Switch quality

July 25, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Here's one of those brave posts where I air my laundry and open myself to criticism and ridicule.

Ain't life grand?

I am often asked if network switches and routers impact audio quality while streaming. And as a secondary question on the same subject, does it matter whether streaming is transmitted via WiFi or Ethernet?

I find this particular can of worms really intriguing because it's close to the same question of whether power matters. So, let's start with that.

The power debate often starts with the questioner's arms folded, his head cocked to one side, and the mouth humorously pursed as if listening to a child explaining Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. "So, let me get this straight. The power coming into my house makes my system sound different than the power going into my neighbor's house, right? And worse, my neighbor's power usage might affect the sound quality in my house? And, we agree there are hundreds of miles of cables connecting everything together?"

I am just as incredulous when it comes to how bits get delivered from far away servers: servers that distribute those bits not in order like ants marching to food, but in chunks taking circuitous routes before accumulating at our DACs.

Tomorrow, let's take a look at the question in more detail.

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17 comments on “Switch quality”

  1. I haven’t yet found a logical explanation why a stereo component with a seriously designed power supply with a huge bank of caps and good shielding should suffer from a poor mains power supply. And even more strange. If the power supplies from refrigerators, air conditioners electric motors etc degrade the quality of (the ideal sinusoidal curve of) the mains power supply then all SMPSs in the audio chain should even more degrade the sound quality unless you put a filtering device between the active component and the power regenerator.
    Thus I wonder if poor designs of the power supplies or expectation bias is the elephant in the room here. I still wait for a convincing explanation.

  2. The day I plugged in my first streamer (Linn) 10 years ago it did not work because the switch I bought that morning was incompatible. I was a bit annoyed, we had friends round for lunch and I was in a mood. The wife was not happy.

    When Qobuz HD streaming arrived about 3 years years ago using repeaters around the house resulted in poor data transmission, which was more of a problem than power noise. Realising direct ethernet connections are more reliable, power noise then became the enemy. For the first time in my life I spent quite a lot of money of power lines that reduce noise into the components and had to wait till last month to run a new cable under the floor.

    I have no switches or routers on the signal path at all. There is 27m of cable from the modem to the Roon server, of which 25m is fibre optic and 2 x 1m ethernet at either end with the the receiving media converter powered by 9v battery (the other by a low noise 9v power supply). The server to streamer connection is 1m ethernet, but could also be usb. The server design includes a quality incoming power filter and dedicated linear power supplies to the outputs.

    The result is excellent, keeping it as simple as possible, most of the components are very cheap from Amazon, the ethernet cables are $10 audiophile items and the only moderately expensive thing is the 9v battery unit.

    I have seen there are now audiophile ethernet switches ($2,000!), ethernet filters and media converters. No thanks.

    1. Thus the basic technical concept for solving the problem of noise is galvanic isolation using fibre optics, isn’t it? I wonder why this concept isn’t used more commonly, for instance for phono preamps?

      1. ... and why anyone uses unbalanced interconnecting cables. A lot of audiophilia seems to be the joy of clinging on to things from the past. A lot of digital audio seems based around tried, trusted and cheap computing and telecoms technology. Some companies like to make equally good and cheap audio products like Chromecast audio and the Dragonfly DAC, whereas others make products that are functionally similar but cost 100 or 1,000 times as much. As I've said many times, I won't judge between them, that's just how capitalism works. People spend $100m on an artwork that has no intrinsic value. People often think too binary, winners and losers. If a company can make a megabucks DAC and there are customers that get joy from such devices, then they are both winners. The good thing about networking products is that they were mature before they entered the consumer audio world, so ultra-cheap solutions are possible. I'm waiting for the gold-plated audiophile fibre-optic cable or at least an audiophile one that costs more than 50cents/metre.

        1. Indeed. Looking for mature technologies is a good advice. Active loudspeakers for instance often being the standard solution for pro audio and studio monitors for decades - avoiding the problem of long run of unbalanced speaker cables!

          1. There is a lot of talk about Dutch& Dutch 8c integrated speakers, another product crossing over from the pro world. All you do is plug in an ethernet cable and that's it. One reviewer said they knocked his Harbeth into a cocked hat, which for me is very worrying, especially as a large pro store 5 minutes away has them on demo. No switches or routers required.

            1. I don't think they sound like our Harbys at all, personally - but they are very impressive. A local studio owner and dealer here used them for months for his recording and mixing monitors, and said everything translated very well to the real world.

        2. The DS has unbalanced ports, which if I want to add subs with unbalanced ports means I have to use unbalanced cables. Of course, I could use RCA to XLR adapters and vice-versa, for example, but what good would that do.

  3. As has been alluded to before on this site, I think it is only fair to comment on the performance of a product if you have actually tried it. I appreciate this could be costly and that quite rightly is down to individual choice, but condemnation from experience has so much greater validity.

    I had long been sceptical of problems with the mains and found it hard to fault the logical reasoning against the purported benefits of improving the mains supply. However, no one was more surprised than me with the overall improvement in sound quality when I installed my, not so expensive, mains regenerator.

    The fact that it wasn’t one of the more expensive models made it even more satisfying but of course I am now left wondering if the pricier models would bring even greater benefits. That’s the trouble with this hobby, there’s always something else round the corner. It did show me how careful product selection can reap real rewards and I am always open to new ideas.

    Having said that, and it just shows how contradictory we can all be, I am not into streaming and doubt that I will be preferring to stick with CD’s. I would never say never though as one thing I have learnt over a lifetimes hifi journey is that so many times i have said to myself I wouldn’t try this or I’d never change that and before too long it’s happened.

    Another quick thought. I was listening last night and thinking how especially good things were sounding which made me wonder why. Was it just that I hadn’t listened in a while, what was different? Was it the unusually warm air or was it the fact that I had two small windows open which allowed the room to ‘breathe’ rather than being ‘pressurised’ (which I always believed was a good thing?). Any suggestions on just another crazy idea?

  4. Network setup does matter. For 1, never use WiFi, always use a wired connection, there are too many other devices that use the same frequencies and every wall the signal passes thru the signal degrades.
    I use a cat7 cable going into my PSA dac and it was a step up in SQ over your basic cat5e cable, the terminations are night and day different.
    Internet cables matter, always use fiber over copper. Fiber is dead quiet. I’ve been using a 1G fiber network for a few years now and all the issues of using a 15M copper network have disappeared: noisy, packet retransmissions which causes dropouts, and a typical copper network is shared amongst your neighbors, so when all the neighbors are on the network, performance drops.

    1. Blue Jeans publish some interesting technical stuff and test results of bulk cables. I think they say that CAT 5e and 6a are more than sufficient, if not preferable, for streaming audio. Mine are all CAT 6a. There is probably more to be gained from ensuring they are properly terminated with well-made connectors. I recently installed a 25m ethernet cable, I used a cheap AudioQuest cable as AQ supply the plugs to the cable retailer, who connect and test them, I recall at no extra charge. Most reel cable is fitted with generic connectors. The cable is used mainly for HD video.

  5. Okay audiophile purists let me make your day... and fill your dreams with nightmares. The internet, in fact all modern telecommunications systems converted about 20 years ago from circuit switchng to packet switching. Your signal over the internet unlike older systems is not connected between the source of your signal and your computer or phone or fax machine over a single circuit however it's arranged. Remember photographs of those old switchboard operators who would plug your line into a patchbay and then were relpaced by electronic relay switches and then solid state switches? Well it doesn't work that way anymore. Your signal is broken up into packets of data in time at your source's ISP's telco company's central office, and the packets are transmitted in different directions over different means, some going over microwaves, others on fiber optic cable, others on land lines, others by satellite, and by some miracle they are all brought back together at your provider ISP's telco local central office and reassembled in correct sequence and in correct time. And the astonishing thing is that it is done perfectly virtually every single time. It may have passed through thousands of transistors to get to you.

    I've installed some switches myself. A Norther Telecom DMS 100, a Siemens EWSD, and an AT&T 5ESS. In fact I built an network used to test software developed at Bellcore in data centers I built and used to train engineers at the Regional Bell Operating Companies how to use it. I also installed a large number of G3 Definity switches at AT&T. How does this all work? I don't have a clue.

    Here are some photos. The first image on the left in the second row is similar to the 5ESS I installed. It's no small thing. It's painted with AT&T's typical blue and gray colors. You'll have to copy and paste the URL to get it into your browser.


  6. So I suppose there are other ways around all this.
    For power use a static inverter dedicating a small room to the batteries that will be needed. Keep chords to the absolute minimum length so they can’t act as antennas or noise harvesters.
    Next enclose the room in a faraday cage paying close attention to keeping any Rf or other source of electronics noise out, in addition to containment. Finally ensure your electronics are all linear supplies and that there is nothing digital in the electronics or the room.

  7. I can only speak from my anecdotal experiences when I say most of my issues when it comes to streaming media have come from buggy software. I use WiFi to stream, but my router settings have been optimized for the best signal quality (basically I don’t run it in the default settings, I hide the SSID, and disabled the auto channel change). For me, this has cured any issues I’ve had as far as signal quality. Tidal and Spotify work flawlessly. Where I run into trouble is with Qobuz. Qobuz’s software is incredibly buggy. So much so I’ve finally given up on using it. I think it has the best SQ, but the user experience is frustrating if you’re someone who likes to bounce around and listen to lots of different things on the fly. As far as power? May make a difference, may not. The voltage in my neighborhood can differ as much as +/- 10 volts. Invested in a stellar power plant. But that was more for trying to relieve the stress of power correction by the components internal electronics. Figure every bit helps.

  8. I still very much fall into the bits-is-bits camp. No matter how many switches or cables or walls the signals pass through, if the bits at the other end duplicate what was sent it will sound right to me. I’m OK with power cord upgrades but in conjunction with some type of filtering or regeneration. I have Jitterbugs plugged into all my computers and router and switches and NAS devices and thought they did improve sound, by reducing background noise I suppose at playback but not so much in data transmission. A whole industry exists however to fuel the desires of those who feel the opposite of what I do. For the most part I am with Steven and some others in that a $10 cord from Belkin or Amazon does the trick most of the time. I have bought some other more expensive (but just slightly so) cords in the past because I liked the looks and aesthetics of them, not because I thought they were a big improvement over the $10 item.

  9. Ok, I used to think bits is bits. It's obvious. Black and White. Yes and no. Simple.

    Not so.

    Zeros and Ones are not "digital facts" ... they're interpretations of electrical signals. On the low side, a O (Zero) . On the high side, a 1 (One).

    Music, like life, is not made of Blacks and Whites, nor is it made of basic colors. Red, Blue, Green, shades of grey, absolute black... and white...

    Music is made of all of that, and pastels, shadings we can just glimpse, from moment to moment...

    And switches and internet cables matter.

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