The other benefit of ethernet is you can keep your server in another room outside of your audio room. For audio, Speed is not an issue from cat5 GIG speed or later and Latency is not an issue when talking about 1G internal networks.
    If you think you are having issues with ethernet or you want to compare network devices, get a network packet sniffer and monitor your network packets to see what has changed when implementing anything new on your network or you want to see any errors that are going on in your network. Wireshark is a free tool for most OSs, I used to use the Network Sniffer decades ago and it would show you each packet, the route it takes, any errors/retransmissions, how big the packets are, and much more. If you think you need a bigger pipe, try using jumbo frames to see if that helps, which you can increase the size of each frame over the 1500 default.

  19. I run an audiophile ethernet cable from my modem to my fanless SSD computer. By the standards I have heard in the past it was a nice upgrade.
    But, what happened when AT&T mandated that I shut down my DSL, and they switched me to high speed fiber, led to a discovery that sounds surprisingly good. I was running the fiber to my modem, and my modem to my PC with the high end ethernet cable. But, the modem was still switched on for potential use with wi-fi and a landline phone. I found in the modem settings that both wi-fi and phone functions could be totally turned off. That was when the sound blossomed like I never heard before.

    Maybe that’s a tip for someone.

  20. I have an Audio Engine B1 DAC that is powered via any device with Bluetooth. Sounds great. I also have the Audio Engine D1 DAC that connects via a USB or Optic cable. When connected to the Audio Engine with the USB cable the sound card in my computer is disabled and everything is sent directly to the Audio Engine D-1 DAC for processing. Both units have left and right gold plated RCA outputs to connect to a stereo receiver or preamplifier. This is great for those old vintages components that don’t have Bluetooth or WiFi or the high end units that don’t have it.

    The B1 uses the AKM AK4396A DAC chip, which Audioengine uses to upsample all incoming data to 24-bits. According to Audioengine, “the AKM AK4396A DAC, widely known for its low noise and high fidelity.

    The D1 is a premium 24-bit DAC and headphone amplifier for your computer, phone, tablet, TV and more. It’s the perfect audio upgrade interface between your computer and music system and will improve your listening experience through speakers or headphones. There’s a more expensive D-2 with different capabilities and uses WiFi but no headphone amplifier or jack.

    I don’t have the Audio Engine B-Fi but here’s what it does.

    The B-Fi comes in a simple lift-top box, each of its contents occupying its own compartment molded into a single piece of Styrofoam: the B-Fi itself, a 42” stereo audio cable, a wall-wart power supply with detachable cord (USB Type-A to Micro), a microfiber storage bag, and a quick-start guide.

    The B-Fi weighs only five ounces and is about the size of a pack of cigarettes: 3.5”W x 1”H x 3”D, or 3.75”H with its antenna pointing straight up. Its corner edges are gracefully rounded, and its aluminum case is white, with black plastic front and rear endcaps. The two bolts that hold the B-Fi together run all the way through the case, from front to back; the heads are plainly visible front and rear, giving it an industrial look. The pivoting antenna is permanently fastened to the front panel; other than that and the company and model names, the only thing on the front panel is an illuminated power button. On the rear panel are right and left analog outputs on two very-high-quality RCA jacks, a digital output (TosLink), and a jack for the 5VDC power supply. That’s it.

    Streaming music files used to be for listeners who cared more about quantity than quality. Times have changed. In the past ten years, various streaming services have begun offering files in resolutions of CD quality or above. Audioengine’s B-Fi Multiroom Music Streamer offers a simple, inexpensive way to receive and distribute CD-resolution files. The B-Fi has dramatically changed the way I listen to music.

    Built-in apps include those for iHeartRadio, Napster, Qobuz, QQ Music, Tidal, TuneIn, and Ximalaya — units from the B-Fi’s second production run will also include Amazon Prime Music. That app and any future additions will be made available through a firmware update for earlier units. Apple AirPlay compatibility is included for accessing such third-party apps as Pandora and Amazon Music HD.

    Via DLNA/UPnP, the B-Fi supports the file formats AAC, AAC+, ALAC, APE, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, and WMA. The heart of the B-Fi is a 24-bit/192kHz ESS Technologies Sabre ES9023 DAC chip. Audioengine has limited the B-Fi’s use of this chip to 16/44.1.

    The B-Fi doesn’t receive via Bluetooth — it’s strictly a Wi-Fi streamer. Entirely wireless in operation, it lacks an Ethernet port for a wired connection to the Internet. It can be used with Audioengine’s free app, which is available from the Apple App Store or Google Play and requires an operating system of iOS 10.0 or later, or Android 5.0 or later.

Leave a Reply

Stop by for a tour:
Mon-Fri, 8:30am-5pm MST

4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301
1-800-PSAUDIO

Join the hi-fi family

Stop by for a tour:
4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram