If you’d have told me two years ago that some USB cables sounded better than others I might not have laughed in your face but I’d have certainly afforded you a quizzical look – not sceptical to the point of refusing an audition but sceptical to the point that it would have been too low on my list of priorities.
Eventually, I did take the time to audition a USB cable. And then another. They each sound better than a stock, printer-type USB cable and they both sound different to each other. And yet broader scepticism abounds. There are folk who “refuse to believe” (note the speculative language), the implication being that they’ve yet to sit down and, y’know, listen.
If you’d have told me at the beginning of this year that some Ethernet cables sound better than others I might have given you a similar response: that a) I have bigger fish to fry and that b) many readers really don’t like it when you try to tell them that digital cables make a difference. I’d learnt that from my excursions into USB.
On matters of Ethernet, even broader, more rigid scepticism abounds. There are many folk who “refuse to believe”, the unintended implication being that they’ve yet to sit down and, y’know, listen.
Midway through my conversation with Steve Silberman in the AudioQuest hospitality room at this year’s Munich High End he brought up the topic of Ethernet cables sounding different. Was the collective audiophile consciousness’ refusal to believe why I tried to brush the subject away? Quite possibly.
“AudioQuest’s main business IS cables and of course Silberman would say as much – it affect’s his employer’s bottom line”, I reasoned internally. I concentrated hard on keeping such thoughts away from my mouth. Alas, my face must’ve given me away. Silberman was adamant that I attend their Ethernet cable demo upstairs. “Just listen – what do you have to lose?” asked Silberman. He had me there and he knew it – check.
Joining the throng was Stephen Mejias, fresh from the Stereophile boat. Here was a journalist I respected. Surely he too wouldn’t steer me wrong?
Time now for a point of order. Show coverage — as Srajan Ebaen of 6moons recently described it to me, it’s all sizzle and no steak. He’s right – it’s mostly impossible to draw conclusions on an individual component’s contribution to a system. Heck, even the room makes its own, sometimes unpleasant, contribution to final presentation. It’s why I rarely venture an opinion on specific bits of kit in show reports unless something is glaringly obvious. It’s also why my own reports are filed under ‘showcase‘.
How some commentators call out differences between DACs, sometimes with a comparison to the previous year’s event, I’ll never know. I do know that they are better/braver men than me. For me, audio showrooms provide a faint whiff of what each component in the rack might be doing but it’s only the collective performance that can be reliably assessed.
However, if the room is hosting a game of swapsies, it’s a different story. In such scenarios it’s easier to tease out performance deltas. Play a song or two, remove component A, insert component B and then replay that same song or two.
The AudioQuest system in Munich centred on a NAD M2 integrated amplifier, Elac 407 loudspeakers and Furman power conditioning. A NAD M50’s network interface received digital audio streams from a Synology NAS via a router. The M50 then fed a NAD M51 DAC.
All weekend AudioQuest swapped out Ethernet cables for anyone with sufficient curiosity willing to sit down and listen. That’d be my hypotheses and me. Null: there are no sonic differences between Ethernet cables. Alternative: there are some sonic differences between Ethernet cables.
First up, a generic Ethernet cable – I don’t recall its make or model. In the context of the above hypotheses, it didn’t matter. I was only interested in there being audible differences between ANY two Ethernet cables.
After thirty seconds of music, a pause whilst the Ethernet cable was switched over to AudioQuest’s RJ/E Vodka cable. Price? US$255 and up. Play was hit on the same song again…
…chin, meet floor. There was a difference: more micro-dynamic attack, more intensity. Wanting not to believe what I was hearing I requested that the original cable be returned to the mix. Silberman and co. obliged willingly and sure enough, vividness took a step backwards. Null hypothesis rejected, alternative hypothesis accepted: sonic differences between Ethernet cables were real.
Before you conspiracy theorists jump in, allow me to play that role on your behalf. I’m not suggesting that the chaps from California had deliberately hobbled the control cable but let’s assume, just for a moment, that they had done exactly that. How would they have hindered its (audible) performance? With error-correction built into TCP/IP and UDP, any given cable would either work or it wouldn’t, no?
Furthermore, I realize that a single listening session isn’t wholly conclusive. However, my experience with Ethernet cables at the AudioQuest room in Munich was enough to see me further my investigation rather than close the door on it for good. With curiosity energetically stirred, I requested cable review samples from AudioQuest on the spot.
Time passed, AudioQuest Ethernet cables arrived (and were scheduled for November listening), more time passed, I arrived at RMAF.
Attending the AudioQuest ‘Computer Audio Demystified’ seminar on Sunday morning the room quickly filled to capacity. People crouched on the floor and huddled behind the door. Our host again was Steve Silberman whose favourite phrase is “Do not confuse a clear path for a short distance”.
Whilst it’s plain that Silberman is a digital audio evangelist he’s also someone who doesn’t leave the obvious to chance. In his exposition of iTunes configuration he leaves nothing and no one behind.
The first forty-five minutes were dedicated to foundation level computer audio. Here’s a summary of what Silberman covered:
1) how to rip with iTunes – Silberman recommends AIFF
2) how to make iTunes sound better with Audirvana+ or Amarra
3) seeing your computer as an audio component
4) keeping your audio library on a separate drive
5) keeping that drive on a separate bus to the DAC (e.g. Thunderbolt for storage access, USB for DAC connection)
6) Solid state drives are a winner!
7) more RAM = better sound
8) quality of RAM matters – Silberman recommends Macsales.com for OS X and Samsung for Windows users. “Avoid Kingston”, he says.
9) higher processing power computers tend to sound better
10) Gordon Rankin (whose custom code AudioQuest use in their Dragonfly DAC) says laptops tend to have lower RMI/EFI than desktop PCs and therefore tend to sound better
That’s a solid amount of information that even the most experienced computer audiophile could sink their teeth into.
A quick demo of the (very) audible benefits of Audirvana+ 1.X over vanilla iTunes playback set the scene for what I’d come to hear: an Ethernet cable swap. This was to be Round 2! A network-connected dCS digital front end, Simaudio by Moon amplification and Vandersteen loudspeakers formed the basis of the system.
“Streaming is where digital audio will land”, reckoned Silberman. A quick A/B revealed to the audience that a MacBook direct-wired to the router with a bog-standard Belkin cable sounded ballsier and grippier than hearing the two connected over WiFi. “See? ANY cable is better than wireless!” proclaims our host.
The Belkin Ethernet cable was then swapped out for an AudioQuest Pearl variant (US$25 and up). This change afforded Talking Heads’ “Sax and Violins” more on-the-nose dynamic punch and revealed more surface textures. A sense of “WTF!” spread through the room. Mind-bending stuff.
On paper, Ethernet cables shouldn’t matter. In reality to anyone in attendance that day in Denver, they do. For this commentator, here were results from two different shows, each with different rooms and different hardware configurations. On both occasions I’d witnessed a difference between Ethernet cables. My findings match those of Audiostream’s Michael Lavorgna. It would seem that EVERYTHING in the digital audio chain matters. Even the stuff we think couldn’t possibly matter, matters.
I understand why levels of scepticism run high and will continue to run high. Unless you’ve heard it with your own ears you probably won’t believe it either. A shade over a third of the 300ish people that voted in last week’s poll reckon that audiophile-grade Ethernet cables are pure snake oil. Conversely, two thirds are either a) open to the possibility that Ethernet cables can sound different or b) are already convinced that they do.
With this audio show coverage I’ve described the ‘what’ – my initial experiences in hearing a difference between Ethernet cables. For some readers, that will be a confusingly bitter pill to swallow. (Some would rather knock the pill from the offering hand).
The ‘why’ is beyond my ken (for now at least). That’s for engineers to investigate. Feel free to discuss possible reasons why in the comments section below but to keep this conversation on point, refuseniks and ‘snake-oilers’ are directed to the comments section in the first instalment.
Stephen Mejias and recently corresponded on the matter:
“Here’s what I’ve learned since joining AudioQuest: Wired Ethernet offers uncompromised data rates at distances up to 328ft for Cat7 and 180ft for Cat6, avoiding the precipitous drop-off in data rates common to wireless transfers. At a distance of only 20 feet, some wireless routers lose as much as 85% of their data throughput. These losses in throughput cause dropouts in your media, higher-variable compression rates, and an overall loss in audio fidelity. As you increase the number of devices on a wireless network, you decrease the potential bandwidth available to each device.”
“Even generic Ethernet cable offers audio performance that’s generally clearly superior to the fastest, most robust wireless networked-audio system. Moving beyond the limitations of wireless systems, the specific cable matters, too, of course. Cat6 cables support network speeds up to 1Gbps; Cat7 cables support network speeds up to 10Gbps at 100-meter lengths. All of the cables we sent you are built on the Cat7 foundation.”
At home with the three cables sent to me by AudioQuest is where we’ll next pick up this conversation. Stay tuned.
Further information: AudioQuest ‘Computer Audio Demystified’ white paper | AudioQuest retail price book