What price passion?

My neighbor Mike has a $12,000 bicycle that is hand crafted from carbon fiber and weighs a mere 14 pounds. Next year the company is announcing a huge breakthrough; a 13 pound version for another $2K. My neighbor also rides 4500 miles a year on this bike and, as you can guess, is very involved in cycling and all that comes with it. His hi-fi consists of an iPod and a pair of crappy loudspeakers in a dock.

I own a $200 bicycle that is mass produced and weighs upwards of 30 pounds. Next year my bike company will have a new color scheme to attract more buyers and probably charge the same, maybe less. I ride perhaps 50 miles a year and, as you can guess, am not very involved in cycling; even being so bold as to wear just any old shorts, a T-shirt and street shoes. My hi-fi consists of a $27,000 pair of loudspeakers for starters and just gets more expensive from there.

I smiled yesterday when Mike asked me why in the world anyone would pay more than a few hundred bucks for a stereo system.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

What’s a NAS

If you Google “NAS” you’ll see that the first block of entries is for the rapper Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as NAS. And if you look down the list Google offers you’ll find what we’re interested in. Hint: it stores music we listen to on our high-end audio systems.

A NAS is an acronym for Network Attached Storage; basically a hard drive you can connect to your network.

Now that we’re all computer experts we’re going to start learning about the various items that connect to our computers and make life more interesting or, at least, more useful when it comes to music playback and a NAS is certainly one of those.

When PS Audio first entered the network audio field with our revolutionary new PerfectWave DAC we began by recommending you store your music on a NAS. We no longer recommend that approach (as we’ve learned more) and so this short few series of posts is going to help us understand what a NAS is, how it works, what it’s good and bad points are and why we no longer recommend its use as your primary music storage method.

Let’s start with the basics first and examine just what is a hard drive and then move on to this particular type of hard disc drive. A hard drive is a magnetic data storage device and, unlike a soft drive, uses a rigid hard disc to remember the information you want stored. A soft drive is the same thing as a hard drive only the magnetic medium is soft or “floppy”. In fact, soft drives used to be called floppy disc drives (as some of us will remember).

Magnetic storage devices have been around for nearly a century, starting out as wire recorders, then moving on to tape recorders that moved a soft flexible piece of plastic tape past a magnetic head to store the data on a length of tape. Later, the reel of tape was replaced with a spinning disc of plastic tape, much like a vinyl phono disc in the way information is recorded in a long spiral pattern. So, just imagine removing the long length of recording tape from its reel and then winding the tape into a circle to form a round disc – which is basically what a floppy disc is.

The flexible spinning tape disc, known as the floppy, was replaced by the hard metal spinning disk known as a hard drive starting in the mid 1970′s and today you’d be hard pressed to find a floppy tape disc on any computer. The two primary methods of storing information today are optical (CD’s, DVD’s and Blu Ray’s) and magnetic (hard disk drive). Hard disc drives account for about 60% of all data stored today; which is currently estimated to be 2.7 Zettabytes (2.7 with 21 zeros after it). On the rise are solid state drives which will become the predominant storage medium in the next 5 or so years.

Closer to home, hard discs come in three basic flavors: internal, external and network. Your computer uses the internal style and most externally attached hard drives are connected through our old friend the USB port. What both of these have in common is that they are directly attached to the computer. A network attached storage device, our NAS, does not connect directly to your computer and, in fact, does not even need your computer to work. This latter piece of info is important to understand.

In all three connections schemes, internal, external or network connected, all hard disc drives require a computer to work. Without a computer attached, a hard disc drive is completely useless.

So obviously there’s a disconnect here – if all hard drives require a computer to work and a NAS is a hard drive, why then does my statement still hold true? How then does the NAS operate without a computer?

You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for your answer.

It might seem complex

One of my readers commented that “it sure is easier to just put a record on the turntable and play it” in response to trying to understand the complexity of sending music out of a computer. Well, sure it is – just as it’s even easier to put a CD into a CD player. But then, it may be the easiest still to simply pick up an iPad and touch the screen to start some of the best sounding music you’ve ever heard playing on your high-end stereo system.

I think understanding the complexities of any system is equally hard – it all looks very complex and it’s important to simply take a step back and see what the end result of all the complexity is. From my viewpoint the proper ritual of washing a vinyl disc, cleaning the stylus, locating the track, setting the needle down and then returning to your listening chair each time you want to hear another track or album is a far more complex process than using your remote to select the next track on a CD and press play – and all of them pale when it comes to the ease of scrolling through 1000 albums with a flick of a finger on your iPad.

It’s funny how the most complex system of all is the simplest to use. After all, most of us don’t have a clue anymore how a modern automobile works in other than the most basic of concepts – yet it sure is easy to just touch the ignition button, start the car and drive off.

If, by reading the last series on networking you got a glimpse of how everything works and that glimpse might be enough to provide a mental image of the actual system and its workings, then setting one up is really quite easy and hopefully I’ve manbaged to demystify it a bit for you.

Next I think it might be handy to look at some of the devices we use to play music on our networks.

Tomorrow, the NAS.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl

Switches and routers oh my!

With all these crazy packets running around our network, like web page traffic, email and music files, how do the attached devices (like our DAC or our computer) know which of these packets are intended for them? And how do we connect everyone together? There are three elements we need to lightly understand to answer these questions: network inputs, switches and routers.

First, let’s narrow our scope a bit because network inputs are everywhere. For example every cell phone in the world has a network input and I don’t think it’ll be valuable for us to have this broad of a scope. So let’s focus on just our home network called a LAN. LAN stands for Local Area Network and in our terms it simply means the connected system we use at home to tie together our devices, like computers, printers etc.

Every modern computer has an Ethernet and/or wireless input that allows access to a network. Both are essentially going to the same place – they are different only in the way they connect – but they perform the same function. The main purpose of this input is two fold: to create and manage an address that tells everyone on the network who the computer (or DAC) is and where to find it, and to prepare and organize the traffic that goes in and out of the computer or DAC. Think of this as your own Post Office (PO) box.

Next is the network switch. On one end of the switch you connect up the network and it reads everything that is going on. On the other end are a bunch of Ethernet or wireless ports (inputs). When you connect your computer or your DAC to one of these ports, the switch says “hello, what’s your address and who are you?” The two talk, the switch remembers which port the computer or DAC is on and whenever someone on your network wants to communicate with your computer or DAC, the switch simply makes the connection between the two. Think of the switch as the local post office and mail sorter; the connected equipment as the individual PO boxes the post office delivers mail to.

A router is a switch and a gateway. The gateway is how you connect to the internet or larger network and once connected it tells the outside world your personal address and how to find you when you ask for something. Think of the router as the connection between your local post office and the larger worldwide post office.

Most of us have only a router – which is a gateway and switch combined – to form our network and that’s all we need. To this piece of kit you can connect your DAC, your computer, your Apple TV, whatever you have. Most routers are wireless as well as wired – but again, the wireless part is the same as the wired input, just using a different medium to send the traffic.

And that, my friends is a network and how music travels down that network.

Tomorrow let’s sum up everything we know and then move on to the NAS.

Jigsaw puzzles

If you’ve been following along you now understand that music files are first broken into smaller identically sized pieces of data when they leave the computer.

The data are placed in a capsule called a packet and addressed just like a letter with the address of where it’s supposed to be going and where it came from. You’ve also figured out that if the letter doesn’t get delivered properly (or at all) that we can ask for it to be sent again and our network air traffic control will make sure another copy gets sent out until it is all received perfectly.

Here’s another analogy to help you firm this up. Just imagine you want to send a very rare jigsaw puzzle to a museum and you’re worried that if you send the whole thing it might get lost in the mail. Your chances of getting the puzzle delivered safely increase dramatically if you send each piece of the puzzle in a separate package. The chances of losing all 1000 pieces are almost zero and so you guarantee safe delivery of the majority of the puzzle – any missing pieces you can send later from the copy you kept. This is what we do with a music file and the error rate of sending these files over our local network is almost zero. Everything gets there in perfect shape.

Once received the packets are placed in order, their address information removed and the payload (the music data) is queued up and presented to the DAC as an identical copy to what you started with. Truly an amazing process.

And here’s something else to understand. Now that you see how music files are taken apart, placed in small packages and sent on their way, you can also understand how it is possible to say that we can send any music file anywhere in the world without worry of degradation or loss. It really doesn’t matter if the network is in your home or runs through the biggest network in the world – the internet – all data is treated equally and gets to where it is going unscathed.

Tomorrow we’ll start to wrap up our network journey by briefly covering the job of switches and routers.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Finding your way home

When we stream a music file from our computer, NAS or even the internet to our DAC over USB or our network, that music file is first torn apart into little tiny bits and each of the tiny bits of information is then placed into a capsule, called a packet, and sent along the route with other unrelated packets to be received by our DAC. How does each packet know where to go and how to get there?

The secret is in the capsule and how it looks. Did you know that every pill found in your medicine cabinet has a specific shape and color that’s unique? Doesn’t matter if it’s Tylenol, aspirin or cold pills, they all have a unique shape and color that identifies them. One of the reasons for this is to help an ER doc figure out what a patient might have swallowed if they arrive unconscious with a friend bringing in a handful of pills. Take a look sometimes at your collection of pills – you’ll be surprised.

That each pill has a unique identifier is the same method packets use to tell the network system what it is and how to distinguish itself from every other capsule containing data. Just like our medical analogy, what’s inside each of the packet capsules (the payload) is different and the outer shell around the payload is used to inform the system what to expect and where it should go.

The device used to make up a capsule is called a header and in that header is all kinds of information: what kind of data is in the capsule, a little math quiz that has to be solved to make sure everything’s kept in order, the address of where the data came from and another address of where the data is supposed to go. It is to these addresses our journey next takes us.

In any shared system each node or location on that system has a physical address that is really no different than the address on your home. So if I want to send a package from my home located at 1234 any street, to your home at 5678 the other street, I write both the sending address and the intended receiving address on my package and hand it over to the FEDEX driver. A day later you receive the package. In the meantime, you have no idea where that package has been and how it got there. The FEDEX driver probably takes a completely different route every day (depending on who he has deliveries to) and yet the package still arrives intact.

This ability for the package to be route insensitive – yet always arriving at the right place – is the essence of how networks and the internet work and why we break apart the data into these packets.

The address the packets use is called an IP address. You’ve probably heard of these and their numbers look like this 192.168.3.4 and they contain a ton of information all no different than that of a zip code and physical address used to help FEDEX find your home. In fact, you may be more familiar with another form of IP address that uses words “instead” of numbers. Take our website address: http://www.psaudio.com. When you type that in you go to PS Audio’s website. To a computer the letters only represent numbers and are there because it makes it easier for you to remember letters rather than numbers.

When you type any address into your web browser the info tells the system what you want and where it is located. ”http” means expect a webpage request in web language. ”www” means World Wide Web and so you are looking for our webpage (as opposed to downloads, mail or anything else). And “psaudio” is actually referring to a unique number which is 66.40.29.165. The computer is just doing all the work for you of changing the letters you type into this very number. Don’t get it? Just type or copy 66.40.29.165 into your web browser and our website comes up. Tricky, eh?

You’ll have to admit it’s easier for us humans to remember www.psaudio.com than 66.40.29.165. But 66.40.29.165 is all a computer can understand.

We’re nearly there.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The Packet Racket

We’ve been learning that computers and computer traffic are shared experiences. Gone are the days when we directly connect devices together and the reasons for this are fairly simple: too many devices need to be connected to too many people over the same roads – there are only a limited number of data highways that are practical to send info over.

To effectively and safely travel these roads computers break down large amounts of data into multiple smaller enclosures called packets (there are also frames but we’re just focusing on this very broad view). These packets are then sent scurrying along their routes together with other packets in the same way cars might be seen driving down the freeway. Each car has a destination in mind and each driver of the car can take the route she thinks is best to arrive at the final destination. Not all cars get to the same place using the same route, but in the end they all get there.

So, why in the world do we go to all the trouble of breaking apart our information into these packets? Here’s a glimpse at a decision tree the first designers probably faced.

Let’s imagine you want to connect together two schools, each on one end of the state and each with 100 computers.

Your first task is to connect your 100 computers together locally so you string a wire from building to building to connect everyone together, but how do these computers share this one wire? You also need to connect the two schools together without owning your own cable. You choose the telephone company which has the same problem you do – many people accessing each other over a shared wire – but at least they have a wire.

Your designers figure a way to share the wire with 10 computers at once. If more than 10 want to get on they have to wait. But what happens if the 10 users all try and send big files at the same time? It won’t take long before the system will suffer major traffic jams, collisions, stalled traffic, blocked roads, construction zones, frustrated users and wait times on both ends of the connection that are awful. Not a great solution and what happens if the phone company disconnects you or has a hiccup in the connection between the two schools?

So then someone has a bright idea. Instead of trying to send big files all at once, hogging all the available space, what if we broke down big files into many little files? And, better still, all the little files were the same size, making sure that the traffic we send over our network was identical. Instead of tying up the roads with long dedicated convoys that stopped everyone else from traveling (big single files) we only use identical “small cars” traveling at the same speed and the only differences between cars are the passengers in the cars. If we did this, then we could allow as many people as necessary to get onto the shared wire at the same time – and because everyone is sending the same size bits of data, it wouldn’t matter what they were sending – big files, little files, all share the road equally as needed.

If the phone company had a hiccup the other school would know some of the little files were missing and ask for them to be sent again. This is a much better solution than asking for the entire file back!

These identical cars are called packets and the different people in the cars are called the payload (the actual data we want).

Tomorrow we figure out how to get them sorted out.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Sorting Apples

Sorting apples

If you’ve been following along with our series on networking you now understand that regardless of how data gets out of your computer to your DAC – USB or over a network – the path it takes is a shared one used by more than just the music we want to send.

In fact, USB stands for Universal Serial Bus and the very name itself is a clue for us to understand this shared architecture: the last two words specific keys. ”Serial” refers to a single conduit where everything marches along in series, one followed by the other. ”Bus”, represents a group of items together; the actual word derived from “Omnibus” which, in literary terms, refers to a book of collected stories or volumes. The point is that USB is a single shared path in the same way that our network is and all the “traffic” on either the network or the USB is traffic shared with many others.

I am keeping us focused on the shared nature of traffic on these exit paths from your computer because it is this shared quality that is the essence of how a computer and a network works – and once you get your arms around how and why the computer is such a sharing and caring machine, the rest will be child’s play.

Have you ever seen how a machine sorts apples? Picture a long single conveyor with thousands of apples traveling down the path in single file. Along the way, apples leave the path – like cars exiting the freeway – while others continue on their way and leave by different exits. At the end of the conveyor there are no apples left. The apples get off at various exits because of their size or weight: large ones first, then the next size down, finally ending with the smallest apples. In this way, the farmer can simply dump a basket of multiple sized apples into a hopper and, though the apples are mixed up, each finds its way to where it needs to go following a shared path. Think of this as the apple network where many different types of apples can all journey down the same path; yet each has a different final destination.

This analogy isn’t too far off from how data travels down our shared paths but, instead of apples, we have another enclosure called a packet. These packets are data enclosures and identified not by their size but with little “notes” pinned on their “shirts” in the same way that a line of grade school children can be sorted out by their teachers: using these little name tags.

Tomorrow, the Packet Racket.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Telephones, CD players and frogs

Yesterday we began our look at networked audio – connecting a DAC to your computer through a network rather than a fixed length USB cable (or S/PDIF cable). The advantages to connecting over a network are many, including the ability to put your DAC anywhere you wish and the possibility of as many DACS as you like throughout your home. Sending cover art and song titles to your DAC an added bonus.

We also learned that almost all of us already have a home network setup even if we didn’t know that. All you need to create a home network is a simple router – which you probably already have.

Today let’s get a little learnin’ under our belts about the fundamentals of sending audio over a network.

Remembering back to our discussions on how a CD transport works when connected to a DAC – that of sending a directly connected stream of bits between the two machines – we need to understand this no longer happens when we get computers involved. To understand this we’ll go back in history a little.

When I was growing up the phone system was very different than it is today. At our home we had what was known as a party line which meant we shared the telephone resources with two of our neighbors. This arrangement worked out well until my two sisters became teenagers and would spend hours chatting with their girlfriends – and our neighbors had to ask them to get off the phone to use it themselves. If we wanted to call someone long distance we had to first call the operator who would then place the call for us. Direct dialing outside our city was simply not possible at that time. Even the dialing itself was different than today, using a rotary dial that simply hung up the phone multiple times to represent different numbers: 6 hangups meant the number 6 and so on.

This system relied on the fact that when we called someone there was a direct connection to the other person’s phone over a single pair of wires – despite the fact we were shuffled through numerous switches or an operator – once a connection was made between two parties there was one dedicated stream on one wire between the two phones – much like the dedicated stream between a CD transport and your DAC.

Then one day all this changed when the phone company announced a radical new system that used push buttons and tones to dial and, much to our delight, our own “private” line and the ability to call outside our city without the aid of an operator. Man, that was a big deal back then. So, what changed? The phone company went from a direct single connect method (one wire needed for each call) to a shared many connected method (many calls over one wire at the same time) that gave us the impression it was private – when actually we shared it with even more neighbors than before but we didn’t know they were there. The phone company built a network where many things happened on the same wire at the same time.

Now let’s return to our present day discussion and understand that computers and networks have the same challenges in common with the phone system: many things must travel the same path at the same time. Computers must respect the credo: “share the road”.

Tomorrow we’ll learn about packets which are the little devils that both USB and network audio break the music into and send them scurrying about.

Keeping these millions of little bits of music marching in the same direction and not getting mixed up with other travelers on the same road is akin to trying to keep a wheelbarrow full of frogs from jumping out – but it all happens because of a common language everyone understands – including the frogs in the wheelbarrow.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Inc.

Networking

This’ll be the first of a few posts where we delve into networking and computer audio systems. In prior posts we looked at what I would refer to as a closed system: a single computer with a DAC attached to it. This works fine but has a number of drawbacks, many of which are not found when we move to the next level, network audio.

In a network audio system the DAC is connected to your computer over a network. Unlike the first example, where our DAC was connected by a fixed USB cable, our network connected DAC is attached in any numbers of ways: an Ethernet cable, a wireless “cable”, a combination of the two. Our network connected DAC is no longer bound by the restrictive maximum length of our USB cable nor is subjected to the quality issues of a USB cable. Finally, our network DAC isn’t restricted to being next to our computer. Our DAC can now be placed anywhere in our home or, for that matter, anywhere in the world and we are no longer restricted to just one DAC in our home – we can have as many as we wish.

Network connected DACS have major advantages over a tethered USB connected DAC but, as always with any new fangled connection scheme, there’s a whole bunch of “gottcha’s” to go along with it.

So what is a network and do most of us have one? Chances are quite good that if you are reading this post on a home computer you have a network already. Certainly the fact that you’re reading this on any device at all means you are using a network – called the internet.

If you have a router in your computer setting then you have a network. Many of us don’t know what a router is, or what it does or why we have it, but without it we haven’t anywhere to plug into the internet. Perhaps your router is built into your phone or cable company’s internet connection box, but I would place a pretty safe bet when I say you no doubt have a network at home.

A network is formed when two or more entities connect. Unless you’re name is Ted Kaczynski, you probably already have a network of friends and family – perhaps through work, church, school, the gym or wherever more than one of your inner circle friends meet.

In computer terms a network refers to a system that allows us to connect multiple machines together and communicate with each other. Just like your own personal network, when we connect machines together we have to have a common language and we have to know which devices are part of our inner circle and which are not.

The common languages computers and their “friends” use to communicate with each other and the way they talk were developed in the 1960′s by both private and public entities – with emphasis on a United States government funded group known as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). From this publicly funded program pretty much everything we work with today, from the internet, the world wide web, computers talking with each other, mobile phones etc. all spawned from this fertile ground to create not just a new industry but a new way of life around the globe. The number of jobs created and the economics of this new paradigm are simply not calculable. If you’re interested, there’s a great book on the history of this titled Where Wizards Stay Up Late.

So, let’s assume for the purposes of our discussion that you have a router in your system and that, by definition, means you have a home network already setup and in place.

Tomorrow let’s start to cover how this router of yours communicates over your network and what it’s language looks like.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.