Sonore opticalModule Review

Some people might say that I’ve gone to extremes to minimize noise and maximize resolution. I, however, feel that I’ve only done what’s necessary. As an equipment and recording reviewer for Stereophile, I believe I must do everything within my power to give whatever is under review its best shot. Doing so requires not only assembling a highly resolving reference system in a purpose-built listening room that is fed by a dedicated power source, but also setting it up in ways that can reveal all that a review component or recording has to offer.

As a bottom line, my system must enable me to fully appreciate and evaluate a performance’s musical essence on visceral, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. It has to make me want to listen to music. In addition, it must allow me to distinguish natural (neutral) colors from those that are warm or over-hyped. I need to hear the most subtle nuances in timbre, overtones and undertones (aka “microtonal shadings”), and expression while taking in slam, pace, rhythm, timing, soundstage width and depth, and more. In short, within the limits of space, time, and budget, I want a system that reveals everything that recording and equipment engineers hoped I would hear and, perhaps, hoped that I would miss.

To create an environment appropriate to long-term critical listening, we converted our detached two-car garage into a 16’ x 20’ x 9’ music room whose wall, floor, and ceiling materials were chosen to optimize musical reproduction and enjoyment. Then, following a power protocol from Vince Galbo of MSB, we installed an 8-gauge dedicated line. [See https://www.stereophile.com/content/reviewer-profile-jason-victor-serinus and https://www.stereophile.com/content/building-sound-room-personal-journey]. Thanks are also due John Quick of dCS America, Brian Berdan of retailer Audio Element in Pasadena, CA, Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis, and Bart Andeer of Resolution Acoustics for their expert guidance, feedback, and contributions. I am also extremely grateful to Rob Darling of Roon, who suggested a file playback/streaming protocol that minimizes noise while maximizing resolution.

That file playback/streaming protocol consists of wired ethernet > optical > ethernet stream from the modem and router located in our home’s second floor office to the system in the music room which occupies our detached garage. Signal travels as follows: by office modem > ethernet > office router > ethernet > initial optical/ethernet module in the office > 75 ft. run of heavy duty optical cable > second optical/ethernet module in the music room > ethernet > music room router > ethernet > third optical/ethernet module > 30 ft. optical cable to the equipment rack > fourth optical/ethernet module > ethernet > either a DAC, dCS Network Bridge, the Roon Nucleus +, or the gear under review.

To optimize this set-up and further reduce noise, I did the following:

  • 1. Located the music room’s router in the entrance hallway, over 15 feet from the system.
  • 2. Connected the router to an electrical line other than the dedicated line that feeds the system.
  • 3. Replaced all wall-wart switch mode power supplies on devices in the streaming chain with linear power supplies. The modem, two routers, four optical/ethernet modules, Roon Labs Nucleus + music server, and USB hub all receive power from a total of three Small Green Computer HDPlex 4-unit 200W linear power supplies. I cannot begin to describe how much of an improvement this upgrade can make to system performance. All you need do is make the switch to a linear power supply on a Roon Nucleus or router to hear the difference. Once you do, I doubt you’ll want to go back.
  • 4. After much experimentation, I discovered that Wireworld Platinum Starlight Cat8 ethernet cabling conveyed far more information than standard unshielded Cat6, and ditched the cheapo stuff. When I needed a USB cable, I turned to the finest I’ve heard, Nordost Valhalla 2 USB.
  • 5. As the ultimate step, I connected a spare Tweak Geek Dark Matter Stealth power conditioner to the entrance hallway’s electrical line, and plugged the hallway’s SGC/HDPlex LPS into it. That LPS powers the music room router along with optical/ethernet modules #2 and 3, which are also in the hallway. The other HDPlex LPSs reside in the office and on the equipment rack.

My optical/ethernet modules initially consisted of four relatively inexpensive, easily obtainable TP-Link gigabit ethernet media converters. I also purchased two older TP-Links that are designed for DACs and music servers that use the older 10/100 ethernet protocol. (Believe it or not, some of the most costly pieces of digital equipment I’ve reviewed use the old protocol.) Since the switch mode power wall-warts supplied with the TP-Links are quite noisy, I ditched them as soon as I could.

Although I initially used individual Small Green Computer linear power supplies in my system, I replaced them with SGC HDPlex units because they enabled me to power four devices at once, save money, and use far less of the ultra-expensive Nordost Odin 2 power cabling that I have in my system. Without those HDPlex units, I would have ended up with 10 individual LPSs. The rest of the system included a dCS Rossini CD/SACD transport and clock, EMM Labs DV2 integrated DAC (which I did not use for this review), Dan D’Agostino Progression monoblock amplifiers, Wilson Audio Alexia 2 loudspeakers, and a Grand Prix Monza Audio rack. All-important equipment supports were from Nordost, Grand Prix, and Ansuz. Cabling—lots of cabling—as well as power, and noise treatment were from Nordost, AudioQuest, and Wireworld. There’s a lot in the system’ hence, the “complicated” label. You do not want to see the maze of cables behind the rack.

The serious Sernius system.

Enter Andrew Gillis of Small Green Computer and the subject of this review, the Sonore opticalModule ($249 USD/each; required LPS additional $). I’d already been told that TP-Links were never designed to transport music signals when Andrew suggested I replace the last two TP-Links in my ethernet > optical signal chain with opticalModules. Designed by John Swenson, an opticalModule is smaller than the TP-Link; it also runs considerably warmer due to the nature of linear power supplies, and benefits from a bit of space around it. It’s part of a systemOptique certified product line that includes the Small Green Computer sonicTransporter i9, Sonore opticalRendu, and Sonore Signature Rendu SE Optical.

“The TP-Link uses internal switching power supplies that add noise to the system,” Gillis explained by phone. “An opticalModule has several internal linear power supplies, each feeding a different internal component. The circuit design is cleaner, and everything is designed to be really low-noise. The opticalModule also contains a very accurate clock instead of a cheap 5¢ clock, so its timing is really precise.

“Our goal was to make something simple that works really well by getting rid of noise. A lot of companies add a lot of inputs and outputs so they have more to talk about and fill more pictures.”

Gillis emphasized that you can’t induce noise into optical fiber. “Every component on a board can act as an antenna. If you put a wire next to a noise source, the noise travels through the air and the wire can pick it up. You can either try shielding the wire or use something to get rid of the noise at wire’s end. But since optical fiber is just light, it can neither pick up nor transmit analog noise from a modem, router, switch, or your computer on a network. Some people says that since we’re dealing with digital signals, noise is irrelevant. But analog noise is another matter.”

For someone whose DAC either lacks an ethernet port or uses USB to transmit the highest-resolution data, Gillis also recommended the opticalRendu, which he claims eliminates the last bit of network noise that can enter a DAC via USB. While my EMM Labs DV2 integrated DAC lacks an ethernet connection and reserves transmission of highest sample rate PCM, MQA, and DSD to its USB input, and I’m currently using my dCS Rossini DAC’s USB input, I have not (yet) experimented with this product.

For review purposes, Gillis sent two Sonore opticalModules. Both were installed in the music room, where they replaced the final two of my four TP-Links and transmitted signal from the music room’s router to either one of my two reference DACs, the dCS Network Bridge (which in turn sends signal to the EMM Labs DV2 via S/PDIF), or the Roon Nucleus+. When I questioned Gillis about the noise-reduction benefits of replacing the first two TP-Links located on either end of the 75 ft optical cable that connects the router in the main house to the second router in the music room, he said that Sonore designers had conducted tests, and, “It won't make a difference. We have done testing on very resolving systems. We only hear improvement in the last leg with optical.”

Listening

Recently, John Atkinson, Stereophile’s longtime former editor-in-chief/now technical editor, paid a visit. To demonstrate the difference that replacing a switch mode power supply with a good linear power supply can make, I tried both of them on the Roon Nucleus+ music server. Without an LPS, detail-obscuring and pleasure-reducing noise increased dramatically.

For that reason, from the start of the review period, I powered both the TP-Links and Sonore opticalModules with HDPlex LPSs to improve their baseline performance. If I had stuck with the TP-Links’s supplied wall-warts, the differences described below would have been even more extreme. To avoid any possible bias—studies have shown that in A-B comparisons, people usually favor B—musical selections were auditioned in A-B-A-B / B-A-B-A fashion as I switched back and forth between modules.

First up, the great English early music soprano Carolyn Sampson joining the deliciously colorful period instruments of Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki in the serene “Et incarnatus est” from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, K. 427 (24/96 FLAC, from BIS-2171 SACD). Through the opticalModules, I could hear a natural breathy hiss around the flute, the silver edge on Sampson’s extremely smooth and warm voice, and lovely colors. Switching both opticalModules to the TP-Links, the music felt more in my face and slightly less refined. There was more noise around Sampson’s voice, and while its natural edge was sharper than usual, it didn’t stand out from the orchestra as much as it should have (and it does on the SACD). Instruments sounded less smooth, sweetness was lessened, and Sampson’s high C, which requires some work on her part, sounded more than a bit strained. When I switched back to the Sonore opticalModules, it delivered more naturally rounded images, with beautiful smoothness to strings. With less noise and “digital edge” around Sampson’s voice, I could also hear more of her instrument’s mellow midrange core. Everything sounded warmer, voice and woodwinds in particular, and I had a better sense of Sampson’s voice projecting into space in a natural acoustic.

Next, two very different versions of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the first the raucous classic from the 50th Anniversary hi-rez remastering of The Rolling Stones’s Beggar’s Banquet (Tidal 24/48 FLAC/192 MQA), and the second the far smoother-sounding, positively bizarre version by Rickie Lee Jones from The Devil You Know (Tidal 16/44.1 FLAC). The Stones’ version is intentionally raucous, but the TP-Links made everything hotter and harder to listen to without turning down the volume a notch. I could hear less of the drum’s midrange core; instead, it sounded flatter than ideal, with less color contrast to a guitar that had grown sonically punishing. “Just listen to the difference in air around the drums at the opening and the difference in the midrange resonance,” I scribbled in rather astonished fashion.

With the opticalModules in my system, the sound on Jones’ version was very smooth, and the rich lower midrange background like a great chocolate flower. I loved the quiet of the high shaker in the background. As you might expect, some of the performance’s subtlety and beauty was obscured with the TP-Links.

Finally, the big classical stuff—the first six-or-so minutes of Mahler’s Symphony No.3 from Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (DSD128, Channel Classics CCSA 38817/NativeDSD). With the TP-Links, bass was a little wooly. Switching to the two opticalModules produced tighter bass with more complex overtones and undertones, a far greater bass drum explosion at 2:41, and an overall warmth and glow that, again, sounded more like the sound of the SACD through the Rossini CD/SACD disc transport. Switching back to the TP-Links confirmed that the sound was less subtle overall. It was also noisier, with more zzzing on trumpet, more splash, and less overall clarity.

Conclusion

Using linear power supplies on both the TP-Links and Sonore optical/Modules revealed that the quieter optical/Modules consistently delivered smoother and more refined sound, with truer colors and less digital edge. Music was easier to listen to for long stretches of time. The differences between the two units would only have been magnified if I had stuck with the TP-Links’ supplied switch-mode wall warts rather than using the same linear power supplies that one must purchase for the optical/Modules.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that my system is anything but entry-level. For readers who may be tempted to dismiss my experience as irrelevant to someone with a far less costly set-up—you know, the old “I could never hear what you heard in my system” number—I point to an experiment that AudioQuest conducted at an audio show close to two decades ago. AudioQuest rigged a simple boom box to allow cable switching between the unit’s two speakers. Without fail, even on that cheap mass-market boom box, it was easy to hear the difference that better speaker cable made as they went up the AQ line.

Even if some changes are small, putting them all together can deliver a major increase in detail retrieval, sound quality, and pleasure. That, after all, is what the audiophile experience is all about. If you’ve got the time, energy, and finances necessary to enable experimentation with noise-reduction strategies, using Sonore opticalModules and linear power supplies to transmit data in an ethernet > optical > ethernet configuration will enable you to hear significantly more of what recording engineers and artists hoped you would hear.

COMPANY INFO

COMMENTS
Boogieman's picture

Sir,
Sincerely appreciate the write-up. A few questions:
1) Signal travels as follows: by office modem > ethernet > office router > ethernet > initial optical/ethernet module in the office > 75 ft. run of heavy duty optical cable > second optical/ethernet module in the music room > ethernet > music room router > ethernet > third optical/ethernet module > 30 ft. optical cable to the equipment rack > fourth optical/ethernet module > ethernet > either a DAC, dCS Network Bridge, the Roon Nucleus +...

what specifically is the stuff from ... initial optical/ethernet module in the office > 75 ft. run of heavy duty optical cable > second optical/ethernet module in the music room > ethernet > music room router > ethernet > third optical/ethernet module > 30 ft. optical cable to the equipment rack > fourth optical/ethernet module > ethernet ...

and where can I purchase it?

2) Very familiar with Rossini player, and their transport is amazing. Have you been able to surpass the quality of the transport with all the digital gadgets you have?

and finally,

3) Since your goal is hearing every last detail on the recording, have you tried Spectral electronics with your speakers? and possibly Magico loudspeakers with your amplification and also with Spectral? everything has a sonic signature, so what makes you think Wilson Audio / D'Agostino is the final word in what your aspired goal is?

Thank you for sharing

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for your questions. I regret that I can't write another essay in response. Briefly:
1. Buy Wireworld ethernet cable from a dealer or The Cable Company. I can't remember the optical cable vendor I used, but a net search will disclose who sells optical cable with the correct termination. Modem and router are standard commercial brands.
2. The sound is different, not necessarily better or worse. And you can't play DSD on the transport. Channel Classics titles recorded in DSD are often issued solely in CD format; you can only get the DSD by downloading the files. I've run out of storage room for discs, so files work well for me right now.
3. Have tried neither Spectral nor Magico, let alone together. I didn't make it to the Spectral/Wilson room at Munich High End 2019, but everyone I know who went said the sound was wonderful.

Everclear's picture

Every serious and well to do audiophile could consider converting their automobile garage (if they have one) into a dedicated listening room, like JVS ........ That kind of listening room could accommodate larger size loudspeakers, with or without dedicated subwoofers ....... That kind of listening room could have dedicated power supplies, power conditioners, sound absorbing panels etc. ...... It could also accommodate several associated audio equipment :-) ........

mentt's picture

Had original microRendu and in end sold it as I have found out that Raspberry pi 3 + iQAudio digi hat and locally attended SSD disk had noticeably better sound. You can spend thousands of dollars trying to fix the sound crippled by the network and still it will sound worse than if you would just bypass the network

Thuandb's picture

Hi Jason,

I'm lucky to find JPLAY Marcin's sharing of your review, read and digest it, then take action by getting an oM pair and 10m lenght of fiber cables. The goodies arrived yesterday and I'm now enjoying the improved music playback as ever. The oMs replace my long term trusty TP-Link FMCs which had been giving me pretty good SQ for several years. However, the Sonore's oMs just let me realize the potentials of the rest of my modest setup. Thank you for an accurate, to the point thus very helpful review.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

After you settle in, you may wish to experiment with the MGB-TLX Mini GBIC LX Module - 20KM from Planet Technologies. You simply raise the little handle on the optical end of the oM, slide out the module, and replace it with these. Mine just arrived last night. Not until I remove the MBL Noble N11 preamp I'm reviewing for Stereophile, return to my reference, and spend a while listening will I be able to fully grok the sonic difference. It is definitely smoother on top, but I need to figure out if that is ultimately a win-win. https://planetechusa.com/product/mgb-tlx-mini-gbic-lx-module-20km/. For folks whose DACs use the 10/100 protocol, other modules are available. Be sure to call to see if they are in stock before you order.

Lxgreen's picture

Have you considered how the EtherRegen may fit into your system or would that be overkill?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I've had no contact with Uptone Audio and no experience with this product.

Ixtayul's picture

Do you think you could post a diagram of your setup? I know Lavorgna once did The Barn: Connectivity diagram and it was very useful. Whereas I don't have the same equipment I could use the noise reducing suggestions in the right places.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I will refrain from demonstrating in public my lack of drawing skills. But my set-up is unique to my situation, which involves a detached music room in a garage a good 75 to 90 feet from my second floor office in the main house. All that matters, in the end, is this: modem to router to opticalModule1, all with ethernet; optical cable from opticalModule1 to opticalModule2, and ethernet from there.

Thuandb's picture

The oMs have been here for a week, your recommended Planet USA modules arrived 2 days ago. Even used with existing Sonore multi mode fiber cables, there're definite improvements to my liking. Not only is top smoother, details and 3-D are enhanced. Overall, with either modules there is a nice boost in musicality and listenabilty. Single mode cables will arrive by end of month so we'll see. Thanks again.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

While I mentioned that I was going to try these, I did not recommend them without audition. As it turns out, they haven't worked for me. In my system, the top is too toned down, and the midrange unnaturally boosted. The sound of voices I've heard live in concert were altered to such an extent that I didn't find them true to the source. Even the sound of a piano was altered considerably. I'm chalking this up to different strokes for different folks. I'm glad to hear that they're working for you.

Thuandb's picture

Hi Jason,

While waiting for the matching single mode cables (taking 2 weeks to arrive due to COVID-19), I keep listening to the Planet USA modules and multimode cables and found something funny and interesting. Somehow the left and right RCA cables have been mixed up, probably during the time the new modules arrived. That may explain the noticeable difference heard while trying the single mode modules. Now that channels are correctly identified, I felt yesterday that something was missing. "It's likely the single mode modules vs multimode cables mismatch", I thought. So I went back to the stock modules and music is back.

I've got your email this evening and I'm glad I've switched back to Sonore stock modules. Still, I'm having high hope that once the matching cables finally arrive, the SQ will only be better or different, not worse. In any case, I'm happy with the SQ brought by Sonore opModules. Thanks for your candor.

zek4u's picture

Hi Jason. First i want to say love the site and your contributions. One question that I’ve always wondered about is if the issues fixed in front a bridge by using better power/ethernet cables, power conditioning, linear PSUs and audiophile switches not really needed when you have that one stretch of optical cable eliminating the noise. Heard in one place it becomes minimal so assume it’s more of an issue with timing or signal change versus noise traveling along the cables affecting upstream analog components and the DAC circuits. I’m hearing huge changes for the better with my AQVOX switch. Guess I just need to try it myself.

Thuandb's picture

Single mode cable arrived today. Multi mode transceivers and cable went out, single mode counterparts got in. The new set sounds good if not better, not having that weird sound probably caused by mismatched cable/transceivers. There seems more meat in bass and vocals (mids), same detailed highs without sharp edge in lesser recordings.

X