Everything matters – to some, a notion so obvious that it’s hardly worth the keyboard press. To others, a contentious proposition that results in calls for measurements and double-blind (ABX) testing but – here’s the kicker – only for certain components. Demands that reviewers conduct ABX testing and/or measurements should apply to all components and not just those bracketed by movable goalposts with a crossbar that reads ‘controversial’.
As regular readers will know, we don’t do double-blind testing or measurements at Darko.Audio. Demanding that a cup of coffee be/come a cup of tea (once served) says that you’re either in the wrong cake shop or that you should brew your own at home.
Furthermore, I won’t ask if you believe in audible differences between digital cables? The B-word suggests an unnecessary leap of faith that’s all too easily side-stepped by trying things out for yourself. Instead, I ask: have you experienced audible differences between digital cables? Because, y’know, experience matters.
Audio data carried over Ethernet is different to audio data carried over USB. USB enjoys error-checking but not error correction. Ethernet does both. If a network data packet is dropped somewhere on a LAN between server and streamer, it is flagged by the streamer and resent by the server. This theory tells us that all network audio devices should sound identical no matter which hardware and cabling are used.
Experience tells us otherwise. In 2015, I and a (partially ABX-d) audiophile guest found that AudioQuest Ethernet cables (starting at US$25/metre) sounded slightly superior to another company’s wire. The conclusion wasn’t that every audiophile should rush out to their nearest AudioQuest dealer, it was that not all Ethernet connections sound alike. BUT! If all data arrives at the streamer fully intact, any audible differences couldn’t be data related.
Our focus shifts to electrical noise. As Antipodes Audio’s Mark Jenkins posited some time ago, error-correcting circuitry pressed into service by a streamer’s Ethernet receiver might generate additional electrical noise inside the streamer. Electrical noise that could potentially worm its way into the DAC over USB. Electrical noise that affects sound quality.
Moreover, an Ethernet cable’s ability to reject airborne electrical noise (RFI) could also be a factor in determining an Ethernet cable’s ability to influence sound quality.
Everything covered. Compiling a complete high-end digital audio system means ticking off components from an extensive shopping list: software; server; streamer; DAC; pre-amplifier; amplifier; a rack to house the electronics; digital/analogue interconnects to tie them all together and power cables to give them mains supply; loudspeakers – if they’re standmounts, stands to put to them on; loudspeaker cables. Each item influences sound quality – even the Ethernet cable that connects the streamer to the home network.
My own system audit called for a full day’s system deconstruction and rewire. Screwed onto the Berlin-designed G-stands, Genelec ‘The Ones’ 8341 active loudspeakers (Class D amplifiers inside) drew mains power via stock power cords and music signal from a PS Audio BHK Signature pre-amplifier over AudioQuest Water balanced interconnects.
Unplugging components and removing their wires is made considerably easier by the modular Hifi Racks Podium Reference whose shelves lift off one by one. For my digital audio front end, an Aqua La Scala MKII Optologic and Innuos Zenith MKII SE server/streamer were joined together by a Tellurium Q Silver Diamond USB cable and, like the PS Audio pre, connected to an AudioQuest Niagara 1000 power ‘Low-Z Power/Noise-Dissipation System with AudioQuest NRG-2 power cords.
Experience tells me that each piece of equipment listed here influences sound quality – even the AudioQuest Ethernet wire that connects the Innuos Zentith MKII SE server to a Google (Wifi) router.
Think about that for a moment: the network streamer is directly connected to a router designed for functionality but with zero made concession to audiophile sensitivities. Just as our DACs are exposed to the electrical noise generated by a consumer grade PC or Mac via USB, my Innuos streamer is exposed to any electrical noise generated by the Google router’s internal switch-mode power supplies and regulators. Google cares not for lowering electrical noise. And why should they? Network peripheral manufacturers, quite reasonably, only care that their network routers, switches, wireless access points and repeaters move data with speed and a low error count.
One manufacturer that does care for lowering electrical noise in a network device is Telegärtner Japan Limited – a Japanese company with German roots. Their M12 Switch Gold (€4165) was introduced to me via email by Marcin Ostapowicz of JCAT who has been charged with selling the unit outside of its native Japan: “It works like a regular switch, but the sound you’re getting with the switch is not regular. The cables and the connectors contribute a lot to the sound – the cables (conductors) are optimized for optimal eye-pattern.”
On size and build quality, the M12 Switch Gold approximates KEF’s MUO Bluetooth loudspeaker, feeling weighty in the hand at 1.5kg and with an exemplary fit and finish.
Time for the wrinkle.
The M12 doesn’t entertain standard Ethernet cables. A pair of Telegärtner’s own cables – 2 metres each and sheathed to be somewhat stiff – come as part of the package (with their own data measurement sheets).
At one end of each cable, we note an MFP8 Gold RJ45 plug, as made by Telegärtner, which click-clip into downstream or upstream devices. At the other end, something different. An industrial-type ‘M12 X-coded’ plug which we take care to align its L-shaped quarter with that of the matching socket before pressing down firmly and screwing the plug into place. The accompanying 12V/2A ‘medical’ power supply’s umbilical screws into place in a similar fashion. Plastic dummy plugs are screwed into unused sockets. Once that’s all done, it’s done.
I hit up Ostapowicz via email for more info on the M12 Switch Gold’s internals but he came back somewhat empty-handed:
“The manufacturer won’t disclose any details apart from this [presumably machine translated from Japanese]:
‘Our M12 Switch Gold is not bound with those specifications of data transfer and electrical characteristics as a switching hub. Therefore, it is difficult to evaluate by a simple comparison with those for commercially available ones.
PCs, various network boards, switching hubs and routers are network equipment that transmits and receives various data, but become a signal source of transmitting and receiving unnecessary radio wave and noise (= subtle current) simultaneously. A very high level of consideration is required to sweep these negative aspects. The M12 Switch Gold uses aborbers and suppressors for that reason.
The negativeness in various aspects such as EMI/EMC, electro-static field, induction, noise caused by subtle vibration of the chassis is taken into consideration, and the model design including various mechanical features and its assembly procedure is determined.
To realise these, absorbers and suppression parts are adopted in the model, and torque management takes place in various spots during the assembly. The round M12 X-coded connectors added a positive effect.
These are aimed for getting rid of a negative influence from the M12 Switch Gold to other pieces of connected network equipment such as supurious emission and transmission noise generated by the M12 Switch Gold, as well as for protecting the switch itself if an external inductive or electro-static influence comes in.
Our thought that the M12 Switch Gold could be used for network audio came from the above-mentioned features.’”
That a network switch is technically different to a router isn’t material to this story. The simplest configuration would be to connect both server and streamer to the M12 so that, without a third cable, they never see the router and therefore the Internet (Buh-bye Tidal). This LAN-only streaming configuration also assumes the existence of noise-free solid state drives in the server because who wants to hear a hard drive’s mechanical whirring in their listening room. Not I!
In my home, the server exactly is precisely that: a Roon-running Intel NUC with external LACIE hard drive attached. At close quarters I can hear it spin up on the press of play and continue to whir as the album continues. That’s why it sits tucked away under the stairs, hard-wired to my Google mesh network with (off-the-spool) AudioQuest cable.
I had the M12 operate as a bridge between router and streamer. One Ethernet cable went from Google router* (see footnote #1) to M12 switch and one from M12 to the Innuos Zenith SE MKII running as Roon Ready endpoint/streamer. Any audio data making its way to the Innuos box from the NUC under the stairs would have to pass through the Google router, along one Telegärtner Ethernet cable, through the M12 switch and then along a second Telegärtner cable. In other words, the M12 and its cable would buffer the Innuos streamer from any noise spilling from the Google router.
Let’s be clear: the Innuos Zenith SE MKII is a spectacular sounding streamer. Tonally rich with a wonderful sense of ease that we just don’t get from entry-level streamers. The Aqua La Scala MKII Optologic is also one of the finest, most satisfying DACs available below US$10K.
Together the Innuos and the Aqua form a high-end digital audio powerhouse that aces anything I hear from my vinyl rig – a Technics SL-1200G w/ Ortofon 2M Black or PS Audio or Wyred 4 Sound phono stage – and would have many asking, “How can it get any better than this?”
That points this review at its first fundamental question: does the M12 Switch Gold alter the sound for the better? The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. It takes about a minute to hear (some of) the Telegärtner-induced changes.
Next we ask: in what way does Telegärtner’s network device alter the sound? Answer: the stereo image takes half a step back for an even greater dose of ease; and from all types of music.
Extended listening reveals even more. Robert Leiner’s Visions of the Past wears a richer midbass, casting the Swedes electronica as less emotionally detached and more homely. A little more soundstage depth from Global Communication’s 76:14 really opens up one’s ears (and third eye) to the album’s Blade Runner / Vangelis core.
Also notable was an uptick in tone density and acoustic mass on The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, an indie-pop album that can sound wiry when heard via low/er quality digital front ends. The M12 sees our high-end streamer/DAC combo more generous toward poorer quality source material by infusing it with a greater sense of micro-dynamic elasticity.
Some might hear the addition of the Telegärtner to the signal path as music’s fabric softener. What comes out of the Genelec actives is nicer, gentler and – for hot masters like The The’s Soul Mining – less grating in the long run. Quite astonishing give the already superb starting point.
We don’t have to strain to hear these qualitative differences either, thus teasing out our third line of enquiry: of what magnitude are the differences affected by the M12?
Emphatically more pronounced than an Ethernet cable change-up and closer in magnitude to the deltas heard between the streamers that the Telegärtner will invariably feed. Which makes sense when we view the M12 Switch Gold as the Innuos box’s external Ethernet receiver.
The Innuos/Aqua pairing was the substituted for the PS Audio DirectStream DAC and its slide-in Network Bridge II streaming board. Again, the M12 Switch Gold brought improvements of a similar nature – more ease, less rigidity from a streaming DAC not known for either – but of less magnitude. In this scenario, the Telegärtner box’s asking price is around 75% of the PS Audio package. Viewed through my own lens, this system’s component price balance strays further from the real world than the Innuos/Aqua. But if you’ve already arrived at your ideal streamer/DAC pairing then the M12 could be your next purchase.
And that returns us to where we came in: with everything. The M12 Switch Gold is for the audiophile who has everything (else) and who knows that everything matters, especially first-hand experience.
Footnote #1: the Google router’s connector panel sits underneath the device and is a bit of a squeeze for larger Ethernet plugs like the Telegärtner MFP8 Gold, which only just made it into it socket (and at an angle). The majority of routers won’t have this problem.