NET Card XE with Initio 3 vs without Initio3 vs integrated LAN port. The NET XE can power up three ways. First is through a PCI-e slot plugged into the motherboard. By definition this is worst even if the entire computer powers by linear power supply as in my case because the motherboard and its components pollute the current that feeds the card. The card also features a Molex connector which allows it to be powered from a standard computer power supply. For me this was no option since I don't use the necessary type power supply. The last most recommended option is an external 5VDC supply plugged into the 2.1/5.5mm socket located on the card's bracket. Of course JCAT strongly recommend their own Optimo 3 Duo or Initio 3. According to Marcin, the former has an even greater impact so prices accordingly. There are many 5VDC options to market but according to JCAT, not all of them deliver the necessary minimum 1.5A current but max out at 1A. His obviously don't. The comparison between PCI-e and Initio 3 power seemed to have a predetermined outcome. However given that the NET XE card and JCAT power supply don't come cheap, some buyers may want to know whether it's worth starting with just the card to add the external power supply later. Does the card make a significant difference over an integrated LAN port even without dedicated power supply? To squeeze the last juice from this test, I used two David Laboga Digital Sound Wave Sapphire LAN cables. Between switch and DAC then switch and server, those alone made such a significant impact on performance that I honestly didn't expect much more from the card.
First I left Initio 3 out of the equation to compare the LAN cable plugged into an integrated RJ45 socket to plugging into the card powered via PCI-e slot. After a while I started wondering how such a comparison would fare in a larger audiophile setting. For me the sound with the card was instantly darker. From experience I know that some people are discouraged by such a first impression. The fact is though that many if not most of the best audio components may be described this way. The impression results from much better resolution, better saturation and fill. With the card there was much better pronunciation like in a higher-resolution video where more pixels pack into the same space. It makes the sound denser hence darker. One must simply notice that this darkness goes together with higher tone intensity, better dynamics and higher clarity even if that reads like a contradiction. Just listen carefully to things that without the card you could barely make out or not at all even though they are on the recording. Without being exaggerated or emphasized, these extra elements contributed to a fuller, richer, more engaging and natural performance. The differences between the card without extra power supply and integrated LAN socket were easy to notice but not as great as you might expect for €800. The purchase of the card without any prospect of adding a later power supply would not be so easy to justify although when it comes to high-end systems, even small progress usually costs a lot. From that perfectionist point of view, the card alone would still be fully justified.
Of course adding the power supply didn't change the aforementioned elements. They were still present, just deepened or enhanced. If I had to explain Initio 3's contribution in one word, it'd be definition. This was a constant each time I switched it on or off. It wasn't the only difference but the clearest most defining effect of adding the linear supply. This definition consisted of a few elements. First off it included individual sounds and the spatial aspects of each recording. With Initio 3, each laid out better which led to better differentiation of tonality, dynamics, three-dimensionality and image location. Images had clearer but not exaggerated outlines which also were filled in better and the presentation as such was simply more focused. Some of these advantages resulted directly from what is usually attributed to a better power supply i.e. a blacker background from lower micro noise. Yet the delta when compared to the integrated LAN port was larger than what I usually get from upgrading a power supply at any other system juncture. So the difference between integral LAN port and top JCAT NET XE card combined with Initio 3 was dramatic and of the dangerous "I can't see myself going back to listening without them" kind. As a result the NET XE landed on my must-have list, Initio 3 on the maybe list only because I wanted to first compare it to another promising option at my disposal. The need to add a high-class power supply for the card was obvious. I just had to decide which.
Enter the hybrid switching/linear Hypsos from ferrum.audio. One of its unique features is DC voltage adjustable up to 30V. Selecting 5V was child's play. Hearing differences versus Initio 3 didn't require long sessions. Initio 3 was primarily about a nicely weighty saturated sound with more powerful still well-controlled bass. Hypsos accelerated the sound and made it even more transparent but not quite as rich and dense. The JCAT cast a scenery in which even the spaces between sounds were denser. What unfolded in front of me seemed like a continuous saturated sonic field. The ferrum offered more analytical insight into the stage events so focused more on the precision of image shapes, their distinctiveness and separation. Both allowed for a better grasp on the wealth of acoustic cues contained in the recordings. That made differences in file quality clearer and the presentation more convincing and immersive. Which was better for the NET XE card? I can't tell and am not trying to diplomatically avoid an answer. They were different enough to suit different expectations. Those who prefer a more precise sound with more emphasized detail and sharply drawn lines would chose Hypsos. Those who still want a highly resolved sound but with more data used to create an extremely rich smooth whole rather than separate out individual parts will choose Initio 3. It will be very difficult for me to pick but I'll eventually have to because I clearly need one for my new NET XE card. On one hand and for quite some time already, I've come to believe that a source component should be maximally neutral, clean and transparent so that the sonic character of the amplifier dominates the final sound. But as a fan of tubes and SET in particular, I just love a dense, rich, smooth, natural sound even if it means a slight deviation from neutrality. For my reviewing needs Hypsos would be the more practical choice. For my own tastes, I think Initio 3 might be the one.
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