Extending A Network For HiFi
More and more music lovers are using Ethernet or wireless audio components to enjoy both serious and background listening experiences. Many of us are fortunate to have a robust network near our audio components. We find the components we want to use, whether that be Sonos, Bluesound, microRendu, or dCS Rossini etc..., and drop them into our homes without a second thought. On the other hand, many music lovers live in places where wired Ethernet can't be run to the appropriate location within the residence or wireless can't penetrate the walls well enough to stream lossless audio.
I've seen and heard about some whacky "solutions" thought up by many audiophiles to work around these unfortunate circumstances. Based on these experiences, I decided to do the research and come up with recommended hardware that people can purchase off the shelf, for a very reasonable amount of money, to solve the nonexistent or shoddy network issues.
Here are some use cases this article was designed to address. This list is far from exhaustive.
- I want to use a HiFi device that only supports wired Ethernet, such as the Sonore microRendu, dCS Rossini, or any number of DACs.
- My audio device can supports wired and wireless, but requires a specific USB adapter for wireless that is less than ideal and I'd rather stay away from wireless if possible. Plus, I don't have wired Ethernet near my audio system.
- I need a wired network connection to control my music server, even though the music storage for playback is all local to the server.
- I have a wireless only audio device and the wireless signal strength isn't strong enough where I want to place the device.
There are two straightforward solutions to this problem. The first is to extend one's wired network via powerline networking devices. The second is to extend one's network via a wireless range extender. Both solutions can work great and both solutions have many options. On the contrary, both solutions can fail miserably or not come with little added features that make life easy.
My recommendations below are based on researching the potential solutions, purchasing what I think are the best solutions, and extensively testing these solutions in a HiFi setting. I have no doubt that there are other solutions that will work just as well or not at all. I'm also certain that the following recommended solutions will not work in all situations. Some home power lines or configurations or building materials just aren't conducive to anything related to computer networks.
In addition, I'm certain that the recommended solutions have zero negative effects on audio playback quality in my system. Meaning, I can't hear a difference between these two solutions and the $13,000 Cisco / Ruckus network I had in place during these tests. I can't say what the experience of others will be, but I can at least state that this is my experience.
Solution A: End-to-End Wired Ethernet with the TP-Link AV2000 Powerline Adapters $100
People looking to use wired connections only, for better or worse, should consider the TP-Link AV2000 Powerline Adapter Kit (TL-PA9020P KIT) for $100. I my testing this kit was substantially slower than its rated speed, but never caused a problem for music playback. Technically this kit could achieve 2 gigabit per second speeds, but in my house I averaged between 175-200 megabits per second (image). Given that I was only testing this system for high resolution and streaming music playback, the achieved speeds were more than enough. I successfully streamed gapless PCM at 24/352.8 and DSD128 without a single issue.
Below is a diagram of the configuration in my house while testing the TP-Link AV2000 Powerline Adapters. My house was built in 1941 and contains a mix of original and circa 1990 electrical wiring. The main electrical panel has been updated since the house was built. My guess is that it was also installed around 1990. The total length of electrical wiring between the powerline adapters was less than 100 feet. All of this can matter greatly, due to how powerline networking functions.
To state the obvious, powerline networking uses one electrical power wires to carry Ethernet packets. The recommended TP-Link AV2000 uses the latest HomePlug AV2 standard. This means it's compatible with a host of other devices that also meet this standard and should work with devices meeting the earlier HomePlug AV standard (version 1).
Getting back to the age and length of electrical wiring, powerline networking performance is similar to wireless in that it degrades over distance and certain obstacles. One of those major obstacles is circuits. Powerline signals degrade are attenuated by roughly 20 dB for every circuit breaker they traverse. In my situation, the signal was attenuated by 40 dB because it traveled through two breakers.
Circuit breaker caused attenuation is one factor, but the length and health of electrical wires can also degrade the Ethernet signal as can other devices on the same circuit. Noisy switching power supplies from many of our devices can cause signal attenuation similar to appliances such as a refrigerator or air conditioner. Of note with the AV2000 is its built-in passthrough AC port. This is a great feature, but provides direct access to inject noise on the AC line, that is essentially the Ethernet wire. According to all powerline adapter manufacturers I've seen, using a surge protector or power stripe is not recommended.
One item of concern for newer homes may be use of AFCI or Arc Fault circuit breakers. These can cut performance of powerline networking by as much as 50%. According to Wikipedia, "AFCI breakers have been required for circuits feeding electrical outlets in residential bedrooms by the electrical codes of Canada and the United States since the beginning of the 21st century; the U.S. National Electrical Code has required them to protect most residential outlets since 2014, and the Canadian Electrical Code has since 2015."
Powerline adapters such as the TP-Link AV2000 should be plugged into a three pronged / grounded outlet because the grounding prong can actually be used for Ethernet signal transmission. During my tests, I originally connected one unit to a grounded outlet and the other to an outlet with an adapter missing the ground prong. After fixing this "issue" I re-ran the same tests and found zero difference in performance.
Using the AV2000 adapters in my house was really easy. I plugged them in and pressed the "Pair" button. In a few seconds I can a live Ethernet connection over my power lines. These units come with a software utility for configuration and display of network speed between the devices. In my testing, for the purposes of playing music, I found the configuration options to be needless. I tested switching the Quality of Service from Internet to Online Game to Voice over IP to Audio or Video, but noticed to measurable difference performance. This may be likely due to the fact that QoS isn't really needed on a network without much traffic.
A nice feature of the AV2000 is its dual Gbps Ethernet ports. This enabled me to connect two audio devices such as the Sonore microRendu and dCS Rossini. Of course, should more ports be needed, I could have easily added a small switch. The size of this unit is a bit large in that the top covers the bottom of the outlet above, assuming it's installed in the bottom of a duplex outlet. Only a two pronged device will fit above the AV2000, but the built-in AC passthrough port will accept a three pronged device.
One final note for those worried about injecting noise into their audio playback chains. The AV2000 essentially gives you an Ethernet jack in a location where you need it. Thus, you can use a fiber converter to isolate your audio components from all electrical signals related to the powerline adapter. The signal would go from the AV2000 to a fiber converter to a fiber cable and back to a converter to an Ethernet cable for connection to the audio device.
Full name of the kit (pair of two units) I recommend - TP-Link AV2000 Powerline Adapter Kit, 2-Port, Gigabit w/ Power Outlet Pass-through, up to 2000Mbps (TL-PA9020P KIT) - $100
click to enlarge
Solution B: Extending the Network with a Wired and Wireless Combination Using the TP-Link AC2600 Dual Band Wi-Fi Range Extender w/ Gigabit Ethernet Port $145
This a very interesting solution, and the solution I prefer, for three reasons.
- It can be used to extend one's wireless network in the case of a week signal.
- It can be used to place a wired Ethernet port in any location and connect the Ethernet device to one's network via wireless.
- It's much faster than wired powerline networking in my house.
In my testing, I used the TP-Link AC2600 Dual Band Wi-Fi Range Extender, not for my wireless devices, but to connect my Ethernet based audio devices. The name of the device says Range Extender, but for HiFi purposes the real benefit is to place an Ethernet port near an audio system, without requiring an Ethernet cable run to anywhere else in the house. The signal path goes from a device like the dCS Rossini to the RE650 via wired Ethernet, then to the rest of my main wireless access point (ASUS RT-AC3200, Asuswrt-Merlin firmware v380.66_4, in AP mode) and on to the rest of my network (see diagram below). This eliminates any physical connection, for good or bad, between the network devices.
Using a couple different wired Ethernet audio devices connected to the RE650's Ethernet port, I successfully streamed gapless PCM at 24/352.8 and DSD128 without a single issue. In fact, I'm writing this article on, and streaming audio to, my iMac that's connected to the RE650 right now. It works for high resolution audio, streaming audio, and anything else I've tried over the network. Absolutely zero issues.
What surprised me most about the RE650 was its speed. For the heck of it, I ran an internet speed test while connected to each solution and without either solution (directly connected to my switch). My direct connection to the switch (and on to the internet) was the fastest, reaching speeds of 929.45 Mbps download and 934.34 Mbps upload. The AV2000 powerline adapters performed at speeds of only 43.82 Mbps download and 51.62 Mbps upload. The RE650 was much faster than the AV2000, reaching speeds of 279.29 Mbps download and 641.68 upload. Given that the speed of the much slower AV2000 was fast enough to play all my high resolution audio, I am certain the increased speed of the RE650 isn't needed, but it's nice to know I could add several more devices on to the RE650 without a perceived drop in performance to my audio playback.
click to enlarge
The RE650 supports both 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz wireless bands. This means that it can connect to the existing wireless network on either band and it can connect wirelessly to a client on either band. During the easy setup procedure it's possible to select which band to it should connect to and the client device can also select which band as long as SSID names are separate. Setting the RE650 to connect to the main wireless router on one band and clients connecting to the RE650 on a different band is highly recommended. Because I didn't connect to this device via wireless, I can't offer any feedback here, other than to say a major performance hit can be taken if the same band is used.
A really cool feature of the RE650 is ability to restrict which devices can connect to it via wireless. For example, if you only want audio related devices connecting through the RE650, you can blacklist (or whitelist) devices or set time based permissions. In house full of network connected devices, this may be very nice.
One final note for those worried about injecting noise into their audio playback chains. The RE650 essentially gives you an Ethernet jack in a location where you need it. Thus, you can use a fiber converter to isolate your audio components from all electrical signals related to the RE650. The signal would go from the RE650 to a fiber converter to a fiber cable and back to a converter to an Ethernet cable for connection to the audio device.
Full name of the device is TP-Link AC2600 Dual Band Wi-Fi Range Extender w/ Gigabit Ethernet Port (RE650) - $145
click to enlarge
Over the course of my tests of the TP-Link AV2000 and TP-Link RE650, I was 100% satisfied with each devices' performance for audio playback and stability. I successfully pulled high resolution PCM and DSD128 from my NAS to different audio endpoints over both wireless and powerline networking, without a single issue. Both technologies worked in my house and I highly recommend people try either one, based on some of the information above. If you have old electrical wires or AFCI circuit breakers, it may be advisable to go with the wireless option. I know some people are absolutely against wireless in their homes, thus making the wired powerline solution a better choice. If your house is similar to mine, you can't go wrong with either solution. That said, only you know the makeup of your residence. No wireless is going to penetrate concrete walls well and no powerline network is going to fend off all the potential attenuators inherent in a home. However, for $100 - $150, the cost of entry is fairly low and the potential benefits are priceless. Music in one's house is worth much more than the cost of these devices.6