Tuesday, 19 May 2020

MUSINGS/MEASUREMENTS: Netgear Nighthawk S8000 (and audiophile ethernet switches)

Netgear Nighthawk S8000 GS808ES (~US$95).
Over the years, as "Distributed Computer Audio" setups have became the main music playback mechanism for many of us, audiophile companies have released various products supposedly to enhance each component in the computer system.

Last week, we talked about an expensive audiophile server computer for example. As you know, over the years, USB cables, hub-like "regenerators", "filters" and "reclockers" have been released by companies. "Audiophile" ethernet cables likewise have been on the market for many years now.

I suppose it was just a matter of time that ethernet switches became a target for the small audiophile cottage industry with products like the SOtM sNH-10G (US$800), JCAT M12 Gold Switch (€4165) and less expensive M12 Magic (€2550), UpTone EtherREGEN (US$640), Paul Pang modified switch (€279) based on D-Link DGS-108 (US$30), AQVOX SE Switch (US$950) also based on D-Link DGS-108 I think, Crux Audio Silent Angel Bonn N8 (US$399), Fidelizer Etherstream (US$395) based on Cisco SG110D-08 (<US$50), Melco S100 (£1999), Linear Solution OCXO Audiophile Switch 2.0 (?US$500) that looks like it's based on TP-Link TL-SG108 (~US$20), expensive line of Ansuz PowerSwitches among a few other options.

While some of these switches looks like they're custom designs (that JCAT particularly with the unusual M12 connector and RJ45 coupling likely needed!), notice that many are actually inexpensive tweaked/hacked switches, with an audiophile company logo/name applied, with some components replaced like an OCXO clock module grafted on.

Some in the Industry even suggest that audiophiles will hear further improvement with dual "audiophile" switches! It looks like the Paul Pang OCXO Dual Switch is one such option for a mere €1200 - dual D-Link DGS-108 innards?

May I suggest a better way? Why not just get a high quality switch to begin with, with features that might even make some sense? Consider the excellent Netgear Nighthawk S8000 which should be easily found for <US$100. I even got one on sale here in Canada for something like CDN$90 recently.

As you can see in the pictures above, this is a nice looking switch :-). Unlike the square/rectangular boxes, it's a good looking matte black, sleek polygon that sits well on any flat surface - great not just for 8-port gigabit switching, but also cosmetically better than any other switch I've used. This is certainly not a box one should hide from view.

There's a blue power light up front that can be turned off if you prefer (some will find this a little bright, I don't mind), and the port link lights behind can also be disabled (I also don't mind leaving them on) either together with a rear push button or separately with software control.

Rear view. Notice push button switch on the left that allows you to turn off the power & port link lights at a touch.
Not only does it look good, but this thing is a relatively heavy chunk of metal (Zn alloy). It runs totally cool, fanless, absolutely silent. Power utilization is <4W maximum, and since I appreciate efficiency, am happy to turn on the Energy Efficient Ethernet setting. It weighs just over 1.6lbs which feels serious in the hand and sits on a flat surface even with all ethernet ports loaded. As you can see in the image below, this switch is replacing my older model TP-Link TL-SG1008D. The TP-Link has worked well for me for years, a typical inexpensive plastic switch weighing a few ounces. Over the years, I've had to put some ceramic crafts from my kids on top to weigh it down so as not to be pulled off the rack! :-)


Both are powered by a typical switching wallwart. Seriously audiophiles, don't freak out over switching supplies... I have yet to find significant noise due to switching supplies causing problems with DACs or amplifiers.

Here's what the switch looks like up front with the other audio gear.

Note that I captured this image at an angle which highlighted the light bouncing off the textured matte black finish.
Netgear has given us a good amount of technical details here for those who want to see some numbers and specs.

Unlike typical inexpensive unmanaged switches, this device is "managed" like you would with your router by going into its password-protected local IP address through a web browser and adjust settings to your liking. For example, here is what it looks like when you log in and check out the System Info on mine:


Notice the ability to turn ON/OFF the port and front power LEDs to your liking. There are features such as up to 4-port link aggregation and custom VLAN for the network poweruser. The company has released various firmware updates over the years.

As a switch meant for "hardcore gaming", what they're trying to do is improve ethernet latency and as you can see in the specs sheet, they list a couple of comparisons with "standard gigabit switches" suggesting that especially in congested conditions, the switch can make a significant improvement. For your sound room, if you want, you could do things like increase priority to ports like what I've done here:


As you can see, I've labeled all the devices connected to the 8-port switch. I want to make sure to try to keep the data flowing when playing music which is why the Oppo/Roon streamer plus my Squeezebox Transporter are given "High" priority along with data flow through the Uplink connected to the Server in the other room.

I use my TV-box quite a bit as well for 4K movies and lossless multichannel music streaming and assigned it a "Medium" priority. Likewise, the HTPC can be set at "Medium" for the occasional online gaming. Everything else I kept at "Low" priority; for example, the Yamaha receiver (for network radio) and Vizio TV (Netflix and YouTube) would generally be streaming lower quality lossy non-4K content.

There is a "Critical" priority level setting as well but I see no need to use this... Extreme audiophiles might want to play with this I suppose :-).

So... Can all those expensive "audiophile" network streamers manage priorities like this?

Subjective Audiophile Opinion

Now that we've talked about the features, specs, and what I've done with my set-up, you must be wondering "How does this sound?" For this section, I enlisted my audio "friend" Keaton I. Goulden-Eyre III, Esq. for a few comments as he lives nearby. I brought both the Netgear S8000 and TP-Link switches to him for a listen over a few evenings with the Netgear's port priorities adjusted for his set-up similar to above. As you may recall, he has some of the most polished "golden ears" I know, plus is fully immersed in the "audiophile lifestyle". Since he rarely reads about computer components, has long retired, and doesn't bother searching the Internet for information outside of audiophile magazines and sites like this, I told him this was an "expensive switch" that would improve sound quality compared to others.

Take it away Keaton...

--------------------------

Thank you for the opportunity to lend my heightened auditory abilities and depth of experience, my plebeian friend Archimago.

You showed me this video review of the aesthetically-challenged JCAT M12 Gold using a few seconds of Melody Gardot's Live In Europe as demo the other night. The reviewer claims that the expensive switch sounded better. Clearly, YouTube audio sounds terrible (blurry, low resolution, noisy, constrained soundstage, lacking in microdynamics) compared to real hi-fi. Utterly ridiculous comparison. [Ed. I agree!]


The difference this switch made to my second tier digital sound system (digital is always second tier compared to my analogue system of course) was startling even for me. The "TP-Link" sounded light, hollow, impotent, with an obvious digital sheen that would have sent lesser men running from the room in hysterical fits. In contrast, this "Netgear" felt and looked solid. It thus exuded a certain sense of masculine "presence", vivified "air", and conjured up the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on the classic Liszt: Piano Concertos (Mercury Living Presence, recorded 1962) treating the listener with increased soundstage - qualities I have rarely heard with lesser digital audio components.


Tonality was made more natural through this switch. My wife commented on some Diana Krall music the other night - for example, how "real" the disembodied voice sounded, expertly balanced with piano, bass, shimmer of the cymbal and beautifully understated Hammond B-3 on "Temptation" (The Girl In The Other Room). I also noticed a distinct uptick in dynamics switching over from the TP-Link to the Netgear. Have a listen to the audiophile classic "Gaia" from James Taylor's Hourglass for a brief but sweet taste of well recorded dynamics reminiscent of my favourite Royal DeMaria Chardonnay winter harvest. On a proper sound system, the conveyance of subtlety/gentleness with the suddenly thunderous bass at 4:10 was rendered epiphanic through this switch. [Ed. full-range playback <30Hz recommended, and check out the multichannel SACD of this as well!]


In order to experience the best dynamics, I compared the Netgear with TP-Link in an extremely low noise environment at 2:00AM as RF noise settled over the power grid. I found that this switch delivered low noise in spades. It's an absolutely acoustically silent hunk of metal. Furthermore, the heavy enclosure appears to be an effective RF/EMI shield to prevent noise from getting in and out. Phenomenal.


Archimago told me that he had tweaked the priority setting of the ethernet ports for my music streamer. No wonder it sounds so good! No hint of putrid data packets getting clogged up in this switch as the music streamer is being fed with "fresh" data as expeditiously as possible. Very powerful. Tremendous.


Clearly, this "Netgear" switch is a massive step above the horrible plastic "TP-Link" he brought over. Anyone who says ethernet switches don't sound different must be like the anosmic man blissfully ignorant of the stench of a corpse flower from the fragrance of fresh "Honey Perfume" rose. Such men must be ignored and I heartily concur with this EE/Computer Science bacon-loving "full-time" audio gentleman with similar auditory acumen as myself. One does not need to be an #audiophool to join the party.


Finally, I appreciated that I can turn off all the distracting flashing lights. I'm a purist. Blue LEDs and flashing lights deteriorate sound quality by adding noise. Not good. All audiophile switches must have this feature.


I was not made aware of the price of this component. Considering the magnitude of difference I heard between the inexpensive consumer commodity plastic ethernet switch and this magnificent piece of metal, I would happily dispense with at least half an ounce of gold from my personal reserves to achieve this level of elevated performance.


Ta-ta for now Archimago. Heading off to the speedway with my 3rd Ferrari. Oh yes, please do enjoy the beautiful spring weather... See you in July after my yearly private Barbados excursion with some corporate ex-clients (now friends).


-----------------------

Thank you, Keaton I. Goulden-Eyre III for those truly insightful words of wisdom developed over years of personal "lived experience". As usual, your genetically-endowed hearing ability remains top notch, far beyond the stature to any other sexagenarian I know.

He's certainly right about some things. Objectively, for example, the noise floor of my Oppo UDP-205 (left channel) connected to this switch remained very low when streaming through Roon. Here are some graphs captured at 96kHz (48kHz bandwidth).

Oppo UDP-205 XLR output. All LED and port light ON by the way.
As you can see, the noise floor measured down to -150dBFS (RME ADI-2 Pro FS ADC used, 1M point FFT, at 24/96). Likewise, we can see the 1kHz -6dBFS sine signal performance of the Oppo UDP-205 (ESS Tech Sabre ES9038PRO chip). Note the harmonic distortion measured at a tiny 0.000196%, and the small amount of probably power-related low-level sidebands at the base of the fundamental frequency (all below -130dBFS).

As a reflection of time domain performance, the very high resolution J-Test graphs looked rather "beautiful":

Oppo UDP-205 XLR output.
I think it's fair to say that the ethernet switch either made no difference to a very high-resolution DAC like the Oppo, or even if there is some noise or temporal imperfection added, the amount is absolutely irrelevant.

Conclusions...

What can I say? The Netgear Nighthawk S8000 works. It looks nice. It's bit-perfect. Has a 3-year warranty if you're wondering. Mr. Goulden-Eyre III tells me it sounds better than the inexpensive plastic TP-Link. And at less than US$100, my wife didn't bat an eyelid when I mentioned the price while agreeing that it looked nicer than the previous ethernet switch with front blinking lights.

Remember, ethernet is a packet-based communication system. As such, it's by nature asynchronous with start/stop flow control from server to the end-point typically. There is no time-locked steady stream of data being transmitted requiring time sensitive immediate conversion to analogue audio. The packets are buffered by each device whether it's the Server computer, ethernet switch or ultimately your streamer. Sometimes, packets can even arrive out of order if there are parallel routes of transmission. This is why it actually makes no sense to claim OCXO/TCXO clocks will benefit "audiophile" switches by making a difference to the output from your DAC! Even if the switch ran on a more robust, steady pico/femtosecond accurate clock, what difference does it make when the data will have to be reprocessed by the receiving device's ethernet interface, buffered, and then fed into the DAC? Ultimately, it is the DAC's clock that will determine the temporal resolution of the analogue output (where anomalies like picosecond jitter may be found). Whatever temporal precision an OCXO is adding to the switch will be minuscule and irrelevant when you think of the complete "system".

I would argue that if one were to pick on something possibly worth improving, it's not "jitter" through a switch that should be of relevance for the "perfectionist" audiophile. It's actually the network latency. With 8 ports and presumably all kinds of other devices attached to the switch, the Netgear S8000 has a QoS (Quality of Service) engine that will allow the audiophile to prioritize the ports and by assigning higher priority to our audio streamer for example, we can reduce the potential for buffer underruns when the ethernet system might be congested.

For example, suppose in my sound room, I turn on the Yamaha receiver and start streaming lossless TIDAL to Zone 2 which is my kitchen upstairs. Then my son starts playing League of Legends online using the HTPC on the big-screen 4K TV while using his wireless headset and microphone chatting with friends. Now I come into the room for some headphone listening to a new 24/192 album on the Oppo streamed through Roon from my Server computer. While admittedly unlikely to happen, in a scenario like this, the Yamaha receiver, HTPC, and the Oppo will all be accessing data through the same switch. With the way I've prioritized the ethernet ports, my Oppo playing hi-res 24/192 will be served at the front of the data queue with the lowest latency and least likely to have issues with stuttering from audible buffer disruptions. That is the kind of power we might want to have in an upgraded switch, let's not make this into yet another silly debate over whether "Bits Are Bits" and if $$$$ actually buys anyone better sound!

In summary, if you're looking to scratch that "audiophile ethernet switch" itch, try one of these $100 Netgear Nighthawk S8000's first. Set your audio streamer to high priority in the switch settings, and have fun listening. If you're still thinking of putting more money down, by all means give the SOtM/JCAT/Paul Pang/Fidelizer/AQVOX/Linear Solution/Melco/etc. a trial. Compare build quality and features. If you decide to keep the expensive "audiophile" switch, I'm sure there must be a serious gamer in your life who would appreciate the lower latency of the Netgear when competing online ;-).

BTW: For those with 10GbE networks, there's the Nighthawk Pro Gaming SX10 switch with two 10GbE ports. I do not recommend this for use in the sound room due to the presence of an internal fan even if described as "whisper quiet". There is no reason any audio streamer will ever need 10GbE speeds.

--------------------

Alright guys and gals... Have a great week ahead! I will get you some details on the Internet Blind Test procedure and results soon. Expecting busy weeks ahead as COVID-19 restrictions relax around here and in concert, changes at work.

Stay safe, stay rational, and above all, enjoy the music dear audiophiles!

PS (May 23, 2020):
As a "timestamp", I think it'll be interesting to see how this class of products evolves after the publication of this article. Would be interesting to see if the "next generation" of these ethernet switches start basing themselves off managed switches. Would they also start advertising port priority as an important feature? Interesting to see if "audiophile" ethernet switches remain even a "thing" in the years ahead!

18 comments:

  1. Is your friend's first name Buster by any chance ? ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No joke Ranchu,
      Keaton is the real deal, man. Livin' la vida loca playboy audiophile style. Truly a man that great many snake oil salesmen and audiophile reviewers could only aspire to emulate.

      Delete
  2. A managed gigabit switch for less that $12/port? Wow!

    Unclear why I'd ever need a managed switch at home, but at the price ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can get 8 port managed for $30: Zyxel, TP-Link, Trend-Net...

      Delete
    2. Yup, as Matt noted, these days we have a good number of options for managed switches at good prices.

      I think the Netgear S8000 is the best looking from what I have seen although of course at a higher price. The build, heft, ability to turn off all LEDs make it a winner IMO for the sound room :-).

      [Plus some features like up to 4-port link aggregation, both priority and rate limits for each port, I think are a bit better than most equivalent switches...]

      Delete
    3. Actually the TP-Link SG108E supports LAG, port priority (4 queue's) rate limit, storm control, and loop prevention. Also 801.1q vlan. Pretty robust feature set for a $30 switch.

      Delete
    4. Impressive for such an inexpensive device!

      Anyone know if any of the "audiophile" ethernet boxes (all of which rather expensive) have managed capabilities for at least setting port priority?

      Delete
    5. If you don't mind used business gear you can get even more cheap ports :) HP1810-24G silent managed 24-port switches for $20-40 on eBay for instance. It definitely does not win on aesthetics though unless you like the look of patch panels!

      Delete
    6. Euuuu... Obviously functional but not a looker. Audiophiles know anything that looks like that cannot sound good. :-)

      Thanks for the eBay tip!

      Delete
  3. Greetings Archimago!
    Longtime reader here. Like the commonsense, no BS attitude of your blog. Saving me and friends I've shared with time and money.
    Regarding the "critical" port setting on the switch. I use that for my IP telephone system for the home office. I'm using an Ooma Telo. No dropped packets or lags.
    https://www.ooma.com/home-phone-service/products/

    Looking forward to the results from the listening test. Not much difference in the samples to my ears.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Unknown,
      Yup, great point about using "critical" priority for realtime but generally low bitrate situations like VOIP.

      Details about the blind test like what settings are used and for which samples will be forthcoming so you can compare notes with what you selected :-).

      Delete
  4. Speaking of snake oil and Ferrari’s, did you see this from Audioholics?

    https://www.audioholics.com/editorials/synergistic-research?fbclid=IwAR2fIIJHcGsI_BCjBIaZ6BMW8h617dGlqzbIfStl4ZPLNPmR7bMRmtr6N04

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh my Hogues. Very non-classy...

      Theodore 'Ted' Denney III appears to be living quite the audiophile lifestyle on that Facebook page. As readers here know, I've had a "run in" with a few of his products years ago:
      http://archimago.blogspot.com/2014/02/measurements-power-cable-redux.html

      And had the "joy" of meeting the man and attending his demo last year at RMAF 2019:
      http://archimago.blogspot.com/2019/09/rmaf-2019-day-2.html

      I think it's a rather sad state of affairs that these kinds of companies and (IMO) people are part of the audiophile "mainstream" culture. They have been allowed to be there thanks to magazines and the media in general whether through stuff like TAS basically running "review" advertisements like this:
      http://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/synergistic-research-foundation-series-speaker-cable-and-interconnect/

      Or strange online site reviews such as this, apparently incapable of just a modicum of skepticism to pull away from the madness:
      https://6moons.com/audioreviews2/synergistic/1.html

      No accountability ever that claims are factual. Of course, Stereophile has played their part in creating interest - witness John Atkinson describing the ridiculous Atmosphere device back in 2014:
      https://www.stereophile.com/content/rmaf-2014-john-atkinson-wraps-his-wreport
      (A shame that Bruno Putzeys would stick around for nonsense like this - such is the power of business I suppose.)

      And then their AudioStream affiliate going even deeper with the insanity:
      https://www.audiostream.com/content/synergistic-research-atmosphere

      I believe there are long-lasting effects on a small hobby when this goes on for decades as it has. IMO, without accountability and integrity, I believe it destroys the reputation of those who dare call themselves "audiophiles". Maybe the "high-end" hobby as it exists at this point has to die first before there can be any enduring resurrection based on more honest foundations prioritized over financial motivations.

      In the meantime, I'll have to ask if Keaton is acquainted with Mr. Denney III and whether "Theodore" has also been invited to Barbados. It would not surprise me if they already swap Ferrari tips. I'll make sure to send regards if so.

      Delete
    2. Agreed a thousand times Archimago! Companies that sell dubious products...their very existence, nature, and the ever outward rippling effect on the picture of the audiophile community's credulity and lack of skeptical thinking, can just be dispiriting.

      But this is ALWAYS the result of a purely subjective paradigm ("If I perceived it or felt it to be true, I know it to be true").

      It allows snake oil products to perpetuate because the company or user can always say "Well I hear it working, whether you can or not!"

      Since neither will submit to what J. Gordon Holt termed "basic honesty controls" like blind testing, and wont' accept any objective measurements as able to falsify their claims - "we can't measure everything we can hear!", they can go on making the unfalsifiable claim forever.

      So if someone like me voices any skepticism about, say, the sonic effects of a high end AC cable, the Golden Ear will always say "Well, if you can't hear it your system lacks the necessary resolution or your hearing lacks the necessary sensitivity and refinement." The Golden Ear will accept no falsifying tests of these claims and can always claim to hear the difference no matter what you do.

      I try to tease out this bias by saying "what if I claimed that I had the beatles 2009 remaster CD and on the song Blackbird I could hear a distant angelic choir on the track? Why believe this claim and how could you vet it? Well, you could join me in listening to my CD of that track. You hear nothing but the normal version, there is no angelic choir, so you conclude that I'm wrong. My response "You can't conclude I'm wrong. I still hear the choir and if you don't, it's because your hearing is not a fine tuned as mine."

      I can make this pulled-out-of-my-*ss claim all day long, right? Just keep claiming I hear something that may be simply me bullsh*tting you, or may be my imagination.

      So, any way to put my claim to the test?

      Well, I claim it's only my CD that has the angels singing. An obvious test suggests itself: Take another CD of the same re-master to compare, and play them in a way that I don't know which one I'm listening to. THEN lets see if I can actually identify the one that has the claimed angelic choir in the background. That would at least be a step in the direction of supporting the claim.

      But the Golden Ear just doesn't accept this logic when it comes to his own claims about hearing "obviously tighter bass, expanded soundstage, cleaner highs." He is ready with every reason to reject the results or rational for tests controlling for his imagination (or his claims if he happens to be hawking a dubious-sounding product). "I can hear it, and we can't measure everything we hear, and blind testing is invalid because...question-beggingly...I know that because I don't hear in blind testing what I know I can hear."



      Delete
    3. Yup.

      By keeping it solely "subjective" provides cover to say whatever they want with no need to back up the claims and no accountability.

      Alas, this is the way of the world these days... Not just in "hi-end" audio.

      Delete
  5. Archimago, I learn something every time I read your blog. Reading your blog has helped prioritize on the items that are really important. Thank you!!
    I had been thinking of changing my cheap ethernet switch just because the flickering LED lights bothered me every time that I wanted to listen to music with the lights off. And here you come with a review of a switch that does what I needed! I purchased the Nighthawk switch, installed it, set priorities for each component, and more importantly (for me) turned all LED lights off! It works like a charm. And guess what, the sound is different!!
    Although... I do not attribute the sound change to the network switch at all. I also changed the layout of the furniture in the room and the seating position. For me, it was all about the lights! Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome nicoff,
      Glad it worked out and whether anything to do with the ethernet or of course due to the room layout, I hope you're enjoying better sound!

      Cheers...

      Delete
  6. The ultimate goal of online psychology research paper writing services is to provide Psychology Assignment Writing Services and psychology research paper services since most psychology coursework writing service students lack time to complete their custom psychology coursework writing services.

    ReplyDelete