Though the bulk of my rig would be considered “high end” – Shindo amplification and DeVore Fidelity loudspeakers — my digital front end is decidedly 2010. Apple Macbook, two Western Digital 4 TB mirrored hard drives, and a cute little Halide HD DAC have provided this vinyl lover with hours of digital audio decency.
Luckily, I’ve reviewed many DACs, beginning with a maze of tiny tot USB DACs for 6Moons.com and more recently, the Mytek Manhattan and PS Audio DSD DAC. As the medium improves, morphs, and ramps up to warp speed, new technologies are introduced that improve on dead tech devices. As some devices, like CD players, slowly disappear, others, better equipped to process digital’s 1s and 0s, take their place. The server, with its onboard storage, ripping, streaming and processing capabilities is the latest to capture the imagination of crafty designers. And for good reason. By eliminating wires and focusing on streamlined internal functionality, servers offer an all-in-one solution while tackling one of digital audio’s biggest problems: noise.
New Zealand’s Antipodes Audio takes a fresh approach to combating the equivalent of digital grunge. To hear the company’s Mark Jenkins tell it, the biggest obstacle to digital audio nirvana isn’t parts selection or bits resolution. And it isn’t the choice between PCM, DSD, or MQA. No, the current blockade between our ears and audio ecstasy is simple. It’s noise.
Computers generate noise. Spinning hard-drive discs generate noise. The neighbor’s washing machine, the always-on TVs, and umpteen computers sharing your building’s power line? Noise, noise, noise. If allowed to freely circulate within our hi-fis, the behemoths of noise — also known as jitter when running rampant within digital conversion — will foul the works resulting in distortion of micro detail, greater glare or edge in transients, and overall sound reproduction resulting in what is commonly called “digititus.” It’s like creating a good marinara sauce, actually. If the sauce’s basic ingredients – tomatoes, olive oil, garlic – aren’t pure and free from contamination before entering the boiling/mixing/simmering phase, imagine what they will taste like in your mouth. Seems simple enough, but when considering the plethora of hard-sounding, noise-spewing digital devices on the market, noise, like pain management, must be grabbed by the balls.
Antipodes Audio puts as much research into eliminating noise in their servers as designing and combining the components that produce their sound. Antipodes implements noise-defeating technologies at every turn, in both the flagship DX Reference and the redesigned DS. From DAC connections to storage options to power supplies, Antipodes founder Mark Jenkins and his team follows a radical, if sensible approach. If feeling your inner Deepak Chopra you could even call their approach “holistic.”
Connections, storage, power. “Antipodes Music Servers provide what we have discovered to be a much better solution [to defeating noise] — to feed the DAC with a precision-clocked ultra-low noise digital signal,” states their website.
“Antipodes Music Servers focus on eliminating anything unnecessary, by using a minimal Linux operating system, and by pushing all interaction to your tablet, smartphone or computer; and through minimisation and management of electronic noise at every step of the process that generates the digital signal from the stored file.”
Antipodes’ further claims to noise suppression include “keeping RAM activity to a minimum . . . by using a purpose-built VortexBox Linux software suite and customised scripting,” and by following “system tuning through chip selection and customised firmware to tune the chip speeds, which affects not just the amount of electronic noise generated but also its frequency spectrum. Electronic noise in different frequency ranges can have vastly different effects on the resulting sound quality.”
Antipodes prefers USB over SPDIF or Ethernet for DAC connection, purely for USB’s generally quieter properties; another element in Antipodes’ arsenal.
“USB is ideal for an Antipodes server because it is architecturally superior to SPDIF, i2s and AES/EBU, and generates much less noise in the DAC than Ethernet . . . USB is the best solution only when the server is very low noise, and when the DAC manufacturer has done a competent job of isolating the USB receiver from the analog power supply and circuitry…”
Storage options also have an impact on noise. Antipodes put Solid State Drives (SSD) in the DX Reference, and 2.5” hard discs rather than the usual 3.5” discs in the DS. The 2.5” discs “eliminate the heat and vibration issues in the DS” Antipodes believes.
The final element in Antipodes’ noise-killing chain: power supply design.
“Some parts of a music server perform better if powered with a switch-mode supply. The key design issue is selecting a topology that minimises the high frequency noise interference generated . . . One of the key issues is where the power supply noise is placed, in a frequency spectrum sense, and this can be more important than the total amount of noise . . . The first area of saving in the DS power supply arrangement is using an external power supply, and the second is that we use some switching elements in the power supply. However, the regulated output stage of the DS power supply is still fully linear.”
Thankfully, eggheads aside, Antipodes stresses the final determinant of any design choice is listening. Revolutionary! No measurements or fancy parts selection will matter if listening isn’t the most important factor in shaping sound quality. Sounds simple enough, but as the measurement geeks go apeshit, hold on to your ears at all costs.
Jenkins again: “Just as you will find in the design of any other high-end audio equipment, like a DAC, amplifier or speaker,these design decisions are based on massive amounts of time building prototypes and listening to them, and then refining the design over a period of years.”
One sunny morning I found the Antipodes DS in my building lobby, lugged the box up the seven flights to my Greenwich Village man-villa, and hungrily unboxed the goods.
Design. My review sample of the Antipodes DS server: a silver unit with 4 TB of internal hard-disc storage: US$3170. Antipodes offers hard-disc storage levels commensurate with price: 1 TB: US$2750; 2 TB: US$2890; 4 TB: US$3170. There are SSD options too: 1 TB US$3600; 2 TB US$4275; 4 TB US$5625. All internal drives are “sunk” to the external heat-sinks to maximize life expectancy.
“The hard drives are firmly attached to an alloy plate that runs between the two heatsinks,” Mark Jenkins explains. “Any other ambient heat will also tend to heat up the top plate, which also has a firm connection to the heat sinks.”
The Antipodes DS’ cosmetics are subtle and sleek, with minimal external controls. It’s a compact but hefty, squared-off unit encased in a matte-finish aluminum alloy with barely visible heat-sinks protruding from each side. The internal CD ripper’s access slot is visible near the top of the faceplate. Once powered up via a switch-mode power supply, a front panel button brings the DS to life; its blue light also glows from within the DS’s internals through a see-through top plate. Antipodes recommends leaving the unit on 24/7.
The DS’ back panel holds the 12V input jack (for the switch mode power supply), two USB outputs labeled “audio on” and “audio off” (sorted as to whether your DAC requires power from the USB buss or not). A RCA digital out, RCA left and right analog outs, the Ethernet connection, and a “backup” USB port for attaching external storage via the “Drive Mount” app located on the apps setting on the main Antipodes page, once you’ve established the unit on your network.
Using the Linux operating system, the Antipodes DS runs two apps: VortexBox for setup, control, and disc-ripping, and to oversee the music library once ripped, Logitech’s Media Control Center, which worked very well, offered hundreds of demo FLAC rips in every style but metal and electronic, and was very fast compared to my Audirvana/Macbook/external storage drive setup. Antipodes supports formats including WAV, AIFF (my personal choice), FLAC, ALAC, AAC, M4A, MP3, Ogg, DSF, and DFF. PCM-format resolution ramps up to 32-bit/384kHz and double rate DSD. The DS can stream from Spotify, Qobuz, TIDAL, BBC, and many other preloaded services. To maximize functionality, the DS also contains an internal Realtek DAC, which can play files from the USB output, including 24/192 PCM and DSD128.
Setup. Making all the basic connections was easy. I used an off-the-shelf Ethernet cable to connect the DS to my Apple Extreme router, and the included Antipodes USB cable to attach the DS to the PS Audio NuWave DSD DAC (on loan) wired into my Shindo Allegro preamplifier. The older Halide DAC was not compatible with Antipodes’ 2.0 software. I powered the DS, and after some fiddling and mental decoding of the manual, the DS appeared as a shared device on my Macbook. The VortexBox screen provided control options including access to Logitech Media Control Center, CD/DVD Ripper, FLAC Mirror, Network Configuration, System Configuration, Backup (for attaching external hard drive storage), Configure Player (where the DAC appears). But that’s not all there is to setting up a server. Not by a long shot.
Setup appeared to be a no brainer. But for someone who had never before set up a server on a network, my brain went MIA. I had problems with the DS’s various options, including adding external storage (and music files) and accessing Logitech’s volume control. I had problems understanding the two different manuals: one that came with the DS; one downloaded from Antipodes site. I had problems streaming Tidal.
To the rescue came Antipodes extremely competent, fast and friendly New Zealand-based support, aka Tony. After several long emails, more emails followed. If required, Tony would have used the internet to take control of my Macbook and make the necessary setup changes. (This level of support is available to all Antipodes customers.) But after a few questions that resembled those inquiries when you’ve lost your password: “first pet? First car? First job?” Tony realized my new DS was loaded with old software. One week later a new DS review sample arrived.
Bingo! Now the supplied manual made sense, even to a gizmoid-Luddite like me. The directions were easy to follow. I attached the DS to my router; the DS appeared on the Antipodes GUI on my desktop. A menu of apps enabled “FLAC No Compression” — I was off to the server races. The new software provided a cleaner and more eye-friendly interface when ripping CDs to FLAC, with the album cover (and a vinyl LP placeholder) displayed prominently as the CD ripped (approximately four minutes per rip). Once the rip is completed, the DS spits out the disc. The file is then alphabetized within the 100s of demo FLAC files on the DS, and within the “New Music” header in the Logitech Media Control Center (other apps are available for playback, but the Logitech worked well).
DS demo goodness. Antipodes’ demo FLAC selection of over 300 titles incorporating blues, jazz, classical and folk – with a lack of metal and electronic as previously noted – was incredible. Led Zeppelin, Alison Krauss, Bad Plus, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, the USHER demo disc, a healthy assortment of classical titles, Chesky and David Chesky titles, The Doors, Holly Cole, The Rolling Stones, Stacy Kent, Shelby Lynne, and underrated English jazz singer, Claire Martin, comprise a small portion of the demo material available. The demos were uniformly excellent sounding when the source was excellent to begin with: Sticky Fingers still sounded like a bad ‘70s recording, while Holly Cole’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed” unleashed some of the most gorgeous, room-filling, chair-throbbing bass and hand drum notes I’ve ever heard in my system.
Antipodes’ triumph in eliminating noise was apparent in the FLAC demo of Frank Sinatra’s 1962 recording, “I Get A Kick Out of You.” I know the track well, yet through the Antipodes the song was a revelation. All the grace and swing and feel of Sinatra’s voice were present yet with a band that seemed to have awakened from a 50-year slumber. The wiry grip of the walking bass, the booming bass drum accenting with “kick!,” the larger and deeper soundstage – incredible all the way around! And the song’s resolution was unparalleled in my experience. By lowering the noise floor, the song came alive. And remember, this is a FLAC demo title. All the FLAC demos sounded good, some great, and some like the Sinatra and Cole, exceptional.
Streaming. Setting up Tidal couldn’t have been easier. The “Apps” page under the Antipodes GUI led to plug-ins including Tital, Qobuz, BBC, Spotify and many more. Tap on the icon, enter your password: streaming hi-fi sounds.
More on ripping. I pulled out a handful of CDs looking forward to some serious ripping downtime. But not every rip went off as planned. Some CDs ripped quickly, some ripped slowly, some refused to rip at all. Everyman Beatles titles went up in a dash, while free jazz from Norwegian drummer Paal Niissen-Love (27 Years Later) was unrecognized and un-rippable. Okay, so that’s a left-of-center title, especially so for a company that doesn’t consider metal or electronic worthy for including in its demo library. But the DS couldn’t manage a rip from Germany’s ECM label either: Thomas Stronen’s Time Is A Blind Guide. (In jazz, ECM is as common as Blue Note.) The DS had no problem recognizing and ripping jazz saxophonist Noah Preminger’s latest CD, Soul Jazz’s 100% Dynamite ska collection, Funci Porcini’s Plod, and Air’s Walkie Talkie. And the rips were uniformly better than any of the onboard demo FLAC files. Side note: the replacement DS was slightly louder when ripping than the outgoing machine.
Would CDs ripped via the Antipodes DS better my Macbook/Western Digital combo? That was answered in the affirmative in the first seconds of hearing the FLAC rip of guitarist’s Pat Metheny’s Day Trip. A trio recording including bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez, Day Trip was recorded in 2005 at one of New York’s recording palaces of sound, Right Track Recording Studios (now MSR). This production is spacious and deep, with excellent resolution. But I wasn’t prepared for the incredibly long decay trails emanating from Sanchez’s cymbals via the FLAC rip, nor the rock solid, deeply probing acoustic sounds from McBride’s upright. Nor was I prepared for the change in soundstage perspective, which went from simply first row to fully immersive with a greater sense of space between musicians and their respective placement within the recording studio. Metheny’s guitar sound via the DS FLAC rip was similar to my Macbook Lossless rip, but otherwise this was an entirely different listening experience. And the DS FLAC rip experience repeated itself, disc after disc.
Summing up the bits. The notion that “bits is bits” was destroyed by the Antipodes DS. I suddenly felt sad. I’ve ripped and sold 1000s of CDs via the Macbook/WD combo, thinking “who needs CDs?” I never realized a server could translate this level of resolution along with the DS’ most impressive trick: its ability to recreate the true depth, width and height of the recording’s soundstage as originally created by the recording engineer and producer. The DS’ immersive soundstage was truly a revelation, and a great musical joy. (Sigh).
Playing and ripping CDs I know well was a revelation. The DS gave me greater respect for the CD format, something I never thought I’d say under any circumstances. By reducing the noise floor of every disc, or rather the rip of every disc, I heard more deeply into the music. There was simply more music and apparently less noise coming through my Shindo/DeVore system. This paid off in improved micro-dynamics, low level detail retrieval, an immersive and better sorted soundstage that also had more air and a greater sense of spaciousness — that last quality even bettering my vinyl rig. FLAC rips via the DS were more fleshed out, though they were still decidedly digital in nature. (I don’t buy into one format being inherently better than the other). The DS also brought out the best from the PS Audio DSD DAC, the already capable unit acquiring a more orderly, resolute, and refined nature than through the Macbook/WD setup.
Banging! The Antipodes DS delivered the promise of digital as I’d never heard before. Well-recorded CDs became extraordinary sounding FLAC rips. The sound was organic, present, tonally-rich, extremely dynamic, resolving, sweet and organic. This was no case of upper frequency enhancement at the expense of low frequency warmth; the Antipodes simply brought more music to the table. The cliché of “hearing my CD collection anew” was in full effect.
Is the Antipodes DS a value-added component? US$3170 (DS) vs. US$1299/US$129 (Macbook/Western Digital 4 TB) is no bargain. But the DS clearly betters my current ripping scenario (new Macbooks don’t offer a CD slot); provides a port to attach external storage; streams anything and everything; sits on your network so say goodbye to wires; and is built like a proverbial tank. Other server/ripper/streamer options are available (such as the Bluesound Vault 2 w/ 2 TB storage for US$1199), but whether the quality, not to mention Antipodes’ friendly and efficient customer support, will be similarly available from other brands is anyone’s guess. As Antipodes has proven with their flagship DX Reference, the New Zealand company is a leader in the server/streamer field. And they don’t exploit kiwis, geckos, or tuataras. The Antipodes DS is a supreme achievement.
Further information: Antipodes Audio