Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
Today's AV systems have become inseparable from our computer networks. Whether you're streaming content from the Internet or your own media stored locally, you are no doubt relying on an Ethernet connection (or even WiFi) as an AV interconnect these days. I'm not sure you can even find a modern TV on store shelves without network connectivity, and today's top-tier audiophile products are more likely to come equipped with Roon connectivity than the once-standard Toslink optical digital connector. The net-net of it all is that whether you're looking to tap into vast libraries of 4K/HDR video content or studio-quality digital music from the likes of Qobuz, Tidal, and now Amazon, or build your own repository of digital media, you need a rock-solid home network to deliver and distribute it all.
Over the past few years, I have curated a multi-Terabyte library of audio files, which I keep on Network Attached Storage (NAS) so that I can access them from any of my network audio playback devices around the house, ranging from HEOS to Sonos devices, onto higher-performance network capable DACs like the Marantz NA-11S1 or my reference PS Audio DirectStream. The advantages of using a NAS rather than a computer are many. You don't need a power-hungry computer running 24/7. You can access your media without interrupting anybody else in the family doing whatever they do on the Internet. Your media is likely pretty safe in that most NAS drive configurations are RAID, meaning that they have redundant hard drives that will save the bacon in the event of a hardware failure. Cloud backup adds another important level of redundancy, which may seem like overkill, but having been evacuated several times due to fires over the past few years, I felt some solace in knowing my most important files were backed up to an offsite location.
Of course, it's easy to think of NAS devices as merely dumb local storage, RAID or no RAID, but that's not the case. The hardware you use matters. For years I relied Netgear ReadyNAS devices for my music library, but recent security updates to Windows 10 rendered my older unit incompatible unless I wanted to defeat most of the recommended network security settings. (The older units utilize SMB1, which Windows 10 disabled in response to the WannaCry/Crypt attacks.)
I met the people from Synology at a recent conference, though, and they recommended their DS418Play. The DS418Play is a NAS with four drive bays and a beefed-up processor designed specifically for serving often-demanding AV content. I have found the Synology unit to be more responsive, very easy to use, and capable of streaming multiple multimedia files without a problem no matter if I was using Roon, JRiver, Audirvana, or all of them at the same time. The Synology interface, with its colorful graphics and intuitive layout, is designed for the home user that does not have an IT background. The system makes it simple to choose from many apps that can be installed with a few clicks, including the popular Plex multimedia server software.
I also reached out to QNAP and Netgear to inquire about which of their current NAS units they would recommend for both serving up audio/video files and general household duties. Netgear responded and recommended their newer ReadyNAS 528x, which they sent to me to try out. The Netgear ReadyNAS 528x is an eight-bay unit with an even more powerful processor, 10GB Ethernet ports, and is geared more towards business users. I found the Netgear interface very robust, but more businesslike as compared with the Synology.
No matter which manufacturer you select for your NAS hardware, though, there are a few things you should keep in mind: consider what capacity is needed, number of simultaneous users, network speed, and whether any transcoding is needed. This should help you narrow down which units would work best in your world. Like a safe, it is good advice to invest in more capacity than you think you will need so you have some room to grow down the road.
Of course, we can talk all day about network capable players to render our music files and NAS on which to store them, or the Internet-based streaming service that so many of us rely on these days. But it's important not to skip over the hardware that delivers all of the bits and bytes that create our digital media from one place to another within the home.
The simplest network connection would, of course, be an Ethernet cable between two devices. But many home networks today have somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty networked devices connected through a combination of wired and wireless connections. These fifty or so devices require traffic control.
A router, as its name suggests, routes traffic in your network. Many of today's residential routers also serve as the network's wireless access point, and some even have a modem built in. As with audio equipment, there are pros and cons to combining multiple functions within one device. Lately, I have been using the eero and Netgear Orbi mesh network systems, as they provide much better Wi-Fi coverage than non-mesh systems. The Orbi router has a built-in cable modem, which lets be save a few bucks every month on modem rental fees, and one of the satellite units has a Harman Kardon Alexa speaker built in that actually sounds pretty good. The Netgear Orbi base plus two-satellite system gave me more even coverage through more of my house and yard than the eero system, but you could probably have an eero system with three satellites for the same price and get similar coverage. The eero is easier to configure, but the Netgear had some more options. Both systems come with well developed, constantly evolving apps that offer parental controls and security options. Of course, this isn't the only mesh network option out there, as this is becoming a more common approach to home networking thanks to offerings like Google WiFi.
Regardless of which router system you invest in, it is essential to keep its firmware up to date. This will ensure you have the latest feature set and, more importantly, the latest security patches. Netgear sent along their BR500 firewall, which provides another welcome layer of protection--two layers if you utilized the VPN feature as well. This, however, showcased one of the downsides of having a router with an integrated modem, as the firewall could not be installed between the modem and router, basically placing the wireless portion of my network outside the firewall and the wired portion inside. Using a separate modem and router with the BR500 firewall would mean I could move my entire network behind the firewall.
Your typical home network router has a handful of Ethernet ports, not nearly enough to connect all of your wired devices. While you could run an Ethernet cable to each location where you have wired devices and have a switch at each location to act as a de facto splitter, most of the IT consultants I have worked with recommend having fewer, larger switches to keep the network traffic running more smoothly. I used a 48-port SnapAV Araknis 210 switch, which allows me to run hardwired Ethernet connections throughout my house, with an aggregated link to my NAS drive for increased throughput. One downside to a big switch with Power Over Ethernet ("PoE") is that they generate heat and many utilize fans to keep them cool.
The fans can be noisy at times; if switch placement makes this an issue, you may want to consider a smaller switch that does not need a fan, such as the Netgear GS728TP. As with NAS systems, I would recommend getting a larger switch than what you currently need so you have room to grow. Also, if you have any devices that utilize PoE, be sure to add up their power requirements to make sure the switch you select is capable of providing enough power.
Granted, there are more ways to build a home network these days than there are to sink a feline. Regardless of what gear you put together, though, put some thought into your overall needs. Do you need 16 wired connections or 40? Do you need wireless connectivity? If so, where? Are you serving up mostly compressed or uncompressed media? A few Gigabytes of CD-quality audio or Terabytes of UHD video files? Once you determine what you need, you'll then be in a better position to figure out which of the products on the market will suit your particular needs best.
The most crucial advice I can give you, though, is this: whether you go with a traditional home router, or an enterprise-grade solution, or a new mesh network that seemingly breaks all of the rules, don't just plan for your current networking needs. Plan for the future, in terms of not only internet speeds, but also storage and connected devices. It may seem that we've reached peak saturation in terms of our reliance on home networking as a backbone of the modern AV system, but if past trends are any indication, we're only just getting started.