Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Streaming Audio from my OPPO

While many of my components offer wireless connections, I prefer to hardwire them and only use wireless connections for our cell-phone data. So in 2010, I plumbed my home with Cat-5e Ethernet cable running dedicated lines in my (tiny) crawl space to my home stereo/theater, NAS, printer, a micro-cell tower, and three dedicated outlets for PC use. While the streaming music through my OPPO from the remotely-located NAS sounded good, I had a burning gut feeling that I needed to shield the Ethernet cable. But for the time, this was state-of-the-art and it worked.

As standards evolve and time goes on, Ethernet cables got faster and faster, and presently some even offer exotic shielding. Below is a table comparing past, current, and future technologies and associated bandwidths.

Today, shielded Cat-7 Ethernet cable is readily available touting individually-shielded pairs, overall shielding, and speeds a mere 6x faster than my old unshielded CAT-5e cables. This rekindled my gut feeling; it kept gnawing on me to stop procrastinating and upgrade the wiring. So being the one to easily hear differences in interconnect cables and proving that there are differences in HDMI cables, my logical mind suspected that there may be losses in my LAN that upgrading the cables may help eliminate. It now became a dual-motive for this rewire and I no longer had any justification to procrastinate further.

But first, a bit of history about the evolution of my home LAN since it has grown leaps and bounds in complexity since 2010.

In the beginning...

I started out with a 1Gb cable modem and one hard-wired run to my FAX/printer; my single-band 10/100 wireless router made connections to everything else. 
My First Home Network

But as my home-network components changed and cell-phone data rates improved, I moved to a dual-band wireless router still with no dedicated lines. I admit that I was lazy and didn't want to take the time to crawl under the house and run wiring to it all. After all, that's why wireless was invented, right?

Adding more wireless devices at various distances from the router soon began to show that the signal became unreliable the further from the router they were. So a Linksys EA4500 wireless router with dual bands, higher power, and four gigabit ports replaced it and I moved to another location under a cabinet in the kitchen (a non-lazy solution, BTW). This relocation got the wireless router as close (and centrally-located) as possible.

Second Home Network
But then I bought an OPPO BDP-105 and a 2Tb NAS (1Tb in RAID-2) and started streaming digital music into my system. I ran dedicated Cat-5e connections to both of these devices and that "worked" well but I noticed that there was only one free port left on the router.
Third Home Network
And so it grows...

The wireless connection to the Smart TV was only used for firmware updates and built-in TV apps; I streamed Netflix video from the OPPO and routed the video to the TV via an HDMI cable. It all "worked" but then came the addition of a DirecTV set-top box and I ran out of hard-wired ports. So taking the lazy approach, I opted for a 10/100 hub at the home theater location. Since I had a hard-wired hub port available, I also chose to connect it to the hub.
Fourth Home Network
Data reception in the house was good for the smart phones but calls were next to impossible. So I added a wireless access point (AT&T calls this their mini-cell tower). I also bumped my internet bandwidth subscription from 1Mb to 10Mb and all was well for the connected equipment (both wired and wireless).

With this growing complexity, I decided it was time to start looking at its overall configuration. Besides, with all of these new devices, I ran out of ports. It was time to make some hard choices: I opted to go with the lazy approach again and just add a Linksys SE2800 8-port gigabit switch at the modem. The logic was to keep local network traffic isolated from the wireless traffic thereby sharing the load. This would also grow my available hard-wired ports from 4 to 7 and that is all I needed at the time.

To also remove what I suspected to be a potential bottleneck, I upgraded to a D-Link 4-port gigabit hub at the home theater "just in case." While it did reduce dropouts with streaming video, it did nothing to improve the sound of my streaming audio (still with the Cat-5e cables remember).

Fifth Home Network
But NOW...

I changed network access for our PCs from wireless to hard-wired connections thereby off-loading some of the router's work. Hard-wired connections to the PCs greatly improved internet speeds and relocating the cable modem, router, and NAS to the Lanai made maintenance much easier (it was always a pain to crawl into the kitchen cabinet to reboot the cable modem or the old NAS).

The last growth spurt added solar panels and a new 4Tb NAS (3Tb in RAID-5). A gift of 0.5Tb of high-resolution files from a good friend entered the picture last month and I now stream a lot of DSD/DSF/DFF files through my stereo.

Sixth Home Network
While I am still subscribed to 10Mb bandwidth, traffic on my LAN is considerably heavier (I am not a video gamer). This again got me thinking about the old Cat-5e wiring. So this week, I started upgrading the LAN cables to Cat-7 shielded starting with the connections between the NAS and the home theater. A modest investment of less than $200 did everything.

Rewiring took about three hours with the usual "I forgot the drill" and "where did I leave the screwdriver" delays but I wrapped it up about 5:45PM yesterday evening. I only have the three PC runs left to accomplish and I will do that sometime next week.

Lanai Equipment Concealed Behind a Loveseat
What did we hear?

This was one of those changes that hits you over the head; it was that obvious. While the musicality and tonal balance remained relatively unchanged, two things immediately surfaced: 1) the noise floor is much better, and 2) the ambience is superb. It sort of goes without saying that these two are directly related and if you get one you can assume you will also get the other, but again you know what people say about assumptions. For example, in Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold" on the Live at Blues Alley you can more easily hear the technique used by the guitarist as he plucks the strings. The resonances in the guitar body and strings take on more realism and echoes trail off into the far corners of the room. Not bad for a Red Book recording.

Switching to high-res, the inner detailing of the cymbal work in the 24-192 recording of "Alright, OK, You Win" by Louise Rogers on Audiogon's 24/192 "Wake Up Your Ears Sampler" is just amazing. What was once nicely articulated is now even better (this is the main reason I love this hobby). Plus, the depth of the soundstage increased! It's nice to hear echoes in the back corners of the studio on a digital recording that once you could only hear on vinyl.

And with a good DSD recording, things get even better. You begin to appreciate why these recordings cost so much ($30 for an album appears a little steep) but comparing it to the cost of a car, music is still a bargain. REALITY CHECK: When I bought my first new car (a 1970 Duster 340) I paid about $1,800 for it and later that week I bought a record album for about $3. The ratio (10x for an equivalent car today) is about the same and it is our perception of the price that has changed.

Ambience and reverberation times on DSD recordings are what I noticed the most where sounds that once "died" could be heard lingering longer in the approaching noise floor. The dynamic range and corresponding low-level noise just got better.

The gap between high-res digital and analog is getting smaller folks!

The Bottom Line...

It's easy to get complacent when things are going well; it's harder to admit that there may still be room for improvement. Laziness and procrastination may have its place, e.g. to try a new idea out so as to keep an investment low (a test). A lazy approach to an upgrade may even get you say 80% of the way to its full potential. But to squeeze that last 20% out of an upgrade, you must admit to yourself that you are being lazy and get over your possession with (addiction to?)  procrastination.

BTW, if you are using a USB-connected server to your DAC, the only improvement you will notice is in transfer speeds. That is, when adding downloaded software purchases from your PC to your server, it will take less time to do so. Otherwise, the sound for such systems remains unchanged.

Should I Rewire?

My advice if you stream music as I do from an Ethernet-connected server: abandon wireless, toss the old cables, and rewire with Cat-7. The changes are obvious and economical plus your internet speeds improve: two birds with one stone. Anything this simple and economical to do should be done. If you haven't gotten off of wireless, stop procrastinating and admit to yourself that you're just lazy. Get over it! As Nike says, "Just do it!"

Yours for higher fidelity,

Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate by purchasing one of my eBooks or through a PayPal donation, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style (like that of the Discovery Channel), it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.


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