Sunday Morning Hi Fi #12

Home Networking for Audiophiles

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Sunday Morning Hi Fi #12

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, and that you had some time to show off your stereos to your family members. My family is always blown away when they hear their favorite songs with proper imaging and soundstage, which is unfortunately a rare thing. Share that love for proper setup and great sound with others; it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give.

Today I’m going to talk about home networking: routers, switches, modems, access points, wireless channels, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wireless modes, and other tech talk to bring your home network up to speed. Why are we talking about networking? Because it’s now more important than ever to have a fast home network in order to achieve the best sound quality and performance for 21st century audio. Having a fast network became a necessity for my better half and me when we decided to host Thanksgiving this year. Fifteen people staying in one house meant twenty or so extra devices constantly connected to the wireless network, all streaming music, movies, and uploading countless photos and videos. Such is a modern family. People now expect to connect to your home network and seamlessly walk around the house with no connectivity issues. But this is highly demanding on your network’s ability to handle all that traffic, and if it’s not up to snuff you will experience slow downs and drop outs. Plus, all of this meant that streaming CD-quality music via TIDAL to all my Bluesound whole-house wireless speakers and main stereo would be a difficult task without poor performance. I decided to preemptively upgrade my network before any issues could arise.

Disclaimer

Some of the things we will be discussing require very advanced home-networking skills: if the terms SSH, DNS, NAT, Port Forwarding, and PoE are unfamiliar to you, find someone who knows about this stuff or hire an IT professional to help you set up your home network. I’m not an IT professional, so this article is for reference only. When in doubt, talk with an expert about your home network. Advanced network setup is not something your nephew or niece can help with, either, unless they are very skilled with all of this. For optimal performance, setting up a router requires knowledge of Command Line Interface (CLI), which is akin to programming code. Unless you are a power DIYer who loves to get your hands dirty, setting up DHCP servers via CLI can be an overwhelming and frustrating experience.

Typical Home Network

If you’re reading this, you have Internet in your home. The most basic of setups is of course one computer connected to a modem that’s connected to the Internet, or more precisely your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) servers that connect to the Wide Area Network (WAN). This only allows one computer to connect to the Internet, and that’s it. Most people have a wireless router, though. A wireless router is a router and an access point in one box (and sometimes even a modem). While these combo boxes are fine for basic home networks, they aren’t fast enough to handle streaming high-res audio while someone else is streaming video while someone else is uploading cat videos. You could have the fastest Internet connection on Earth, but if your router isn’t fast you won’t be able to use all of that bandwidth. Whereas integrated amplifiers in the high end can be of extremely high quality, integrated modems/routers/access points are never going to give you the speeds you really want. Plus, many ISPs charge you a monthly fee to rent an outdated piece of equipment. Never rent your modem or your router, you are throwing money away. If you are currently renting your router, call your ISP and ask them for their list of “approved” modems that you can purchase.

Advanced Home Network

All-in-one routers are too slow to handle lots of traffic on your home network. Period. Sure, they will be “fine,” but they will never give you a true high-speed network. I’m going to describe an advanced home network with three wireless access points based on Ubiquiti products. There are other great products, but Ubiquiti provides enterprise-level performance at consumer-level prices.

Our advanced home network will be connected thusly: Modem >> gigabit router (with no wireless) >> gigabit switch >> wireless access points (APs). Let’s break it down further.

Modem: Because Time Warner Cable now offers 300mbps speeds in the Austin area, I decided to go with the Motorola Surfboard SB6183 DOCSIS 3.0 modem ($129). There are better modems available, but 300mbps is more bandwidth than most anybody will ever need. More bandwidth would not make your home network any faster—your routers, switches, and access points are more important. Just make sure your modem uses DOCSIS 3.0 to realize the new high-speed connections.

Router: I went with the Ubiquiti Edgerouter PoE ($175) for my router. It handles more than 1 million packets per second, which is way faster than any combo router can handle. But remember, all this router does is route network traffic. While it can operate as a switch, it’s meant to route traffic to a standalone switch.

Switch: I purchased the Ubiquiti TS-8-Pro ToughSwitch ($185) 8-port switch, which is probably a little overkill for most people, but it has an incredible amount of advanced features and is lightning fast. You could also go with something like the TP Link TL-SG108 8-Port switch ($23). With your switch, just make sure that it’s gigabit, and that it’s self-powered with a minimum of 2MB of buffer memory. The Ubiquiti ToughSwitch has 64MB of memory, for example. This allows for faster networking speeds.

Access Points: With everything being wireless now, super fast, dual-band wireless access points (APs) are extremely important to realize true high-speed networking, especially if you like to back up your computers wirelessly while also streaming video or high-res audio over your network. I went with three Ubiquiti UAP-AC wireless APs ($265 each). The reason you want a dual-band wireless access point (which transmits on the 5GHz and 2.4GHz radio bands) is that many newer devices and computers can use the new 802.11ac wireless standard, which allows older devices to run on the 2.4GHz b/g/n wireless band and the new devices to run on the faster 5GHz wireless band. This means that you can offload some of that traffic onto the 5GHz band, freeing up the slower wireless lanes. Put another way, having an 802.11ac wireless access point is like building a super highway for your Internet traffic, allowing the older devices more space on the older and more-congested wireless roads.

Setting It Up

There are many great forums and articles about setting up your advanced network, so I won’t go into a lengthy step-by-step discussion of how to set everything up, but I will give you the basics. The first thing to do is to configure your router for handling all of your home network’s traffic. For an enterprise-level router like the Edgerouter PoE, you need to connect your computer via Ethernet to the router, and access the router’s settings via SSH (Secure Shell). Basically, this entails logging into the router by typing in its IP address into your browser, typically 192.168.1.1 and entering the basic login info provided by the manufacturer. You will need to set up three ports on your router, one for WAN (Wide Area Network, which is the Ethernet port for connection with your modem to the ISP), one for LAN (which will connect to your switch, which will in turn connect to your access points and other devices), and a secondary LAN for accessing the router in the future. The Edgerouter PoE comes with 5 Ethernet ports, so you can expand to multiple switches for a combination of wired devices on one switch, and wireless access points on another switch—this is how I have my home set up.

The Edgerouter PoE has a set-up wizard that will set the ports for you in a WAN + 2 LAN port configuration, but if you want to set up all ports to route specific devices on multiple DHCP servers, you will need to delve deeper and get your hands dirty. Again, refer to forums and articles for help with this. Once you have your router set up, plug your modem in to the WAN port, and your switch into the LAN port via CAT 5e or higher Ethernet cable. Remember, on enterprise-level routers these ports are not automatically set, so you have to set these ports manually. No color-coded labels on these babies. Then, plug your three access points into your switch.

Ubiquiti and other advanced companies use PoE (Power over Ethernet) to power their access points. Power over Ethernet allows you to power an access point (or other devices) with a single Ethernet cable, without the need to plug the device into an outlet. These access points come with a PoE injector, which powers the Ethernet cable. Alternatively, some switches can power access points without the need for an injector, but these require additional setup to enable such features.

It’s important to set up your access points correctly. Each DHCP server assigns IP addresses to the devices throughout your home automatically, giving devices individual IP addresses within a range of 1 through 254. Typically, your router will be 192.168.1.1, and it will assign all other devices an IP address from 192.168.1.2 through 192.168.1.254. While this is fine in a basic setup, you will want to have devices that are “always on” outside of the DCHP lease range, but within the DHCP server. What this means is that you will want to assign static IP address to all devices that are always on, such as: Access points, NAS drives (Network Attached Storage hard drives), music servers, streaming audio devices like the Bluesound products, et cetera. Basically, if you don’t turn the device on and off, and it’s always connected to your home network, it should have a static IP address. Your cell phone, your laptop, your tablet, and other such devices that you take with you don’t need a static IP address. This means that you will set up a DHCP lease that assigns IP addresses to those mobile devices, with a range of something like 192.168.1.100 through 192.168.1.254, and then assign static IPs to your access points and other devices. This will look like: Router (192.168.1.1), access point 1 (192.168.1.2), access point 2 (192.168.1.3), access point 3 (192.168.1.4), music server (192.168.1.5), wireless speaker (192.168.1.6), and so on.

It’s fairly easy to log in to an access point and set its static IP, but your music servers and NAS drives and wireless speakers will sometimes need to be set up using the MAC address, which is a unique address for all devices connecting to the Internet and home networks. You can set these by creating DHCP reservations in your router. Again, refer to articles and forums on how to do this, or contact an IT professional for help.

Back to the wireless access points, with multiple APs you will need to set static broadcast channels for optimal performance, otherwise the signals will conflict when they overlap. When using three access points, you will need to set one AP to channel 1, one AP to channel 7, and one AP to channel 11. Don’t use the auto channel assignment feature, because we don’t want our signals to conflict and all be on channel 11, for example. Ubiquiti APs come with UniFi software, which allows you to connect to the access point and change settings using a web browser and graphical user interface (GUI). Basically, place the access points throughout your house, route Ethernet cables to each of them, connect the cables to your switch, and then you’re ready to log in and manage everything.

Your final setup using three access points should then be: Modem >> Router >> Switch >> Access Point 1; Access Point 2; Access Point 3.

I know that this isn’t an in-depth article on the subject, but this should give you a general idea about how to hot-rod your home network and bring it up to speed for high-res music streaming throughout your home. With this kind of “advanced” home network, you will be able to stream video, high-res music, back up your computers, and do all of this simultaneously. Every manufacturer is slightly different, so giving you a step-by-step article about one router would be pointless. But hopefully this little article will help you become more comfortable with the idea of upgrading your home network.

As always, feel free to ask questions and leave comments. I have some great new music coming your way next week.

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