New Product - The Laminar Streamer
Saturday 12 November, 2011
As LessLoss continues to gain popularity among the largest Audiophile community worldwide, namely, that of the money-conscious who desire the best sound their budgets can swing, by now you can clearly see our expansion into territory of recognition and high regard. With over 40 overwhelmingly positive press reviews and hundreds (I think there are now over 450) private user accounts posted online, I'd like to thank each and every one of you who have contributed to our success so far!
If you are now our client, you are sure to have invested into one of the very best cost/performance values around. And our venture did not stop at power products. They represent the very core, the very foundation, to good sound. Then we introduced the Anchorwave and Tunnelbridge series of high performance signal cables to get that great sound from the gear to your speakers. But there has remained a bottleneck in terms of achievable sound quality from Digital which we will now tackle and address in the form of a new device which will take Digital to the next level:
Introducing the LessLoss Laminar Streamer
What does "next level" mean?
What the Laminar Streamer represents is the point of convergence of two lines of engineering which both have been establishing themselves over the years since 1982.
The first line - CDs, vibrations, and optics
1982 marks the date of the first compact disc technology to hit the market. Since then, compact disc players have become more and more refined, as audiophiles complained continually about harsh, digital sound (even if the measured noise floor was lower than that achieved by turntables). This technology brought about better and better physical solutions, with some exotic ones hitting the market which included air bearing drives (Forsell) and belt drives with robust cases (C.E.C.), precision tracks (47 Lab), blue diodes and plexiglass (Jadis, Metronome Technologie), extremely heavy top covers (mbl) and many others. With constant emphasis on ever more stabilization of the CD drive mechanism, these "monster players" evolved into giants to address some missing link in the CD reading and data streaming process. And, it must be said, much progress was indeed made in this realm.
A bottleneck remained
However far the engineering had gone to bridge the bottleneck, still there were available countless tweaks to be carried out on CDs, to even further optimize playback. These included countless sprays, wipes, black and green markers, lathing machines, high lumen stroboscope conditioners, demagnetizing devices, ceramic ball ion blasting devices, many types of stickers, pads, and others. In fact, one audiophile friend of mine had pinpointed not less than 12 such tweaks which, carried out on discs before playback, each truly resulted in better playback, regardless which of the big players listed above were used. So, evidently, some sort of bottleneck remained, and it seemed to be confined to the optical and vibratory realm.
Furthermore, many an audiophile had discovered by then that taking the time to use freeware ripping software (Exact Audio Copy was one of the most popular) and to re-burn the discs onto CDRs of different types would result in different sound quality from the original (notably, black and dark blue CDRs were known to provide superior sound quality). So there was obviously an element of Jitter entering the stream which was dependent upon the optical realm and was not getting re-clocked out of the auditory realm completely. The tweakers' saga continued, regardless of whether the re-clocking was synchronous or asynchronous, and whether the transport was master or slave to the DAC.
Enter Computer Audio
Because so many audiophiles were now experimenting with burning their own CDRs, it was only inevitable that many would discover the sound quality of listening to their ripped CDs directly from their computers as well. With the advent of the iTunes craze and other even higher quality sound files (24/96 for example through HDTracks), as well as the growing ease of downloading such high-res files and the impossibility to play them back on Redbook CD machines, computer audio was quickly becoming the next big thing. The internet was getting faster by the day.
There developed two schools: one was made up of independent, almost underground, tweakers of desktop computers. More and more was invested in the development of USB as a viable alternative to S/PDIF to reach external DACs from the computers, the reason being that more computers came fit with USB straight from the mass-production factories than those equipped with S/PDIF outputs. (The Sonicweld $2888 USB to S/PDIF converter comes to mind as indication of how more and more quality could be cajoled out of USB by crossing over to S/PDIF with smart clocking techniques, for USB is a clockless protocol in essence).
Another school was betting on the Firewire protocol (Weiss comes to mind). Still others were going all out with stand-alone computer audio solutions, with tweaked up professional sound cards and desktop PCs meant for the otherwise mass market of number-crunching machines for the most various of applications (Memory Player and Sooloos come to mind).
Regardless of the computer audio solution, one general tendency, one line of convergence, was clearly discernable all the while.
Because these operating systems were enormous (Windows and MAC computers are meant to be universal to the point of sharing processing power even with hidden viruses and malware), it became clear through sonic tests that the audiophile tweakers gained considerable ground by disabling services, and the more, the merrier. As audiophiles delved deeper and deeper into their office computers, they found that there are a plethora of limiting factors in terms of enabling a digital stream to flow completely in laminar fashion, without Jitter. Here is a list of some such limiting factors:
-- High speed processors contaminate the entire circuitry and ambient field with radio frequencies and higher. The higher the frequency, the harder it is to keep other parts of the circuitry from being contaminated by them. (ERS Paper tweaks showed themselves here very well.)
-- PC motherboards feature many, many more functions which we don't need at all. Each are powered and run at high frequencies which clutter the entire circuit, which reduce sound quality of digital audio streams, where timing is the only qualitative factor (and the easiest to pollute because it is so fragile and crucial).
-- Video cards and other sections of the motherboard have radio frequency oscillators which further contaminate the environment. They run at high frequencies and intermodulate with the audio sampling rates we need.
-- Mouse, keyboard, USB, Firewire, IR, disc drives, video, ethernet, wi-fi and other synchronisation software are running and require many parts which need power. Even more crucially, these elements all compete with the CPU for processing time. The key here is the time.
-- CD ripping software must run (well, not during playback), but all the CD ripping functionality must exist in the motherboard. Wires are dangling in the unit to connect the CDR/DVD burner/reader tray. Each wire is an antenna, and further clutters the atmosphere. Busses of loose wire run high data rate information between the internal components such as storage devices.
-- Fans are often necessary to cool the CPU. Acoustical noise results. Electrical noise results as well.
-- Computer operating systems are extensive and require many services, which all compete for processing time. These processes are allocated according to what are called priorities. It is known through the world-wide consensus of experienced computer audio tweakers that the more services you can disengage, the better the resulting audio. The stream becomes more laminar, less turbulent. Several companies have built entire businesses out of turning off the very services that the audiophile user knows or didn't even know that he had in his household computer. They brand these computers as specialized audiophile music servers. They tweak the cumbersome operating systems to a high degree. Still, any connection to the Internet can result in a faulty system, with viruses lurking everywhere.
-- There are memory allocation issues at all times in the operating system of a computer. In high end audio we need extreme silence of operation and 100% perfect time allocation, meaning we need all of the CPU's attention at all times for no jitter to appear. We can't share the individual clock steps with other functions which the computer deems just as relevant for its operation. We want full quality, which means we need the whole clock to ourselves for the sole purpose of the creation of the audio stream alone.
-- There are really many clocks: one for the CPU, one for video, one for the audio card and other functions, and they all interfere with one another due to RF interactions and through the power supplies. This atmosphere is not made for real-time streaming events. It is made for calculation and error-checking, and for being fast at it. You can rip a CD at 52x speed and get 100% data accuracy. Data accuracy is not at all an issue in any computer these days. Timing accuracy is our realm as audiophiles, and home PCs are not suitable environments for the kind of high end audio we wish to achieve.
The list goes on and on, and so the idea for the past 15 years or so in computer audio has been to strip the operating system of all services at every step that they are yet able to do this. This represents the second line of convergence into the Laminar Streamer.
Two lines of convergence point to one solution
To sum it up, here is a list of the strengths and pitfalls of both lines:
Lineage #1: optics-based solutions
- very simple operating systems
- no viruses ever, plug and play functionality
- the romance of putting it into the machine to play it
- psychology of "Albums" is maintained physically
- microvibrational influence on sound quality magnified
- expensive, massive physical realm solutions
- Redbook CD going out of style
- High-res DVD Audio / SACD war has been surpassed by ease of download
- numerous optical tweaks reveal obvious bottlenecks of performance
Lineage #2: solid state solutions
- absence of optical components
- download capability
- storage media becoming cheaper by the day
- cloud storage (safer backup) on the horizon
- plethora of operating system services competing for clock time
- overall system complexity due to non-dedicated engineering
- clock sharing bottleneck regarding Jitter performance
- power supply issues remain just as important as before
- numerous operating system tweaks reveal obvious bottlenecks of performance
A question for LessLoss Audio:
Can we get the best of both worlds into one machine? By doing so, can we circumvent all of the cons of both approaches?
Yes, we can!
The Laminar Streamer SD card player!
Just to make sure you know what an SD card is, it stands for Secure Digital and looks like this:
More info is available here:
They are getting cheaper and larger in size basically by the month.
The Laminar Streamer has been developed by LessLoss from the very ground up, without using any modules or ready-made operating systems available for other purposes (Linux, Windows, etc.). In it, we have created the conditions for the ultimate audio stream to be formed directly from the audio clock. To understand the uniqueness of our solution, consider this:
The audio sampling frequencies available today are as follows:
44.1k / sec (Redbook)
48k / sec
88.2k / sec
96k / sec
176.4k / sec
192k / sec
What you can see from the above list is that there are actually two base frequencies, namely 44.1 and 48, which are multiplied by two and three times. Hence, the list is made up of two main frequencies and their whole-number multiples.
For a perfect stream to form, we need the data to be associated with a running audio clock. This is the only function the operating system should have. Everything else will demand processor time, and, hence, will introduce tiny deviations in the perfect timing we need.
What we have managed to do is to create our own audio dedicated operating system which functions exactly off of the very audio clock. This means that when the operating system is functioning (boot time and SD card recognition is less than 0.2 seconds), the data read off of the SD card is directly coupled to the clock's wavefronts and that is all. The stream is the result of 44,100 such operations per second. And this stream is very close to flawless in the time domain.
When a file is to be played which needs, say, a 48 kHz clock, this is then no longer possible with the original 44.1 kHz clock we used for the 44.1k file before. The solution most computer operating systems use to solve this is an extensive array of clocking functions, each running at different speeds and through what is known as PLLs (Phase Locked Loops) which introduce Jitter into the stream. However, the solution is easier in an engineering sense because only one clock is necessary for all of the different frequencies listed above. You can "round out the clock ticks" to get to the frequencies you need. But this "rounding out" probably need not be discussed here with you. Of course, it results in "that harsh digital computer audio sound".
Instead, what we have done, is have engineered a completely synchronous operating system itself. When a 48k file needs to be played, the 48k clock is turned on and the 44.1k clock is turned off, and the operating system itself begins running off of the new active clock. This is done seamlessly and in no time. No clicks or pops result in the digital stream. This seamless functionality and operating system's tight hold on both the clock and data streams are what make this system unique. Any file of any sampling frequency can be played right after one another, without the sloppy desktop computer CPU operations averaging out the clock speeds to make this work. Whereas an office PC is good for fast operations, we need not that. We need perfect timing operation, something which is not foreseen in the big operating systems.
The Laminar Streamer will be compatible with any sound file which ends in either .wav or .aiff and which was brought onto the SD card by either a PC or MAC computer. The SD card size will not matter, either. Folder names will be created by the user on their own office PC or MAC. We do not want people to have to pay for office computer functionality using their audio money! Let the mass-production world take care of that. We'll take care of the stream, the perfect timing needed to get so deep into your digital recordings, you'll completely rediscover everything you've ever heard in digital.
Compatibility will be with any DAC which has S/PDIF input. Use ours as a reference, or any other DAC you like the sound of. The further quest for quality will then be reduced to the quality of the power provided to both the Laminar Streamer and the DAC in use together with it.
Of course, design wise, we are going to provide something very special. We want the listening experience to be beautiful, but also the domestic visual experience as well. The Laminar Streamer will be on par with the design of our other fine products, such as the Tunnelbridge, the Firewall, and the Blackbody.
If the digital stream is laminar, truly laminar, then the largest influence of quality has already been met, and true appreciation of the musicianship and all of the higher content truly present in the recordings can much more readily be experienced.
I look forward to serving you with more info about the new Laminar Streamer as it becomes available. We are sure that the divorce of the office PC from the listening station will be an attractive alternative to the invasive information overload we already experience in our everyday lives, and will help bring back a tranquil serenity and meditative aspect to our private listening chambers. We will be so close to our beloved artists and their messages that it will feel only natural to take pause from our emails and other office routines.
If all goes to plan, we will demonstrate the Laminar Streamer in finished form at the New York Audio Show, April 13-15, 2012, in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, 18th floor, in the Sutton Suite conference room.
Have a great day,