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A multi-stranded web of digital audio connectivity

As the new pad comes together in Berlin, I’ve been ruminating on the numerous network audio configurations that I (have) already use(d) on a daily basis.

Everything starts with the modem and a router. Sometimes this comes as two separate hardware boxes but in my case it’s one. Sitting in the back corner of my lounge room, a Compal CH7466CE (which is nothing special) connects the DARhaus to the Internet via Vodafone Deutschland’s cable service. In this mode of operation, it’s a modem.

But the plastic Compal box is also a router. That means any device connected to one of its four Ethernet ports – or to its 2.4Ghz/5Ghz Wireless receiver/s – can talk to the Internet and, potentially, to any other device on the network.

Bolstering the DARhaus’ wireless connectivity strength and stability is an Apple Airport Express, connected to the modem/router via Ethernet cable.

Let’s talk audio system specifics.

Upstairs, a pair of Sonos Play:1 flank my bed’s headboard and connect to the modem/router via Wifi and, using Sonos’ own apps running on iPhone and Macbook Air, which are also connected to the modem/router via Wifi, I stream music directly from Tidal and Soundcloud to them.

With Spotify, I prefer to ditch the native Sonos apps for Spotify’s own. Running in ‘Connect’ mode the Spotify app/s function like a remote control, instructing the stereo-paired Play:1 on what tunes to pull down directly from Spotify’s servers (via the modem/router).

To play music that I own on the Play:1, Sonos’ server app runs on an Intel NUC that sits in the kitchen. A collection of ~6000 FLAC albums sit on a 3TB HDD connected to the NUC via Curious USB 3.0 cable. The NUC’s Sonos server app streams audio to the Play:1 over the network. I’ve lost count of the number of evenings I’ve fallen asleep listening to Giant Sand or Tom Waits.

Do you see how everything being used is in some way connected to the modem/router?

On the other side of the bedroom sits a headphone listening station. Here an AURALiC Aries Mini – connected to the modem/router via Wifi – feeds a Rupert Neve Headphone Amplifier. I listen to the likes of James Holden and Bohren & Der Club Of Gore as I stare out over the rooftops of nearby Friedrichstraße towards the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz.

Control for the Aries Mini comes from AURALiC’s rather excellent iOS Lightning DS app. With an iPhone or iPad, connected via Wifi to the modem/router, I tell the Aries Mini what to pull down from Tidal’s servers. To hear to the FLACs sat on the HDD in the kitchen, the Intel NUC uses Plex Media Server (not Sonos’ server app) to send digital audio directly to the Aries via UPnP.

Plex is also used in this client-server configuration for watching movies on an Apple TV Gen 4, connected to the modem/router via Ethernet and to a Samsung LCD TV via HDMI.

This same Intel NUC also runs Roon Core with which it serves music to my office desk’s 11” Macbook Air (which also runs Roon) and to the Roon Ready Sonore microRendu connected via AudioQuest USB cable to either a) an Aqua Hifi La Scala MKII Optologic DAC or b) a Meridian Explorer2 DAC presently sitting in the lounge room’s main rig.

At the business end of this hifi system sits a pair of ELAC’s slimline Uni-Fi F5 loudspeakers driven by a pair of PS Audio BHK monoblocks and fed by a PS Audio BHK pre-amplifier.

This week I’ve been Roon-streaming new releases from Redshape, Matthew Dear, Four-Tet and Grandaddy, all from the Intel NUC’s USB-lassoed HDD as well as Joni Mitchell’s Blue in MQA from Tidal (via Roon).

And as Roon also talks to Airplay devices, it can send audio streams to the Apple TV whose audio stream exits the Samsung TV via TOSLINK for decoding via a PS Audio DirectStream DAC.

Back upstairs, the AURALiC Aries Mini can operate as an Airplay device. It too can serve as a 16bit/48kHz-restricted Roon endpoint. Note: this is not the same as being Roon Ready.

Roon v1.3 is set to drop any day now. When it does, Roon streaming to the Sonos Play:1 becomes a reality. Bye bye Sonos apps. Which brings us full circle…

…you might have noticed that the Intel NUC (and its attached HDD) sits at the centre of (most of) DARhaus’ streaming configurations; what it sends to where is often determined by the server software that rides on top.

The NUC is connected to the modem/router via Ethernet, not with long cable runs across the kitchen or lounge room floor but via an Ethernet-Over-Mains starter kit from TP-LINK, whose tidiness easily offsets any minor ding to sound quality (should it exist).

Why do I insist on putting the NUC in the kitchen? Answer: hard drive noise. Upon each hit of play, the external HDD spins up and brings too much of an audible distraction for lounge room placement. This is one reason why not everyone wants a computer in their hifi rack. Not everyone can stretch to a server with a multi-TB SSD.

Focus not on the individual components mentioned here. Nor ask how Box X sounds or how it compares to Box Y. That isn’t the point of this post.

What is? Network audio begins and ends with the modem/router – in my case a Compal CH7466CE. It ties everything together over Wifi or Ethernet. Box X must be connected to the home network if it is to see Box Y.

Setting up a network audio solution needn’t be complicated but troubleshooting drop outs or the server not seeing a client (endpoint) can be a time suck. If in doubt, go with Ethernet cable connections, especially if you’re streaming hi-res audio. Not because it’s necessarily better than Wifi, just that, in my experience, it’s less likely to throw up connectivity issues; that’s especially valuable for beginners.

One the hardware layer is in place, it’s time to overlay the required server software – usually an application must be installed and configured on one’s server before it can send digital audio to an endpoint (client). The patience required by software varies wildly; I’d argue that Roon’s UX makes it more intuitive to configure than say JRiver.

The third piece of the puzzle is often – but not always – a smartphone-based remoted control app. It instructs the server on what to send to the endpoint (client) and when. In the DARhaus for example, Roon’s iPad app tells Roon Core – running on the Intel NUC – what to send to the Sonore microRendu.

There is no one size fits all solution and, as might be obvious from the number of configurations already extracted from my Berlin abode, the possibilities are numerous. That doesn’t necessarily make network audio finicky or problematic. It largely depends on one’s outlook. You wouldn’t expect to become proficient at changing a phono cartridge overnight. It demands that we try and try again, notching up a few mistakes along the way. It is through these mistakes and wrong turns that we deepen our understanding. Network audio, like turntable setup, requires time. And there are no shortcuts to success.

(And a gentle reminder: DAR is no substitute for a manufacturer’s technical support team.)

Written by John H. Darko

John is the editor/publisher of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

27 Comments

  1. That modem/router combo is more important that most think. I’ve spent a lot of time with many different combinations of modems and wifi-routers. Most routers that people buy or that the telecom providers hit 100% CPU usage very quickly. This means that streaming to multiple devices simultaneously will result in lost packets. For a while I moved 2.4ghz devices to a separate router in Access Point mode and that worked for a while but wasn’t reliable enough.

    I’ve since moved to the Ubiquiti Enterprise products with a separate router, access point, and system controller. Once ironing the issues and configuration out (not for the faint of heart or lack of technical knowledge) I’ve had no more stuttering of video or audio with multiple streams.

    WiFi is wonderful but the encryption overhead kills cheap wifi-routers. Do yourself a favor and spend at least 200USD on a tri-band wifi-router.

    Note that on new construction houses in the US the Arc Fault Interrupters that are required for fire reduction kill any throughput and a lot of reliability on the Ethernet over mains adapters. I would not recommend them for anyone with a new house. My new house has no ethernet jacks, so I tried Netgear’s Powerline Ethernet adapters and would only recommend them for low bandwidth Ethernet only devices.

    • Yes, but his hardware/config is serious, next level stuff. I was trying to address ‘beginners’ with this piece.

  2. Yikes, another post I have to study…
    What I need is a Roon/MQA source for streaming or connecting to my Kef LS 50 wireless. I can airplay to Apple TV connected to my Samsung one connect which is connected to the speaker by optical. I can play MQA to the speakers by a Meridian Explorer 2 connected from my laptop with Tidal to the speaker by RCA connections…

  3. Assuming that you plan to test Roon Optimized Core Kit, have you decided what will handle the non-Roon functionality currently running on your NUC – NAS with PLEX server? Second NUC?

  4. Would it be too much to ask for the Aries Mini to become Roon Ready? AirPlay very likely does not sound as good as “native” RAAT.

    Or for the ELAC Discovery / some other forthcoming Roon Essentials product to accept an internal drive? Bummer that that one ties its only USB host port up in mounting mass storage and offers only optical or coaxial SPDIF for connecting a DAC.

    I believe it would be too much to ask the Aries Mini to run RoonServer as the ELAC and some other more powerful boxes do, despite its internal drive bay

    • AURALiC have said to me on numerous occasions that Roon Ready is “never, ever coming to the Aries Mini”.

  5. Just wanted to drop a note to say that your photos are excellent. I mean on all your articles. Superb isn’t too strong a word. Are you using dedicated gear, or just a smartphone camera with maybe an appropriate app? Anyway, well done!

    • Thanks Luke – a combination of a Canon 6D with macro lens and an iPhone 6S Plus. Also sometimes a Fuji X100S.

  6. Designing, standing up and maintaining a home network is definitely a process that requires some trial and error as well as some patience and research, especially as you add complexity and it serves multiple roles, such as Internet access, streaming audio and video, climate control, lighting control, system backups, etc.).

    If you live in a densely populated area then the interference from the myriad wifi signals can be problematic. There are a variety of apps (e.g. WiFi Explorer for OSX) that can show you exactly how polluted your local wireless spectrum is at any given time, what specific channels are in use and any unsecured SSIDs that you may not realize are active and being poached by your neighbors.

    I prefer to keep all my local streaming traffic off my WiFi Router and hang a switch from one of the Router’s LAN-side switch ports. This isolates any local streaming between, for example, a Roon endpoint and the Roon server from the WiFi Router and helps with troubleshooting if any hiccups occur with either local streams or Tidal streams from the Internet.

    I also purchased my own cable modem and wifi router so my service provider can’t make local configuration changes (e.g. Comcast activates “Free Public WiFi” access on hardware they provide by default) or update the firmware on my WiFi Router. I’ve also invested in MOCA network adapters that use existing coax wiring in the house (rather than having to pull new Ethernet cable) to create a sort of “wired backbone” that connects devices and a Wireless Access Point rather than relying on relatively flaky WiFi repeaters.

  7. That post makes me dizzy
    As I write this Apple TV stream just kicked off the Brian Eno Reflection stream dang…

    What about just connecting a iPad Air via USB to a digital dac> amp, keeping it simple?

  8. Thanks John for another great article. Like you said everyone has different limitations/setup requirements so it’s nice see a complete overview of your setup! You’ve given me additional thoughts on potentially utilizing a NUC and Ethernet Over Mains setup down the road. I rely on wireless connectivity for all my digital media and would like to improve that moving forward.

  9. Interesting subject Michael, but all this confirms to me that it should be possible to bypass ALL cable – network – USB – reclocking devices in another way. It must be feasible that an audiophile DAC manufacturer will offer a puristic an minimalistic design in which music can be played direct from (SD card) memory into the DAC. I know Invicta has it, but this might not be teh best possible solution..other might be able to enhance such a design.

    Short signal patch, no cable, no r=(re-) clockers, no software, just pure data, close to the DAC chip…
    Just ‘cut-the-crap’ so to say.. Strange idea?

  10. I also feel a little dizzy. I’m also for a simple setup. Hoewever this site is called digital audio review. So you have to know your stuff. Nice view you have! And again you mention the elac speakers.

    Best regards

    G from Belgium

  11. Thanks John,

    I cannot tell you how helpful this is! All of the descriptions exactly mirror my dilemmas as a semi-high-end audiophile user that still lives in the real world (both budget wise and house layout). The explanation of how the NUC fits into the network is particularly relevant right now as I am just taking on the set up of a home network.

    Just one clarification. Does the MicroRendu draw from the NUC via an Ethernet wall outlet or via WiFi? I do not have an Ethernet port at my amplifier and therefore require a WiFi option. Just wondering how this limits my options.

    Thanks for your posts. They have been really helpful in setting up a new house audio network over the last few months.

  12. Great article – I too have been on the network journey for some years now. One valuable thing I discovered is that it becomes necessary to use managed Ethernet switches to tame all the multicast traffic that is inherent with audio transport.
    What’s really interesting to me is that I recently adopted Roon and discovered its network management protocol might be a way out of some the legacy complexity I have. 🙂 Yay Roon.
    I will investigate this more deeply.

  13. Hello,

    I’ve only recently discovered your site (someone mentioned the dac index) a few months ago so i haven’t read everything yet. I just read some more articles and i now understand you use all kinds of gear (like the elac unifi) to test with but you don ‘t necessarily review everything. Am i correct? I suppose you can’t review everything. So no more about the elacs. Promise. Now back to reading. Great stuff!

    Best regards

    Geoff

  14. I agree that using wired Ethernet is best. Getting audio to stream reliably over wifi can be tricky, especially in crowded areas where the wifi signals from multiple homes overlap. After years of headaches, I’ve learned it’s not about speed, but about minimizing and overcoming interference. Here’s what worked for me:
    1) Never, ever have more than one wifi access point in your home. If your modem has wifi, turn off the wifi (AKA bridge mode) or replace the modem. Multiple access points make things worse, not better.
    2) Invest in a really good wifi access point, one that has MIMO and beam forming. Make sure the router firmware is set to support AV streaming.
    3) Place this access point near the center of your home, high up, and, away from other electronic devices. Putting your modem with it is fine, but put the NUC or the NAS somewhere else.

    Conditions are likely to be different in Berlin, but this is what works for me in the US. With this setup, I can stream hi-res music (and HD video) to the hammock in the back yard.

  15. I use the TP-LINK 500mbp starter kit, with varied success. The devices work for a couple of months and all of a sudden they start behaving funny. Need to unplug them and plug them back in. I have my router modem, just standard run of the mill stuff provided by the ISP, then a raspberry pi as firewall, which feeds to the TP-Link and then to a bunch of Airport Express 802.11n routers which seem to work ok most of the time. Again, every once in a while things get funny and I need to reboot devices.

  16. Peter Veth, The TEAC NT-503 will play off a USB drive plugged in the front. TEACs smart phone app can then be used to select songs and control volume. I love my NT especially now that it is clocked by external GPS satellite. Great DAC that is largely unknown.

    • Thanks Craig, I have seen more DAC/amp systems capble doing this. My NAD C390DD with BlueOS module is also capable playing direct from USB. Playing High-Res and even MQA from USB direct works excellent, but still I believe that other solutions might be of interest for audiophiles and DAC manufacturers to chase for.
      1. The music data are transported into the DAC via streamers, CD-player and other sources.
      2. The type of cables (interface and power) used have influence on the sound of the DAC
      3. The type of interface, either USB, S.PDIF, AES/EBU, optical or I2S have influence on the sound of the DAC
      4. The architecture, used components, type of powersupply and DAC processing chip have influence on the sound
      5. Before data are being processed in the DAC they are buffered in a FIFO RAM
      6. One complete music album, even at 18x CD size (DXD 24 bit, 384 kHz) fits on 2 Gigabyte SD card

      So, on paper, it is be possible to deliver maximum quality of music at highest (even upsampled) density by bringing the data close to the DAC chip PHYSICALLY on a 2 Gigabyte RAM chip and play directly with shortest signal path into the DAC.
      When treating the data in this way, no interference will occur from connected cables, since they are not required. If a battery is used, also powersupply is at highest, isolated level. It is actually a DAC build in the same way as an audiophile iPod or Astell & Kern portable player, but build for non-portable audiophile use, with even higher quality components and not connected to other sources but this RAM chip..

      Well, this is just a paper fantasy, but maybe some manufacturer out there agrees there is a market for such a shortes signal path, ultra low latency data processing and a simple, effective remote controll / App to select the music on the RAM.

      This way of handling music is a lot like audiophiles do when playing vinyl.. just 1 album, handling it physically and achieving maximum quality..

      Maybe someone out there who agrees with the conceptual idea and will buidl it.. 🙂

      Regards, Peter Veth

  17. I’ve messed around with my Pi3, a tablet and a router, mpd, Roon etc, but right now my ‘web of digital connectivity’ seems to have a gaping hole – the hole that Audioquest have titled ‘Coming Soon’ for over 12 months and promised us ‘by the end of the month’ at CES in January. John, do you have any updates from your contact at AQ re the firmware upgrade for MQA ? In my days as a code monkey, they flogged us remorselessly to make deadlines but I guess that’s all passe with today’s generation of Trump-voting, gun-toting millenials 😉

    Thanks,

    McLovin

  18. Hello John,

    I´m sure it makes your daily life easier but it sounds really, really complicated to a computer caveman like me. Something like your setup would be cool but I´d have to replace all my gear first –
    too vintage and not adapted to the modern world (including stuff like modems I suspect) and I would have to get a new brain to be able to deal with all those connections as well. I agree that the photos are really nice and your hifi looks so nice and clean.
    Congrats on your move to Germany from another expat by the way, hope you´re settling in. I would love to go to Berlin more often but I live too far south.

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