• Network Audio Refresher


    Over the last couple months I've talked to several manufacturers who expressed great frustration over end user network problems. In no way was this a blame game placing blame on the end user, rather just an expression of frustration that each manufacturer was incorrectly blamed for a dysfunctional product. In addition, some frustration was also expressed toward audio dealers who refuse to learn computer networking basics or enough about networking to support the products being sold. Given the level of frustration by manufacturers and end users I think it's a good idea to publish a little refresher on networking for computer audio and provide the CA Community a glimpse into my network as an example of a network that is rock solid and (almost) guarantees flawless performance. I've never had an issue with computer audio that was traced back to a problem with my network. I don't say that to boast, rather to help readers understand that my network and the following examples should suit them well for audio playback.

    Many users with a cable or DSL Internet connections have a modem / router / wireless access point multifunction device supplied by their Internet service provider. These devices work OK for one or two Internet connected devices simultaneously surfing the web and sending email. Problems may arise when users start streaming lossless and high resolution audio. I know this based on many conversations with users, manufacturers, distributors, and audio dealers. The problem resides in multifunction devices placed in less than optimal locations, where the ISP connection enters the home, and the fact that these devices are jacks of all trades / masters of none. A modem / router / wireless access point is just fine for Grandma but not the computer audiophile.

    I prefer to use network devices (modems, routers, switches, etc…) the same way audiophiles use audio components (preamp, mono blocks, DACs, etc…). A single device for each task. I do this because I know it works and it allows me granularity for setup and configuration and device selection. I can select the best wireless device, the best router, the best cable, and the best switch for the job.


    My Network

    My ISP is Comcast and I have a 105 Mbps Internet connection. I am very happy with this service as it has no download GB limitations per month and it's plenty fast to stream lossless audio from Tidal and video from any service. Comcast provides an Internet ready generic black coaxial cable entering my house. From this cable on, the network is up to me. Comcast also provides a DOCSIS 3.0 modem, but I prefer to use my own modem, saving a monthly charge and enabling me to hand select the best modem that's compatible with my Internet service rather than the modem Comcast can get for the cheapest amount of money. I use a Motorola SURFboard SB6141 modem to receive the Comcast Internet signal. I use this device as a modem only. From the modem I use an AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable connected to a Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet isolator that is connected to my router via another AQ Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable.


    My router is used as a router only. No wireless services at all are provided from this device. The best router for me has been a computer with two Ethernet cards, running the pfsense operating system. This is a very configurable OS, but it's not for the faint of heart. I like the fact that pfsense router software can be installed on different hardware of varying speed depending on one's needs. The router function can be accomplished by any number of off the shelf devices from vendors such as Cisco, Linksys, DLink, Apple, etc… Many of these devices may come with wireless built-in, but as I've said plenty of times already I recommend disabling wireless on the router. Many routers come with four or five Ethernet ports. I recommend using a single port to connect back to the isolator or modem, and a single port to connect to one's switch. Don't use the router ports as a switch even though technically this can be done. From my pfsense router I run an AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable into a switch.


    My switch is a 24 port Cisco SG-200-26. This switch is the robust heart of my Ethernet network. All traffic flows through this device. This is a managed switch that offers many configuration options if the user wishes to use these options. The switch can also be dropped into a network without any configuration and it will work just fine. I prefer to manage the switch configuration to setup 802.3ad link aggregation between the switch and my Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices with two Ethernet ports. Link aggregation enables two 1 Gbps switch ports to combine bandwidth into a single 2 Gbps port (4 Gbps full duplex). This is not necessary for streaming high resolution music to a single client, but it's nice when there are multiple devices pulling audio or any data from the NAS at a single moment in time.


    My wireless access points are two Apple AirPort Extremes and a single Apple AirPort Express. I use two Extremes to make sure the entire house has a good 802.11ac wireless signal and a single Express for streaming audio testing. The access points are hardwired to the switch using the AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable. I've disabled all features on the wireless access points except the ability to provide wireless access. These devices son't act as routers and don't provide DHCP to the network. Readers should be aware that not all 802.11ac wireless access points are created equal. For example, 802.11ac devices can come in one of ten different types that all offer different maximum speeds. The speeds range from type AC600 (150 Mbps - 433 Mbps) all the way to AC3200 (600 Mbps - 2600 Mps). The Apple AirPort Extreme devices are type AC1750 and support data rates of 300 Mbps and 1300 Mbps.


    Branching out from my switch are all my network enabled devices including the aforementioned network attached storage unit. I recently installed AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable throughout my entire network. Depending on the day of the week, I usually have 7-10 network audio devices wired to the network all using the new AQ cable. To help install the cable I had AudioQuest's David Solomon fly out to my house. One may think installing Ethernet cable is as easy as plugging in the RJ45 connector, but at my house the audio devices can be 15 meters from the main network switch. This 15 meter run of cable requires two people for installation, one on each end, because there is no clear path through the ceiling. We spent a good two hours running cable to a single Sonore Rendu Signature Series DLNA renderer. OK, maybe I could have spent another two hours and run the cable by myself, but it was nice to have someone else on hand to swap cables and listen for differences when switching from a hodgepodge of Ethernet cables to a full AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cabled system. When switching a single cable at a time I had a hard time identifying any sonic differences between the AQ cable and the brand X cable. I went through stages where I thought I heard a difference, but I couldn't consistently identify this difference when David swapped cables from behind the wall (out of my sight). However, I did notice an interesting difference after the complete swap to AQ Vodka cable was finished. My audio system had a lower noise floor. I don't know what to contribute this lowering of the noise floor to (better shielding?), but by changing to AQ cables my system is now quieter and enables me to hear into the music even further than I've previously experienced. This lower noise floor may also explain other AQ Ethernet users' experiences. Many people have suggested better highs, lows, or midrange after switching to AQ Ethernet cables. The suggestion that sonic differences in the music notes can be heard between Ethernet cables tends to rub a few people the wrong way. Based on my experience I'm leaning toward the cables lowering the noise floor which in-turn may give the sonic appearance of the cable having an affect on the actual music (highs, lows, or midrange).






    Wrap-Up

    Computer audio networking isn't rocket science. Just like high end audio, users need to upgrade a few networking items and use separate devices for specific tasks. I equate using the ISP-provided modem/router/wireless access point to using an average AV receiver to handle the duties of a DAC, preamp, and amplifier. It can be done, but the results are less than desirable.







    Components Used In My Network:





    Gallery

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    Comments 54 Comments
    1. DanRubin's Avatar
      DanRubin -
      Great article, Chris. A real public service.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks Dan.
    1. JohnSwenson's Avatar
      JohnSwenson -
      Hi Chris,
      Very similar to my setup.
      Comcast -> SURFboard DOCSIS3.0 modem -> pfSense on FIT-PC -> Cisco SG-100-8 -> TrendNet WAP put in center of house
      This all is in the "office" where the cable comes in. The switch handles everything in the office (including VOIP phone). One cable coming out of the switch goes to another identical switch in the "lab". I have several computers in there including the music server, another FitPC running LMS (I'm an SB guy from way back) and all kinds of different stuff being tested at any given time. The connection to the listening room comes off this switch since that is what the server is connected to. The lab switch needs to be bigger, I frequently run out of ports in there.

      My friends think I'm absolutely nuts for using such a complicated system, but it is absolutely stable, works flawlessly etc. I've only ever had one issue with the system, once after a power failure things did not power up properly, the network got in a weird state. I had to power everything down, then up and it was off and running again.

      Those Cisco switches are so nice to use, I've tried some other "smart" switches that were absolutely horrible to use, their guis were terrible and the documentation was even worse. The Cisco switches have clear menus and dialogs that are joy to use and the documentation is actually readable AND useful. And of course the switches just work!

      The single WAP on the ceiling in the center of the house covers everything perfectly including the backyard and the garage.

      I have a number of Vlans setup in pfSense and the switch to handle things like the VOIP phones, guest wireless internet access etc. Coordinating that with pfSense and the Cisco switch was very easy. I tried doing that several years ago with an all in one box and it was almost impossible, even though it was supposed to be able to do stuff like that.

      And you get a bunch of boxes with a whole lot of blinking lights to impress your friends!

      John S.
    1. RobbieC's Avatar
      RobbieC -
      I'm not clear on why you guys are running routers. Are you subnetting or running VLANs?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by RobbieC View Post
      I'm not clear on why you guys are running routers. Are you subnetting or running VLANs?
      Need to terminate the Internet connection and run NAT. Also open and closing ports for access from outside.
    1. RobbieC's Avatar
      RobbieC -
      (Oops! I missed where John mentioned use of VLANs.)
    1. RobbieC's Avatar
      RobbieC -
      Right, NAT. I have a CCNA and am used to Cisco switches that support NAT but I see what you're doing now.
    1. RobbieC's Avatar
      RobbieC -
      I guess I'm becoming a bit of a jack of all trades
    1. Deyorew's Avatar
      Deyorew -
      THis is a great article. Obviously its geared towards high end implementation with the Audioquest cables you are using, But nonetheless I find it very helpful. I would also be interested in your thoughts on two other related things...

      1) If we didn't need so many network devices and really just wanted a streamline system could you get away with the switch and wireless points and just use an apple extreme. Would you be losing some of the integrity of the network? What I am getting at is I only need one wireless access point and maybe another 2 or 3 Ethernet based devices, so the huge switch and multiple wireless points is overkill. Could I combine the switch and wireless by just getting the airport extreme and still have similar integrity?

      2) How are you setup electrical circuit wise? I have found I have to be careful with keeping certain components on the same circuit, (such as amp and preamp) otherwise I get electrical hum. How do you isolate your computer vs audio equipment vs video (if you have any) with electrical circuits in your network/system or have you never had to deal with any issues...
    1. avta's Avatar
      avta -
      Chris, did you mean Motorola Surfboard SB 6141?
    1. calloway's Avatar
      calloway -
      Chris...i have a standard CenturyLink modem connected to my Cisco router with standard Cat 5E ethernet cable that then connects to my Lumin A1 Player...question..if i was to employ the Vodka Cat7 cable from the modem ..connected to the Baaske MI-1005 and then use the Vodka again to connect to my Cisco router and then..because of a 50' run to my Lumin ..continue to use the Cat 5E cable would i notice an improvement in sound with the new modem to router setup..?..i don't want to spend the $ if there probably isn't going to make a difference..thanks..dave smith...by the way...Great thread..
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by avta View Post
      Chris, did you mean Motorola Surfboard SB 6141?
      Yes, thanks!
    1. Brent Heslop's Avatar
      Brent Heslop -
      lucky you. i live on a farm in nz with capped internet delivered wirelessly. i cant even get my jriver library talking to my ipad on the same network. i long for the day when i have a perfectly set up network
    1. firedog's Avatar
      firedog -
      Chris-

      Great article, but doesn't seem to me to be applicable to most setups. I think the number of readers with the need for such a setup (not to mention the cost) is relatively small. I find it quite difficult to understand how to apply it to my situation, and I bet there are lots of others like me.

      This article is for the highest end home setup, sort of like your best CAPS server. Like with the CAPS, you should offer a suggestion for a Network I and and Network II:

      Network I: A suggestion for a simpler setup with fewer devices permanently connected to it. Also lower in cost, obviously. But still something that would be better than using the combo device from the ethernet provider.
    1. JR_Audio's Avatar
      JR_Audio -
      Hi Chris
      As you know, I am fan of AudioQuest's LAN cables too, and using the Diamond in my living room for my network player and it sounds great. I have / had the complete line of AQ LAN cables at home and stuck with the Diamond (as I also do with the USB cable).
      Juergen
    1. rhmmmm's Avatar
      rhmmmm -
      I think he meant the 6141. Great modem. I use it, too.

      Motorola Surfboard SB6141->Juniper SRX240->Cisco 3750G-24TSS-E here->2x Apple Airport Extreme ac and one Express also.

      Juniper provides routing, stateful firewall services and site to site VPN to cloud. Cisco switch is running Advanced IP stack with DHCP and is divided up into multiple VLANs here to isolate my audio stuff (Sonos, Auralic) which are hardwired from the rest of my stuff like TVs, home automation, etc. Link Aggregation enabled for my servers to the Cisco switch, as well. No separate NAS here as I use one of my servers as file storage. One Airport Extreme on each VLAN. Airport Express is on audio VLAN.
    1. kenreau's Avatar
      kenreau -
      Thanks, Chris, this is a great refresher and public service you provide. My next task is to source some quiet linear power supplies for my modem, router and NAS.

      Kenreau
    1. kevalin's Avatar
      kevalin -
      Chris,

      Does the location of your Ethernet isolator give better sonic improvement than other location such as from the NAS or to the audio device?

      Your thoughts on Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet isolator vs GISO 1GB?

      Appreciate your thoughts here...

      Thanks,

      j
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by kevalin View Post
      Chris,

      Does the location of your Ethernet isolator give better sonic improvement than other location such as from the NAS or to the audio device?

      Your thoughts on Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet isolator vs GISO 1GB?

      Appreciate your thoughts here...

      Thanks,

      j
      I'm not really sure.

      I haven't used the GISO yet.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Quote Originally Posted by firedog View Post
      Chris-

      Great article, but doesn't seem to me to be applicable to most setups. I think the number of readers with the need for such a setup (not to mention the cost) is relatively small. I find it quite difficult to understand how to apply it to my situation, and I bet there are lots of others like me.

      This article is for the highest end home setup, sort of like your best CAPS server. Like with the CAPS, you should offer a suggestion for a Network I and and Network II:

      Network I: A suggestion for a simpler setup with fewer devices permanently connected to it. Also lower in cost, obviously. But still something that would be better than using the combo device from the ethernet provider.
      Hi firedog - Good point. The genesis of this article was all the frustration people had with networks that couldn't perform up to the task the streaming audio from a NAS. I figured one way to "guarantee" success was to show my network and give reasons why I use what I use.

      You're also correct that there are a lot of people like you who may not need this exact setup. It's tough to recommend a different setup because everyone's situation and house are so different. I really recommend this type of infrastructure even if someone uses completely different network equipment.

      One way os to use the modem / router provided by the ISP, into a good switch with the wireless and audio components branching off this switch. Netgear makes great unmanaged switched that are fabless as well (GS108).