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Audio Blast: Ethernet Cables and XLR “Y” Adapters Survey

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Ethernet: a family of computer networking technologies commonly used in local area networks (LAN), metropolitan area networks (MAN) and wide area networks (WAN). It was commercially introduced in 1980 and first standardized in 1983 as IEEE 802.3, and has since been refined to support higher bit rates and longer link distances. Over time, Ethernet has largely replaced competing wired LAN technologies such as token ring, FDDI and ARCNET.
The original 10BASE5 Ethernet uses coaxial cable as a shared medium, while the newer Ethernet variants use twisted pair and fiber optic links in conjunction with hubs or switches. Over the course of its history, Ethernet data transfer rates have been increased from the original 2.94 megabits per second (Mbit/s)[3] to the latest 100 gigabits per second (Gbit/s). The Ethernet standards comprise several wiring and signaling variants of the OSI physical layer in use with Ethernet.Wikipedia

 

This article started out as a review of a particular brand of Ethernet cables and a pair of XLR “Y” adapters, but turned into a more expansive survey of nearly a dozen Ethernet cables and four different versions of “Y” adapters, or splitters, for balanced cables. As you can imagine, this took a bit of time, on the order of dozens of hours of listening, note taking and writing.

The advent of this article marks a wonderful experience for me, the first use of an aftermarket Ethernet cable to elevate system performance. I have learned not to prejudge the efficacy of any cabling in a system. I learned this through actual use, not a theorization of results. I have encouraged audiophiles who read my articles to follow my lead, to let practice, not speculation, dictate efficacy. However, if there were a cable I thought might be marginally influential, it would be the Ethernet cable. Because an Ethernet cable seems so indirect, so much not a part of the audio system proper, that it cannot seemingly and possibly render a significant impact on an audio system.

However, as has been the case with all other cabling involved in my music playback systems, that perspective was proved wrong. Over the past few months of usage, the Ethernet cable has been validated as efficacious, conferring easily heard changes across the frequency spectrum and influencing all aspects of sound quality. Once again my judgment that all cables have the capacity to provide impactful changes to an audio system has been confirmed. Had I not actually tried swapping Ethernet cables I would have remained under the impression that the Ethernet connection is not too important. This is why it is fundamental for an audiophile to actually try things rather than merely speculate about them. Systems are not advanced by speculation, but by action.

 

The Ethernet options

I used a wide variety of Ethernet cables, from inexpensive, nondescript ones to fancy, audiophile-grade ones. I sought as close to a perfect equivalency in length as possible, namely 14 feet, because that was the length necessary to span the distance between the Ethernet port in the listening room and the server. All prices of the cables discussed here are for the 14-foot length unless otherwise noted, although some of the manufacturers show 1m prices on their websites.

For streaming, I relied upon Tidal for content played back through the Roon music playback software. Most of the testing was done in PCM equivalent music, though occasionally DSD was used. The use of DSD made no difference in the conclusions about the cables, likewise the adapters/splitters for XLR.

The system was set up as follows; upstairs resides my cable modem and router. At that location I experimented with 1m lengths of the Ethernet cables between the modem and the router (further discussion below). I use IOP (Internet Over Powerline) devices to transmit the signal through my home’s electrical cabling down to the basement listening room. From the IOP device there I run the 14’ Ethernet cable to the Salk Audio StreamPlayer III.

I used a Clarity Cable 1m Supernatural USB Cable to the DAC, and from there utilizing the DAC’s on board preamp function I fed the amplifiers the analogue signal, culminating with the speaker cables leading to the speakers. An example of such a system that I used was the Salk StreamPlayer III, the Exogal Comet DAC and the Red Dragon S500 amplifiers in Mono mode. Over the course of the testing I substituted the Eastern Electric Minimax DSD Supreme DAC as well as a pair of First Watt J2 Amplifiers. Cabling consisted typically of various combinations of TEO Audio Liquid Cables and Clarity Cable products.

 

Initial culling of ethernet cables

A variety of price and purported quality points were represented in the collective cables used for this survey. Among the products worth mentioning are some bargain standouts according to the online community, namely the Tera Grand Premium CAT-7 Double Shielded 10 Gigabit Cable (from $11.95 and up) and the Supra Cable CAT-8 STP Patch FRHF BLUE 5m (approx. $80). I also brought into the mix some other truly cheap cables; the Tera Grand Flat Braided CAT 7 (12Ft/$15.99), and the Belkin Corp. High Performance CAT-6 cable I pulled out of a box of assorted abandoned computer wiring in the basement (priceless).

One would expect that cables that are much more expensive (and look it) would perform significantly better. So…moving up the appearance and price scale, the next cheapest one was the lowliest of the three offerings from Wireworld, the Chroma CAT-8 at a price of 5M/$155. My initial interest was in the Purist Audio Design Cat-7 Ethernet Cable ($500). The other more expensive ones were the Clarity Cable Supernatural Cat-7 (MSRP not received by time of survey) and two more models from Wireworld, the Starlight CAT-8 ($450) and the Platinum Starlight. I did not use a 14’ length of this Ethernet cable as I judged it cost prohibitive for this survey.

Some of the differences in design and build between the less expensive cables and the more expensive relate to shielding (specifically whether the entire cable through the connector is shielded, or just the cable), the quality of the connectors, gauge and geometry of the conductors, and conductor material. The Purist Cat-7 uses 26 AWG conductors of single crystal silver, a dielectric of “Santoprene” and ultra high quality GG45 TERA connectors. Wireworld uses a triple shielded system with chases for different runs, named the Tite-Shield Technology; the Chroma uses oxygen-free copper (OFC), the Starlight uses Silver-clad OFC and the Platinum Starlight uses OCC-7N Solid Silver. The Clarity Supernatural uses a proprietary geometry and build that was inspired by their speaker cables. Obviously, each company claims to employ the best technology and materials in their cables.

The pricing gap between these cables is enormous and, for many, no cable more than $100 could ever be justified. Alternatively, the argument should be made that, when it comes to performance, if a cable that costs $1K can impact a system as much as a component costing $15-20K, then the cable is a relative bargain. This article will not settle such differences of perspective. In my experience, however, I “give the cable it’s due” when it comes to performance. If a cable is more expensive but offers perceptually much higher performance, I am more inclined to give it a passing grade. If you do not cotton to that philosophy, then take my comments on the more expensive cables with whatever sized grain of salt you wish.

 

Listening impressions

The greatest disparities I heard between the cables were in the areas of information retrieval and tonality. The cables that I culled from the survey had what I would consider poor information retrieval and severely imbalanced tonality. They were unable to convincingly reveal the microdynamics necessary to have an extreme audio system. Chiefly they lacked proper air around instruments, depth of sound field and occlusion of fine details. They also skewed heavily toward the brighter, treble-emphasized part of the spectrum, sometimes at the perceived expense of the lower end of the spectrum. The finer cables all were able to some degree to achieve precision and largely a balance of tonality in an easily distinguishable manner.

Tonality was perhaps the most noticeable difference between the poorer cables and the better ones. In nearly every instance the lower the quality Ethernet cable the less Midrange presence was produced. In the same fashion that a poorer quality two-way speaker emphasizes the Treble and Bass at the expense of Midrange, so also these cables had emphasis on the top frequencies, but conspicuously missed the Mids. This is, I believe, why some people think the inexpensive cables are so good; the emphasis on the upper end is mistaken as ability to perform at the extremes. These cables were unacceptably cold sounding, lacking body in vocals and warmth in stringed instruments, making horns sterile as well. As might be expected there was a range of information retrieval and tonality among my recommended Ethernet cables, though not to the degree of those culled.

 

Tera Grand

These are inexpensive cables that do an acceptable but not outstanding job. The chief foible of these cables is a lightness of the bass, an inability to put heft into it. The flat Tera Grand I did not like as much as the round version. I do not recommend the inexpensive flat Ethernet cables one finds in places such as Walmart; one of the flat cables I rejected was from there.

In my listening notes I wrote that the round Tera Grand cable, “…got the definition thing down, but wow – harsh!” Other terms I used were, “unadorned…searing hot detail…no finesse…tonally stripped down…not lush…no mid-bass bloom and tipped up…sharpness, but lacking in color.” Sara Barielles’ “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay” had good extension of soundstage, but was shocking – tonally very bright.

If you think this is a harsh judgment of the Tera Grand round cable, you should have seen my reaction to the losers! I strongly suggest that those who already have highly detailed and/or bright systems not pursue this Ethernet cable. There will be others more suited to your needs. Rather, this could be a good choice for persons with sleepy, overly laid back systems who wish to crank up the action.

 

Supra Cable

The Supra Cable was several times the price of the Tera Grand, but commensurately more refined. It had not superb, but sufficient low end presence, however it skewed toward top end emphasis. Compared to the better cables in the comparison it had only average scale and extension of instruments’ acoustic envelope and the sound field. When I swapped in the Supra Cable for the Wireworld Chroma on Checkfield’s “The Good, Brown Earth” piano shrunk from a Grand to an Upright and sounded more electronic than acoustic.

Overall, though the Supra Cable was less clinical and technical sounding, it struck me as a more forward sounding cable. Candice Springs’ “Talk To Me” had too much sibilance for my taste, and the cymbal work was the most forward of all the cables remaining. I conclude that the Supra may be a worthwhile cable to try for some who wish to add nearly the definition of the Tera Grand while avoiding some of the harshness.

 

Purist Audio Design

We move to the other end of the sound spectrum in terms of definition and tonality when we consider the Purist Audio Design Cat 7. Here there was more balance across the frequency spectrum, a characteristic of the very best of the lot. The midrange was present, but not overt. Here there was more openness, a result of increased detail and better microdynamics. Now I could hear not just the body of instruments such as upright bass, but also their weight. Gone was the mid-treble spike of the Supra Cable.

The PAD cable was the most akin to tube components in its nature: softer, smooth and fatigue-free. My notes on comparisons between the cables on Hiroshima’s “Swiss Ming” state, ”Better weight than Supra Cat8, but not as much as Wireworld…bass closer to Supra – one note without resonance, expansion, lacking some slam and presence.” Notably, live recordings sounded much better with the PAD cable. Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” was noted as, “Spatially spot on…can hear Collins’ English accent – good!”

In such a manner the PAD cable equaled the good qualities of the others previously mentioned, but added a capable midrange presence while eschewing harshness in the upper frequencies. This would be a good cable to recommend for those who wish to elevate the performance of a rig by escaping a cheap Ethernet cable with little risk of making the system too hard charging.

2 Responses to Audio Blast: Ethernet Cables and XLR “Y” Adapters Survey


  1. Charles Grubbs says:

    Thanks for such a useful review. I need to upgrade the ethernet cable from my router to DirectStream Dac with Bridge II streaming. It is especially nice that you paid special attention to the tonal balance of the cables. So many times the emphasis is on detail and soundstage. I recently read a review of a phono stage which never even mentioned tonal balance or qualities, just how detailed and spacious it made the music. In my experience that means the component is too bright and harsh for my taste!.

  2. Charles,
    God’s Peace to you,

    Thank you for the complement! I try not to get so excited about precision that I forget about tone. It’s easy to get carried away when a system has extreme detail; we tend not to be so excited when the timbre is rich. But, both are absolutely necessary when seeking the ultimate experience.

    Have you ever heard the saying, “An ounce of tone is worth a pound of definition,”? Likely not; I just made it up. 😉 BTW, I don’t believe it’s true.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

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