Recently I was invited to a listening session at home by our valued customer and friend Thomas Paszti. We wanted to compare different DACs and headphone amps in his chain and of course enjoy music.
It was one of those personal meetings that I appreciate and love so much, where you talk to other music lovers about our biggest hobby and just have a good time.
When I arrived at Thomas's, I was warmly welcomed by him and his wife and over a cup of fine coffee we chatted briefly about our passions for hi-fi and photography - Thomas's wife is a keen landscape photographer.
Then we climbed the stairs to Thomas' "Man Cave" or music room, where he pursues his hobby.
Thomas recently bought a Ferrum Hypsos (intelligent power supply) from us, which drove his Burson Conductor 3XR to new heights. After Thomas had tested the new and award-winning Ferrum OOR headphone amplifier at home, this will power his headphones from now on. A suitable R2R DAC (HoloSpring 3) is on the way.
Then Thomas showed me all the other optimizations he had made in his "chain" in recent years and I have to say I was impressed you can still get some sound out of it with small measures!
So I asked Thomas to make his accumulated knowledge available to other users and to post it in our blog. So - here we go! 🙌
Optimizing a hifi streaming chain
A few years ago I made the step from a speaker hi-fi system to headphones, a wonderful Final Audio D8000, plus a Burson Conductor 3XR DAC headphone amplifier.
I wanted to play music on my laptop, so my retailer recommended the Qobuz (https://www.qobuz.com/ch-de/discover) service as a streaming platform. That was the beginning of my excursion down the computer audio rabbit hole.
Because I didn't have an Ethernet internet connection in my music room, I simply received the music signal with my smartphone and transferred it to my Apple laptop via a WLAN hotspot. The Qobuz app was installed on it and I passed the music signal from the laptop via USB cable to the DAC (digital-to-analog converter) of my DAC headphone amplifier.
That was my original chain and I was quite happy about being able to enjoy the large music collection of Qobuz with good quality.
Scheme: streaming chain mobile phone-PC-DAC
Caption: Sending the Qobuz signal via 5G from the mobile phone to the laptop via a WLAN hotspot has not yet been able to elicit the full potential of the system.
But there was something that just didn't quite fit. When my friend brought his mobile music player with data ripped from CD (16bit/44.1kHz) and connected it to my DAC, the streaming via Qobuz always sounded a little worse in comparison. Even when I was streaming a 24-bit/96kHz recording, which is supposed to be superior to CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz.
There wasn't much HighRes music to be heard and my friend kept bugging me that wired signal transmission was always the better choice. I always smiled and said that in the digital world it's just zeros and ones, so the type of signal transmission is error-free and can't have any impact on the music quality. Not even close!
But I had to experience that myself and that's what this summary of my journey, optimizing the audio quality in music streaming - from the wall box to the DAC is about.
But I would like to emphasize that not everything that I describe here as optimization is based on my own discoveries. I have tried many things myself, but I have also researched a lot of knowledge and experience on the Internet, in specialist articles or in reports from audiophiles in Online forums.
Some of the optimizations were subtle to imperceptible or barely noticeable, some were so clear that you were amazed after the first bars. That's why I don't want to describe every change in its sound effects in detail and in flowery words like "holographic spatial imaging" etc.
These changes can also have different effects depending on the chain and the quality of the components. I would like to encourage more people to implement some of the measures themselves, to experiment and to trust their own ears. But I can guarantee you one thing: you will make worthwhile progress and you will get more out of your streaming playchain than you can imagine.
WLAN versus Ethernet connection
With my friend's admonitions ringing in my ears, I moved my headphone chain down into the living room and instead of using WiFi via my cell phone, picked up the signal from the router and fed it to the laptop via an RJ45 Ethernet network cable. Lo and behold, an immediately audible improvement in sound quality. That was the beginning of the end, using my smartphone as a modem.
Scheme 2: Streaming chain router-PC-DAC
Caption: The use of a router with a network cable to the PC brought audibly better results.
The internet router
The internet router is the first component in the chain to the DAC and also one of the most important, this is often overlooked. This small mini-computer converts the DSL/ADSL signal from your telecom provider into a network signal (Ethernet). However, all digital signal processing generates “noise” that is imperceptible to the ear, including high-frequency interference that is distributed in the network, disrupting other devices and, in the worst case, being passed on to the DAC. It is important to minimize this "noise", which is why the optimization starts with the router.
I read in a technical article that the Fritzbox router is particularly well suited for hi-fi applications, also because it has a wide range of software setting options. These slightly more than 230 francs were worth it, the Fritzbox had the edge out of the box compared to the Sunrise router.
Picture: Fritzbox 7590 router
We then proceeded with the Fritzbox settings. It is best to use the Fritzbox router as a dedicated router, which means that it has no other task than providing you with the best possible audio signal. The motto is: slow down, remove or switch off tasks such as WLAN, reduce the data transfer rate from Gbit to Mbit (streaming music only needs little bandwidth), maximum stability at the expense of transfer speed and deactivating packet acceleration (most important setting).
Please note that every time you restart the router, packet acceleration is reactivated, but the rest of the settings are retained. Remember that the Fritzbox can also be restarted externally by the operator, for example after a software update. So it's worth reading the mail from Fritzbox and checking this setting from time to time.
Connection to the wall socket: The Fritzbox does not have an RJ11 input but, like the network outputs, an RJ45 socket.That means: Order the electrician, install a proper RJ45 wall socket and connect the wall socket to the Fritzbox with a high-quality Ethernet cable (do not use the enclosed cable) Here are a few screenshots so that you can find the settings more quickly:
Legend: When streaming music, 100 Mbit is even more enough.
Legend of interference immunity: Here, too, the Fritzbox offers the option of decelerating the router
Legend path to package acceleration: You will find package acceleration under "Content", then at the bottom of the "FRITZ!Box Support" page.
Packet acceleration legend.: Disabling packet acceleration is the only setting that will be reset after restarting the router.
Linear power supplies vs. switching power supplies
When optimizing my streaming chain, there were a total of three really big leaps forward (the other two later).
The first was not to power the Fritzbox with the cheap 12 volt switching power supply that came with it, but with a "quiet" and stable linear power supply made for hi-fi applications. So I took the 12 volt linear power supply of my Belcanto preamp from my stereo system and connected it to the router. The difference was so noticeable that after a few seconds my friend took off the headphones and said "I'm speechless".
I was also amazed and after this impressive experience I suddenly realized why cheap switching power supplies do their job but are simply unsuitable for audio. Manufacturers of high-quality audio components sometimes invest a great deal of effort in powering their devices, and with good reason. The topic of linear power supplies will therefore also follow us in the further steps.
The network switch
Right from the start, the use of a switch made or optimized for audio was the second big aha experience when optimizing the streaming chain. The difference is tremendous, and if the rest of your playback chain is good or sensitive enough, you'll immediately notice the gain in sound quality and musicality.
Image: SOtM sNH 10G Switch
Even if you don't need this switch to create a network with several devices, but only as a filter in Connected in series - i.e. Ethernet cable from the router in, a second cable out again to the output device (e.g. Mac/PC or streamer).
Using a good linear power supply for the switch increases this effect again, albeit not quite as significantly. But the principle also applies here: avoid switching power supplies as far as possible, these not only pass the noise on to the connected device, but also have an effect back on the plug strip and thus affect all other connected devices.
So never use the different outputs of the router, even if it can take on the function of a switch with its mostly four outputs to form a network.
This switch is of low quality and as we learned above, we should also free the router from all unnecessary tasks if possible. I got the idea of using an "audiophile" switch from a video of cool Dutchmen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fok1d_VkfCk) doing a livestream listening session hosted by various switches. A core statement that made me sit up and take notice: "Any switch is better than no switch.".Various specialist articles and listening experiences from audiophiles have clearly confirmed this
The reason: Switches made for audio have more precise clocks. It's getting complicated now, we have to talk about "jitter" (clock fluctuations/jitter in digital signals), but because I only have modest electrical engineering knowledge, I would like to tell the experts
You will find many explanations on the web explaining why jitter has a negative impact on audio quality. In addition to precise clocks, good switches also have components that enable galvanic isolation (http://www.hifi-forum.de/viewthread-42-62.html), so that's the only thing that helps to transmit the signal and to filter out background noise (noise).
One device in the streaming chain therefore has fewer opportunities to negatively influence others with its noise, so the switch acts as a kind of filter here. The Internet also offers a variety of explanations on this elementary topic for audio.
By the way, the worst and loudest "colleague" in your combo is the Mac/PC, because it is not made for audio at all and with its components (processor, voltage regulator, etc.) and the potent, internal switched-mode power supply for noise provides, in the network, but above all via its USB output, which forwards the audio signal directly to the sensitive DAC.
Scheme 3: streaming chain with router-switch-PC-DAC
Caption: The audiophile switch is one of the most important components in the streaming chain.
The music server / streaming PC
My laptop has since been replaced by a more powerful Mac mini, which now runs the Qobuz app. The Mac mini doesn't do anything apart from music, i.e. a dedicated streaming PC that should be relieved of as many tasks as possible (no WLAN, no Bluetooth, spotlight deactivated). The Mac mini sounded a little different than the laptop, but not better, just a little bit different.
On a rainy winter day, out of curiosity, I downloaded the audio all-round software "Roon" (https://roonlabs.com ) after I read that my streaming service Qobuz is also available from Roon can be used out.
After the first few bars of music, I was so amazed by the better audio quality via Roon that I started thinking, apparently Roon has "BitPerfect" better under control than the Qobuz app. My friend also used Qobuz and when I gave him the tip, he said the next day: "Your tip saved me thousands of francs on hi-fi equipment."
Roon isn't free, but it's addictive and so are you will convert the free test phase into a subscription, Indian word of honor ;-) With its many options, also in terms of audio settings (DSP), it's a new rabbit hole where the learning curve isn't quite as steep.
HQPlayer is paid software that is installed on the Mac/PC and offers various upsampling and downsampling algorithms and suitable filters. Roon is prepared for HQPlayer, which means you choose the HQPlayer for the output (Roon Endpoint) instead of the DAC.
If the NAA (more on Network Audio Adapter NAA in the next section) also supports or can receive HQPlayer, the HQPlayer simply runs in the background and you can continue to use the full functionality of Roon as usual.
Upsampling with HQPlayer transformed my DAC in terms of speed, precision and stage size, but a tiny bit of musicality fell by the wayside. But not all DACs react the same way to upsampling, so it makes sense to try and you have it a 30-day free demo to explore and experience for yourself.
But: Your Mac/PC also needs a lot of horsepower under the hood, the computing load is enormous, with computationally intensive filters the fan comes on before you can count to three.
Image: HQ Player
Network Audio Adapter (NAA) / Network Media Transport
The third and last big aha experience in terms of sound quality: using a Network Audio Adapter NAA. When reading Roon's instructions, I noticed that they explicitly recommend not using the Mac/PC's USB output to the DAC, but using a Network Audio Adapter NAA.
So that means not using the noisy, badly clocked and badly powered USB 3 output of the Mac/PC to the DAC, but passing the music signal back over the Ethernet network to a Network Audio Adapter NAA .
So the NAA is purely an interface between the network and your DAC. This mini-computer with its own operating system does nothing other than convert the music signal from Roon into the best possible USB signal via the Ethernet network, so that the DAC can do its job optimally.
The topic of power supply catches up with us here too: A good NAA, equipped with a linear power supply, gives the DAC not only the cleanly clocked and filtered music signal but also first-class 5 volt power via the USB cable in order to power the DAC to power the USB unit located there. Yes, as a rule, the USB unit in the DAC is not supplied with power by the DAC itself but by the player, so care must be taken with the power supply here too.
As an NNA, I decided on a Sonore OpticalRendu because it is supplied with a music signal via an optical fiber instead of a copper cable. After the switch, the Ethernet network signal (copper cable) is first converted into an optical fiber signal (fiber optic cable) by a media converter and only then fed to the OpticalRendu.
Picture: Sonore OpticalRendu
This has the advantage that there is complete galvanic isolation, no electrical interference can be passed on, only the signal itself form of light pulses. Thus, the NAA is completely electrically isolated from all previous devices. Of course, the NNA as well as the media converter is supplied with power by a linear power pack with two outputs (7 and 9 volts) via good, shielded DC cables with barrel connectors.
Scheme 4: streaming chain with switch and NAA
Caption: These components form the provisional end of my optimized streaming chain. Every device, except the Mac/PC and its display, is powered by linear power supplies and shielded DC cables.
Admittedly, there are quite a few devices, and this whole installation is not quite suitable for marriage or families either. But if you're nerd enough and ideally have a Man's Cave, that's not so bad. It is always possible to hide something in the technology and various components have the clear advantage that individual devices can later be replaced with a higher-quality one, so there is still room for subsequent optimization or expansion.
You can also use a high-quality streamer as the source for the DAC, then you don't need a Mac/PC or an audio network adapter. The streamer is connected directly to the DAC or it even has its own DAC. In this case it goes directly from the streamer to the amplifier and on to the headphones/speakers.
This "All In One Box" combines various tasks at the same time and is connected directly to the switch, which then acts as a kind of filter upstream. The streamer can stream music (Tidal, Qobuz) and also play your own music files from ripped CDs. A good music streamer is also optimized for audio and will also give the DAC a better USB signal than a Mac/PC.
The topic of cables is highly controversial in the hi-fi community and you should never think that you can take an audio chain to a whole new level - not even with outrageously expensive exclusive products rubbed with snake oil. And yet, in my experience, cables offer room to shift the sound in a desired direction, a little bit, but noticeably, fine-tuning, so to speak.
With USB cables anyway: "Passion for Sound" was even able to prove these audible differences between USB cables by measurement (
I'm reluctant to give product recommendations, I wouldn't want to leave the inexpensive Oyaide NEO d+ USB Class S unmentioned at this point, I was very impressed by it and made more expensive cables in my chain look old.
Image: Oyaide NEO d+ USB Class S
But aEthernet network cable also made for audio applications brings a little more life into the booth. I didn't want to believe it and was taught better with a self-experiment (Audioquest Cinnamon). I don't know whether even more expensive Ethernet cables are worth it, I have no experience with that, but I'm rather skeptical.
Picture: Supra CAT Ethernet cable
Power cable: There is also room for improvement in the power cabling of audio components. Trust your own ears and try out inexpensive but shielded cables for audio applications. Reputable dealers are also willing to lend you a cable for a weekend.
Start with one device, such as the DAC, and if you hear improvements, move on. In my case, a Supra has proven itself (especially on the DAC), 20 EUR per meter, solder the plug yourself and you don't have to sell your belongings to be properly equipped.
Image: Supra LoRAd 2.5
The following principle applies to cables in general: There is no such thing as the "best" (or most expensive) cable, only the right one to achieve the desired fine-tuning effect in the chain.
A cheaper cable can definitely achieve a better effect than an expensive one, depending on the properties of the chain in combination with the cable. So don't go too far down that rabbit hole, other measures in your playback chain offer more bang for the buck.
And yet: even the smallest measure counts, even if it is hardly audible. The sum of all these small improvements will bring you a good step forward in the end.
When optimizing my streaming chain, I noticed three factors that came up again and again:
- Avoiding interference or noise by means of galvanic isolation of the individual components of the chain
- Good clocks to avoid jitter
- The highest possible power supply for the components to ensure quietness and stability
And exactly the last two attributes will characterize your progress in sound quality well. However, these signal hygiene measures do not affect all DACs equally.
More expensive and high-quality DACs already have filters and good clocks built in and are therefore more resistant to noisy or poorly clocked signals. And yet various owners of expensive DACs report in online forums about sound improvements after implementing individual measures mentioned here.
Directly from a Mac/PC via USB cable to a DAC is obviously not the last word. In order to do its job optimally, it needs clean and stable electricity, silence from interference and as little jitter as possible, hence all the effort described here.
I am aware that not all of you can implement every single measure, often a whole family shares a router, nothing with Mbit instead of GBit, then the kids only stream TikTok pixelated and the dwarven uprising is inevitable.
But just some of these measures will mean that you can enjoy your music a little more intensively. Your own ears are the most reliable advisors and will not let you down. Here again all measures as a checklist:
Checklist of measures
- RJ45 Ethernet wall socket instead of the RJ11 connector
- Good, shielded network/Ethernet cable from the wall socket to the router (do not use the supplied cables with the router)
- Network switch made for audio
- Powerful Mac/PC as player/music server or Roon Core (server, central node). Without upsampling via Roon or HQPlayer, a less powerful Mac/PC or laptop is sufficient.
- Streaming (Qobuz or Tidal) not via their apps but via Roon
- Check out HQPlayer for upsampling, the software runs with Roon on the same Mac/PC or on a second Mac/PC on the network.
- Network Audio Adapter (NAA) as Roon Endpoint for USB output to DAC
- Network/Ethernet cables made for audio from router to switch, from there to Mac/PC and to NAA or streamer
- Good USB cable made for audio
- Shielded DC cables for the low-voltage supply of routers, switches and NAA. A good selection for retrofitting is available at www.ghenaudio.com
- Shielded 230V power cables for all components
- Good linear power supplies made for audio for all components
This list does not claim to be complete. If you have also had experience with optimizing your streaming chain, then we would be very happy to hear your comments in the comments.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Thomas Paszti for the time and effort that he put into this blog and I hope that many of our customers and readers can benefit from it.Thank you very much, Thomas! 🙌👍😊
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