It should come as no surprise to anyone reading Computer Audiophile that home networks are very important and seem to be increasing in importance year over year. I use the adjective "important" because home networks have moved far beyond the ISP supplied modem / wireless router all-in-one device that enabled Mom to hear "You've got mail" back in 1999. Many of us use our networks for audio of course, but also for controlling the temperature in our homes, sending data from multiple security cameras to the cloud, streaming 4k UHD HDR content from Netflix, low latency gaming, and Wi-Fi calling built into iPhones or Android devices, among many other things. Multiply this usage by any factor necessary when a home has multiple residents.
Home networks are far from our pristine audio-only environments. Many of us use computers designed only for audio with nothing extraneous installed. We have NAS drives with nothing but music on them and we know the only activity on the drives involves sending music to our audio devices. On the analog side, nothing traverses an interconnect or speaker cable unless we press play. Networks are a different animal entirely. They are constantly sending traffic to communicate, no matter if someone is streaming from Tidal or sleeping or three thousand miles from home. That said, networks aren't rocket science, but they can require a special skillset to design if one's requirements are above and beyond Joe Sixpack.
Audiophiles and Music Lovers
Many people who enjoy the finer things in life, such as a high end audio system, settle for the lowest common denominator when it comes to a home network. I can't even count the number of times I've talked to people with network problems who are using the all-in-one device supplied by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or people who have turned into the family IT expert to design an "enterprise" class network for home. This is so common that almost all HiFi companies I've talked to about network based products say the same thing with respect to supporting customers with problems, "it's a customer network issue 99.999% of the time." Companies such as Meridian / Sooloos, Aurender, Naim, Auralic, Linn, dCS, Roon, etc... all say the same thing, and they aren't trying to pass the buck. It's in their best interests to help a customer, even though they often wind up solving issues totally unrelated to their products.
I'm all for starting with inexpensive components and trying to do things yourself, and learning a little in the process. But, when problems start appearing, it's time to call the experts. The experts in this case are from Access Networks. This southern California company was founded in 2003. Today it works with hundreds of integrators / dealers around the country to design solutions that balance ease of use and robustness. Sure, a company with enterprise IT experience could install a business network in one's home. After all, data is data as long as it gets from point A to point B. The problem with such a network is that it may require a computer science degree to understand it and make a minor adjustment. In addition, products designed for 500 person office with elevator columns and cement floors, may not be the best fit in a home.
Before continuing, I want to provide readers with a small bit of information about myself, to help in understanding my point of view with respect to networks and networking. This article isn't about me, but more information may be beneficial. I worked in enterprise IT for a decade after college, for fortune 500 companies. I designed, installed, configured, managed, and maintained local and global networks. This includes switches, routers, firewalls, access points, and synchronizing storage data around the world in case a disaster wiped out a datacenter. That said, the Computer Audiophile Community is full of people much smarter and more experienced that I when it comes to networking. No matter the topic, there's always someone stronger, faster, or smarter whenever the audience is global.
Access Networks works through custom integrators and dealers around the country. The company doesn't interface directly with consumers, but it will happily field inquiries and connect consumers with the best local resource for their needs.
I went through the process of obtaining a network from 'Access' directly, so I could evaluate the company in addition to the product it would have delivered to me if I'd have gone through a local dealer. Other than this direct communication, there shouldn't be many differences for consumers working through a local dealer.
The process started with a phone call and simple questionnaire. Access Networks needed to know more about my expectations and requirements. If I'd have said I expect the network to work 50% of the time and I only have a single computer that sends email, the recommended solution would've been much different from the one I eventually installed. Any company suggesting it knows what to install, without a consultation with the homeowner, isn't a company I want in my house.
The questions asked of me and the questionnaire were very straight forward and assumed I was an average user. The 'Access' team knew what to ask, even when I couldn't think of something during the discussion. This is important because we've all interfaced with the IT guy who asks the user for requirements and installs a system based on the user's answers. However, this guy doesn't ask the right questions to extract all the required information. It's impossible to expect the consumer to raise all the pertinent issues and requirements, when he or she doesn't have the IT background.
Access Networks asked how many square feet were in my house, how many floors the house has, and what materials the house was made of, such as wood, plaster, metal, sheetrock, etc... Pretty easy questions to answer for even the novice. Access also asked about the number and type of devices on my network, what the devices were used for, if I had any existing Ethernet cabling in the walls, and if I needed wireless coverage inside and outside my house.
Once this discussion was complete, Access sent a document for me to complete. The document asked for existing wireless network names (SSID Name), security type (WPA, WPA2, WEP, etc...), VPN information if necessary, and passwords for these networks. I'll skip ahead a bit just to note that Access used this information when creating the new network for my house. Upon installation, all my devices connected to the wireless network without any reconfiguration. This may not be a big deal for some, but it's a pain in the neck to reconfigure a thermostat, a bathroom scale, a doorbell, and friend's phones (when they visit the house again), Internet of Things (IoT) devices don't always have simple interfaces for changing network information. For example, changing the network or password on our bathroom scale is an absolute joke. I tried it once and gave up. Thus, I have an old AirPort express using an old SSID solely to service the bathroom scale (before the 'Access' network was installed).
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My Requirements From An Audio Perspective
In addition to way too many gadgets and video streaming devices on my network, I have the devices that I care about most in my listening room and wireless audio devices around the house. At any given time I have roughly 25 audio devices on the network. There is a mix of wireless and wired devices. Devices such as a dCS Rossini DAC, Auralic Aries, Aries Mini, and Altair, Sonore microRendu, SOtM sMS-200, Aurender W20, A10, N10, Chromecast Audio, Klipsch The Three, Naim Mu-so, Synology NAS units, and CAPS Cortes server to name a few.
My audio devices have different requirements as well, such as UPnP, DLNA, RoonReady, DTS Play-Fi, Wi-Fi, 2.4GHz, 5.8GHz, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, PCM, DSD, 24 bit / 384 kHz, DSD256, etc... In addition to different requirements, some are designed better than others. Some devices work great with any UPnP server while others can't handle too much data at once, and a host of other strange occurrences. When strange things happen during audio playback, the first item everyone points to as the likely cause, it the network. During the period I had this 'Access' designed network in my house, I felt at ease when I told manufacturers that the issue-of-the-day wasn't with my network because it's from Access Networks. Only one person questioned this and suggested that we should still consider the network as the source of the problem. Upon further investigation by this very bright person, his conclusion was that the network was too fast for some ARM based devices to handle the audio packets without dropping them. In other words, the network was too good and required adjustments by the developers of applications to account for this "issue."
Based on my requirements, Access Networks recommended a network package for my house. This package was called The Foundation C with some small customization.
The hardware consisted of a combination of wired and wireless gear.
Cisco Catalyst 2960-X Series 24 Port Switch (This switch was placed in my utility room where I had the most devices).
Cisco Catalyst 2960-CX Series 8 Port Switch with PoE (This switch was placed in my utility room and used to power the wireless access points).
Cisco Catalyst 2960-CX Series 8 Port Switch (This switch was placed just outside of my listening room and was used for all my wired HiFi gear).
Cisco ASA 5506-X Router / Firewall
Ruckus Wireless ZoneDirector ZD1200 (this is a wired piece of hardware used to manage the wireless access points and optimize the wireless environment).
Ruckus Wireless Access Point R600 (three of these, one for each floor of my house).
The total cost of the system is $13,299.
I accepted the system as proposed. Once everything arrived from Access Networks, I unboxed the hardware in addition to a network diagram and documentation. Consumers don't usually install these systems on their own, because the integrator / dealer is there to do the work. In my case, I had no issues connecting the wires exactly how they were laid out in the network diagram. I think a monkey could have followed each line and connected point A to point B.
Once the Access Networks design system was in place and I'd verified it was working, I started digging through my notes looking for usernames and passwords for each of the hardware devices. That's what people who are into this stuff do, we look at all the settings to see if anything "needs" to be changed. We are also accustomed to consumer network equipment that never arrives optimized for one's specific requirements. I also thought I'd poke around a bit to get a feel for the gear, especially the Ruckus Wireless components. I hadn't used Ruckus gear before this stuff arrived, and I was curious. Plus, wireless networks always need adjustments, firmware updates, reboots, and miscellaneous tinkering to why "YouTube isn't working on the Roku."
After a few minutes I was distracted from the username and password search. I made a note to follow up with Access Networks. Surprisingly, I never followed up. I kept telling myself I should call them to get the information, but after several weeks I changed my mind. I thought, the person who wants this type of network and who can't design it themselves, really doesn't want the usernames and passwords to the equipment. If a username and password are required by the consumer, the installation is a failure. Why would I need a username and password if everything is working? Shouldn't the pre-design consultation make these credentials unnecessary?
As it turns out, yes, these credentials are unnecessary when Access Networks is involved. I've been using this network for 11 months and I've yet to need the username and password for anything. In fact, I haven't rebooted a single piece of hardware since the installation. Think about that, I'm a network guy and I had no need to gain access to my home network for the last 11 months. After a few months I even lost the desire to get into the equipment. Why mess with something that works? To make it better? Perhaps, but given this network's performance I don't believe better is possible.
I could have run several network stress tests before and after the Access Networks system was installed, but that's a red herring in my opinion. If I was a network stress tester for a living, such tests would be interesting to me. However, this network was designed to handle everything for which I use the system. I'm sure it would have performed awesome in such tests, but I'd rather test it using everyday activities.
Over the course of the next 11 months, I used the network to the best of my ability. A menagerie of IoT devices, phones, tablets, laptops, audio and video gear, wired and wireless, etc... Nothing phased this Access Networks designed system.
I connected multiple wired and wireless audio endpoints and Netflix 4K streaming devices, and simultaneously sent content to them all. This meant highly compressed Netflix content, but I have no control over that. The audio I sent was three streams of DSD256 over Wi-Fi and two streams of 24/352.8 PCM over wired Ethernet. All at the same time. Plus, while I was conducting this multi-zone audio experiment, the rest of my family was surfing the internet and emailing, without a clue that such business was going on downstairs. After trying to break the network in every normal fashion, I failed to cause a single audio dropout. Everything worked perfect.
In addition to playing audio and video, I frequently copy/move several terabytes of data around my network while testing different NAS units and computers. With the Access Networks system in place, my network speed was frequently around 800 Mbps if my memory serves me correctly. Sure there's 200 additional Mbps to be had, but there are other limitations such as overhead, read/write speed, NIC, and HDD/SSD that may prohibit faster data movement.
Given that my previous network was Cisco based, it's hard to really provide a usable comparison. I have no interest in comparing my network design versus Access' network design. That wouldn't help anyone. Also, anyone that can design and configure a Cisco based network, probably won't be interested in Access Networks' services anyway.
It makes a bit more sense to discuss how the Access Networks network compares to pedestrian networks available at and designed by the local Best Buy salesman. I've had various Netgear, TP-Link, DLink, and Apple devices in here over the years. For the most par they all work pretty well. Updating them and rebooting them consistently really improves reliability and was a requirement for some hardware.
Throughput, wired network performance, and wireless network reliability are all up in the air with these store bought networks. With support that can be difficult to use on a good day and zero network design that has considered one's specific home environment, an off-the-shelf system from the local Microcenter may work great, until it doesn't.
One example of an off-the-shelf issue I had last year involves a wireless router from Netgear. I researched which router to purchase for days. I looked at all the online tests before settling on a specific model. I Amazon Primed it and had it running in no time. However, I was only getting 150 Mbps download / upload speeds when running the Ookla speed tests. Given that I have 1 Gbps up/down and I had previously tested the speed at around 950 Mbps, this was an issue. The Netgear router had a Gb network port on the WAN in addition to a few Gb ports on the LAN. After more research I found out I had to install hacked firmware on the Netgear router to reach speeds of around 700 Mbps. All around a bad situation. Most people purchasing this router would never get to the workaround that still didn't give me Gbps speed. They would continue paying for Gbps speed but only get 150 Mbps. Maybe they'd call the ISP and talk to someone on the support line about the issue. I can see it now, "It's your network" "No it's your network." Good luck with that one.
Note: If issues arise with an Access Networks designed system, the company has support staff that can remote connect and remote diagnose many problems. Try that with any of the aforementioned companies.
My time with the network designed by Access Networks has been so refreshing. I'm used to messing with all network equipment that enters my house, and all my relatives' houses for that matter. This network was different in many ways, chief among them was its stability. I didn't even have the login credentials to gain access to the network, but I didn't need them during the entire 11 months of using the system.
The network performance, both wired and wireless, has never been better in my house. Now it's time to ship the system back to Access Networks. There's no way I'm shipping this system before I leave for the Munich High End trade show next week. I need a rock solid network running at home, while I'm away on business. Doing tech support for my family from 4,500 miles and 7 times zones away, because I voluntarily removed a perfectly good network, just doesn't excite me. Keeping the Access Networks system in place, so I can enjoy the Super Bowl of audio shows in Germany, now that excites me.
- ASA5506-K9 - Cisco ASA 5506-X Adaptive Security Appliance - Multi-WAN Capable.
- 901-1205-US00 - Ruckus ZoneDirector 1200 wireless LAN controller, licensed for up to 5 Access Points.
- 901-R600-US00 - ZoneFlex R600 dual-band 802.11abgn/ac 2x2:2 streams Wireless Access Point.
- C2960CX-8PC-L - Cisco Catalyst 8-port Gigabit PoE+ Ethernet switch with 2x 1G SFP and 2x 1G copper PoE+ uplinks. 1U
- C2960X-24TS-LL - Cisco Catalyst 24-port Gigabit Ethernet switch with two SFP uplinks. 1U
- C2960CG-8TC-L - Cisco Catalyst 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switch with two dual-purpose gigabit uplinks. 1U