LessLoss Laminar Streamer Direct Drive SD card player review part 1


The Laminar Streamer is, upon first sight, surely a bold statement by LessLoss. How will it be received? For sure it raises eyebrows as a flagship piece of gear, but, ...seriously? A heavyweight SD card player, with no other function onboard, in the 21st century? Will it be relevant to the public? To the audio connoisseur? To the collector of fine art?

For sure it can be said that with this particular project, LessLoss is treading completely their own ground, with no regard whatsoever to what others have been providing the market with. And, if LessLoss seems so convinced with this project, the question is: for what reason? What fuels all this effort?

The Laminar Streamer definitely falls way out of line in terms of price point to everything affordable LessLoss have been making in the past. Whether LessLoss agrees or not, at this product's price they are clearly entering the high end market alongside luxury brands such as Lamborghini or Patek Philippe. These high quality, low quantity legendary manufacturers today do not have to think twice about generating name recognition. One thing they all have in common is that many decades of focussed dedication to quality and craftsmanship are a big reason these small companies are so celebrated today. This, even by people who could not even dream of actually owning one. Temporary name recognition can be achieved through a good marketing campaign. But lasting respect comes with proving oneself over time and remaining true to one's values through thick and thin.


In the typical watch industry, we see Miyota or ETA 2482 mechanisms with a branded housing slapped around it. In contrast, in the high end watch industry we see custom mechanisms. Instead of adopting the typical, such companies are pursuing their own, in-house made movements. Such dedication costs money and takes a lot of time to materialize. Likewise, consider the Laminar Streamer and its 1500 lines of custom code. Every time one goes back to basics and starts from scratch, the question is raised, why reinvent the bicycle? Obviously, the idea is that something new and better can result from each uniquely fundamental endeavor.

There is a huge gulf of difference between the noisy, rushed atmosphere of commercial competitiveness in a 21st century metropolis, and the small, quaint lemonade stand set up over in the shade by your suburb's local neighborhood across the street. But, really, in both instances nothing more than financial transaction is taking place. When between two activities we seek out only the common, we will see them for their sameness, and when we seek out the unique, we notice their differences. The actual function of playing a music file located on an SD Card is the same whether it is done on a mass produced PC or on the Laminar Streamer. But in terms of experiencing the sound quality resulting from each, one is at odds to find parallels. I would say it is even difficult to confess that the file is in both instances the same, and that both actions result in digital streams which are nothing but the exact same ones and zeros. But the whole world of computers, music servers, NAS streamers, IP protocol and USB interfacing simply pales in comparison to the pitch dark, calm and solitary world of the precision inner workings of the Laminar Streamer.


I am sure that among audiophiles, most laptop owners have had first hand experience with better sound by simply disengaging Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. (Free tweaks are the best ones, so make sure you try it.) Through correlation, now imagine that this is but one small step of the long journey towards the ultimate design implementation of the Laminar Streamer. It took the LessLoss team over six years of R&D to complete the Laminar Streamer. Their goal from the start was to create a solution which plays music in the most pure way possible and to unlock the treasures hidden within the deepest fathoms of digital files. The specs of the digital promise have long spoken of such depths. By numbers alone, they dwarf analogue. But why do we still often times much prefer analogue? The Laminar Streamer's mission, says Louis Motek, is to answer that question.

THE TWIN CORE OF SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE: TWO HALVES OF THE SAME BRAIN

      
The LessLoss Direct Drive OS was custom created only for operation within the special working confines of the purpose built Laminar Streamer motherboard. It is impervious to viral manipulation of any sort. Both the Laminar Streamer circuitry and the OS code go hand in hand. Direct Drive OS is not even recognized by Linux, Windows or MAC OS. This makes it completely safe from manipulation. Even if the most malignant viruses have infested an SD card, and it is inserted into the Laminar Streamer, the Laminar Streamer would continue operation "business as usual.” All the computer knows, is that it is some sort of executable file. But it cannot execute it: 
This is all you get if you try to run it on any other computer system: 

The Laminar Streamer's Direct Drive OS is made up of 1500 lines of custom code. Louis Motek was kind enough to provide us with this sneak peek into it:


Instead of a noisy, fast 4 GHz multi-functional processor as those found in today's office computers, LessLoss Direct Drive runs on a much quieter processor whose speed is directly tied to the audio sampling rate's clock. If the audio sampling rate called for on the following file on the SD card is different (say, the currently playing file is 44.1 kHz and the next one is 192 kHz), then within the first sample of the new file, the entire operating system instantly begins running off of the new audio clock. This is why it is called Direct Drive, because the operating system actually runs on the audio stream's clock and not off of its own separate clock, as it does in every office computer based audio server. This is no comfy slipping automatic transmission, folks, this is the fastest hard gear shift in all of computer audio!

Futureproof

The LessLoss Direct Drive OS can be updated in 3 seconds. You simply download a tiny file from the LessLoss website (or they email it to you, as the file size all of 82 kilobytes (oh, the good old days of code efficiency!), place it into the root directory of an SD card, insert the SD card into the Laminar Streamer, and power it on. Done. In 3 seconds.

A STREAMER?


Some have asked “What? No database functionality? No USB interfacing with my own music library on iTunes?"

Ripping CDs is a 100% lossless procedure. In other words, why spend audiophile dollars on what is at core but an office computer procedure? You don't get any more functionality out of it in terms of performance. All you'd get is a LessLoss logo on your computer screen when you look at the exact same meta-data you can already pair with your files using existing freeware…


Q: Can one connect the Laminar Streamer to a PC and play music from the NAS connected via Ethernet? There is an Ethernet port on the back of the Laminar Streamer, hence the question.

A: The very short answer is "no." The Ethernet inlet is there for connectivity to a future stand-alone remote control station. That station will house the receiver for the Remote Control. All of the electrical connections will go from the remote control station into the Laminar Streamer via an Ethernet cable, but beyond what you see as the outside of the Ethernet connection, all electrical signals are galvanically separated from the Laminar Streamer circuitry through optical de-coupling. This way, no noise can enter the Laminar Streamer from the outboard remote control circuitry. Thus the 'closed' solution is not compromised by the external Ethernet cable connection.


What makes the Laminar Streamer so unique and why it was created? As a concept, the Laminar Streamer is a fresh approach that will undoubtedly create some confusion because there is currently no such category in the marketplace.

Louis Motek writes:

“I suppose part of the confusion is that in naming the thing "Laminar Streamer" we used the term "streamer." "Streamer," or "Streaming," was already being used by the mass-computer industry to indicate playback of audio and video without the user's ability to save the content to their local devices. The user cannot own the content, as the entire file is never found on the local computer at once. The download process deletes segments of it while it is playing it back, thus making the user buy a subscription to the streaming service instead of actually owning the material.

Streaming services rely on Internet Protocol, and in order to use Internet Protocol, you need a computer with an IP address. Thus, you need an operating system which has internet connectivity. Once you have that, you still need some way to stream the data to a device which will ultimately provide the audio version of the stream for conversion into an analogue signal. What I am describing here is already available through the mass market. Take any currently produced laptop, notebook or even most handheld devices, and they already have all of that functionality built in. The problem is that they leave a lot to be desired in terms of audio performance.


That is where the Laminar Streamer comes in. It is conceptualized around ultimate audio performance as digital source. There is an entire niche industry built up around tweaking mass produced computers in order to upgrade them to sound better as audio sources. The more these computers are tweaked, the more one realizes that there are limitations when your aim is to create a music making 'hot rod' out of what is in fact the framework for a reliable, but electrically very noisy, multi-functional office computer. There are countless software and hardware issues which get in the way, but there are also many computer audio experts who have know-how and they supply the computer audio marketplace with many solutions of varying cost and levels of customization.


Then there are audio companies that make their own brand name streamers and music servers, who do not like to speak openly about the mass-produced computer modules, motherboards, and other connectivity parts that they use to make up their devices. They are based on multi-functional operating systems such as Linux, MAC OS, or Windows. Often times these companies' spend effort on alternative splash screens bearing their own designed graphics and other visual thrills, but in principle these devices are the same old office computers with the same mass-produced motherboards that the DIY community have long been discussing in forums and discussions.

What we found while we were engaged in tweaking computers for performance audio playback was that there was an incredibly long list of services which could be switched off or made to go to sleep upon which the audio got better. We realized after so many discoveries and trials that there seemed no end to how much better the sound could become. We soon ran into the roadblock of not being able to reduce the number of active clocks due to the architecture of what is in fact an office computer. There are too many unrelated functions and electronics aboard a typical motherboard for truly superb audio performance. They all create noise and through their high frequency complexity interact even through direct radio transmission. The super fast computer systems of today are all tailored towards robust error correction but not to delicate real-time action. And that is exactly what truly superb audio streaming calls for.
      

Not only that. Then there is the issue of inexplicable break-downs, clicks, pops, and other annoyances like viruses and unexplained failures which lead to constant re-installation, re-booting, or other hacks in order to guarantee stability. This is always nerve-wracking and the problems with computer audio compatibility never seem to end. When we look around at all our friends and colleagues, it seems just about everybody is living in the same stressful situation. Constantly plaguing the minds of our friends in fine audio are an unending barrage of compatibility issues, timing issues, stability issues and connectivity issues. People from pro studios, home recording studios, and private audiophiles knock on our door three or four times a week asking for advice about software, hardware, and compatibility issues. Drivers, latency settings, buffer settings, installation issues, and so forth are on everyone's mind and all they really want to do is to go back to the darned stereo after work, put something on, press Play, and revel in their favorite music being played back beautifully. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why many are reverting to vinyl these days.


I'm not saying there is nothing good about services which keep a profile on you, suggest music to you, help you discover new material you didn't know exists, or the ability to follow a single musician closer than ever before. All of that new technology is great for what it does well, and all of that just so happens to be related to its role as an office computer.


But we want playback which is done well, and we really mean it. And we know that the only way playback will be truly supreme and truly special is to completely separate it in all electromagnetic ways from that noisy world of office computers with many clocks, timing issues, compatibility issues, etc. Even the thought of so-called “priority settings” is a joke. For us there is only one priority, that should be obvious. Everything other than sound quality is subordinate.

We chose the SD Card as the most ubiquitous, quiet, efficient way to get music files from one "world" into the other. The realm of IP addresses, multi-function, multi-clocked computers and the realm of the Laminar Streamer's purpose built audiophile hardware and special Direct Drive OS are two concepts completely worlds apart. So when you say the name, say Laminar Streamer and not Laminar Streamer.  :)”

OPERATIONAL


The Laminar Streamer was designed from the ground up as the most simple operational device. There’s no complex menu diving, help files, or complicated interface. The only thing you’ll have to deal with is moving your .aif and .wav files to the SD card. From there on, Louis Motek’s vision of full relaxed state listening can kick in. You simply insert the SD card, choose the folder, press play and forget about the invasive world of information influence around you.


The Laminar accepts FAT32 formatted SD cards and in order to operate it needs a folder on the root directory, into which you place .wav or .aif files from your computer, simply by dragging and dropping. Once you place the SD card into the Laminar Streamer, the files will appear and will play by default in alphanumeric order.

All the files have to be in folders. Folders within folders will not be recognized by the LessLoss Direct Drive OS. Files on the ROOT directory will also not be recognized by the OS. You can have them sitting there, and they will simply not be seen and won't be played. You can have anything else you want anywhere on the SD card. The Laminar Streamer does not care and it will have no effect on it whatsoever.

The maximum SD card size known to be fully tested and supported is 32 GB. That's about 50 CDs worth of music.


The Streamer has no external On/Off Switch and was designed to be left on when not in use. For some reason, digital gear seems to have a much longer warm-up period than any other gear, and so this way the device is ready to serve at 100% performance level at all times.


If you press and hold down the star and press Stop once, the screen will no longer scroll. If you press and hold down the star and press Stop again, you will enter Laminar Mode and the display will disengage completely, leaving you and the operating system in the dark to enjoy totally pure music.

Do it again to engage the screen once again and return to normal playback mode.

LAMINAR UNIQUENESS


The Laminar Streamer was not based on any prior existing core technology except the FAT32 file system that the SD card has to be formatted in. Everything else was custom built by LessLoss from the ground up, which includes every one of the 1500 lines of custom LessLoss Direct Drive audiophile OS. Not based at all on Linux, MAC OS, or Windows, this is a completely purpose built endeavor, and costed LessLoss a lot of programmer time. It may not come as a surprise that professional programmers who can do such a thing may charge similar for their time as well-established surgeons. And time it costed dearly, what with 6 years of development.


6 years? When something is designed from the ground up, the circuitry and operating system go hand in hand. If you change a line of code, you need to change the length of a trace. If you change the layout of a trace, you will need to change a line of code. There are delicate timing issues which are changed whenever you change anything in a purpose built machine of extraordinary performance. To put this into perspective, most automobiles are developed much more quickly than in 6 years. Then they are mass produced. LessLoss's goal was never to mass produce the purpose-built Laminar Streamer. It is a sculpture which embodies a state-of-the-art concept, a philosophically based concept which challenges the very limits of what can possibly be achieved, using all of brand's knowledge.

DESIGN


This unique Player arrived protected within the large, armored aluminum shipping crate with satin, shape molded protective innards, waking suggestions more of a luxurious precision mechanical machine than of your typical audio product of today.


The Laminar certainly doesn’t look like anything we've seen so far. A mixture of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and UFO-like, 21st century futuristic design cues form an object that will instantly spark a discussion.


This is no easily milled aluminum and plastic case. It is not even MDF. Those materials are easy to form and the milling process goes quickly. However, LessLoss expertise and experience showed that aluminum and MDF are some of the worst sounding materials to use for audio purposes. Instead, the Laminar Streamer is made from 100% steel and german Panzerholz.


Panzerholz is extremely dense and is actually bulletproof, due to its extremely good acoustic absorption characteristics. Steel is extremely hard to mill into the rounded, smooth forms required in the design of the Laminar Streamer.


What may appear to be just a cool design is actually purpose-built engineering. The ~1cm strip of metal you see around the edge of the device is actually a thick plate of steel which separates the transformer from the sensitive electro-magnetic low jitter process which defines the circuitry of the Laminar Streamer. Many manufacturers with an ambitious project such as this take the power supply out of their devices and make a second enclosure for them. Then they run into problems resulting from antenna effects because of their long power supply umbilicals connecting the two.

With the thick steel plate, there is a magnetic separation so good that the circuitry, which is close above the transformer, does not even know the transformer is there. And due to the Panzerholz sandwich structure, there is absolutely no ringing of the metal parts, either.

SUMMARY

      
After few days of settling in and going into full Laminar Mode about two or three days straight the grand experiment has begun. I found I was on a sort of sabbatical from the world of commerce in audio.


The ultimate goal of ultra high-end audio is simply this: to pursue perfection through constantly perfecting. As twisted as this might sound, for me the ultimate challenge is to challenge everything along the way. This endeavor may seem to some as a Sisyphean climb towards the peak of the hill. Still, it is more than praiseworthy to travel the needed mileage and explore everything that impedes our progress. Most importantly, we really should keep our raw, unaffected enthusiasm intact. When enthusiasm wanes, the spirit goes with it, as well as the sharp, focused mind. Every little experiment, comparison, and test adds to the development of our ultimate refinement as listeners. Eventually we form a unique and self-efficient evaluating system, that we hold dear, but also learn to consider both objectively and critically. Definitely, it is valuable and honorable to travel all those extra miles and at the end of the day this is what really defines the upper echelon, as with any other personal life experience.


On the fourth day the AB check sessions began. Replaying the exact same files from my computer brought very different feelings and conclusions. A nagging commercial phenomenon was introduced and rushed back into my mind. The absence of the Laminar experience was felt dearly. The feeling of going on the Laminar Streamer's adventurous, expressive and intoxicating vacation was now gone.

It is early to draw grand conclusions, but what I hear so far having had the device for only a few days is inspiring. This possibly relates to the unique Laminar approach to jitter reduction, as LessLoss wrote every single line of the device's LessLoss Direct Drive OS themselves. They did not base any of it on pre-existing Linux, MAC OS or Windows modules. So when audiophiles code, you know the results won't be merely mainstream.

I can tell you right now that the difference was not small by any means compared to my server/streamer or the USB input. When I first connected the Laminar Streamer to the MSB Select DAC II, the first thing I wrote down in my listening notes was “analog-like easiness, fuller and more vivid projection of the sound,” as well as “prolonged sense of the scale.”

Matej Isak

PRICE


$91,181

TECHNICAL


Plays any .wav or .aif file from FAT32 formatted SD cards. About the size of a postage stamp, a Secure Digital High-Capacity (SDHC) card is a flash memory device that can hold up to 32 gigabytes (GB) of data. These cards are a form of removable memory that can be used with many different digital devices, including camcorders and computers.

Laminar Mode

In Laminar Mode: screen data, active position monitoring, and back-light are all disengaged. The sole active operation remains Direct Drive clock-to-data pairing. The Direct Drive OS runs off of the active precision audio clock.

Playback Features

Playback features include: Pure Laminar mode, phase reversal during playback, repeat track, repeat folder, repeat SD card, play track and stop, play folder and stop, play SD card and stop, random track, fast forward while playing, rewind while playing.

Expansion Port

Optically decoupled expansion port for future remote control functionality without introducing any EM interference to the subtle audio streaming process. No onboard IR or Wi-Fi sensors.

Outputs

— S/PDIF output on RCA;
— AES/EBU output on XLR;
— I2S output on 5-pin connector.

Micro vibration Control

Superlative micro vibration control through precision milled solid steel and Panzerholz construction.

Dimensions & Weight

423.2 × 400 × 160.5mm (16.66 × 15.75 × 6.32 inches), approx. 24 kg (53 lbs) without crate. (38.5 kg (85 lbs) with flight case).

44.1 kHz–192 kHz

Plays any standard sampling rate .wav or .aif files, from 44.1 kHz through 192 kHz.

16/24 bit

Plays 16 or 24 bit depth .wav or .aif files at any standard sampling rate.

Instant SD Card Playback at State-of-the-art Performance

Instantly recognizes the SD card. Boot time is less than 0.2 seconds. Nothing to configure, ever. No buffering, synchronicity, latency, or compatibility issues, ever. Nor viruses. Just Plug-and-Play the perfect audiophile stream, and keep your pure audio experience off the noisy information grid.

Essential Information Display

Small screen displays folder names, file names, sampling rates, absolute phase polarity, playback mode, and time.

Screen Functions

Screen functions include: text scroll animation stop and Pure Laminar mode (screen off). 

Phase Polarity Switching

On-the-fly 100% digital realm absolute phase polarity switching during playback.
      

CONTACT


LessLoss Audio P.D. 
1231 Kaunas
LT 46005 Lithuania

Tel: +370 698 48706