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XE level NET & USB cards, Initio 3

This review first appeared in June 2021 on HifiKnights.com. By request of the manufacturer and permission of the author, it is hereby syndicated to reach a broader audience. All images contained in this piece are the property of the maker or Marek Dyba – Ed.

Reviewer: Marek Dyba
Analogue front end: J.Sikora Standard Max turntable, J.Sikora KV12 tonearm, AirTight PC-3, Grandinote Celio Mk IV, ESE Lab Nibiru V5 phonostages
Digital source:  passive custom Win10 server with Roon, Fidelizer Pro 7.10, JCat USB Femto card with Bakoon power supply, Keces P8 linear power supply for PC, JCAT USB Isolator
D/A converter: LampizatOr Pacific with Ideon Audio 3R Master Time USB regenerator
Preamplifier: Audia Flight FLS1
Power amplifiers: GrandiNote Shinai, modified Art Audio Symphony II
Loudspeakers: GrandiNote Mach4, Ubiq Audio Model One Duelund Edition
Interconnects: Hijiri Million, Hijiri HCI-20, TelluriumQ Ultra Black, KBL Sound Zodiac XLR, David Laboga Expression Emerald USB, TelluriumQ Silver USB
Speaker cables: LessLoss Anchorwave
Power cables: LessLoss DFPC Signature, Gigawatt LC-3
Power delivery: Gigawatt PF-2 Mk2 and PC-3 SE Evo+; a custom power line with Gigawatt LC-Y in-wall cable; Gigawatt G-044 Schuko and Furutech FT-SWS-D (R) connectors
Equipment rack: Base VI, Rogoz Audio 3RP3/BBS
Anti-vibration accessories: Rogoz Audio SMO40 and CPPB16 platforms with BW40MKII feet, Franc Accessories ceramic disc slim feet and wood block platform
Review component prices: USB Card XE and NET Card XE €800/ea., Initio 3 €750, USB+LAN ground conditioner €500

The four review components.

Today's review looks at several components intended to enhance listening to audio files. All come from renowned Polish brand JCAT, a leader in PC audio. So I decided to install in my custom-built music server their top XE range USB and NET cards powered by their own Initio 3 linear supply. To make things even more interesting, I also asked for the USB + LAN ground conditioner. Amongst those who truly care about sound quality, there are two types of fans who run files. Some purchase turnkey products from out of hundreds to market so treat them like any other component. Then there are those who prefer to get their hands dirty and build their own. That may turn out to be less costly though achieving truly satisfying sonics costs more that one may think. But it can be a source of great satisfaction and pride when a self-assembled source works as well or better than one off the shelf. Neither is better by definition. It's a matter of choice based on budget and ability. The JCAT lineup has always catered to DIYers like yours truly. We haven't seen a complete server from Marcin Ostapowicz yet but his brand has more and more high to top-class modules for audiophiles not afraid to roll their own high-end music computer.

Theoretically you don't need much to build your own: a case, motherboard, CPU, RAM, hard drive and power supply preferably all with passive cooling, some basic PC knowledge and manual skills. That's how I started several years ago using parts based on advice from Marcin who at the time was becoming an acknowledged PCfi expert. For his company it had all started with the JPlay software player. Only later did he launch JCAT whose components we look at today. To start this server upgrade journey, one often begins with a decent linear power supply. There are more and more to market and even in Poland we already have quite a large group of manufacturers offering them. You can find from entry-level to advanced solutions such as JCAT's max 12VDC unit or ferrum's 30VDC with adjustable output voltage. On the JCAT.eu blog, there's already talk of their forthcoming ATX power supply.

Depending on what type connection to our DAC we want to use, the next step may add an audiophile USB and/or LAN card. Each of these should be supported by a linear supply. For those looking for even more upgrades, there are plenty of audio-grade switches, cables for internal connections, LAN/USB isolators and reclockers. Many such solutions live in JCAT's catalogue. Their new XE USB and NET cards are best distinguished from their predecessors by the color laminate. The previous generation was green, the new is black and physically slightly longer. The NET XE card is an audiophile PCI Express GbE LAN adapter. Similar to USB it delivers with a low-profile and full-height PCI bracket to install in a standard as well as smaller case provided the motherboard features a PCI Express 2.0 slot (x1-x16). No additional drivers are needed if we use Windows, Linux or Roon Rock OS. Both cards can be powered via Molex connector or from an external DC power supply via a 2.1/5.5mm connector with positive center pin. The recommended solutions are obviously JCAT's own Initio 3 or Optimo 3 Duo. Marcin points to the following features as giving his NET XE card the edge over the competition:

• State-of-the-art LT3045 linear regulators and filters to eliminate noise interferences from the  PC
• Truly linear design so no switching power supplies
• Cutting edge ±5ppb Emerald OCXO for the most stable timing in the presence of environmental stressors such as air flow, temperature perturbation, vibration, shock and electromagnetic interference
• Highest quality industrial grade components with operating range from -40°C to +85°C
• Enterprise level Intel i350 Ethernet controller
• Gold-plated high durability EMI shielded RJ45 connectors with built-in 12-core transformers for improved isolation
• Two audiophile-grade network adapter ports supporting up to 1Gbit connections
• LED-off feature to counteract noise