The PS Audio LAN Rover seems like a weird little device. Well, two devices, actually, but the point stands: weird.
Not ‘weird’ as in “ha ha, that’s funny” or ‘weird’ as in “it is beyond natural explanation”. It’s one of those things that clearly solves a very particular problem, but it just may not be a problem that you think you have. I mean, you have a nifty little USB DAC, right? You’re all done. You’re up to date.
Yeah. Maybe. But let me back up a moment.
What is a LAN Rover?
The LAN Rover is, in a nutshell, a USB-to-LAN-to-USB conversion system. That is, it will connect a computer to the USB interface on a DAC — even when that computer is (up to) 100 meters from said digital converter. A standard USB cable comes out of your computer, plugs into the “sender” end of the two-box LAN Rover solution and comes out the “back-end” as Ethernet. Somewhere “downstream”, a “receiver” box grabs those bits, transcodes them from Ethernet frames into USB packets, and they’re handed off to the DAC. That wire in between the two can be quite long (up to 100 meters, by spec, before requiring some kind of assistance). That wire can also be shielded seventeen ways to Sunday (well, up to at least the proposed Cat7 spec, as of this writing), which might be particularly helpful if you’re forced to route your wires through some kind of electrical hell-scape. Or through a building-code wiring system (which, for the record, does not preclude the electrical hell-scape scenario). Or, much more boringly, you simply have an “older” USB DAC — one that doesn’t have one o’ them fancy Ethernet interfaces, say — and a computer that is at some remove. I, for example, have a 27″ iMac that I got for photo and video editing, but usually just use for binge watching Netflix & Hulu. As enormous as the screen on this machine is, it isn’t really suitable for screen gazing at 6 or 8 feet of remove, so it sits off to the side of my “listening space”, up on a big, honking, time-and-space warping desk instead of on my rack, where the old Mac Mini used to go before it moved over to my headphone area (aka, “the wet bar”). Anyway … connecting that computer, which is typically on, to my audio rack isn’t really possible — a USB cable would have to be over 20 feet long to reach, which is a no-no, at least according to spec. I’d need some kind of converter. Something that would take USB as an input and “do something” to it.
Enter the LAN Rover.
As I said, I used a USB cable into the Sender. The Sender is a small, lightweight metal box. There is no external power input — power comes from the computer via the USB cable, so don’t bother using a trick cable with no USB power legs. Happily, a USB cable is provided with the LAN Rover — I used it and it worked fine, though I do prefer to use bespoke USB cables from various companies as I’ve found that they do, in point of fact, make a difference. As for the network leg, I used a Rosewill Cat7 Ethernet cable I picked up from Amazon that has the benefit of being both cheap and reliably-made. I was thinking about using some of the upscale cables I’ve had success with in the past, but given the $599 price for the LAN Rover, I didn’t want to bracket it with wire that costs exponentially more. So, as a control, I did try out a length of the rather affordable Pearl from AudioQuest, and yes, this worked best of all even if the improvements were modest. You can read more about such explorations elsewhere.
Instead, I feel a different sort of note here is required. Much of the Ethernet cabling you can purchase may be trash. It may “work”, or even pass data just dandy, but there is a non-zero chance that what it says on the jacketing is not what it actually is. Google is your friend, and no, I’m not talking about the Cable Debate. That’s a different thing, wherein Rationalist “experts” dust off their anti-Empirical hats have all manner of fun with moving goalposts hither and yon. Good times. No, I’m talking about simple fraud here, and noting that Amazon (for example) isn’t really equipped to do quality control. Caveat emptor, as always, applies. For the record, I’ve found that Rosewill on Amazon has been reliable. That said, if you’ve any concerns at all, I can recommend AudioQuest via your local dealer (instead of just going online to a clearinghouse like Amazon), as “guarantee” and “provenance” (as well as “system-matching”) is kinda what audio dealers do.
With the physical connection made, and wire routed across the floor to the LAN Rover Receiver, all the lights lit up, and data started flowing. I should note that the Receiver isn’t actually capable of receiving power over the Ethernet cable, so not unsurprisingly, there’s a wall-wart power supply to juice it up. I used my standard bespoke USB cable on the connection from the Receiver into the DAC.
My iMac “saw” the attached DAC no problem, and “saw” it immediately. I was able to select it in the System Preferences>Sound utility, and off I was able to go. Ta da! No drivers or special software necessary. Note — for all intents and purposes, the LAN Rover connection looks just like a wire to either end here — there’s nothing to prevent Amarra or Roon from working, and in point of fact, both worked just fine with the LAN Rover invisibly sitting in between.
Quick note about the devices themselves. The cases are metal, but there’s not much to them; hanging some big, thick, anaconda-swallowed-the-labrador cabling on them is going to lift them right off their tiny sorbothane footers like they’re toys, so plan accordingly. Another note — they logo panel on the top of the Sender and Receiver boxes is a “puffy” plastic sticker. It’s nothing special, but it will scratch. Again, just be advised.
Listening & Comparing
When I compared the LAN Rover to a directly-connected computer, I clearly favored the LAN Rover connection. According to PS Audio, the LAN Rover “cleans, isolates, and regenerates USB signals”, which puts it in line with a few products on the market that perform similar USB scrubbing services, but I wasn’t able to explore them all to compare. Apologies, there. But what I did hear with the LAN Rover was a “tune up of the soundstage”, that is, a focus was applied to the sound via the LAN Rover connection that clearly separated it from a direct-connection to my computer. This was most notable in both bass, where the bass track on Lorde’s “Royals” gained clarity, weight and impact, but also on sheen and brass shimmer on “Fanfare of the Common Man” from the Reference Recordings version of Copland. The differences were not subtle and very convincing.
I did also compare the LAN Rover (via USB) to a “native” Ethernet interface on PS Audio’s own DirectStream DAC, which was back for another trip through the review engine with the latest “Torreys” software update and the new Bridge II interface. I will offer, by way of a tease, that these updates are quite significant, and well ahead of what I heard the last time the DirectStream was here. Anyway, courtesy of Roon, I was able to compare the LAN Rover connection into the USB input with a direct Ethernet connection. In that case, I preferred the direct Ethernet connection over the LAN Rover connection, and for exactly the same reasons I mentioned in my earlier example: the bass track on “Royals” again gained more weight and impact, and the sheen and brass shimmer on “Fanfare” again stepped up another notch. That new $899 Bridge II network module looks like it might be a real jewel — more on that soon — but given that it is, in many ways, a souped-up version of the LAN Rover, I probably ought not to be terribly surprised.
So, to wrap — the LAN Rover from PS Audio does exactly what it purports to do. That is, connect two USB devices together seamlessly and transparently. Sure, $599 is not exactly cheap, but it probably is cheaper than buying yourself a new special-purpose computer, or a brand new DAC for that matter. That’s not nothing. If you already have a non-specialized computer that you use (or want to use) for audio, I fully expect a LAN Rover to kick it up a notch — and if that computer cannot be anywhere near your audio rack, the LAN Rover seems to be a no-brainer. Two delicious birds, one handy stone.
So: getting back to weird. The LAN Rover is very clearly a backwards-looking device, aiming at those of us out there in audiophile-land with what appears to be soon-to-be-legacy (that is, non-Ethernet) devices, and yes, even I can see that writing on the wall. Given that PS Audio is actually selling a deliciously appealing, seemingly future-proof, and altogether revolutionary DAC solution in both its DirectStream and DirectStream Junior flavorings, it’s bloody obvious where your dollars really ought to go. But “wishing” and “being able to afford” remain, as ever, different things. In the meantime, there’s the LAN Rover. And when I think about it that way, the LAN Rover isn’t so much weird as it is a kindness. “You too can play,” they say. “And when you’re ready to step up, we’ll be ready for you.”
Give it a whirl. I think you’ll be surprised.