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, larger in size, and more efficient in their access procedure. Read speeds of up to 260 MB/sec are now available in Japan. This technology will spread across the globe next.
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. 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, AES/EBU, or even I2S input (pin configuration to be announced). Use any DAC you like the sound of. Best results will be when the DAC's asynchronous re-clocking is disengaged. The one-clock streamlined system is then maintained. 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.
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.
A frequently asked question:
I do not understand how I would get a high quality version of a CD onto an SD card. I understand that I can get a CD drive and use my lap top and some sort of program to get it onto an SD card- but won't it be terribly ruined by then? Isn't my computer/USB cable much worse sounding than my transport? How can perfect playback make up for damage done getting it onto the SD card? Wouldn't a CD drive IN the Laminar Streamer be a better sonic solution?
On an Apple computer, on Finder, you just "drag and drop" the music files from the CD to the SD card. Once they are on the SD card, you now have exact digital copies of the data which is on the CD. No loss of quality occurs because at this point there isn't an issue of quality. Instead, at this point it is an issue of avoiding digital errors (data mistakes). But once you commence digital playback, which is a real time process, then you are dealing with quality and avoiding Jitter in real time (small timing errors).
That's why the Laminar Streamer is a separate device, because playback is the only realm where quality is at stake. Getting the digital data onto the card is not going to affect its quality, provided there are no data errors.
One can take 100 computers and 100 copies of any CD, and copy those CDs to 100 SD cards, then send the data from the cards to 100 different servers in 100 different countries, then return them all to a single computer, compare all the files against each other, and you'll find they are all bit perfect copies. Error checking copying algorithms are robust. It is an office procedure.
So no worries on the office end of things. That is not where quality lies. The concept of quality in digital playback applies only during playback.
Another frequently asked question:
I think I follow but why doesn't a transport (much more stable than my computer's external CD drive) that feeds a digital buffer create an ideal output as the buffer has no moving parts? I have used a buffer and it gave a slight improvement over the transport directly, but only when the buffer had its own power supply and was on special feet. Does your method differ from a buffer in some essential way?
Yes, our method differs in a HUGE way. Consider this: the most advanced buffer in the utopian world is the one that has an infinite distance from the source, an infinite buffer size, and absolutely no tie with the original power supply nor any vibrational associations at all from the source. This is achieved in our solution by the user physically taking his hand and removing the SD card from the computer, bringing it physically from there to the Laminar Streamer, physically inserting it into the Laminar Streamer, and thus achieving absolutely perfect separation from all of the above contributions to poor sound from digital.
We borrow this action from the world of analogue playback and apply it to digital. We bring the digital bits right up into the Laminar Streamer just as one brings the record grooves right up to the needle, by hand.
What you say about your experience with buffers shows that it is only on a theoretical level that buffers can make deleterious effects in the data chain inaudible. There have been many companies with many products claiming perfect digital transfer, all of which have gone under, or at least whose products have subsequently been discontinued. You can still hear improvements, as you say, such as through power supply tweaks, vibration control changes, digital cable changes, etc.
Will the Laminar Streamer play SDXHC?
Maximum size supported is 32GB FAT32 formatted SD cards. This is for streamlining of operation and minimizing internal noise in the unit's circuitry.
A summarized history of the development so far
Philosophy of design
A video demonstration of truly high performance
We first pinpointed and defined the strengths and weaknesses of both disc-spinning hardware versions and computer audio versions of digital audio playback machines. We came to the conclusion that, clearly, two lines of engineering were converging into some yet-to-be-built device. The CD players were becoming more robust and better sounding, and computer audio was being stripped of services and functions which had nothing to do directly with the audio stream's timing. Thus, we mated these two tendencies and named it the Laminar Streamer.
We started with detailed analysis of high performance clocking solutions and came to the realization that the very best clocking solution is the very simplest. This means that re-clocking schemes should not be used, but that the initial clock oscillator must be of extraordinary quality. We examined pretty much all available clock options and different clock schematics, and took into account our learned experience from having developed the excellent DAC 2004 Master Clock DAC back in the early 2000s.
A picture of some of the clock oscillators we compared for performance while integrating them into our purpose-built system. When we designed our operating system to run off of the audio clock itself, which needs two base frequencies to provide support for all available audio sampling rates, we were running into unchartered territory. Until this project, all such operating system solutions, even the top-quality professional systems, were run and synchronized by Phase Locked Loops, which add relatively large quantities of Jitter to the digital audio stream. (When you say "large" in this context, it is always important to know who you are talking to: a marketer or an enthusiast who craves genuine information. You know how it is: everything is relative, except for the strange out-lying die-hard enthusiasts such as ourselves. We don't like compromised sound!)
Custom Operating System built from scratch
At the same time we developed and wrote our own operating system for the device. Compare our 30 pages of custom written code to the thousands and thousands of pages which run popular operating systems such as Windows, MAC OS and Linux. Thus, we had the advantage of custom coding and custom building a system which would be centered only around the ultimate quality performance of real-time clock and data streaming for audio purposes. In doing so, all other extraneous functionality would be absent from the system to begin with. Little did we know how deeply into the bits we would thereby be hearing.
After we made several prototype units we felt we had maximized what we could draw in terms of quality performance from the electronics themselves. We now turned our efforts to the design.
Once we had the running electronic schematic, which contained only one clock source, we realized how obviously audible the influence of the build quality and materials was to become. Weight and microvibration absorption were crucial elements which we engineered into the design using Panzerholz mated directly with chromium plated steel which would not be allowed to ring. (You may care to see our studio experiments with Panzerholz vs. Aluminum
for some obvious comparisons.)
The attention to nuts-and-bolts engineering was something we learned from well-known classical CD transport designs which had been becoming ever more sophisticated in their vibration control, not only because of the optical element, as it turns out. The same if not more applies to memory-based audio due to the electromagnetic absence of motor control noise.
Physical design materials and basics
After we had the main materials worked out, we implemented a profound shielding of the PSU from the sensitive circuitry via solid steel of several mm thickness. It was now time to work on design aesthetics. It is no easy task to design for looks and functionality all at once, but difficult tasks require only hard work, and so we began. We canned the "box" design and worked with our functional design incorporating perfect stability on three points, perfect triangular symmetry, as well as maximum visibility of the physically and electromagnetically effective design materials such as the thick steel and dense Panzerholz.
First design sketches
Integration of design ideals with design ideas
After completion of the concept, we turned to the minutiae of making it work with our existing electronic conception involving microvibration control of every single element in the Laminar Streamer.
Conversion to milling machine language
When we had the 3D files ready, we then had to have them calculated into 3D strategy files for the milling machines. To test, we milled a couple using MDF, the most ubiquitous and probably worst sounding wood-based material in the world, but easy to mill and good for modeling.
Performing using real-world materials
After checking for compliance, we were ready to mill our first Panzerholz version. Panzerholz is so much more costly (about 20x) and so much more dense (it actually sinks in water) that any mistake here would set us far back. Here are pictures of the first milling operations, fresh off the mill:
Unique Panzerholz lacquering procedure
Preparing these Panzerholz parts for lacquering is the work of a human mind and skilled hands. Effort is made to prepare the surfaces to perfection and to dye the Panzerholz in a pleasing and aesthetic way. As far as we know, we are the only ones in the world to have chosen to work Panzerholz into a 3D aesthetically pleasing design element while at the same time using it as a structural vibration controlling chassis. Pictures of this process follow.
Probably a new world record
In this form it weighs about 54 lbs (25 kg). Of course you will have read about certain Japanese manufacturers of legendary CD spinning transports extolling the virtues of the ratio between the CD disc's light weight and heavy weight of the entire contraption. Well, you now see that we've taken that legendary ratio to completely new heights!
A darker dye is probably better
We ran some experiments to darken the dye, and we believe it looks better this way, over all.
Protection from the elements (of hatred)
Finally, we completed our first custom built flight cases to ensure the safe transport this fine and weighty device. One thing all audiophiles must constantly come to terms with is the fear of having our prized and beloved gear battered to pieces in the shipping channels. Every one of us has our horror stories. I've had mine, too. Overnight express of a friend's hand built amp turned into its overnight disintegration. Didn't buy insurance. As the Germans say: "Selber schuld…" (I still
childishly suspect that there's a secret conspiracy in the shipping agencies aimed against audiophiles alone.)
Thick steel will immediately surround the SD card upon insertion. You can see the thick round top plate here, viewed from the inside of the device. (This is the underside of the plate.) It is quite amazing how it rings like a bell because it is inherently very resonant material, but when mated to the Panzerholz, even without using any bolts, it is dead silent and doesn't exhibit even the slightest ringing tail. It sounds like a rock buried in the earth.
The same goes for the large, main plate of steel. The aim here is to separate the low frequency EM fields coming from the transformer from the main circuitboard, which will be on the other side of it. Basically, what you see here is what the main circuit board will see when it "looks" at the transformer -- a centimeter thick steel barrier which will absorb all of the low frequency fields. The holes will be full of steel bolts, too, so nothing will get through.
This is an example of the bolts I mean. Here you see how they hold the round leg tightly to the Panzerholz above. Again, I emphasize the uncanny feeling that metal makes absolutely no sound when mated tightly to the Panzerholz. Not even a very short ring, which you'd expect to hear upon rapping on it.
The leg will make contact with the furniture in only three places, for ultimate stability in stance and to minimize any possible micro-vibration at the foot-table interface.
The control buttons, likewise, will have no chance at adding even the slightest parasitic micro-vibration to the unit. The Play button will glow dark blue when engaged, but in Laminar Mode, all power to both the visual display and to the diode in the Play button itself will be disengaged. Even the operating system, at that point, will not know anything about the SD data except the very sample it is currently on, and where the next one is.
Firing up some tests:
Arguing about some intricacies (These are friendly arguments, as we are indeed gentlemen. When it rarely gets out of hand, we have different methods, which often involve beer and separate venues):
Countless hours of this have gone into the Laminar Streamer:
The number of hours is unknown. However, what is known, is that an end is on the horizon. We are making good progress. There are over 350 electrical parts in the Laminar Streamer.
There has been a lot of talk here about Panzerholz and vibration absorption. We have even published calibrated studio measurements
of the intrinsic vibration absorption of Panzerholz when compared to aluminum of same dimensions.
Yet, perhaps you are still in doubt about what we mean, and how this pertains to audio playback performance.
To drive home the message, to make it absolutely clear what it is we are talking about, we made this little video to bring you closer to the understanding we have arrived at during 10+ years of research in these matters.
There are plenty of little tweaks out there to upgrade the sonic performance of existing audio gear, but none come even close to a thoroughly engineered solution from the ground up, striving for ultimate performance from all angles of consideration. One such angle is the issue of micro-vibration avoidance in the realm of electronics. Without a mature solution in this regard, even the best electronic engineering will result in but mediocre overall performance in an actual critical listening setting. Measured charts and graphs will tell you everything the language of bench measurements can convey, but take a look and listen to this video to get an idea of real-world performance once the lab work has been faithfully exhausted.
But that's not all. There is more to be told!
The critical viewer will have noticed in the above video that no base reference to the item striking the objects has been made. As such, the video above still does not faithfully convey the level of performance we are dealing with. It only compares the performance of some gear to others.
In order to come closer to a true understanding, we need to mentally subtract the self-resonance of the item striking the objects. For this, we made another short video so you could hear the self-sound of my bones!
When you subtract this self-struck sound from the sound the Laminar Streamer strikes make, you come to a more fundamental realization of the sound coming from the Laminar Streamer, which is not much!
Then, bear in mind that we are on a wooden floor, something which we forgot to protocol separately as well. The lower frequencies you hear are from the floor, and the higher sounds come from my bones, as you can tell. Subtract the two and you have the sound of the Laminar Streamer's case.
(You will notice that for this second video the sound is turned up 12 dB higher than for the first. This was done in an interest to keep me from breaking my bones!)
YouTube only gives you an idea. Take the real recorded files for real reference!
Whenever you upload anything to YouTube, YouTube's servers apply their own compression and conversion algorithms to suit their streaming needs. They do change the audio quite dramatically, even if you listen to the 1080p version, which is still converted and manipulated with.
So, please feel free to download the original audio of the two demos above. Note that on these, no dynamic compensation was done. You can play these back on the most pure playback system you have, and you will hear an even greater contrast to the compressed sound tracks from the YouTube videos.
Here they are. Enjoy!
Original sound first video (high end audio gear vs. Laminar Streamer)
Original sound second video (bones vs. Laminar Streamer)
Calibrated Comparison of Laminar Streamer's Vibration Absorption Capacity
In our earlier videos, some question may have remained unanswered as to how exactly the vibration absorption capability of a piece of audio equipment can have to do with its resulting output quality.
We decided to show this to you using calibrated measurements. We want to show you how an equipment born vibration can enter the actual output signal cable of a connected interconnect cable. To do this, we devised a short cable of approximately 40 cm long, attached to which one end is this typical RCA connector:
And on the other end is this small metallic flat plate to which we can tape a contact microphone:
Here is a picture of the entire cable assembly:
The contact microphone does not capture sounds which do not come off of the surface it is attached to. We used the AKG C 411 condenser contact microphone. It looks like this (the mic itself is the smaller element):
The AKG C 411 frequency response spectrum looks like this:
We used the True Systems Precision 8 professional microphone preamp and RME ADI-8 DS A/D converter to capture the data in digital form.
The Laboratory 'Mice'
Playing the role of 'laboratory mice' were three pieces of gear, namely:
A very fine Nikko AM/FM Stereo Radio Receiver:
A professional TASCAM DA-88 eight track digital audio recorder:
And the Laminar Streamer with an RCA socket installed:
The Bouncing Ball Test
This test consisted of the following rubber ball (pencil shown for size):
which was made to impact each of the pieces of gear in the following manner (but from 40 cm height each time):
Ball Impact Test: Nikko Tuner
First, we connect the RCA cable assembly into the output of the Nikko Tuner and we drop the ball from 40 cm onto its lid 5 times. Here's a picture of the connection (Nikko is on the left):
Before you listen to the result, please remember that the contact microphone does NOT pick up sounds from the air directly. It only picks up vibrations which reach the contact plate at the end of our 40 cm cable (which is made out of copper and PVC insulation, and is wrapped in sticky tape to help further dampen any of its own self-vibration).
Listen to the result:
Download the audio file here if you want.
Ball Impact Test: Tascam DA-88
Now we remove the RCA cable and plug it into the Tascam DA-88:
We repeat the exact same procedure with the ball now impacting the top of the Tascam DA-88. Again we do this five times in a row from a height of 40 cm.
Listen to the result:
Download the audio file here if you want.
Ball Impact Test: Laminar Streamer
Now we remove the RCA cable and plug it into the Laminar Streamer:
We repeat the exact same procedure with the ball now impacting the top of the Laminar Streamer. Again we do this five times in a row, same height as before.
Listen to the result:
Download the audio file here if you want.
Keep in mind that all of these tests are calibrated. This means that:
(A) The mic was in the same condition for all three tests. The same mic was connected in the exact same way to the exact same plate and cable and RCA connector. We didn't change cables. We used the same cable and kept the mic attached to it.
(B) The preamp's gain was set in the exact same position for all three tests. No changes were made.
(C) No other adjustments were made in the entire studio setup during these three tests. The results are 100% calibrated.
(D) The height of the dropped ball is exactly the same (40 cm) in each of these tests. The weight of the ball is the same (in fact it is the same ball).
(E) This test is 100% repeatable.
(F) The contact microphone only captures surface born sound. It does not capture air born sound (which comes off of the surfaces of the gear itself). We are measuring here only structure born sound which travelled through the RCA outlet of each piece of gear, beginning with exactly the same impulse which came from the ball onto the structure of the equipment case.
Frequency Spectrum Results
Blue trace is Nikko Tuner.
Orange trace is Tascam DA-88.
Green trace is Laminar Streamer.
Vibration Over Time Results
Frequency Over Time Results (low frequencies bottom, high frequencies top)
That is correct! Take a look again!
What This All Means
By carrying out this test, we are creating conditions so that we could peer very deeply into micro-vibrational behavior of the structure of the equipment in question. When alternating currents travel along wires or circuit board traces, they create undulating magnetic forces amongst themselves, and these forces result in small vibrations which, through screws and soldering points, are induced into the structure of the equipment.
In this test we have amplified the vibration so that our measuring equipment could give a good signal-to-noise ratio for easy and fool-proof comparison and analysis. In reality, the circuitry in the gear would experience a much smaller amount of vibration from undulating magnetic forces. But in transformers, these can be audible and felt even without any amplification. Taking this aspect of design seriously is just part of what makes the Laminar Streamer so special.
When we measure the vibration at the end of the copper cable, we are in fact measuring the way in which the equipment deals with any structure born vibration. As can be seen, this vibration goes through the RCA output and down the copper wire, where our output signal resides. This means that the vibration will also infest the next piece of equipment which is connected via the cable.
We hope that you can now better appreciate how vibration absorption and signal integrity go hand in hand. In fact, because the Laminar Streamer deals with vibration in such an excellent way, not only does it function itself very well, but also does not infest the next piece of equipment (a DAC) with unwanted vibration originating from itself. And, as an added benefit, any micro-vibration originating from a connected DAC, and entering the Laminar Streamer through cable connections, is likewise diminished through these same effective vibration absorption characteristics.