|Netgear Nighthawk S8000 GS808ES (~US$95).|
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.|
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.|
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 OpinionNow 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...
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).
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 a reflection of time domain performance, the very high resolution J-Test graphs looked rather "beautiful":
|Oppo UDP-205 XLR output.|
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!