Home Streaming Audio Network How to create a great network for streaming audio?

How to create a great network for streaming audio?

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How to create a great network for streaming audio?

Intro

Contents

Alpha Audio has been heavily involved in streaming audio for (well over) a decade. Once started with a Logitech Squeezebox and – yes – a Sonos Zoneplayer (later Connect), we have now arrived at two Metrum Acoustics Ambre’s and a homebrew streaming-pc and some Bluesound solutions. All running on Roon.

Regular readers know that also the backbone – a streaming network – remains important. Not only for stability: also for playback quality, we have noticed. And don’t forget the source – the mastering and the file itself; that remains the most important thing of all. Yes: every link matters. So let’s take a critical look at what a network does and what you can improve to – pun intended – get every bit out of it.

Building a network

Netgear

A data network consists of a few components. In many cases there is a modem router from the internet provider somewhere in the house. Sometimes in the living room, somtimes the garage or the hallway somewhere. Now, for a fair number of users, this is where it ends. They simply connect the streamer to the modem router and that’s it. And yes: it works. But it can be much better than this! Let’s give some tips first and explain later why this works.

Extra switch

Step one is to connect a decent switch to the streamer. You can do that very easily by using the cable that is now connected to the streamer. Simply use that cable to connect to the new switch and use a short ehternet cable – preferably a shielded CAT6A or CAT7 – to connect the new switch to the streamer.

Which switches are good? We did a blind test of switches a while back. And also took some measurements of switches ourselves. It turns out that the power supply does most of the work. And that if the power supply is okay, a reasonable Cisco already performs very well. A very nice switch is the Meraki MS220. If you find it too expensive, buy a good 8-port switch from an A-brand and possibly add a good power supply later. You will be amazed at the difference!

Better cables

Yes … bits are bits … Especially with Ethernet. But still: we hear real difference. In our test of connectors, we hear NOTHING at all. Whether it is a connector of 50 cents or 20 Euro … no difference. In assembly and reliability..yes…. But not in music reproduction. But if we experiment with shielding, we do hear differences. And then it turns out that a properly shielded cable – with the shield mounted on both sides – really brings more calmness and insight. It is subtle. But audible.

Fiber

Fiber netwerk audio

At Alpha Audio, we have long believed in fiber optic connections for audio. And we still do to some extent. During more recent tests with other players, we’ve found that a good switch with a decent power supply – doesn’t always have to be linear – can sound better than the fiber-optic connection. Richer in sound and nicer in terms of imaging and transient information. These are differences that you can hear very well on classical piano work or, for example, acoustic work (guitar, brass, et cetera).

Now we know that differences can also be heard in modules. We have had good experiences with modules from FS. But we know there are readers who have tried more. Please share your experiences!

Wifi?

We have mostly talked about wired connections. But of course there are a lot of streamers that can be connected via wireless connection. Now this is a very tricky question, because it depends incredibly on the implementation. Most streamers we have had in our hands sound better over a wired connection. Also, the connection is much more stable AND faster, so the player just works much better. Most of the annoyances of apps being slow to respond or stuttering are due to a slow or unstable wireless connection. But with the advent of better Wi-Fi access points and better chipsets in general, sometimes the wireless option is just fine.

So how it will work out sonically varies from device to device. That has everything to do with how the wireless radio and antennas are implemented. Is the shielding done properly? Because a radio operates at 2.4, 5 or sometimes 6 GHz (Wifi 6E). Although at the time of writing we have not seen any Wifi AX implementations. The bulk operate on Wifi N or AC. (Wifi 4 and 5). That radiation should not carry over into the rest of the streamer. If that is done properly, there is little issue per se and wifi can sound fine.

Wifi Bridge

Those who cannot pull cable AND do not have a wifi connection on their streamer can use a wifi bridge. These are ‘boxes’/devices that connect to the wireless network and then transfer the connection to a number of wired ports. So they create and ‘bridge’ between the wireless and wired networks. Useful.

In this case – actually in all cases – don’t buy cheap Ali Express stuff and try to stay within the same brand and series if possible. Similar chipsets work better with each other, often making the connection more stable. This can simply be demonstrated with measurements.

Homeplug?

No…period…don’t. Homeplugs work over the mains by sending high-frequency signals over them (using OFDM). Although many filters simply filter it out (which also means no more data gets through it), we don’t think it sounds good and can potentially degrade the reproduction of a decent hi-fi system. Know that there are plenty of alternatives that firstly work better, secondly sound better and thirdly do not affect the reproduction of the system.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hello.
    Very interesting article.
    I tried a different approach for my network connection.
    I use Roon, and in the past I tried the double network card strategy you, but also others, suggested, one connected to the router, the other to the streamer; I did it on my ROCK server, it’s very easy to configure and In my opinion it gave very good sound improvement, but it has the “limitation” to require to have the 2 ethernet cards on a different subnet.
    That means that the streamer was “isolated” from the home network.
    So , investigating further, a guy from the Roon community told me it’s possible to keep the streamer on the router subnet using the “ethernet bridge configuration”, but this can’t be done on ROCK, while Linux supports it.
    So I spent some hours (I was not familiar with Linux and also didn’t know how to bridge the 2 ethernet cards, so I had to learn), but at the end I’ve been successful.
    I also added another thing: the PCI exp card is an SFP adapter , a very cheap one from Amazon, and also the SFP modules were 2 cheap single-mode .
    I used a fiber connection between the Roon server and the streamer, then I had to use a TPLink media converter between fiber and streamer, which has been powered with a homemade linear psu based on a modified board I bought on Audiophonics.
    The RJ45 adapter from the motherboard is directly connected with a CAT6 cable to the router.
    This gave an incredible sound improvement and allowed me to keep the streamer on the home network and use it to stream film soundtracks from my MacBook via airplay.
    Now I’m wondering what I could achieve with a double net card like the JCAT XE and a high quality network cable between server and streamer, obviously using a high quality 5V linear PSU for the card.

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