This is my slightly different HiFi Review of the Atlas Hyper Ethernet cable and the Atlas Equator Ethernet cable. Aaagh, cable reviewing is difficult and is a dedicated and lonely pursuit (someone has to do it though!). Accusations will abound referencing snake oil, an expectation bias as well as other “clueless” accusations. How can a couple of meters of ethernet cable make any difference to a digital signal that has, in all likelihood, travelled from my DAC source TO North America via the Atlantic cable run, BACK from North America, HALFWAY up the UK, INTO my village which has fibre now, UP the driveway, INTO our home, sent DOWNSTAIRS to the router then hard-wired with CAT6 to my lounge to a dedicated junction box? It all seems a bit odd really, doesn’t it? However, by the same token, you could say the same about a power cable that is miles away from the turbine blade in a generating station, and they do add value (IMHO!)!
The real question is how on earth am I going to listen to these cables properly? The answer is a bit easier than I could have hoped for because I’m in the middle of a global pandemic, the kids are at ‘virtual school’, and I have some exceptional lockdown equipment on my hands, notably an Auralic Altair G1 (see this review) and a pair of Paradigm Persona 3Fs (see this review).
Why use specialist Ethernet cables for audio?
From the Atlas site, they say: “The Ethernet specification is defined by the OSI 7 layer model, which standardizes the communication functions of a telecommunication or computing system without regard to its underlying internal structure and technology. Within this model, the cable is part of the ‘Physical’ layer, the lowest level in the hierarchy, while the six layers above deal with packet switching, error correction, timing, ‘end to end’ transmission, etc. Ethernet cable specifications are further defined by the bandwidth requirements of the system – Cat5, 6, 6A etc., each of which is tightly specified to be able to deliver a guaranteed bandwidth. The wider the bandwidth of the cable, theoretically, the easier it should be to extract the data.”
Understood, perfect. Atlas goes on to discuss their ‘Sum of The Parts’ philosophy in the following paragraphs on their site that I am not going to recite here. Ideas such as Oxygen-Free Copper (OFC), Polyethylene dielectrics, shielding against radio frequencies and other induced noises (Electromagnetic induced), the polycarbonate shielded plug design and the manufacturing process.
My Initial thoughts on Ethernet cables for Audio
I must say as I read and hear more stereo components I am a great believer in the ‘Sum of the Parts’ idea, so for me, this includes, power conditioners if they are affordable, isolation devices (in my case granite chopping blocks, £10 for 2 from Wilko (very affordable)), spikes and spike shoes, the best cables you can afford, etc. I’m also a firm believer, now, in one box doing one job, so a DAC, a pre-amplifier, a CD player, etc. And from this follows a power lead designed to supply a piece of audio equipment, or a cable to interconnect two pieces of electronics, etc. I also believe these increments should all be in proportion to the equipment you have, so don’t spend £500 on a power lead to an Amstrad Music Centre, for example (do they still make those?). So, maybe, just maybe I’ll believe in the incremental benefit of ethernet cables for audio products… it makes sense to look at a properly constructed cable for a few hundred pounds to a £2k DAC rather than the plastic rubbish patch cable that comes out of a router box, we will see.
There is a slight hint of irony here with many people online arguing the WiFi is a better choice than a wired connection with the Auralic G1 and 2 products because they are designed for WiFi. Whatever the case the Altair G1 is a warm and clean piece of precision engineering at the right price, and I’ve got it hard wired.
I am prescient of the argument that bits are either error-free or they aren’t, and with Ethernet, the packets are resent until correct if there are errors. I do understand that, in most cases, the DAC buffer stores the bits before the DAC gets them. So, therefore, most DAC chips don’t do any error-correcting as that’s done up the digital chain before the DAC, so it irrelevant how the data file arrives at the buffer. However, there is jitter, tiny timing differences in the digital signal receipt that does need attention, hence the clocking and re-clocking we hear so much about and this is important and ‘noticeable’. The Auralic Altair G1 has a huge 1GB Memory Cashe and a 72femto second master clock so the idea of an ethernet upgrade shouldn’t be on the cards really.
Finally, upfront, I’m not doing any electrical testing here, just listening, so all the measurement and data stuff you might want is all on the Atlas Site and it is pretty comprehensive!
There is no question at all that these Ethernet cables, the entry-level Equator and the next level Atlas Hyper Ethernet are a massive physical step up from the crappy, blue plastic Maplin unshielded ‘patch’ Ethernet cable I’m using, that much is very clear, to my shame?
The grey Equator cable is thicker than the usual plastic kinked Ethernet cable you get in a router box and is soft to the touch with a fabric outer layer over the polyethene insulation. Inside the Equator, there is the Atlas Solid-core OFC conductor in a twisted pair. The configuration minimises noise and interference. The cables, in sum, feel solid, robust, have no kinks and so feel a lot more appropriate to the system on show here.
The Black Atlas Hyper Ethernet cable feels like a step up again, notably thicker than the Equator with a differing fabric flecked outer layer surrounding a Foamed Polyethylene dielectric. The Hyper construction uses an optimised solid-core OFC conductor in a screened/foiled twisted pair. The configuration minimises crosstalk and improves rejection of external electromagnetic interference which can manifest as unwanted ‘noise.’ The terminations feel similarly robust and the clicky thing to anchor the cable in place is far easier to manage on the Atlas Hyper Ethernet cable in particular than the usual crappy blue cable I’m used to. Helpful if you’re flicking cables around.
I note there is an Atlas Mavros Ethernet Cable with Grun that is three times the price of the Hyper; I’m sure the Grun earthing may offer the definitive answer to Ethernet solutions as I imagine the Grun will bleed all the electrical noise away to the ground in the most efficient way possible, it did with the USB cable review from a couple of months ago.
So, I’ve decided to go for the best HiFi I can figure out so I’m using the ‘lockdown collection’. I’ve still got a pair of Paradigm Persona 3Fs driven by my own a NAP 250 with a NAC-N 272 as a pre-amplifier (so the 272 is not streaming). The NAC is powered by a locked-down Naim XPS DR (see review here). My ‘locked down’ streaming source is the excellent Auralic Altair G1. So the G1 is receiving the Ethernet signal from a dedicated signal box hardwired to my router with CAT6 cable. This is the cable connection I’m swapping in and out for this HiFi Review. I have Atlas Mavros speaker cable to the 3Fs and analogue Atlas Mavros interconnects from the G1 to the pre-amplifier. Overall this is a really, really nice sound I have to say. The Persona speakers are still breathtaking, still warm and comfortable the longer I hear them.
I think my ears are OK, I’ve heard gains from Zeno cables by Atlas but these have been in headphones, so the detail is clearer. I thought I had better take a considered, analytical approach to the task in hand. I thought I would use the following tracks to see if I could gauge a difference between the cables. For the soundstage, I’ve selected the beautiful Flight from the City, by Jóhann Jóhannsson that is big and dominant and in places wonderfully delicate. For detail, I usually go to Ryan Adams’ Sylvia Plath, a beautiful piece of music from the Live at Carnegie Hall recordings. Finally, for dynamic performance, I’m using the jazzy, funky My Baby Just Cares for Me from Jeff Goldblum and his orchestra, a new recording impeccably produced from a live set.
With the Auralic Altair G1 streaming DAC
I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this and I am bound to say I am very open-minded to Ethernet cables adding value, I have, after all, the equipment and time to prove it to myself. However, with the Auralic Altair G1, I might be getting marginal improvement but I’m finding it pretty difficult to point to anything in particular. I think this is possibly because the G1 has a huge buffer before the DAC with a super-fast clock. So I guess all the DAC has to do is the process. I have to say the sound is something quite special, the 3F Paradigm speakers are absolutely fantastic driven by plenty of power from the 250.
With the NAC-N 272 streaming instead
I thought I would have a try with the Naim NAC-N streamer instead which may have slightly less precise DAC process (he weeps, and tears spill onto his Naim remote control :-)). Here too, however, I was really experiencing small improvements with a fine hair of extra detail in Sylvia Plath, for example. In fact, Flight from the City
probably gave me the most to think about in respect of extra width from the captivating performance and just possibly, more complex pieces of music appear to have the most to show from these different cables.
With the T+A Solitare P headphones
At this point, I received the new headphones and headphone amplifier from T+A. They’re German, of course, and they’re the Rolls Royce of headphones, as my upcoming review will testify (with a price tag to match). This gave me the perfect opportunity to examine in detail the value of the Ethernet cable. Using the Auralic Altair G1 through to the T+A HA 200 with XLR cables I was able to hear more with the Atlas Ethernet versus the cheap patch cable. Again, with more complex tracks such as Arabesque by Coldplay, there is a superb 3D image that is unrestricted.
Here’s the playlist for this review.
Note, the main picture is of the Atlas Equator Ethernet cable going into a Naim Uniti Star that was previously on review.
I’m prepared to argue with myself that with a pile of electronics amounting to nearly £20,000 in value I’m better off with a couple of hundred quids worth of Atlas Hyper Ethernet cable…than I am with the…patch cable rubbish I have from Maplin. That’s easy.
It makes sense to me that the smooth, heavily shielded cables on review here get their most exposure to RF interference at the DAC interface where there are wires crossing everywhere so that bit adds up to me and helps me feel justified that a heavily shielded input to the streamer is beneficial. If that means the resulting electronics are doing a fraction less in respect of error-correcting, that’s good for me. The buffer issue is the bit where I struggle conceptually but I’m prepared to argue with myself that with a pile of electronics amounting to nearly £20,000 in value I’m better off with a couple of hundred quids worth of Atlas Hyper Ethernet cable, or the Equator, than I am with the blue kinky rubbish patch cable I have from Maplin. That’s easy.
I can’t see any downside for such a moderate outlay on a decent system…
I would be prepared to put my ears on the Mavros Grun version of this Ethernet cable making a more noticeable contribution to my listening and thought processes as the earthing system will surely bleed away any errant electrical noise. In the meantime, I’m really happy this cable adds value for my system and the “Lockdown equipment” I’ve had. If you are using a patch cable and you can afford a few meters of these Atlas cables take your own view. I can’t see any downside for such a moderate outlay on a decent system, like the electronics I have discussed here. I would certainly recommend these cables to those who can afford the outlay and have electronics to match.
RSP (incl. VAT)
*Price list for guidance only, prices are subject to change without notice