Three’s A Charm…

Getting serious about network hygiene

By Roy Gregory

When it comes to streamed music and high-end audio, it is largely a story of unfulfilled promise. The theory is – err – sound, but in practise the results seldom even get close to what is possible from established formats like LP and optical disc replay. The only surprise here is that anybody is surprised. No format or replay chain has ever sprung, fully formed onto the market, with continual, evolutionary development being the order of the day, even for mature technologies. Records sound better now than they ever have, because of advances in the equipment used to play them. Why anybody thinks that file replay should escape such growing pains is beyond me – yet the blind faith displayed by manufacturers and listeners alike rises to the level of dogma. Sorry guys – I’m not buying it and, frankly, nor should you.

Actually listen to the results and you can hear clearly that streaming and network replay are very much a work in progress. It’s not just the variability of streamed music as opposed to locally stored files. Those rare examples of high-quality file replay, examples that do genuinely approach high-end performance, serve to illustrate just how bad most file replay really is. The (ruinously expensive) Wadax Reference Server and PSU combination is one such example, but the proof of this pudding depends on more than just price, with an awful lot of expensive hardware failing the most basic of musical tests. Instead, the light at the end of this particular tunnel is generated by more modest offerings from the likes of CAD (Computer Audio Design) one of the few manufacturers to generate consistently enjoyable and musical results from file replay. Like Wadax, CAD have spent considerable time and effort on more than just the box that stores the files and the box that converts them into an analogue signal. Both companies have looked long and hard at the question of signal transfer and come to the same conclusion: half the problem with file replay is the network itself.

These days, even those who doggedly cling to the notion that bigger numbers must (by definition) deliver better sound are starting to accept that signal transfer is a major issue that risks diluting the musical performance of any file-based replay chain. Yet this is hardly news. Network filters have been essential commodities since the advent of ADSL and the AV streaming community has been aware of their importance and influence for years. These days, thanks to the historical juxtaposition of Covid, Netflix, Apple TV and binge-watching, you can buy an Ethernet filter to ‘improve picture quality’ from Amazon! Yet the audiophile community (with its focus on and heavy investment in big, complicated and expensive boxes) has been slow to catch on. Nor am I excluding myself from that institutional blindness. I might be one of the few audio writers who is openly sceptical about the musical quality of file replay and network integrity, but I’ve also been guilty of doing little to improve things – to the extent that when I first experienced the musical impact of the modest (and modestly priced – at least in high-end terms) Aardvark Ethernet filter, I was genuinely shocked at the scale of the improvement it instilled. It was an experience that forced me to look again at Network issues as a limiting factor in file replay and question how much could be gained through such apparently simple devices. With that in mind I established a cast of thousands (well – okay – three) to examine the situation and get a handle on the performance benefits and costs involved. As well as the Aardvark (£499), I’ll be looking at the more affordable English Electric/Chord Co. EE1 Network Filter (£249) and the recently arrived Ethernet Control from CAD (£1,250). These prices all include 20% sales tax.