Equipment Review 20 – Innuos PhoenixNET - Audiophile Network Switch
Introduction – What is there to write about a product that you don’t really need, has only one input, three identical outputs, has no display not even a front or rear LED to tell you it’s turned on, doesn’t get warm in use, the only control is a rear mounted on/off switch and the only way to tell it is live and doing something is by looking at the device it’s connected to. Quite a lot as it turns out.
Innuos was founded in 2013 by Nuno Vitorino and Amelia Santos, a husband-and-wife team based in Portugal. This new product from Innuos offers something different to their main product list which concentrates almost solely on streamers/servers and is an attempt to offer a high-quality Network Switch for those well-healed audiophiles who are more into streaming than any other form of playback. These days this is a growing trend, particularly for our younger customers. It costs a cool (read expensive) £2,599.00. So why spend all that money on a network switch when you can simply use the output from the device provided by your network provider, such as a BT Home Hub, or if you need more outlets than those provided it is possible to add a network switch for very little money. These cheaper switches are designed for computer use and are not ‘audiophile grade’ devices and clearly Innuos and other manufacturers think they can improve on these devices by making ones using their experience and knowledge and by using high quality audio grade components to make a difference to the audio quality delivered to your music server, and I tend to agree. I wasn’t convinced on this until late last year when I first listened to an English Electric 8 Switch made by the Chord Company at £450 and I was so impressed I bought one. The 8 Switch has by definition 8 upgraded ethernet outputs whereas the PhoenixNET has just 3 so what does it bring to the party in terms of improved sound to justify its cost and demand a place on your HI-Fi rack? And what exactly is a Network Switch anyway?
Technology – A network switch is a device in a computer network that connects other devices together. Multiple data cables are plugged into a switch to enable communication between different networked devices. An audiophile grade switch is one that connects to your Home Hub network device and attempts to deliver a cleaner, less noisy, more stable and precise signal to your music streamer or server and to link all your network connected devices together with the same high-resolution data transfer.
Innuos describe the PhoenixNET as a Network Reclocker and as ‘The realisation of Innuos’ philosophy of simplicity and signal purity applied to the network switch’ and when designing the PhoenixNET Innuos identified 4 key areas to concentrate their design efforts on:
· Minimise Network Switch Noise – no internal switching regulators and 3 independent voltages supplied by Statement* grade linear power supply. Individual network isolation transformers, high quality ethernet ports (1 in and 3 out), managed EMI absorption.
· Increase Clocking Precision and Stability – Using the same OCXO clocks as used in the Statement, individually powered.
· Provide Pristine Power to the Components – two independent Statement grade linear power supplies with Mundorf Caps.
· Minimise Vibration on Components – three levels of vibration control via the anti-vibration feet, top cover treatment and silicon mounted ports.
*The Statement is Innuos’ top of the range streamer/server sitting above the Zenith range.
The PhoenixNET is a mains powered device with onboard transformer so no basic wall wart plug here. Network speed is 100Mbps. It has three special anti-vibration feet fitted as standard.
The PhoenixNET is built into a half width case, similar to that used by their USB Reclocker and comes with a silver or black facia. It is 215mm x 342 x 87 (W x D x H) and weighs in at 5Kg.
System Components – I inserted the PhoenixNET between my BT Home Hub, bypassing the 8 Switch, and into my own Innuos Zenith Mk 3 in my home system comprising Michi P5 Pre-Amp and M8 Monobloc Power Amps. I used a Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro (MQA) DAC and speakers were my usual Marten Mingus Quintet with cables from Jorma Design. I would normally have an Innuos PhoenixUSB Reclocker in my system but this wasn’t available at the time of this review.
Performance – I compared the PhoenixNET with the 8 Switch and also with no audio switch, just a direct feed from the Home Hub.
I listened to streamed music only for this review to get the full network effect using music files streamed via Roon from Tidal and Qobuz. To fully assess what impact the PhoenixNET had on sound quality I selected a number of tracks that for me have interesting vocals and instruments with depth of soundstage and are challenging for a system to get right. They are also well known to me, which helps form an opinion.
· ‘Into My Arms’ – Roger Daltrey – As Long as I Have You (Tidal MQA 96kHz 24bit)
· ‘James Bond’ – Iggy Pop – Free (Tidal MQA 44.1kHz 24bit)
· ‘In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company’ – The Dead South – Good Company (Tidal FLAC 44.1kHz 16bit)
· ‘The Place I Want to Be’ – SaintSavior / Badly Drawn Boy – The Place I Want To Be (Tidal FLAC 44.1kHz 16bit)
· ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ – Angus & Julia – Snow (Qobuz 44.1kHz 24bit)
· ‘Living on A Rainbow’ - Angus & Julia Stone – Big Yet Plane (Qobuz 44.1kHz 24bit)
· ‘Come Together (2019 mix)’ – The Beatles – Abbey Road (Tidal MQA 96kHz 24bit)
1. A direct feed from my BT Hub to the Zenith Mk III with no audio grade network switch (PhoenixNET and 8 Switch disconnected) – I have been an Innuos Zenith user for some 4 years now and until recently I have always listened to streamed music by connecting the Zenith directly to my Home Hub device. Until 6 months ago I didn’t know much about what a network switch did let alone what impact it could have on
sound quality. Listening to my selection of tracks direct from the Home Hub was a very enjoyable experience with all 7 having great space around vocals and instruments and a decent soundstage if a little less well defined in both width and depth sounding a bit more shut in than either of the two following options. This was the sound I had grown to expect from my system.
2. Via the English Electric 8 Switch – But then I discovered the 8 Switch and suddenly Roger Daltrey was singing with more emotion and the piano backing played more of a part in the performance and coming a little forward in the mix. When Iggy Pop sings ‘James Bond’ there are backing female vocals mirroring him and when they sing ‘James Bond’ via the 8 Switch there is more clarity to their voices and when the sax comes in later in the track it is less brittle and sounds more like a sax. The Dead South track opens with whistling and if anything, it wasn’t as well defined via the 8 Switch as I heard direct from the Home Hub. Notwithstanding this the two Angus & Julia Stone tracks came across very well with a more dynamic presentation and voice resolution. So, an audiophile grade network switch does seem to improve sound quality.
3. Via the PhoenixNET – Disconnecting the 8 Switch and now taking ethernet output direct from the PhoenixNET Roger Daltrey was even more present and backing James Bond vocals more forward in the mix. The whistling on The Dead South track was more realistic and enjoyable and when the instruments kicked in the track really started to gel. Suddenly I was trying, rather poorly, to whistle along.
When reading professional reviewers’ comments on products they often talk about the background silence, blackness or darkness but until you experience this for yourself it can be difficult to understand what they really mean. The PhoenixNET takes you all the way to that dark place and it’s all the better for it.
And then for something different I played some Kraftwerk (Tidal MQA Studio 44.1kHz 24bit) and Autobahn, The Model and The Robots have never sounded better with walk in soundstage, warmth and yet detail, bright and yet dark, timbre and dynamics yet with decay, and remember these are not real instruments being played. Simply brilliant. I’m sure it would have been even better with the USB Reclocker in circuit.
I also listened to Johnny Walker’s Sunday afternoon 70’s show on BBC Radio 2 streamed via Roon (AAC 48kHz/24bit – 332kbps) and found this so much more enjoyable than I am used to hearing. Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘If I Could Read Your Mind’ came through with great bass definition, real 3D stereo imaging and clear and inviting vocals. The same with Bob Marley ‘Steer It Up’. This is impressive stuff from low-res streamed radio, bettering FM in every way.
I kept on listening to more music via the PhoenixNET because it brought so much enjoyment to the listening experience. I finished my critical listening with Dire Straits Communique album where it showed just how good these early albums by this group were in terms of musical interest and recorded quality. The drums towards the end of the ‘News’ track was clearer and more dynamic than I have heard before, and I’ve heard this trough some very expensive equipment recently.
Notes decay better and that magical timbre or tonality so often missing from streamed music is back. Julia Stone’s enchanting voice is there in all its splendour. It is quite obvious that digital replay in all its forms has come a long way in the last few years and maybe, just maybe, vinyl lovers may now be tempted to abandon ship and give digital the time and effort it deserves be that from CD, a NAS drive or streaming.
Conclusion – Why any component impacts on sound quality, whether for better or worse, is always surrounded in mystery, snake oil and personal opinion. It’s very subjective and no more so than with ‘audio grade’ cables and mains supplies. Here we have an audio grade network device claiming to provide enhanced sound quality and listening pleasure, seems a bit like sales talk at first but I know from experience that the 8 Switch did make a slight but noticeable improvement on streamed musical presentation, so I bought one. Whereas the 8 Switch had me tapping fingers and feet the PhoenixNET got me singing along (You wouldn’t want to witness that) and surely this is what makes a musical event in your home something to cherish. For me the PhoenixNET did everything Innuos claimed it would and made listening a more enjoyable pastime and that makes it an attractive proposition as an addition to any high end streaming biased system.
Is it worth the money? Only you can decide on that but if you buy one, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, but you need to be really, really into streaming to blow £2600 on a network switch. Price aside it comes highly recommended and If I streamed more than I do I’d seriously think about buying one particularly as I am already an Innuos user, and this device is clearly voiced with other Innuos components in mind. That said I’m sure it would reveal all the benefits I described above whatever manufacturers streaming device it preceded in your system.
One final listen to the ‘Bakerman’ album from the Dutch duo Laid Back released in 1989 and It’s worth seeking out as an example of late 80’s Pop that has great dynamics and sing along vocals. With the PhoenixNET in place this album really stretched my system, seek (Tidal FLAC 44.1kHz 16bit).
I hope you are enjoying my reviews during this long third lockdown, we hope to have our showroom back open on 12 April so please contact us at Team Nintronics to listen to this and other equipment in our three dedicated listening rooms.
Thanks for listening.
Bob at Team Nintronics – Mid March 2021