I’m a music lover and audio enthusiast. I’m not a professional reviewer. All equipment mentioned in my reviews is equipment I've purchased for my personal use. The views expressed in my reviews are my own. Your experiences, of course, may differ for a variety of reasons including but not limited to personal preferences, different combinations of equipment, and different listening environments.
IntroductionIn April 2015, I added a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC to my system. While I found the Yggdrasil (aka Yggy) to be an excellent DAC (my full review can be read here), I was curious to see if the Yggy’s sonic performance could be improved by using one of the many USB-based Digital-to-Digital-Converter (DDC) “fixes” that have entered the market. So began my quest to improve the already respectable performance of the Yggy. Over the course of the next 18 months, I’ve tried the devices listed below and had varying degrees of success with each.
- UpTone Audio USB REGEN Amber (see the USB REGEN Update section of my Yggy review)
- iFi iPurifier2 → iUSB → iFi Gemini cable
- Audiophilleo 2
These devices range in price from $180 to $650, and all are USB-based. At $999, the Focusrite RedNet 3 (RN3) costs significantly more than these USB-based devices. But more importantly, the RN3 supports audio over Ethernet communications by using Digital Audio Network Through Ethernet (Dante) a proprietary Layer 3 protocol by Audinate. Then with Dante Virtual Soundcard (DVS) software running on a Mac or PC, you can directly connect a computer to the RN3 interface via an Ethernet cable, which is a significant departure from the USB-based connectivity solutions I’ve tried to date. Given this different approach to connectivity, could the RN3 provide sonic improvements over other USB connectivity solutions available today? Well… maybe.
SetupThe equipment used in this evaluation is shown below. The RN3 includes both ASIO and WDM drivers, but due to integration issues I experienced with Tidal, I elected to use ASIO for this evaluation. Also, because it’s easier for me to evaluate certain aspects of electronics with speakers, the majority of listening was done with speakers. I’ve found the Evolution Acoustics MMMicro One speakers to be highly resolving, and therefore an excellent tool for evaluating equipment.
Windows 10 PC → Intel Gigabit CT Network Adapter → Ethernet UTP → RN3 → AES/EBU (DIY cable) → Schiit Yggdrasil → Placette Passive → Sanders Magtech → Evolution Acoustics MMMicro One (w/JLAudio f113 sub)
Note: Because my only Ethernet port is used for Internet access, I opted to install a second NIC for a direct connection to the RN3.
If you are looking for the convenience of a plug-n-play solution, you may be better served by looking into other USB-based DDC solutions. Installation and setup of a RedNet interface can be a simple 10-minute affair, or, as it was in my case, almost a week and a half long effort, researching problems, installing drivers, making configuration changes and performing untold numbers of reboots just to optimize Windows 10 to mitigate audio dropout latency issues. My understanding is Windows can be a much more challenging environment for a RedNet device than a Mac. Macs tend to be much less problematic when it comes to setup, installation, and performance. This is a partial list of items to consider if you need to optimize your Windows PC:
- Update all devices with the manufacturer’s latest drivers
- Disable anti-virus/malware packages
- Disable automatic updates
- Close all non-audio related programs
- Close apps with cloud-based updates
What was the biggest takeaway I learned from this experience? If you must use Windows and you have the means, set up an RN3 on a stripped down server optimized for music. This approach would involve much less effort (albeit at additional cost), and you will most likely achieve better performance than on bloated multi-function workstation designed with Internet use in mind. In my case, I was not able to completely exorcise all of the audio dropouts from my machine. However, I was able to reduce the interruptions to a frequency that was tolerable (from several times within a 15 minute period to just a few occurrences in an hour). Unfortunately, as a way to justify the RN3, I had to resign myself to the fact living with the RN3 is not unlike having to endure the occasional pop or tick one might hear when listening to one side of an album. Would I give up vinyl because of an occasional pop or tick? No, of course not. So, why would I give up the RN3? That’s the question I’ll try to explore.
With the installation out of the way, I was prepared to begin auditioning the "very" red RN3, which by the way compliments the, also red, finish of my speakers.
SoundFor this audition, rather than immediately listening to selected pieces of music from my demo music collection, I choose to let the RN3 play in the background as I queued up various jazz and classical genre focused playlist. I went about my daily business and even with music playing at lower background listening levels, I would occasionally hear musical clues that hinted of natural sounding musical experiences to come.
When I finally sat down for critical listening, I began by reflecting on my past experiences with USB devices. While each of the various USB chain enchantments I’ve tried affected different aspects of the sound, the RN3 seemed to improve the overall focus of sound across the entire frequency spectrum. With the RN3, a thin film of haze was removed from a window I thought had been clear glass. In my system, before the RN3, you can easily make out the placement and outline of performers. But now, with the RN3, performers and instruments were thrown into stark relief. Every instrument, voice, and echo became a little more distinct, focused and vivid. The degree of the effect varied from recording to recording, but the effect was always recognizable.
I’m hard pressed to detect if the RN3 has a sound of its own. Rather than imposing its sound signature on the system, I found the RN3 enhances or magnifies all of the existing qualities of a system and brings instruments, voices and ambient environmental clues into sharper focus. With Keiko Matsui’s Deity in The Silence, there’s a bit more separation and definition around instruments. There is a smoother trailing edge to cymbals and piano reverberation is more distinct and sustained.
Clarity and focus are not diminished with concussively powerful pieces. Is your system capable of handling the full impact of bass synths? The synths hit very hard on Depeche Mode’s Welcome to My World. With the RN3, the bass is slightly tighter, and there’s no hint of strain or congestion even at what I consider very loud listening levels (90dB+). I’ve never heard this track sound better in my room.
At the other end of the dynamic spectrum, with intimate pieces, all of the subtle detail and layers of sound are present as well. Listen to the purity of the simple harmonizing of Cherone and Bettencourt on Extreme's More Than Words. When listening closely, I particularly like the delicate, airy sounds of Nuno Bettencourt’s guitar fingering work starting around the last 30 seconds of this 5:34 second song.
When it comes to detail, the RN3 ruthlessly revealed the complex layering of Shpongle’s Shpongle Falls. If a sound, or even silence, has been captured, the RN3 does an excellent job of reproducing all of the nuances of the recording, from the tone and timbre of the instruments, to the nuanced acoustics of the recording venue. With good recordings, the RN3 can convey these musical clues in a natural and relaxed manner. However, the amount of detail presented can be a blessing or a curse depending on the recording. With good recordings, the added focus and contrast to the music provides a richer musical experience which ultimately brought me closer to the actual performance. But with lesser recordings, the experience sometimes became almost unlistenable at loud volumes; Tears for Fears’ Shout would be an example. I suspect for some systems, especially systems that are highly resolving, the RN3 may almost be too much of a good thing.
SummaryThe RedNet 3 is computer interface, designed for the pro audio community, used to connect components to a RedNet audio network. The Dante Virtual Soundcard software by Audinate, allows you to directly connect your PC to the RN3 via a single Cat5e/Cat6 Ethernet cable; you’re no longer constrained by the 5m distance limitation of USB cables. You can then connect a DAC to the RN3 via AES/EBU, or S/PDIF RCA* connections. With the RN3, you get a computer interface that, in my opinion, exceeds the sound quality improvements provided by devices like the UpTone REGEN (best value), iFi iPurifer2/iUSB (lowest noise floor), and Audiophilleo 2 (good USB to S/PDIF converter), all of which I’ve tried in my system for extended periods.
As much as I like the sometimes subtle, but noticeable, sonic improvements I enjoyed with the RN3 in my system, based on the difficulties I experienced with the RN3, I have to say the RN3 may not be for everyone. If you’re running a Mac or have the resources to build, or can dedicate a Windows music server to your system, you may find integrating this cutting edge pro audio device into your home audio system to be a much more forgiving experience. On the other hand, if you are constrained by the limitations of your computing environment, the RN3 may be less than ideal.
For now, the RN3 will stay in my system because sonically, the RN3 is the most revealing interface I’ve heard in my system to date; although I found the differences between the RN3 and other USB solutions to be much closer than I would have predicted. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if a less expensive, sonically equivalent device offering audio over Ethernet becomes available to the consumer market in the coming year. If this prediction does hold true, that device might be a more attractive solution than the RN3.
In the meantime, if you would like to try an Ethernet-based connectivity solution now, I found the Focusrite RedNet 3 to be a viable single-box alternative to the likes of several other USB-based interfaces/regenerators currently on the market.
Hardware (under test)
- Intel Gigabit CT Desktop Adapter (EXPI9301CTBLK) $20 Used
- DIY 3’ Mogami Gold AES Cable $57
- Focusrite RedNet 3 $999 Retail New
- Tidal → ASIO Bridge → DVS ASIO Driver
- JRiver → DVS ASIO Driver
- Keiko Matsui - Deity in The Silence
- Extreme - More Than Words
- Shpongle - Shpongle Falls
- Other selections from my Demo Music Playlist on Tidal
*Note: As of this writing, the Yggdrasil does not accept S/PDIF streams from the RN3’s S/PDIF RCA output. In a post from Head-Fi member Atomicbob he mentions, Yggdrasil honors the SCMS flag and won't accept the input SPDIF data stream when set to "Copy prohibited". This incompatibility issue is DAC dependent. I tested two additional DACs - an iFi micro iDSD and a Benchmark DAC1 Pre. Both DACs accepted S/PDIF streams via RCA from the RN3. If you intend to use the RN3 S/PDIF RCA output, it’s possible you may encounter compatibility issues. I’ve not encountered any problems with AES/EBU to the Yggy.