World Premiere Review!
Andy Wiederspahn at Synergistic Research knows I'm Old School but offered to send me one of their new Ethernet Switch UEF and Foundation Ethernet cables. He knows I'm a fanboy of Synergistic, but also a fairboy when it comes to reviewing. I assured him I could lean on my good audio buddy, Tom Lathrop, to help me out with breaking it all in and providing an evening of critical listening. This wasn't going to be a long critical review spanning dozens of musical genres from various music providers. Nope, it was going to be the reviewing equivalent of speed dating.
Tom was educated as an electrical engineer, so he was skeptical that an Ethernet switch could make a huge difference. But he is also an audiophile with a dedicated room and a pretty good system. The Ethernet Switch UEF was out of his price range so after using a basic one for years he researched more reasonably priced designs that targeted the audiophile market. Hans Beekhuyzen is one of his favorite reviewers and Tom liked what Hans had to say about the UpTone Audio EtherREGEN so he bought one. As a computer audio dummy, that gave me three points of reference: the UpTone Audio, Synergistic Research, and his original TP-Link Ethernet switch — enough to make a triangle.
We picked Jackson Browne's "The Load Out" from Running on Empty. I have this song on both CD and LP and use it as one of my references when reviewing analog gear. It's a live recording with several signifiers that make it easy to differentiate one piece of gear from another. Tom also has the CD and a 24-bit/192kHz download on his NAS. After listening to other music on my compilation CD for nearly an hour, I was well acclimated to his rig and room once again.
We started with his UpTone Audio EtherREGEN Ethernet switch. It felt like a step down from listening to CD, and not something that could lure me away from CDs and LPs. Tom's Marten Miles III speakers can be a bit bright and harsh on the edges, though he has done wonders to tame them over the years with careful component and cable selection. The song here still had a fair amount of sibilance on Jackson's singing and the edges of sustained lap guitar and organ notes. The musicians were positioned on the soundstage, but not nearly as pinpointed as I would have liked.
There was a bit of air to the presentation, but nowhere near what we would achieve later. The difference between the female and falsetto male solos near the end of "Stay" which segues from the end of "The Load Out" was differentiated, but the singers had no identity or presence to the audience or this listener. They lacked the physicality of real people. The applause in reaction to their solos was not convincing.
From there, we switched to the Synergistic Research Ethernet Switch UEF. The same song got a lot better. There was more air and a sense of the venue. The sibilants were brought under better (but not complete) control. The musicians were more specifically located, though not pinpointed. The timbre of instruments seemed more correct and there was more tonal color. The soloists became more real, as did the applause. Overall, the music was considerably more enjoyable, as well it should be for the price difference, clearly proving that better Ethernet switches make a significant difference. But it was still not good enough to get me excited about computer audio. (Don't go away.)
With the inexpensive TP-Link switch the musicians were not only vague, but they also seemed to float around a bit on the soundstage. Sibilance was pronounced and the handclapping... well, I guess it was applause, but it could have been people slapping their legs.
"Yes, the purpose was to eliminate any noise that was being carried on the wired Ethernet cables. I eliminated the optical converters because I was having trouble getting the EtherREGEN switch to work. I wanted to eliminate anything that wasn't absolutely necessary. The documentation for the EtherREGEN says that optical isolation shouldn't be necessary because the EtherREGEN used a "moat" that provides electrical isolation between the two sides of the switch.
"I was listening to an interesting podcast this afternoon. John Darko was interviewing the chief design engineer for the Innuos streamers. He was talking about using optical isolators on an Ethernet connection. He said that in theory, a pair of optical isolators eliminates all noise transmission. The problem is, though, that the optical signal gets converted back to an electrical signal. Doing that requires digital circuitry, and that circuitry can introduce noise. If the signal going into the optical isolators is a low-noise signal, the optical isolators can actually increase the amount of noise going to the DAC."
The Synergistic Ethernet Switch uses no optical isolator, nor does it have a "moat." You can read about the technology in more detail on their website, but basically, the Ethernet Switch UEF combines their active EM cell technology and UEF technology to close the sound quality gap between digital and analog technologies. It's then packaged in a Galileo-level chassis of solid billet aluminum with a carbon fiber top to eliminate chassis vibrations. Make no mistake. This is a top-tier product. There are no multiple levels of Ethernet switches as they have in their cable and power conditioner lines.
I have to suspect Ted Denney felt that people wanting to get this deep into streaming would only want the best. Coming from my preferred analog background, I have to say this is the first streaming application that makes me even consider streaming as a possibility. Their switch makes that much of a difference.
Enter, The Foundation Ethernet Cable... Stage Left
From the opening seconds, I could feel the atmosphere in the venue. The music had a clarity, presence, and natural feel that, for the first time, made me think there was something worthwhile to streaming music. The sibilance was finally controlled. The soloists were so realistic I could feel something like their personalities in their voices. Musicians were solidly placed in realistic, identifiable positions on the soundstage. Jackson Browne sounded like I had heard him on my reference CD & LP rig. And the applause came from real people in the audience. Surely, this must be what computer audio is about. This wasn't my speakers and this wasn't my room, but I got a serious insight into why so many audiophiles are seduced by internet streaming services.
But Wait! It Gets Better!
I've had their passive ground block in my rig and found it to be a nice tweak with an assortment of Synergistic ground wires and some homebrew ones that Tom made up for me. But Ted Denney, the owner, and chief designer has gone way upstream with three versions of active ground blocks. The line tops out with their Galileo SX Ground Block that ranges from $7500 to $10k, depending on the power cable with which it is bundled. Tom's Active Ground Block SE retails for $2995 and comes bundled with the Atmosphere Active Ground Block AC cable.
Plugging the Active Ground Block SE directly into the dedicated line, hence bypassing the PowerCell 8 SE power conditioner, produced a noticeable drop in subliminal noise that you never recognize until you remove it. It was far more effective than my passive Ground Block — even taking into consideration we are talking different systems in different homes. While the Active Ground Block SE is five times the price of the passive Ground Block, I can't say the performance of the Active is five times better. After all, there is a whole lot more technology in the Active version and there are always diminishing returns as you climb higher in audio. But I can suggest with good conscience that if you notice a definite improvement with the passive Ground Block, you will very likely be even more pleased with the Active.
I should also note that there is a built-in connection for one of their mini-banana plugs on the Ethernet Switch UEF to plug a ground wire in. Tom had been using one of his homemade ground wires on the switch during this evaluation. That Synergistic included this ground connection tells me they are convinced grounding systems are going to eventually become a "must-have" component for serious audiophiles.
New Purple Fuses
Twenty four hours into the burn in the Purples had surpassed the Acme Silver Cryo fuse with better resolution, inner detail, tonal color …and were close in transparency, and only falling a little behind in dynamics, but Andy assured me they would get much better over the next four days. I left the rig running 24/7 with the Sony transport on ‘repeat'. Purple fuses were in my CD transport, Calyx 24/192 DAC, Coincident Line Stage, and AGD The Audion GaNFET monoblocks. At 48 hours out they were sounding much better with transparency and dynamics coming up to speed.
I'm now about 150 hours with the fuses running in everything except the tube preamp which has maybe only 100 hours. A reader suggested I need much more time for fuses to settle in, but in my experience, my written comments would not change beyond this point in time, even though the product might improve slightly. The audiophile lexicon is much coarser than the fine gradations of component performance.
I'm in real trouble here though with the Purple fuses. In the September issue of Enjoy the Musc.com's Review Magazine, I raved about High Fidelity Cable's new NPS 1260 contact enhancer being the greatest tweak in twenty years of reviewing. Then, in the October issue I had to call the outstanding Acme Silver Cryo fuses the greatest tweak I've reviewed in the past 30 days, when in fact, it was in the same league as the NPS 1260. And now, only another 30 days later, I'm here to tell you that for many, if not most audiophiles, the Synergistic Research Purple fuses are the greatest thing since pre-sliced cellophane on CD jewel cases. I feel like my credibility may be going downhill faster than a four-man bobsled in the Winter Olympics.
On the web page for the Purple fuse Synergistic claims the improvement made with this generation of fuse is greater than any previous generation. Having reviewed all four now, I have to emphatically agree. It is a big step up over the Orange and it even readily surpasses the Acme fuses in all manner except for one, which will be a personal preference call for some. Once again we have trickle-down technology crossing over this time from the SRX Series cables in the form of a "three-stage long duration high voltage conditioning process" and a new UEF compound featuring Graphene — the wonder drug of high-end audio.
Like the Orange fuse before it, the Purple continues with excellent build quality and clearly labeled values, though you still must take care not to scrape off the proprietary crusty dollup on the side. And you still have to ensure proper orientation in the fuse holder. Your ears will tell you when you've got it right.
What I Say
The music exhibited a sense of height that was appropriate for each recording. My speakers go down to about 33Hz and in that lower region, the timbre of instruments became a lot more palpable. The attack of notes also contributed to the dynamics but it was the extension and tonal color of the decay of notes that yielded a level of bloom that lifted the pace, rhythm, and timing that drew me into the music. Cymbals shimmered and my toes suffered windburn from tapping along with the music.
The one caveat for audiophiles that prefer a more neutral, dryer sound that might correlate more closely with live orchestral music is the bloom might be excessive for your taste. If that's the case, I'd suggest you try the Acme Silver Cryo fuse with their special coating. And if that is too dry, try the Silver Cryo fuse without the special coating. I happen to relish the bloom brought by the Purple fuse, particularly because it doesn't come at the cost of high resolution. It also creates a sense of a larger, more realistically sized room for the music that could be helpful in more modestly sized listening rooms.
For those who are starting out in this hobby and expect to upgrade components in the next few years, the Acme Silver Cryo fuses at their much lower prices may be a more reasonable approach, especially considering that a new component may likely require a different value or size of fuse. There is nothing to be ashamed of for buying low with the Acme. And if you are a complete fuse denier, definitely shed your virginity and try one of the Acme fuses; they are an outstanding gateway drug to the high end. Once you see the light, it will likely be Purple.
Purple Fuse Summary
The Train Keeps A Rolling
Synergistic Research Ethernet Switch UEF
Synergistic Research Foundation Ethernet Cable
Synergistic Research Active Ground Block SE
Synergistic Research Purple Fuse Global MSRP $199.95 all sizes.
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