The sound quality of your Spotify streams and digital music depends on more than just your headphones or speakers. Your digital cables (USB, Ethernet, coaxial, optical), modem and router, the hard drive on your computer, and even the type of Internet Service Provider (ISP) you have (coax vs fiber) – all contribute heavily to what you hear.

Anyone who tells you digital devices and cables can’t make a difference – is bullshitting you. They either haven’t heard it for themselves or choose to be ignorant. Assuming healthy ears, those are the only two possibilities.

Aren’t they just zeros and ones?

I’m probably one of the very few audiophile reviewers who have a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Computer Science. As far as tech is concerned – you name it, and I’ve probably done it. From writing audio/video codecs and programming microcontrollers – to setting up highly secure HIPAA compliant networks.

This domain requires many configurations to be absolute – and measurable. I prefer numbers and I’ve cultivated quite a binary mindset. I’m all about log files, charts, and graphs.

In such a technical environment, the only thing that kept me sane – was listening to music. When I started my audiophile journey, it was easy to accept the possibility that headphones and analog cables could sound different. But when I first heard about “audiophile” USB cables and routers – my “snake oil” senses went off. My engineering mind shouted, “It’s just 0’s and 1’s fools!”

Regardless, an astute engineer (and human being) always uses the right tools, for the right job. They should know when the scientific method applies – and when it doesn’t.

At this point, I could do one of two things: Be egotistic and demand proof – or just hear it for myself. Which path one takes largely depends on personality. Although it was easier to dismiss these notions, I decided to just hear it for myself. I’ve now been listening to audio gear full-time for about 5 years now.

The Audiophile Mindset

I’ll be reviewing SOtM’s new “audiophile-grade” Ethernet switch. The “job” here is to figure out whether this audiophile product makes an audible difference. And more importantly, whether this difference enhances one’s personal enjoyment of music. This means that the problem is inherently subjective – objectivity has very little relevance.

We could all agree, if a product sounds good to us, it doesn’t matter how a piece of equipment measures. In fact, some of my favorite headphones measure very poorly. I’m good with that. And that’s enough reason for me to ignore measurements completely.

Aside from finding problem areas and repeatability purposes, there’s little gain from looking at measurements. Especially for making purchasing decisions. Besides, it’s a fact that even if a cable were to measure the same, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will sound the same.

The right tools for the right job…

Consequently, the best tools are your own ears and an open mind – not an oscilloscope or LCR meter. My suggestion would be to listen to as many designs as possible and figure out what you gravitate towards. Also, realize that your tastes may change over time.

Once you’ve done that, you could figure out if there are any correlations between what you like – and what is measurable. However, I’m not sure how fruitful that would be.

Your listening experiences and preferences are the only things that matter in this hobby.

Measurement Morons

I believe our preconceptions can be (and should be) challenged. It’s what breeds progression and makes us human. We’re not omniscient and there’s still a lot to learn. Digital audio has gone a long, long way just in the past decade.

There’s a difference between someone who says “I don’t hear a difference. Thus it makes no difference.” and “There can’t be a difference (gives a scientific reason). Either your mind is playing tricks on you or there’s something wrong with your system.” Be wary about those who say the latter. They’re usually #measurement_morons.

It’s interesting how some of these other engineers (and their minions) denounce what audiophiles are hearing as placebo and hallucinations. They also demand double-blind and null tests for everything. Do they really think intelligent people who are able to afford this gear – would drop lots of cash for something they don’t really hear? Time to get off that high horse, homie.

100% of these Measurement Morons aren’t even real audiophiles. Yeah, I said it. If you were an experienced audiophile, you would already know that higher quality digital cables could help improve the sound of a system.

As discussed, they just have a different personality. They’re usually (not always) the close-minded, introverted, dismissive, cynical types, who treat their textbooks as gospel. Ironically, they want to spread “the truth” but are actually misleading the masses. I have no clue what their purpose is in this space – but I’m positive they have too much time on their hands.

The Sound of Networking Gear

Take two different Ethernet switches you have at home and try to stream Tidal, Qobuz, or Spotify through it. They’ll sound different. I guarantee it.

In fact, I recently switched from cable (coax) to fiber for my Internet Service Provider (ISP) – and immediately noticed the differences in how my music streams sounded – even on a Google Home. I had both connected so I was able to A/B very easily. For what it’s worth, the fiber sounded quieter, quicker, and more transparent at the expense of warmth and body.

I’ve written quite a bit about why it isn’t just 0’s and 1’s here, here, and here. It boils down to noise (RFI/EMI) modulating how the DAC interpolates the bits – and how it affects the analog output section.

Many don’t realize that a digital signal is still an analog signal – and it’s not perfect. Better clocks and isolation equates to lower phase noise and jitter. The human ear is discerning enough to hear these minute mistimings in music – especially in the form of transients. If you want to nerd out on the technicals, feel free to read this white paper.