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 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).
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:
- Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps Internet Service
- AudioQuest Vodka CAT7 Ethernet cable
- Motorola SURFboard SB6141 Docsis 3.0 cable modem
- Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator
- PFSense Router / Firewall
- Cisco SG200-26 Switch
- Apple AirPort Extreme