AudioQuest Ethernet Cables
Availability: online and through Authorized Dealers
Price: RJ/E Forest $29/.75m, $35/1.5m, RJ/E Cinnamon $69/.75m, $79/1.5m
Cables Categorically Matter
Just try playing music through a hi-fi without cables. Nothing. Nada. Silence. Now try connecting your amplifier to speakers with twine. Again nothing. Nada. Silence. Cables matter in the most fundamental way because you have to use the right cable for the right job. But what about the notion that a choice between two of the exact same kind of cable, Ethernet cables for today's tale, can matter? That two different Ethernet cables can make your network-connected file-based music playback sound different? Preposterous? Pernicious pandering? Have I sold my soul or lost my mind? Have I peed on the sacred altar of Science?
AudioQuest has a complete line of Ethernet cables that consists of the Forest ($29/.75m), Cinnamon ($69/.75m), Vodka ($179/.75m), and Diamond ($595/.75m). The models under review are the Forest and Cinnamon and they mainly differ from one another in the amount of silver used, 0.5% in the Forest v 1.25% in the Cinnamon. They both employ solid cable (i.e. not stranded) and share the same dielectric, the stuff surrounding the cable, of solid high-density polyethylene and their outer layer is PVC. The Cinnamon adds black/red braiding over that PVC for lengths under 5m. Everything over 5m loses the braiding.
Audioquest's Ethernet cables are built to Category 7 standards which means a number of things. Category 7 (or Class F) is a four-pair cable and to qualify as Category 7 each cable pair must be individually shielded and there also needs to be another shield around the four pairs. Category 7 cable must also meet stricter standards for its twisting ratio per inch which is a further measure against RF interference. One practical reason for these extra layers of protection is for use in places where there's strong RFI & EMI interference. Category 7 cable is also capable of delivering higher bandwidth of up to 600 MHz as compared with Cat 5e (100 MHz) & Cat 6 (250 MHz).
If we keep our toes dipped in pure data transmission land, the higher the Ethernet Category, the greater data transfer speeds it can handle. As data transmission speeds increase, there's greater potential for crosstalk and transmission errors. Most current home routers like Apple's Airport Express or any of the popular models from Linksys-Cisco or Netgear are capable of transmitting at Gigabit Ethernet rates. While Category 5 Ethernet cable is capable of delivering Gigabit speeds (you have to use all four pairs), Category 5 cable does not have to be shielded. Category 6 Ethernet cable differs from Category 5 in its use of a heavier gauge wire and "Cat 6 features more stringent specifications for crosstalk and system noise" according to Wikipedia and Category 7's specs are even more stringent.
But what does all this have to do with music? Aren't we just talking about ones and zeros being sent over some wires the same way these words you're reading are getting to you? And you aren't using any fancy wires! But data transmission over wires is not sent as ones and zeros its sent as a square wave and unlike data, music cares about time and timing errors. Even teeny tiny errors. So my only thoughts as to how an Ethernet cable can possibly affect the sound of music coming out of speakers is based on the notion that crosstalk and EMI/RFI interference can be effecting data transmission and the less of it the better and Category 6 is better than Category 5 in this regard and Category 7 is better still.
Of course I'm speculating and I have no logical explanation for why an Ethernet cable can affect the perceived sound quality of an audio system. I wish it didn't. Really.
Writing About Listening To Ethernet Cables Is A Fool's Errand
And I'm the fool in this scenario. There's no winning when writing about cables especially when there's no way for me to prove that an Ethernet cable can make a difference in sound quality. And frankly, the fact that Audioquest offers an 8 meter Ethernet cable for $4,495 (the Diamond) makes me blush for our hobby. It makes me uneasy, nearly queasy. I can buy a hell of a lot of stuff for $4,495, and the fact that Nigeria's per capita income for 2010 was $2,748 [source: World Bank] doesn't help. But let's not rain on our audiophile parade and accept the fact that we, all of us, are truly fortunate and perhaps a bit too fortunate to be able to spend our time talking about how Ethernet cables sound.
My methodology was fairly straight-forward. First I replaced, all-in-one shot, all of the Ethernet cables from my Apple AirPort Extreme router to my NAS and from my router to my MacBook Pro with the Audioquest Forest cables. The Ethernet cables they replaced were generic Category 5 cables. And then I listened to music. For more than a month. Then I did some swapping starting with the Audioquest Forest cables—all out went the Forest, all in went the generic. And I listened for a few days.
Then I started the A/B'ing proper which I count among my least favorite things to do. During one session, I did some relatively quick swapping, listening to pieces of the same three tracks, swap, listen to a piece, swap. And here I did not notice much difference if any and I believe I would have been hard pressed to tell you which was which if I didn't know.
Next, I went for longer listening between swaps. Full songs and even more than one. Then I'd swap Forest for generic or vice versa and listen some more. Here, I heard a slight but noticeable difference mainly in the texture of vocals—voices sounded less hashy with the Audioquest Forest Ethernet cables. This held for Ella, Mel Torme, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Isaac Hayes, Billie Holiday, Brigitte Fassbinder, and more. There also seemed to be a greater sense of ease as if some underlying noise had been removed. Interesting (that's what I actually thought).
Next up was the Cinnamon versus generic and in these longer listening swaps, more than one song at a time long, the above-mentioned differences were even more apparent. Of course they were, right? I mean they're supposed to be and the mere power of this suggestion may be the root cause of my perceived differences. And I would not dispute this conjecture but I also would not agree with it, either. With the Audioquest Ethernet cables in my system, and they are in my system since my music is served from a Network Attached Storage device, music sounded less harsh, with more air and ease and with the Cinnamon I even noted greater bass definition and differentiation between instruments. Music sounded better.
How Much Is Better Worth?
On a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of the whole wide world of changes one can possibly make to the sound of a hi-fi system, I would rate the overall improvement of the Audioquest Forest versus the generic Ethernet cables at around a 19. For the Cinnamon versus the generic, I'd ratchet this up to a 25. Just to give another point of reference, something like a change in loudspeakers can get me closer to that 100 high-water mark. That leaves Forest versus Cinnamon and here I'd count the difference at around 10 (yes, I kinda cheated). I also can buy a 3 ft. Category 6 Ethernet cable from Staples for $16.99 and you can find the same cable for less online. I did try swapping this generic Category 6 cable in and out of the mix and I have to say it was more difficult to hear a difference in any scenario.
Hi, my name is Michael and I just spent a lot of time listening to Ethernet cables (picture me standing up before I said that). From a practical perspective (I'm sitting again) where I'm left is this—for the differences I noted over longer listening and swapping sessions, I would not hesitate buying the Audioquest Forest Ethernet cables. I perceived a more relaxed and natural presentation as compared to the generic cables, they're much sturdier in terms of build quality especially the connectors/connections and that's worth $29 for a .75m length to me. But if this entire subject has your ears turning red with rage, I'd recommend at least buying and using all Category 6 cable for your music-serving network system.
While the Cinnamon offered even greater perceived improvements, my initial thought was to suggest that $69 is a lot of money to spend on an Ethernet cable. And it is. But, when push comes to shove, a $69 improvement in our world is peanuts. Elephant food. Barroom floor fodder. So if I had the disposable cash to dispose of (there I go getting uneasy again), this perceived difference would be worth it. Then again, I do have some spare change in a jar...