How To Optimize Digital Streaming With Optical Fiber

A Better Way To Stream

Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
Digital cables
How To Optimize Digital Streaming With Optical Fiber

Less is More
The purpose of using optical fiber and networking devices with better clocks and power supplies is to reduce sources of noise and improve timing of bitstreams. It was originally thought that digital sources and connections were impervious to the effect of noise on audio quality; after all, they’re just 1’s and 0’s, right? What can go wrong? Well, it turns out that bitstreams are not composed of 1’s and 0’s; that is only how the data comprising the music file is encoded. What is actually transmitted from server to DAC are analog square wave voltages. As result, it turns out that…everything matters. 

In my home network and system, adding the FMCs and a run of optical fiber from my router to the downstream network bridge improved the sound of my digital streaming system in notable ways. The noise floor was appreciably lower, which allowed me to hear more deeply into the music. Interestingly, I could lower the volume setting on the preamp, yet still hear as much detail and musical information as I could at louder levels. Compared to Wi-Fi or a long run of generic copper Ethernet, the soundstage was also notably more spacious, open, and airy-sounding with improved focus on individual instruments and voices. On the whole, the overall presentation was a notably more lifelike and natural-sounding digital streaming system. 

The advent of the Sonore OpticalModule in the market around this time provided yet another audible level of improvement with a fiber-optic-based network. The higher-specification clock (crystal oscillator) and power supply of the OpticalModule provides improved timing and lowers the noise floor more than generic FMCs, so you get a lot less of the bad stuff and lot more of the good stuff described above. Power the OpticalModule with a good linear power supply, e.g., an Uptone Audio LPS-1.2, and you’ll effectively have a state-of-the-art network system for digital streaming that will be clean, quiet, transparent, and lifelike. 

The Wrap
We’ve come a long way with respect to digital music reproduction, particularly in the last five years. Streaming services like Tidal and Qobuz have become mainstream as viable sources of musical content, and components specifically designed for networking digital streaming have become available to provide superior-quality audio reproduction. We’re no longer limited to physical media and disc players, and the convenience and ease of use that streaming offers is matched by equipment and components that provide a concomitant level of superb audio performance. In my experience and in my system, this performance is best realized by direct network connections from streamer to DAC utilizing the advantages that a fiber-optic connection has over traditional copper Ethernet, including immunity from RF, EMI, and high-impedance leakage currents from SMPS and network component clocks that increase jitter and clock phase noise. 

Everyone’s system is different, and the degree of benefits in any system can be tricky to assess, but the components and cabling for a basic configuration are inexpensive enough to try for yourself, and see if they work for you. They certainly worked very well in my system. If you like the results, and want to upgrade these networking components, there are now audio-application-specific fiber media convertors, e.g. the Sonore OpticalModule, and power supplies (e.g., the Uptone Audio LPS-1.2) that provide higher performance and audio quality. Moreover, if you find that you also need an audiophile-grade Ethernet switch, the AQVox and SOtM Ethernet switches have been on the market for over a year, and the recently released Uptone Audio EtherREGEN Ethernet switch shipped in Q4, 2019. The EtherREGEN not only provides much higher-quality audio performance than other Ethernet switches, but also supports fiber-optic connections. 

Bottom-line: Digital streaming is here to stay. We’ve now got amazing streaming service providers at our beck and call, and we also now have audiophile-grade networking components that lets us realize the full potential of the amazing content we have at our fingertips. My advice: Jump in! The water’s fine.