Audio Streams #4

Everything these days has a computer inside it, but you wouldn't call a car a computer. Same goes for music streamers—what we at AudioStream.com also call network players. While a network player has a computer inside, I don't consider it a computer because it's designed to do just one thing: play music.

A network player connects to your home network via Ethernet or WiFi, searches for network-attached storage (NAS), looks for the Internet to connect to streaming services, and serves up all of this music through an app that typically resides on a smartphone or tablet. The theory goes that, being purpose built, a dedicated network player should sound better than a full-blown computer, the latter's multitasking abilities degrading its ability to get us to dance, literally or figuratively.

I know that Ethernet and hi-fi make an unlikely pairing in some people's audio ecosystems. I also know that the notion that what kind of Ethernet cable you use can affect your system's sound will rattle some folks' assumptions. However, my experience has shown that different Ethernet cables do sound different. I've found that AudioQuest's Ethernet cables—even their cheapest, the Pearl ($29/1.5m)—sound better than basic Belkin. I think it has something to do with system noise, but that's really just a guess.

I mention this because Ethernet is likely what you'll use to connect your storage device to your network player. Some souls on the cutting edge may choose to go wireless. That's right—WiFi, too, has entered the High End, and some products, such as the Devialet D-Premier D/A integrated amplifier, use WiFi with no apparent degradation of our beloved musical signals.

In this column I focus on two network players, each offering a different set of services but both designed to serve up music without the aid of a computer. But before we dive in, let's talk about network attached storage.

NAS
Storing a music library is step one of computer audio. While you can store your music on your computer, it's not recommended for many reasons, including sound quality. Basically, the more you ask your computer to do in addition to playing music, the worse your music will sound. So it's common practice to store your music on an external hard drive or network attached storage (NAS).

A NAS device connects directly to your router or network switch via Ethernet. As such, it's available to every computer or network player on that network—you can stream your music to multiple devices simultaneously from the same NAS. If you're interested in playing music in more than one room of your house, a NAS is the way to go.

NAS devices come in all shapes and sizes. I prefer Synology and QNAP NASes for their robust build quality and excellent apps, but there are many others on the market. You can buy a single- or a multi-bay NAS, depending on your storage needs. I prefer multi-bays because you can set them up in what's called a redundant array of independent disks (RAID)—a measure of protection in the event of a hard-drive failure. While a RAID is no substitute for a real backup to an external drive, the ever-falling price of data storage makes running a RAID a no-brainer.

As we'll soon see, if you want to get fancy and do something like stream DSD files from your NAS, your NAS must be able to do that. Thankfully, there are free apps, such as the DSD-capable MinimServer, that come preinstalled on Synology and QNAP NAS devices; all you have to do is activate them.

Of course, you can skip a NAS and set up your external hard drive as a network drive—but to play music, you'll have to have the computer it's attached to up and running, and the whole idea of getting a network player is to avoid that. I suggest that you consider a NAS device an essential part of your network-playing hi-fi system.

Simaudio MiND ($1300)
Simaudio's Moon intelligent Network Device (MiND) is UPnP/DLNA-compatible and offers Ethernet (100Base-TRJ45) and WiFi (IEEE802.11b/g/n) inputs. Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) are basically initiatives to get different networking hardwares to talk to one another. Through the use of UPnP, a device like the MiND can automatically discover NAS devices—and it did just that as soon as I connected it to my network.

Looking at the MiND's backside, you'll notice that there are only digital outputs: the MiND has no digital-to-analog converter (DAC). These outputs are: AES/EBU, coax S/PDIF, and TosLink. All outputs are capable of supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM data, as well as WAV, FLAC, AIFF, AAC, ALAC, MP3, WMA-9, and OGG Vorbis file formats. The MiND also supports gapless playback. In terms of streaming services, the MiND is currently capable of streaming from vTuner Radio. Additional streaming services may be added in the future.

The MiND also sports a SimLink In/Out, so that the MiND app can also control input selection, volume, and power on/off on a Simaudio preamplifier or integrated amplifier. There are also inlets for the WiFi antenna and DC (a wall-wart power supply is included).

The MiND's front panel is nearly empty except for the Simaudio logo, the model name, and a blue power LED. That's because all of the business of controlling the MiND is accomplished through the robust Simaudio app. I used my trusty iPad to run the app, but other iOS devices will work.

The Simaudio app is designed around the notion of playlists. Your music library can be browsed by Album, All Artists, All Tracks, Composer, Conductor, Orchestra, Untagged, and Folder View. These views vary depending on the NAS you connect to—or, more specifically, which NAS server software you use. For example, when I connected to my Western Digital NAS running Twonky, I was also presented with Genre and Playlists options.

To hear music, click on the album or track you'd like to play. If you click and hold your finger over your selection, you're presented with a number of options, including Top, Now, Next, and End. Top puts your selection at the top of the Playlist, Now plays it now, Next puts it after the current track, and End appends it to the end of the current Playlist. You can save Playlists by clicking on the Playlist icon and tapping Save, which brings up the keyboard so you can name and then save it. There's also an Edit option that lets you remove tracks from the current Playlist.

I prefer Album view and just clicking and playing, as opposed to making and saving Playlists, but that's just me. I also tend to listen to complete albums instead of individual tracks, another apparent generational quirk. Regardless, I found the Simaudio app a pleasure to use, and it handled my library of more than 1000 albums without a hitch.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
bernardperu's picture

Now...would you be so kind as not to ban my comments? I have never used hate language, I try to argue my points properly, and it is nice and healthy to disagree.

RaoulJ's picture

Well, wait a minute.
I'm an automation engineer, specialized in real time networking... and I also do live sound with Digital mixer, using Dante network protocol.
If you ethernet cable does have an impact on your sound, seriously, change your sound networking protocol!
If the protocol looks even remotely like a professional protocol, it will never allow any ethernet cable or device to have an impact on what you hear !
Just my 2€cents...
Raoul

bernardperu's picture

So there are "superior" ethernet cables? Maybe so, but...

1) Why are the opinions of highly regarded manufacturers who claim that expensive cables make no difference systematically ignored by the Hi-Fi press? I have personally received this feedback from Schiit, BAT, Sanders. I bet Paul Barton is on the same boat and so is Magnepan. Ask them on an interview; it is the least you can do.

2) Why don't you hire an assistant for minimum wage to switch the cables while you stay blind and comfortable? $40 buys 4 hours of assisted blind listening, so you can have a comfy test.

Highly expensive cables might make a difference (or not), but not addressing the above two points takes away a lot of credibility away from the Hi Fi media.

If you want to continue this conversation I can send you links to non-hate-filled opinions and studies that suggest that cables make no difference. I am talking about opinions of manufacturers and audiophiles who ought to be respected and accounted for.

michaelavorgna's picture

...between Ethernet cables so I do not need to explore this issue as you suggest. Further, I do not feel that blind testing provides relevant test results when related to listening to music on the hi-fi.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

spacehound's picture

It's an utter nonsense. Those that say it is possible don't have a clue how 'digital' actually works. And that is the MAJORITY of so called 'computer audio experts', including well known audio industry ones, though you have to bear in mind they are trying to sell us something so may be introducing deliberate falsities. "The leading edge of the pulse" is a good one, as is 'accurate reference voltage".

Noise? No. an Ethernet cable is isolated both ends. There is no path for noise. This MAY be why such streamers can sometimes sound better than USB. But varying 'noise' between different types of Ethernet cable is ridiculous.

Do they think computer designers know nothing? The effects of stuff as sloped leading edges, inaccurate reference voltages, noise on the signal, etc, were totally eliminated (and I mean 'totally eliminated', not merely reduced) right from the world's first digital computers in the 1940s. They would not have worked at all otherwise and nor would modern ones. If such things affect the 'audio industry' stuff it just proves their designers cluelessness.

Streamers? Don't buy a hundred dollar one and don't buy a five thousand dollar one. The cheap one will be rubbish in all sorts of ways and the 'digital' industry moves so fast that your expensive one won't be as good as one a fifth of the price in a years time.

Andrew's picture

So these things just handle the media? No storage, no DAC? I guess they have a slick app, but it seems to me for that kind of coin you would be better served buying a dedicated computer (eg Mac Mini) and run that via your iPad. Great looking things though.

bernardperu's picture

I am also a subjectivist who highly enjoys the subjectivist hi-fi media. I am not here to antagonize you.

I firmly believe that the Hi-Fi media would increase its credibility if they addressed the two points I expressed in my previous post (which you chose to ignore).

1) Comfortable and long blind tests can be done with the assistance of someone on minimum wage.

2) The opinions of highly regarded Hi-Fi manufacturers cannot be systematically ignored. Many of them have not heard any difference between good enough cables and very expensive cables after long listening sessions done over long periods of time. They have highly trained listening skills and you already love their products.

Just add a blindfold and an assistant on minimum wage to your own controlled listening environment. Do it for 4 hours. We will trust your findings. Whatever you tell us they are (we are already trusting you and that is why we read you).

Just ask the manufacturers you admire what they think about very expensive cables.

It is not too much to ask. I am a loyal Stereophile reader.

Thanks!

musicmaniac22's picture

A device like the MiND allows you to extract music from your computer, NAS, tablet, etc. and stream it over your computer network to a DAC, digital preamplifier or all-in-one audio box. The App controls the whole process, and also allows you to organize your music into playlists. A dedicated computer with something like J-River is a different means to a similar result, but there is no iPad/iPhone App to wirelessly control the playback. I guess its different strokes for different folks ;-)

michaelavorgna's picture

Do you know the secret subjectivist handshake?

Of course I'm joking but I find the whole subjective/objective debate to be long in the tooth and irrelevant. I'm also not into blindfolds but whatever floats your boat.

As far as polling manufacturers, I'm not here to report on what other people think when I write a review, I'm here to talk about what I hear. Besides, if I waited to get industry-wide consensus on just about anything to do with hi-fi before I wrote something, I'd produce exactly nothing.

So, yes you are asking too much ;-)

Cheers!

corrective_unconscious's picture

They would make sense if they contained DACs and storage, but they only do in some instances, and those instances don't get called "streamers."

I don't understand who is the market for "streamers."

Also, regarding the other reply to your post, there certainly are apps which interact with a computer (Mac) to permit wireless playback of media from a dedicated Mini, for example. They've been using the Apple Remote to do this even before the iPhone was on the market, I believe.

jmsent's picture

had an online server, a local media server that imported your library from virtually any media player, a huge amount of customization ability, the ability to easily sync multiple players, a free app and an even better third party one, and so on. And they sold for about $300, oh, and they had a built in DAC. And it was a very good one at that. But Logitech pulled the plug on it due to poor sales. I see no point to these "high end"streamers as they're being marketed. Their utility is very limited given their price. And I also have to wonder what software support, which will be imperative, will be like. You can do more with an Apple TV or Airport Express, using an Ipad or Iphone with Air Play.

bernardperu's picture

I get it. It is your words and your bytes. You own your column and we should be able to live with that.

Unfortunately, the subjectivist vs. objectivist debate has been contaminated by many, especially objectivists, who use ill conceived language and are believers of "science has an answer to everything" (as if we had already cured cancer). Just like when it comes to getting rid of cancer, science is in diapers when it comes to understanding how we enjoy and internalize music.

If the "very expensive cables" vs "good enough cables" debate had not been contaminated by the real audiofools, then, we would have had a calm debate about it.

I still believe that the subjectivist media would highly benefit from my two suggestions: 1) comfortable assisted blind listening tests and 2) when interviewing manufacturers: ask them if they are "believers".

I own Maggies 20.1 and based on their rear speaker connectors, I am nearly positive that Magnepan just doesn't believe in very expensive speaker cables. If Magnepan is a "non-believer", then shouldn't we at least try to respect their opinion (at least by acknowledging it)?

michaelavorgna's picture

What we appear to be in disagreement about is what is the proper context to discuss certain issues like cables. I agree that this discussion has its place, I just disagree that I need to include alternative viewpoints regarding cables in a review about network players wherein I mention the fact that I've heard a difference between Ethernet cables.

bernardperu's picture

I have 3 squeezebox touch devices. they sound much better with wyred4sound remedy, which is an extra 400 dollars.

After listening to the remedy, i know for a fact that streaming quality may vary and the extra $$ may be justified.

jmsent's picture

but I never said you can't improve on it or you can't hook up one whose sound you prefer. I've got an older Theta DAC and have done comparisons between a CD over my Theta transport vs the same CD, ripped onto my Mac and then streamed to my SB Touch via WiFi. Both the Touch and Theta CD drive digital outs feed the Theta Gen V DAC . When I sync up the files and switch between them, I can't hear any difference at all between the two. That's good enough for me.

michaelavorgna's picture

These devices are not for everyone, what in hi-fi is?, and each offers a different set of features that will appeal to different users. While delivering the ability to play music from network-attached storage and streaming services are their main purpose, there are also features that will appeal to specific users. For example, owners of SimAudio systems may value the fact that the Sim app allows control over their other components. The Auralic Vega allows you to stream high res PCM and DSD over wi-fi which solves a connectivity issue for some people.

While there are others solutions, including using a computer with a remote app, some people would rather spend their money on a dedicated device that delivers a specific set of features and is designed, from the ground up, as an audio device.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

bernardperu's picture

I agree with you on all counts, except on the methodology to evaluate the Audioquest ethernet cables.

Audioquest has 5 different ethernet cables, so they are asserting that we should be able to tell the difference among 5 gradual changes of ethernet cable quality. Once you start adding all cables I use in my system, Audioquest's business model asserts that a trained listener should be able to tell the differences among at least 50 gradual changes (and I am not even accounting for combinations or cable length - Audioquest claims speaker cable should have the same length-).

Audioquest's business model may not be a scam, but certainly smells like it, and this scam business model is the strongest hypothesis (unless you can look at someone in the eye and assert that you can tell at least 60% of these dozens of gradual "improvements").

Audiophiles tend to be far more educated than the average person. Most of us can tell that all these "gradual improvements" are nearly impossible to tell. No way I could identify all gradual changes Audioquest's claims I should be able to identify. Neither can the audiophile with the goldenest of ears. No way. Sorry I am such a positivist, but no way.

corrective_unconscious's picture

It's also a DAC and I believe a preamp, and thus is exempt from the several comments about streamers as a category. Same for the other, unspecified streamers which offer other features.

Not every preamp is for me, but I understand what a preamp is and why someone would pay for one. Streamers (the ones which are only streamers,) on the other hand, are more puzzling.

michaelavorgna's picture

...I did review their Ethernet cables which included some comparisons between different models as well as a standard Cat 5 cable: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cable and Diamond Ethernet Cable.

michaelavorgna's picture

...and it does not contain a DAC. There are no analog outputs, only digital outputs. The Aries is also not a preamp as it does not offer a volume control. It is meant to sit between your network and your DAC.

corrective_unconscious's picture

I guess that's great if people will pay that much for such narrow functionality as just a streamer. Great for the manufacturers.

I should have been more careful with my search on that product. Thanks for the correction.

skris88's picture

Michael, you can't insist you can make a claim and refuse to put it to the test.

As a certified network engineer it's simply illogical to me there could be a difference between Ethernet cables unless one perhaps is rated Cat 5 and the other Cat 6.

Perhaps there really IS an improvement between 2 similarly rated cables, I'm open to learning about that.

So, take up the challenge, don't simply brush it away.

Thanks in advance!

Cheers,
skris88

bernardperu's picture

And I hope I am fulfilling my goal of spreading the word that some further credibility when (blind) testing cables and when acknowledging the opinions of manufacturers regarding cables will definitely help the hi-end media.

michaelavorgna's picture

...I do not believe double blind testing is an appropriate means to determine perceived differences in hi-fi. It is simply an unnatural and tedious exercise as opposed to something which is rooted in the enjoyment of music.

If I were to "take up the challenge" every time someone questioned what I wrote about hearing, whether that be a difference between DACs, file resolutions, cables, software, servers, and on and on, I wouldn't have time to listen to music.

Cheers,
Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

skris88's picture

I guess you've just proved it Michael. The Internet is still in Wild West mode with snake oil salesmen rampant everywhere.

1,000s of people every day are sold $200 HDMI cables instead of $20 ones exactly because of people like you. It's just business? No, it's fraud. Especially since it's not the wealthy who get sucked in to your outrageous claims, but the struggling poor.

I guess I don't have to read your articles any more, and I won't.

".....we will be held accountable for every word that we use or misuse."

michaelavorgna's picture

...is in Wild West mode but this has nothing to do with the fact that I have repeatedly and clearly heard a difference between Ethernet cables.

QSYSOPR's picture

Dear Editor,
I always wonder why the most sophisticated laboratories in the world get fast and correct results although they use standard ethernet cables.

John Atkinson's picture
QSYSOPR wrote:
I always wonder why the most sophisticated laboratories in the world get fast and correct results although they use standard ethernet cables.

As long as it transmits data packets without error and as long as those packets do not carry data that will be used to reconstruct an analog signal, then the quality of the ethernet cable is immaterial.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

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