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Digital Audio Demystified: an evening at Len Wallis Audio

  • Horn tooting broadway. I don’t want to only write about (digital) audio, I want to talk about it too. Body language and tone of voice play into the spaces voided by the pixelated word running solo.

    At CES in January, I hatched a plan that I would later forget until revived some five months later by AudioQuest’s Taipei-based Shaun Schuetz. He was coming to Sydney town in late July to do NightHawk press promo (among other things) – would I be keen on giving a presentation about digital audio to a gathering of some local audiophiles? Sure I would.

    Perhaps Schuetz and I would co-present? Nope – in the interests of non-partisanship that idea was swiftly nixed. I would give a talk about my own experiences with digital audio and Schuetz would channel some of topics touched on by his Colorado-based AudioQuest colleague Steve Silberman, especially Ethernet cables. Put together in somewhat of a hurry, the title of the event took heavy cues from Silberman’s own seminars but was adjusted to accommodate DAR branding: Computer Audio Demystified became Digital Audio Demystified. I would represent DAR, Schuetz would represent AudioQuest. All we needed now was a venue to play host.

    Len Wallis [left] chats with Amber Tech’s Jamie Lewis [right].
    AudioQuest’s local handler Amber Technology set up the venue connection. Len Wallis Audio on Sydney’s north shore is one of the area’s longest standing and largest stores. Other high street retailers might have had the floorspace but not the central location. Wallis had both – we were set for the last Wednesday in July.

    One electronic missive despatched to Wallis’ customer base was all that was required to secure a full house. On the day I asked, “How many?” (I expected twenty or thirty, tops). “Over forty! Jamie Lewis is bringing additional chairs and I’ve been turning people away all week,” said Wallis. Facebook posts promoting the event only served to stoke demand that could not be met. A nice problem to have.

    Would we video the event and put it online for the benefit of those unable to attend? Doing so would undoubtedly remove the incentive to attend future events. It was agreed between Wallis and I that the value for all concerned (audience included) was in being there.

    As such, here are a selection of the themes that inspired this first DAD presentation:

    • The importance of pragmatism and perspective
    • It’s not a war: digital vs vinyl, lossy vs lossless, PCM vs DSD
    • Why digital transports don’t all sound alike and what we can do about it
    • How to improve the ‘sound’ of a Mac/PC
    • Why Sonos Connect is underrated system and how to make it sound better
    • How Roon reconnects us with our digital audio libraries / Tidal integration
    • Why we shouldn’t underestimate the Apple TV
    Shaun Schuetz of AudioQuest introduces himself

    It was via three of those latter Apple devices connected to an adhoc network that Shaun Schuetz conducted his Ethernet cable demonstration. Taking my place amongst the audience, I wanted to (hopefully) hear what everyone else heard. Some chins hit the the floor as Schuetz stepped through increasingly more expensive AudioQuest cable choices. Even the $25 Pearl bests a stock cable. Even more dollars down buys you greater silver content and with Diamond and Vodka, Telegartner connectors. It also nets better sound: a few faces could be seen silently mouthing expletives as increasing amounts of 3-dimensional (inner) spaciousness and timbral information was revealed. 

    Nose-diving from the AudioQuest Vodka to the slimline cable supplied with a Sonos Connect at the end of Schuetz’s presentation saw the soundstage flatten/collapse.Credit for Schuetz for suggesting that the higher end cable is only for a very specific kind of audiophile, one with multi-thou hardware and a wallet that goes deeper. Oh: there’s a also an audible benefit to be had from going from wireless to wired, even on a lowly Apple TV.

    This is my third time witnessing this demo and I mention the results yet again as evidential riposte to the forum-dweller snark being stirred up by Ars Technica’s supposed takedown of the same. My advice as always: go listen for yourself. If you don’t hear it, you don’t hear it. But playing keyboard warrior with nothing more than photos and a spec sheet at your disposal is the epitomé of closed-mindedness.

    Interestingly, when I asked for a show of hands on how many of the people assembled in Sydney didn’t accept that audible differences existed between USB cables, only one disbeliever (politely) stepped forward. I doubt such unanimity would have been seen when I kicked of DAR in 2010. Far more hands went up when asked about doubt surrounding Ethernet and still these folk turned up.


    Just like USB wire before it, Ethernet cable switheroos shouldn’t make a difference, but they do. I hear it, Audiostream’s Michael Lavorgna hears it. Part-time Audiophile’s Scot Hull is also a recent convert through empiricism.

    This may be something that informs my next digital audio-related presentation (for which Schuetz won’t be present). I won’t be using AudioQuest cables if I elect to go down this Ethernet demo rabbit hole. As per my own threepiece review assignment on Ethernet cabling, my primary interest lies in being able demonstrate a difference. I care not which brand of cable gets deployed. Perhaps something from QED? Chord?

    A presentation title change is also in order (for which reader suggestions are welcome). Digital Audio Demystified might be acronym friendly – DAD (!) – but greater separation from Steve Silberman’s talks will be required if I am to emphasise my own brand-agnostic approach. And especially if I am to transplant presentations to overseas audio shows.

    Over the weekend, possibilities for a similar Melbourne event were thrown around for later in the year and some significant interest was expressed by Sydney Audio Club. How lovely. (And I promise I’ll get better photos of the next event).

    In the meantime, a very large thanks goes out to Len Wallis and his staff, many of whom stayed with us even as the event extended well beyond its intended curfew.

    Each review uploaded to this site represents a narrow window on the audio world. A Powerpoint-fuelled presentation affords me an opportunity to reflect on those individual slices of time, to sum them and before labelling the result ‘experience’. From five solid years of the stuff comes the confidence to talk about trends and the many and different ways the end-user can facilitate good/better/best digital sources.

    Careful here: ‘best’ is largely subjective. Does ultimate sound quality or convenience matter most to you? A dedicated music server from Antipodes Audio will sound slightly better than a Sonos Connect, even when re-clocked by the Wyred4Sound Remedy. Cut and dried? Not when we factor in the not insignificant dollar difference and that the Sonos system has the better UI, integrated search (across streaming services and local content) and is easily extendible to more than one room around the house with other hardware models that are eminently affordable.

    For me, right now, best is whatever makes me want to listen to more music.

    Further information: Len Wallis Audio | Amber Technology

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. John,

      I really appreciate all that you do for those of us that are trying to advance digital audio. I’ve been involved with it since the early days of the Wavelength (non async) Brick. I can’t believe some of us actually bought that thing as it was horrible but it demonstrated the interest that many of us had with computer / digital audio.

      I see that your agenda included a topic on how to improve the sound of a Mac/PC. In my own experience, I’ve found the easiest way is to replace a Mac or PC with a competent music streamer such as a Naim or the less costly Aurender.

      I recently purchased an Aurender N100H and from the 1st track knew it was a significant improvement compared to my Mac Mini and Pure Music combo. Just recently I used the 30-day free Tidal subscription to test out the integration of Tidal to the Aurender. Aurender has done a terrific job with their integration as there’s virtually no difference in the user interface whether you’re playing songs stored on the Aurender or Tidal music streaming files. Using the Tidal lossless (HiFi) subscription option, there’s no audible difference I can tell between Redbook and Tidal tracks. With access to 25 million lossless tracks that I can access at home or in my car for $17 / month, where do I sign?

      Am I missing something with the continual quest to keep general purpose computers such as Macs or Windows PCs in the mix?

      Brian …

      • My experience tallies with yours when it comes to improving a Mac or PC. Once you drop $600+ on the machine itself followed by up to $1000 on a half-decent USB-S/PDIF converter/reclocker and then $100 on a software player you may as well move up to an AURALiC Aries or Aurender N100H. That said, Roon gives me pause for ditching the consumer PC/Mac altogether. Mind you the scales will tip again once Aurender, AURALiC and co. implement Roon as an endpoint (player).

    2. John,

      Would love to hear your lecture at the Nashville, Tennessee, Music City Head-Fi Meet September 26th!

      Would you be willing to provide a digital video for evens you are unable to attend?



      • Not sure what you mean by ‘provide digital video’? Per the article, I’m not so keen on YouTube-ing these things.

    3. OK my curiosity is once again going to cost me a few bucks. Despite being somewhat skeptical and hesitant to add another device with a SMPS in my chain I’m ordering a Remedy for my SB Touch. As for the pricey ethernet cables – while I do believe all those credible reviewers who say they hear a difference I wonder is it for the better or just does it just add a sheen to the sound like many silver plated cables tend to do?
      In any case I can’t afford 30ft of the stuff and would need to use it for the last foot or so with a LAN isolator (Giso or equivalent) acting as a coupling/cleaning device between router and Touch.
      What a diehard Touch lover wouldn’t do to achieve better sound while keeping that beloved LMS software interface.
      You’re right John it really does boil down to whatever makes me want to listen to more music. If only Linux based Aurender had an affordable model with coax output…

      • A linear PSU for the Remedy won’t sting you too hard if eliminating SMPS is the name of the game.

    4. Was a good night. And I think you stayed very objective – not captured by Audioquest at all.

    5. Never underestimate the AppleTV. I am running 3 AppleTV’s two of which are connected to TV’s, all of which are connected to capable two channel systems and the convenience factor is key. With multi box streaming built in to iTunes (there are also third party utilities available for Windows, Android and iOS devices) as well as the ability to play iTunes or Spotify anywhere in the house or in all rooms at once, the choice of music cannot be beat nor can the ease of use, the ability to play video, and low cost. I feel I’ve bypassed SONOS to create a system that handles video at a fraction of the cost. (I do keep a turntable attached to two of the systems so I always have access to my vinyl.)

      My only caution is that streaming CD quality everywhere can be a burden on the network. Ethernet cabling (nothing fancy – just regular CAT5) and a wifi repeater station have made this mostly a non-issue.

      Quality is primarily dependent on speaker choice and room acoustics – not cable selection, ethernet or otherwise. For amplification I am running everything from cheap amp modules from China (TPA3116), to vintage silver face (Pioneer SX1250) to the latest amplifiers – my speakers follow a similar eclectic plan. Sound quality is superb on each.

    6. Bravo JHD. This is very good stuff.

      This was well spoken “For me, right now, best is whatever makes me want to listen to more music”… In the end – this is what it’s all about.

      I can remember way back to my Audio Alchemy days where lots of folks questioned re-clocking (ie our DTI Series of products) and I2S was new to (almost) all. Time and use proved these technologies to be what they were. Same is true here – new constructs, new materials and even newer still building techniques have yielded a better Ethernet Cables. AQ is to be congratulated.

      Love reading this stuff John… thanks for this…

    7. John,

      So here’s what I’ve done:

      I ordered a 5m Cinnamon Ethernet cable through Amber Technology, the Audioquest Australian distributor. They offer a 14 day return period. If it works, I keep it, if it doesn’t, it goes back. What does that mean? Simply, if I can detect any improvement in sound at all, then I will consider it a pass. If I reckon it sounds the same as my bog standard Belkin, it goes back and I get my money back. I will not offer an adjective laden review of my impressions (You’re gifted enough, and paid, to do that), but if I listen longer, or if my feet tap a little more, or if I find that magic ‘spot’ in my mind that good music can induce, and if that happens more readily than with the standard cable, then it’s a keeper.

      Netgear NAS > Roon/Tidal/JPlay on a Windows 10 laptop (dedicated to music playback only) > Devialet 120 > Tannoy DC10’s. That system’s transparent enough to let me find out.

      I’ll let you know.

      • Bob – delighted that you’re taking the Pepsi challenge on this one. Please *do* let us know how you get on.

        • Hi John,

          I did, then I didn’t, then I did. Hear a difference in cables, I mean.

          I reckon it was 60/40, with the Audioquest Cinnamon sounding better about 60% of the time; 40% of the time I couldn’t hear a difference (very often with the same music), and I would have to say that 0% of the time did I prefer the Belkin. The cable stays and is now in my system.

          A/B ing is awful. Kudos to you for subjecting your mind and body to it as much as you do. I couldn’t do that too often.

          I tried all of my old favourites, many albums I’ve know for years. I’m comfortable with my decision. For a hoot, and a couple of days ago, I put on Whole Lotta Love from Led Zeppelin and tried it with both cables. Wow, the difference was night and day; not in the least subtle. Highly recommended as a demo, (and a fantastic track too, in case anybody’s forgotten)

          I’m stepping off the cable thing now, but I’ll probably spring the $50 for the 0.75m I need for the Cinnamon cable between my NAS and switch.

          • Glad you got a result, Bob.

            I don’t do so much quickfire A/B-ing round here…perhaps only when buddies stop by. When home alone, I tend to swap things in and out at a more leisurely pace. It’s this latter experience that informs most of my findings.

    8. Another good read John.
      I reckon “Digital Dilemmas Darkofied” or DDD instead of DAD.
      As an aside I just finished a new book – How Music got Free by Stephen Witt and can really recommend it if you have time to read.
      It traces the blundering major corporations dogged determination to ignore MP3 as a viable source and weaves the story of file sharing and its’ major players through the story.

      • I’d love to read that – thanks for the heads up.

        EDIT: Ordered. Oddly, Amazon shipping was cheaper on the hardback version.

    9. No worries, I think you’ll enjoy it.
      I got mine at the local library – the title caught my eye.

    10. J0hn,

      Many of us know the value of using high quality interconnect & power cables to improve the sound of our systems. Regarding the use of high-quality Ethernet cables in my system, I’d like your thoughts on if it will make a difference in my system setup. Perhaps the team at Audioquest can chime in.

      I use an Ethernet cable in two places in my system. One is used to copy ripped files from my Mac Mini to my Aurender N100H. Obviously I perform this copy one time only for each song file. The other place I use an Ethernet cable is between my WiFi extender to my Aurender to connect my Aurender to the Internet to access & play lossless tracks using my Tidal subscription service.

      Does anyone know if using a high-quality Ethernet cable in the copy of ripped music files from a Mac Mini to a music streamer such as the Aurender makes a difference? If so, I’ll re-copy all my files from the Mac to the Aurender with a high-quality Ethernet cable in place.

      Same question for the Tidal music, will a high-quality Ethernet cable improve the sound of Tidal lossless tracks played on my Aurender?

      Last question, I’ve read some of the posts mention that just upgrading to a Cat7 cable made a dramatic improvement on their systems. I know a little about the difference in cable twisting between Cat5 & Cat7 cables, so I’m wondering what makes an Audioquest Pearl Ethernet cable for $25 superior to a Cat7 TeraGrand cable that can be purchased on Amazon for $10. I’d like to avoid all the snake oil verbiage and find out if Audioquest is just private labeling an over the counter Cat7 cable and marking it up.

      Brian …

      • Brian – the use of ‘Audiophile’ grade Ethernet cables is only of benefit to real-time playback. For you that’s Tidal streaming. Not being a real-time event, copying to your Aurender server won’t benefit. Shaun Schuetz conducted the AQ demo here so I’ll see if he’ll chime in on cable/CAT7 specifics.

        • Thx John. The other question I have is what if a user has an external NAS drive connected via an Ethernet cable and their home has all standard CAT5 cable buried in the walls of their home? Do they benefit from using an upgraded Ethernet cable for the last x feet from the wall to the NAS drive?

          • Ah. This was asked of Schuetz on the evening. I believe his answer was that it’d be madness to rewire the entire house but the last X feet still matters.

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