I've never really heard a sonic difference in Ethernet cable. That being said, my experiments with ethernet cables has been using only what came packaged with products, having some made up off of a spool of Cat5 or 6, and buying some inexpensive ethernet cables from the local megamart. I've wrapped them in Stillpoints ERS, used Shakti On-Lines, still no audible differences.
I recently received a shipment of Wireworld's new Starlight Cat 8 ethernet cable and decided to give it a try in a few key places within my network.
CAT7 vs. CAT 8Starlight Ethernet is the first production cable that meets the proposed requirements for Category 8 networks. The proposed standard for Category 8 networks will extend speeds to the staggering rate of 40 Gigabits per second.
The current standard is CAT7. Category 7 cabling was created to satisfy the demands of 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Even though most media networks now run below that speed, cables that support higher speeds have been found to improve the quality of audio and video streaming.
One of the reasons why CAT7 cables do not meet the proposed CAT8 specifications is that they allow too much crosstalk (mixing) between the four signal channels. To control crosstalk, conventional CAT7 cables use four twisted pairs of conductors with one foil shield on each pair. An overall two-layer shield reduces outside interference. The problem with twisting is that it makes lengths of the conductors uneven, which causes timing errors called skew.
To support the higher data rate transfer speeds of CAT8 the Starlight 8 ethernet cable incorporates Wireworld’s patent-pending Tite-Shield™ Technology. Wireworld's Tite-Shield technology isolates the four channels with a three-layer shield on each conductor pair. Those shields are so effective that twisting is no longer needed and conductor length differences are eliminated.
Starlight’s unique flat design provides greater physical separation between the four conductor pairs to provide lower crosstalk, supporting higher transmission speeds than conventional designs. The cable also utilizes Wireworld’s proprietary Composilex® 2 insulation to minimize triboelectric noise. The refined transmission properties afforded by these technologies ensure uncompromised performance in the next generation of streaming applications.
Why Do Ethernet Cables Matter In Streaming Audio?
A fantastic question, and one that I have been asking for awhile. Many argue that ethernet cables cannot possibly make a difference, and they are half correct. If using what is called TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) for sending data over a network, then it is very difficult for an ethernet cable to make a difference because the packets of information sent via TCP are guaranteed to be received in order. TCP is all about this reliability — packets sent with TCP are tracked so no data is lost or corrupted in transit. Unfortunately, audio streaming to your DAC or streamer is not sent this way. It is sent via UDP.
UDP stands for User Datagram Protocol. This is how streaming audio and video are sent. — a datagram is the same thing as a packet of information. The UDP protocol works similarly to TCP, but it throws all of the error-checking out in favor of speed. All the back-and-forth communication and deliverability guarantees of TCP slow things down.
When using UDP, packets are just sent to the recipient. The sender won’t wait to make sure the recipient received the packet — it will just continue sending the next series of packets. If you’re the recipient (streamer) and you miss some UDP packets, too bad — you can’t ask for those packets again.
If you experience just a minor packet-loss, the video or audio may be distorted for a moment as the video continues to play without the missing data. We've all seen what poor UDP does to a video signal. That's what it can do to your audio signal as well.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, let's get to the review.
My NetworkCurrently, the modem that connects to the internet resides upstairs in the opposite corner of the house from my listening room. There is a long run of Cat 7 ethernet connecting the modem directly to a switch in my basement workshop. From that switch, I run an ethernet cable to a wall jack which is then connected to another wall jack in my listening room. It's a 15-20 foot run. From the wall jack in my listening room another ethernet cable connects directly to my AURALiC Aries streamer. A more visual representation looks like this:
Cable modem ----> Switch in the basement ----> Wall jack in shop ---> Wall plate in listening room ----> Streamer
I was able to put the Wireworld cable in two locations, so it looked like this:
Cable modem ----> Switch in the basement >>CAT 8>> Wall jack in shop ---> Wall plate in listening room >>CAT 8>> Streamer
Before we get to the listening and results, let's take a look at why ethernet cables matter when streaming audio.
ListeningWith the Wireworld Cat 8 cables in place, I began to listen to some familiar tracks.
Track 1 - Ballad of the Runaway Horse, Jennifer Warnes
The vocal textures were more lifelike, and the plucking of the string bass had more....Pluck. I would call it microdynamics.
Track 2 - Roadhouses & Automobiles, Chris Jones
Chris has a big voice, and the vocal textures with the Wireworld in place were deeper, which lent itself to a better sense of realism. The subtle sounds of crickets in the background were a little more noticeable, and the decay/reverb on the background singers seemed to hang in the air a little longer.
Track 3 - Trentmoller - Evil Dub
I use this track to listen for low bass reach, as well as the 3 dimensionality and high frequency smoothness/deliniation. The album is actually recorded in Q-Sound, and has some very interesting 3D effects if your speakers are set up properly. The sounds can quite literally be projected from behind you. The bass was strong and the tings, pops and other effects were very 3d with good attack. About 1:15 into the song the symbols come in quickly. I listen for speed, emphasis, and attack. Most of the time the attack can sound spitty when done wrong. The highs here remained smooth, fast and with good microdynamics.
Track 4 - Muddy Waters - My Home Is In The Delta
A great demo track. Despite the simplicity of the recording, there is a lot going on here, and a lot to listen for. The Subtle movements on the guitar for one, the incredible dynamics of Muddy's voice captured on the recording, and the ambience/reverb. Listening at moderate levels can be immersive, and it was with the Wireworld Cat8 in place. Again reverb and decay seemed to hang in the air longer and ambient cues were abundant.
Overall, two things were immediately apparent. The possible lowering of the noise floor and lower distortion in the high frequencies. What I mean by that is that I heard more low level information. Air, space and texture seemed to improve and be more realistic. The highs were more defined, delineated but withought being exaggerated or brought to the forefront of the musical presentation. It sounded cleaner, and clearer.
Upon further listening, my previous impressions were confirmed. Regarding texture for instance, an acoustic guitar had a more wooden tone to it. When fingers strummed strings, and glided acrossed frets is was more like the live sound of hearing fingers strumming strings and moving up and down the neck of the guitar. The same went for double bass. Vocals also had more emotion due to hearing more of the microinflection. The enunciation of lyrics was clearer as well.
The Wireworld Starlight Cat 8 ethernet cable is a relatively inexpensive and effective way to help lower noise and distortion your streaming audio. Whether it be from your own music library or from the internet, you simply get more information with the Starlight ethernet cable in place. Even if you cannot do an end to end run of Starlight ethernet, every little bit seemed to help. In my system I was able to replace 2 runs of standard issue Cat5 and it made a significant difference.
I give it 3.5 tinfoil hats!