How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 24: Ethernet

So here we are again, with yet another magical hardware device to make music sound better. This one is an Ethernet switch; it’s what you use to, for example, connect to a router then connect a bunch of Ethernet cables, with then connect to other devices. They could be computers, wi-fi access points, other switches, or even audio equipment. Some receivers and amplifiers have Ethernet jacks to received digital audio.

First, a brief primer about Ethernet. It’s a technology used to send data over cables, and most networking uses TCP/IP, very robust protocol that has been around for decades, and has been standardized. It is what runs the internet and most networking. A Wikipedia article explains the main element of Ethernet that makes it so robust:

Systems communicating over Ethernet divide a stream of data into shorter pieces called frames. Each frame contains source and destination addresses, and error-checking data so that damaged frames can be detected and discarded; most often, higher-layer protocols trigger retransmission of lost frames.

The bit about error-checking data and retransmission of frames is what’s important. You see, unlike analog data – think of an old TV where you get your signal over the air, and there can be static – each frame, or unit of data, which can be from 64 bytes to 1518 bytes, is checksummed before it is sent, then after it is received. If the checksums don’t match, the frames are resent.

This is very important. Let’s say you’re reading this article on a computer connected via Ethernet to your router. Upstream from there, the router gets data from a series of network devices, from your local exchange, from other switches, finally from the original server sending you data. If data correction is not used, it’s possible that some data gets corrupted during transmission, and you might lose some of it, or some might be garbled. In which case, you would be reading some random sequence of characters instead of what I’ve written; or some of the words and sentences would be missing.

So think about how that works with music. When you send music from a server – be it Apple Music, Spotify, or your own computer – it is sent the same way. Your hardware devices don’t know that it’s music; they only know that it’s frames of data that has to perfectly match what was sent. If not, it is resent. This happens very quickly, and data is buffered to allow for resent frames to catch up and be correctly reassembled. I’m simplifying a bit, but you can be certain that, with working hardware, the data sent is exactly the same as the data received.

Anyway, back to our hardware hawker. According to the venerable What-HiFi:

The Chord Company has relaunched a Great British brand to front its audio electronics business, English Electric, and has demoed its first product – a hi-fi grade network switch.

Beyond the question of whether this product serves any purpose, this company is capitalizing on a recent trend in the UK, among a certain demographic, of wanting “great British brands,” and “blue passports.” (Search the term “gammon” on Google.)

So, what is this device?

English Electric announced the device at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show with claims that the English Electric 8switch can act as a filter for streamed audio to remove unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.

Let’s highlight the magical thinking above:

unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider

They are saying that there is “unwanted noise” on network hardware, and that “regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.” Let’s think about this. When Netflix streams 4K video, do you think they “never consider” “unwanted noise?” Or that banks, for example, don’t care about noise that could cause data loss or corruption?

Actually, they don’t, because it doesn’t exist. Ethernet, and the protocols it uses, don’t have “noise.” They have 1s and 0s, and error checking, and retransmission, to ensure that the data sent matches the data received. It’s true that you can have cables that malfunction; when that happens, they simply don’t work, because there are too many errors to correct. (You can see this if you ever have a bad HDMI cable; it’s a mess, with lots of artifacts and pixelation.)

But, says the magazine:

The 8switch will come with its own unique power supply and feature better separation with the idea of “making nastier sounding tracks better”.

Now this is something different. Not the bit about “making nastier sounding tracks better,” which is just marketing copy written by someone who didn’t attend much school, but having it’s own “unique power supply” could make a difference to noise; at least the noise that you hear if you put your ear really close to the device. Because while a bad power supply could create a hum, or ground loop, in an amplifier, it will not do anything to an Ethernet switch. If the power works, the data is sent and received. It doesn’t matter if there’s a hum, or if the power is “dirty” as people in the audio fantasyland like to say. If the cables aren’t broken, the data is sent correctly. If the cables are broken, then there’s too many frames that aren’t received correctly, and data won’t flow. It’s not like data comes through looking like this:

Gur 8fjvgpu jvyy pbzr jvgu vgf bja havdhr cbjre fhccyl naq srngher orggre frcnengvba jvgu gur vqrn bs “znxvat anfgvre fbhaqvat genpxf orggre”.

Oh, and it costs £400. You can get an 8-port Ethernet switch for about £21 on Amazon.

But back to the brand. This is, apparently, a truly great British brand:

English Electric was originally founded in 1918 in the armistice of the First World War by amalgamating five companies which had been used in the war effort to manufacture munitions, armaments and aeroplanes. It became defunct in 1968 after some notable successes including the English Electric trains and the supersonic English Electric Lightning jet.

And as the article ends:

Expect to hear from English Electric later in the year.

I shall hold my breath.