Faster = Better.
Thunderbolt™ is the wave of the future—the kind of game-changing technology that only comes along once a decade. Developed by Intel Labs in collaboration with Apple, it’s a brand new input/output (I/O) protocol which combines incredible speed with dual bi-directional data paths, each of which are capable of handling eight 24-bit 96 kHz audio channels. The end result is the finest audio you’ve ever heard.
There are many reasons why Thunderbolt is becoming the interface of choice for musicians, producers and engineers everywhere—anyone, in fact, who is interested in great-sounding audio.
Thunderbolt operates at 10 Gbps (10 billion bits per second). That’s twenty times faster than USB 2.0 and twelve times faster than Firewire 800.
Impressive, to be sure, but why exactly is speed so important? Simple: Speed equals quality. Today’s computer audio interfaces utilize converters that operate with 24-bit resolution at sampling rates of 96 kHz or higher.
But the downside is that these extended bit resolutions and sampling rates result in huge amounts of data being generated. Recording just one minute of a single channel of 24/96 audio results in the creation of more than 17 million bits of digital data. What’s more, all those ones and zeroes have to be streamed to and from the converters in real time for the sound to be recorded and played back with full fidelity. Multiply that by two, four, eight or even more channels and you start to see the magnitude of the problem. If the audio interface you’re using can’t send and receive data fast enough, latency creeps in and your audio suffers. In effect, using outdated technology to transfer digital audio is like trying to sip an extra-thick milkshake through a straw the size of a toothpick.
Unlike “old school” USB devices, which can only carry a maximum of 2.5 watts / 5 volts of bus power, Thunderbolt allows for a whopping 10 watts / 18 volts of power to be carried over the same wire as the audio signal. This allows higher quality electronic components (such as preamps and A/D/A converters) to be incorporated into our audio interfaces, resulting in much greater sonic detail and extended frequency range.
Thunderbolt technology combines multiple I/O protocols with traffic routing management, supporting hot-plugging and daisy chaining of almost any kind of digital device. This allows off-the-shelf connectivity of not only audio interfaces, but also hard drives, printers, scanners, etc.—even multiple video monitors.
With Thunderbolt, one cable does it all. Being able to connect all your computer peripherals to a single port makes life easier and also eliminates tangles of wire. That much is obvious. But what may be less obvious is that a multi-purpose interface such as Thunderbolt enables the usage of thinner and lighter laptops without sacrificing I/O performance. That makes it more convenient to create and edit audio when you’re on the road, as well as having more desk space when working in a home studio and less clutter onstage during live performance.
Since February, 2011, every new Mac (including MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, and iMac models) has been outfitted with a Thunderbolt port. But the protocol is no longer the exclusive province of the Mac world:
A number of Thunderbolt-equipped Windows-based laptops have been released since then, and leading portable hard drive manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon too.