Q&A With StreamUnlimited

During my recent spate of streamer reviews, I came across StreamUnlimited and also discovered that their streaming technology is included in a number of products from manufacturers including Musical Fidelity, T+A, Pioneer, and many others. I contacted StreamUnlimited via email, the company is based in Vienna, and promptly heard back from Alfred Madlmayer, Sales & Product Manager for StreamUnlimited Engineering GmbH who was kind enough to agree to this Q&A. I directed most of my questions toward their Stream700 product which is the heart of the streaming solution in many Streaming products on the market today.

"...this Philips team (now StreamUnlimited) introduced for Philips in the years 2001-2004 the first streaming audio and video products"

Could you tell us about StreamUnlimited's history and provide a brief overview of its products?

StreamUnlimited was founded in 2005, but its history goes back longer:

StreamUnlimited has its roots in the former Philips Audio Video Innovation Centre in Vienna. This development centre had the task, within Philips Consumer Electronics, to take up new technologies from the research phase, to make those technologies mature in standard modules, to develop first-of-a-kind products based on those modules and finally to ramp up mass production with those new products in Asia.

Doing so, this Philips team (now StreamUnlimited) introduced for Philips in the years 2001-2004 the first streaming audio and video products, the first MP3 players, the first hard-disc and DVD recorders, the first HDMI products and the first Wi-Fi enabled products.

It is this broad spectrum of capabilities (everything to get from research to mass production), anchored in the heads of 25 engineers, which was the start of StreamUnlimited, early 2005. Since then we have successfully built our growth on that strength and gained even more knowledge by increasing our team with more (now 60) excellent engineers.

One main focus of StreamUnlimited is the development and production of digital modules for high end products, like:

- Several CD solutions, high quality, long term availability
- Streaming audio client (Stream700)
- Fully digital USB to SPDIF
- Fully digital iDevice to SPDIF
- High Definition audio over Bluetooth, using APTX
- Apple Airplay
- Software modules for user interface, WiFi connectivity
Could you explain the reasons for the specified compression level limits for the playback of high sample rate FLAC files (according to the Stream700 specifications, for FLAC files over 24/96 only compression levels from L4-L8 are supported)?

A FLAC 24/192 file with L0-L3 quality level requires a data rate close to a WAV file. Handling those data rates AND decoding FLAC (and also handling the GUI engine) at the same time can reach the capability limits of the DM860 processor [from SMSC]. This has been improved in several steps, but we can not guarantee a perfect playback performance - therefore the specification remains at L4-L8.

"Therefore a FLAC file without compression is a rather unusual case and should/can be replaced by a compressed FLAC file or by the 'native' WAV file."

A side remark: We know that there are FLAC files on the market with no compression, which causes some issues. However, we think that the reason for using FLAC encoding is to reduce the data rate (and finally the total file size). Therefore a FLAC file without compression is a rather unusual case and should/can be replaced by a compressed FLAC file or by the "native" WAV file [footnote 1]. UPnP servers can transcode such files.

"ALAC and AIFF is offered since beginning of 2012 on Stream700."

Do you anticipate offering ALAC and/or AIFF Support? If so, when and if not could you talk about the reasons behind this decision?

ALAC and AIFF is offered since beginning of 2012 on Stream700. It's our brand customer's decision, which features they enable on their products.

Would you say that there are any size limitations to a Network Attached Storage-based music Library in terms of overall performance? In other words, is there a point beyond which the number of albums begins to bog down LAN and/or USB system performance?

For this point we have to distinguish between LAN and USB system and for LAN we have to distinguish between "real" NAS systems and combinations of an USB drive with a network adaptor.

For NAS based LAN systems the biggest influence will come from the UPnP server. The second influence has the browsing capability of the Stream700 itself. 10-15K songs will be handled with no real impact to overall performance. Using an USB drive with a network adaptor can lead easily to performance issues. There are however also influences of the LAN itself. Total traffic on the network or interferences in case of W-LAN will also lead to a reduced overall performance.

Connecting an USB HDD to the Stream700 is a different use case. The absence of an UPnP server has the consequence, that only folders and files can be seen in the browse-view and the entire file system has to be read before browsing can start. USB support is more intended for flash sticks with limited amount of music.

"Total traffic on the network or interferences in case of W-LAN will also lead to a reduced overall performance."

Could you expand on, "Using an USB drive with a network adaptor can lead easily to performance issues"?

The following points will have an influence:

The quality of an integrated UPnP server
Performance issue of the USB driver
The way the HDD is integrated into the network (e.g. server is running on a PC, HDD is connected via USB adaptor via Wifi or LAN to the network. I have such a configuration at home and know, that once in a while I have interruptions of playback or can not access a music file)
What do you think will be the next big step for Streaming services? Or, what's the next development on the Streaming services horizon that people should be excited about?

High end streaming services (higher quality audio files, e.g. BBC is offering this in the UK, or a mix of "on demand service" with a sort of "recommender service") start to materialize and will find their way into streaming clients in the future.

Another next big thing for StreamUnlimited in the coming months is the market introduction of a fully digital high performance Class-D amplifier module, with optionally an additional wireless transmission module. We see huge interest in this from for instance high end loudspeaker companies.



Footnote 1. I was able to stream uncompressed FLAC files from my NAS to all of the streamers I've reviewed including the Musical Fidelity M1 CLiC, T+A MP 1260 R, and Pioneer N-50 without incident.

COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

I was hoping you'd query them about [whatever], and you did!

I'm reminded of early-'90s computers. They could barely play an MP3 but sail through AIFFs and WAVs.

But Mr. Madlmayer seems to be saying that for a given data rate and other factors, having to additionally decode higher-compessed files is less burdensome.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But Mr. Madlmayer seems to be saying that for a given data rate and other factors, having to additionally decode higher-compessed files is less burdensome.

I thought that was interesting too. Apparently it’s the combination of file size (the larger file sizes of the lower compression levels), decoding, “and also handling the GUI engine” that can swamp the processor. In other words, we have an instance of a manufacturer explaining how and why FLAC playback can negatively affect sound quality as compared to WAV playback.

deckeda's picture

I get the sense from his initial description of the company's origin that they took a position early on to be leaders in presenting to end-manufacturers what's possible, if not what "makes sense" from a features standpoint.

We need a company like StreamUnlimited to recognize the kinds of things that are important to audiophiles and push them as an agenda out to their audiophile-centric consumer electronics clients, particularly when the added cost of doing so is minimal.

It's not enough to leave it up to the clients to enable a feature. It's to StreamUnlimited's benefit to take an active role and evangelize.

We need this because the Pioneers, Marantzes/Denons (as well as most of the higher-end community) have long ago decided they won't do this. They won't code, they won't research the hardware --- they won't ensure audiophiles get what they need. They won't take a moment to describe why WAV vs. FLAC vs. MP3. To them, "That's all computers, but we make audio gear, which is not computers."

OK, they sorta recognize that audio today "is" computers but won't pony up the resources to tackle it themselves. I won't be convinced an outfit the size of say, Pioneer, can't do what StreamUnlimited does, only more focused for audiophiles. These are the same people who don't license Audyssey but rather, created their own room-correction software and allowed Andrew Jones to blow his budget when designing the inexpensive "Andrew Jones" line of speakers.

For Madlmayer, it would be beneficial if his company didn't suggest WAV playback, for its metadata problems alone. Get FLAC compatibility fully to where it needs to be, herald AIFF/ALAC for its advanatges to the people who want that and campaign for it all to his clients. THEY need the education, apparently. I don't get the sense they are going back to StreamUnlimited with requests, let alone demands.

deckeda's picture

It was only one cup, I promise.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I find it fascinating to follow this technology from end-to-end and in some ways it makes sense that the farther we travel away from the end product, the farther we get from the end-user’s goals. Especially when we’re talking about a broad suite of services. In the end, I think pressure needs to come from both ends so we can meet in the middle ;-)

Here we have (in a general sense): Product/Streamer (M1CLiC, Pioneer N-50…) > bundled Streaming Technology (StreamUnlimited) > Streaming Technology (SMSC)

rtrt's picture

Thanks Michael. Been a reader for a while but just needed a nudge to register. Seems this article was it! Learned a few things - always good. Hope you don't mind, I posted a link to this article on pink fish - a great audio/music community, where a few others will I think find the article worth a read. rtrt

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And not only do I not mind the Pink Fish link, I thank you for it.

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