Like many of you, I woke up thinking “You know what, I feel like listening to some audiophile Ethernet cables today!” So I brew up my morning coffee, line up the cables, and rub my hands vigorously.
Many audiophiles who stream their music via Spotify, Qobuz, or Tidal don’t realize the sonic impact of Ethernet cables. And that’s understandable. I mean, “it’s just digital” – right?
Unfortunately, in the land of HiFi and digital streaming – the rules are a bit different. Today, I’ll be reviewing the JCAT Signature LAN cable ($1,000 USD). Let’s get to it.
Why do Ethernet cables sound different?
I’ve spent a decent chunk of my professional career setting up networks in data centers. From setting up VPNs, network segregations, Cisco firewalls, and even crimping the cables myself. You name it, I’ve probably done it.
Unless the cable was wired incorrectly, there were very few instances where an Ethernet cable caused a problem. But for the most part, they were reliable and had predictable performance. This was especially the case in a local network – where I rarely encountered lost packets or physical frame corruption.
So when I heard about “audiophile” Ethernet cables (and switches), I couldn’t help but vomit a little in my mouth. As an electrical/computer engineer, it didn’t make one “bit” of sense to me. In fact, it was ludicrous and admittedly – a bit irritating.
However, as I’ve realized through the years of being an audiophile: When it comes to sound… “everything matters.” And those things can’t always be explained succinctly through science – if at all. Thanks to our brain, our sensibilities as human beings are very complex. Consequently, this makes it difficult for one to measure how one sees, tastes, feels, smells, and hears. We could use technology to guide us, but it isn’t capable of defining us.
The goal of an audiophile is to maximize their enjoyment of music through better playback components. This mandates an open mind and the will to try things out. An audiophile is open to listening to equipment that gets them closer to what they’re looking for. And doesn’t discriminate or dismiss a product until they’ve listened for themselves.
Anyway, in this case, it was easy to debunk my strongly held convictions. Years ago, I grabbed two different generic brands of Ethernet cables and stream some familiar songs off my NAS. I also tried a few more from different price points – and sure enough, there were differences in tone and clarity. It wasn’t better or worse – just different. And this was with an untrained ear.
However, as an Ethernet cable transferring files back and forth – they all worked perfectly. But when it came to streaming music – there is undoubtedly more to the story.
Want to prove it to yourself?
The inexpensive Supra CAT8 Ethernet cable (~$50) is a great place to start. If you can’t hear the difference there – consider yourself lucky 😉
I would perform measurements, but it’s more efficient for me to listen, describe what I hear, and decide what I prefer. And continue on with my journey. That is the way of the Audio Bacon.
It’s the noise silly…
That leads to the “why does it sound different?”
The main culprit, as with all of HiFi, seems to be of RFI/EMI noise. Some Ethernet cables have filter blocks, proprietary shielding designs, higher quality conductors, and connectors. All of these design decisions seem to shape the RFI noise that ends up in the analog section of your components. There’s no way to completely eliminate noise – but manufacturers are finding ways to mitigate it.
This is presumably the reason why an Ethernet cable will change the sound of your system. In fact, even if you’re not streaming music through an Ethernet cable – as long as it’s connected to your music server – it’ll change the sound of your music files stored on disk.
Now I’m going to go against the grain a little bit. I think the further we stray away from the “norm” – the further we get from artistic intent. Given that most of these recording studios aren’t using faraday cages, high-end cables, clock generators, and power conditioners – I find many of these “exotic” options to be more fantasy and palate-based. Personally, I don’t think it would be beneficial to get rid of all noise, just enough of it.
But I stream music through Wi-Fi! The Ethernet cable shouldn’t matter.
Let’s agree, for the most part, the zeros and ones are coming in fine, and there aren’t any hiccups in the playback of music. But the way a cable interacts with your equipment, notwithstanding being a digital cable, changes how sound is reproduced.
Surprisingly, this is the case even when the Ethernet cable is hardwired to your modem and router – but is streaming music wirelessly to your devices. You’ll still hear characteristics of that Ethernet cable. It’s weird – and I suspect the power supply, circuit design, and the cable’s LCR values play a part in how the antennas interact with each other. Anyway, this is a job for the more objective-minded.
At this point, I’ve probably heard over a hundred Ethernet cables. Some of which I’ve built myself. It turns out – it’s difficult to actually find Ethernet cables that sounded exactly the same. Even among generics.
Consequently, even an Ethernet cable is a crucial part of an audiophile’s digital playback system. And is the reason why I review them.
Where does the Ethernet cable matter most?
A little obvious, but the cable closest to the DAC will have the most impact. This is usually the cable connected to your music server. This is the cable that will “alter” the sound of your local media files as well.
Interestingly, with the SOtM sNH-10G switch, the inbound Ethernet cable (from the router or wireless bridge) didn’t affect the sound of local files much – only the streamed music. This was not the case with other off-the-shelf switches.