The Antipodes DS1 Music Server

The music server writing is on the CD player wall. And, has been for a couple of years. I first noticed the trend of using servers/computers rather than CD players during my first visit to the Rocky Mountain Audio Show in Denver, 2011. Many audiophiles had turned to streamlined digital playback solutions for their high end equipment. I must admit, I was surprised at the waning of CDs. Interestingly, vinyl was still holding its own. Guess you can’t keep an old audiophile down. Without pleasure, I can now say that the aforementioned writing on the wall is the death knell for CDs. For sure, music will always be available on CD, but much like vinyl, it’ll be in the domain of specialty labels and audiophile reissue companies.

Since that Denver visit, I’ve attended other shows and store demos and heard a slow and steady improvement in the sound and ease of delivery of computer files. In fact, we gave Best Sound of Show last year at the Toronto Show to a Calyx DAC/iPad based system. It was refined, detailed, rich and natural. I’ve been hoping for such a system to grace my listening room to compliment my CDs and LPs.

Hello New Zealand

Lucky for me, a favourite manufacturer of Audiophilia’s New York and Australian gang, Antipodes, was designing a series of music servers. All the guys were gaga over designer Mark Jenkins’ cables. Could he infuse the same magic into a box that houses and streams files and serves them up cold and digital? Jenkins and I bumped into each other during last year’s Denver Show and he held the subject of this review, the DS1, aloft with pride. A review example was requested immediately. Price: USD$2150.00.

The DS1 is one of four new servers offered by Antipodes. The DS1 and DS2 are ‘High End Digital Sources’, the DV1 and 2 replace ‘High End’ with a ‘Reference’ moniker. The DS1, like the other models, auto rips and tags CD/DVDs into 2 terabytes of storage. The differences between the four units? Adding USB 3 connections, larger cases for the two ‘Reference’ models, upgraded power supplies and more storage.

Six Feet Under Silence

Jenkins had the servers on the workbench for some time but accelerated the process when he implemented a new technology developed in 2011. Jenkins says ‘Only since about 2011 has the technology been available to outperform CD transports with music servers, by achieving lower electrical noise. Design of a digital source, whether a CD transport or a music server, has a lot to do with smart design to reduce electrical noise interference, and implementation of that design with obsessive attention to detail.’

I can attest to Jenkins’ attention to detail. The man is almost a fanatic (in the very best sense of that word) about getting his products right. Much like Webern’s compositions or Vermeer’s paintings, Jenkins produces a few products painstakingly well. If you buy a product from Antipodes, you’ll be sure to have the designer’s ear. It’s a very pleasant happenstance that Jenkins is one of the nicest and most knowledgeable men I’ve met in high end audio.

Time to board the train

I’ve had my eyes closed to the server/DAC domain for some time, so it was a hilly learning curve to get a handle on the numbers, bits, bytes, and all the acronyms in use. For me, like most of you, it’s always about musical performance and sound. The ultimate in both. To hell with the numbers. So, popping in a CD or obsessing over vinyl was (is) de rigeur. The hell with the technicalities. Jenkins has made the jump to server more of a step than a leap, and an easy, plug and play step at that.

From what I’ve been reading, many servers’ setups are not as intuitive as the paperwork would have you believe. As this was my first time reviewing a server, it took a little time to understand the differences between Vortex Box, Music Player Daemon, iPad Client and their concomitant acronyms. But, after a short time, the intuition sank in. If not, the online/email support from Jenkins is becoming legendary. As I said, the man is fanatical about making his customers happy.

Once plugged into your network via Ethernet (wifi is not supported for obvious noisy reasons — you can use a wifi bridging device that connects wirelessly to your router, but Antipodes strongly suggests using an Ethernet connection) and plugged into a USB DAC, you use an iPad, iPod, Android device, Mac or PC as a remote control to run the DS1 via the VortexBox operating system on your network.

Antipodes uses ‘…a minimal Linux build based on the VortexBox operating system, and configured for optimum audio performance. This means we can use just the services required to meet the functionality specification, and just the required amount of computing power. This addresses the first key requirement, which is to minimise the electrical noise generated by the source. More common operating systems require much more computer resource, increasing electrical noise, which interferes with the digital audio stream.’

The stream is re clocked at the output stage by a state of the art clock from a tightly regulated power supply. Further, extensive noise filtering and high quality silver-screened internal cabling is employed to reduce the electrical noise that can interfere with the digital audio stream.

The VortexBox GUI you’ll see on your Mac or PC is a bareboned shell. Nothing more is needed. The program suggested for the iPad interface remote control was mPad. $2.99 in the Apple app store. It’s a clunker and is serviceable, no more. Being a ‘design’ guy, what I’d give for an Apple designed interface. That said, the digital discussion between it and the DS1 was immediate.

The well built aluminium case has a simple front plate with a slot-loaded disc drive and a power on/off button with ubiquitous blue light. On the rear panel, you’ll find 2 x USB 2.0 outputs, an Ethernet port and a 12v power input. Antipodes has partnered with SOtM, a highly regarded Korean company. They supply the low noise/jitter PCI/USB 2.0 output used in the DS1.

The DS1 will allow streaming over Ethernet to devices on your network. The DS1 supports ‘… a wide range of protocols for streaming and so can stream to other Antipodes Digital Sources, Ethernet DACs, PCs, Macs, PS3, Sonos, Squeezebox, Smart-TVs, network-connected Blu Ray players, etc.’

Play Nice(ly)

No matter how good a server, it’ll be undone by a weak USB DAC. The good news for the new frontier is that many legacy companies and startups are producing quality USB and Ethernet DACs at a dizzying pace. The high end audio community is notoriously conservative and lead footed. ‘Don’t screw with my sound’! As an avid social media/technology enthusiast, I’ve enjoyed observing the great companies in our avocation get their proverbial finger out and crack on. Fast! You want servers? There are lots. Same for DACs. But, be careful what you wish for. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. The law of diminishing returns has not hit this high end genre. Yet. It will. In the here and now, get out there and listen, and research, research, research. You could do a lot worse than beginning and ending at the Antipodes website.

The DAC I used was a cracker. Audiophilia’s review will appear in a couple of weeks. You’ll have to wait. Trust me, it’ll be worth it. Meaning, don’t buy one yet! The symbioses between the DAC and the DS1 was clear, silent and seamless, like a black hole existing in the very good USB cable Antipodes provided. The DS1 and the nameless DAC were in lust. Forget love. They hit it off immediately, no ‘break-in’ dinner and dancing required. Straight to bed. Hot!

This connection resulted in stunning sounds previously unheard in my listening room, at least from digital sources. I tried the DS1 with a cheap DAC date. No go. Images were flatter, depth was ameliorated and instrumental timbres suffered. Lots of grain. As such, choose your partner carefully. Marriage is for life.

The DS1 provided a super stable platform for the DAC to do its work. But the DS1 is much more than a storage device. The magic is in the delivery to the DAC so that the sounds are unsullied by problems that have always plagued digital.

I ripped my entire CD collection — very quick and effortless per CD, but it still took a lot of time. While ripping, you’ll hear a few whirls and low level ‘hiss’ while the DS1 does its work. Then, it’ll spit the CD out and all is silent again. Transferring your iTunes library is as easy as copying files from the computer to the ‘shared’ Antipodes drive. Drag and drop on my Mac.

The musical connection between the two superstar components was pure beauty. I’ve been on a Beethoven kick lately. Actually, always. But, I’ve been listening to my entire collection, requesting review CDs/downloads and purchasing Beethoven like a crazy man. I reviewed a recent Sony/Beethoven 4 & 7/Academy/Joshua Bell CD on the upstairs system while my basement flood was being fixed. On the main system, the problem of shrill violins remained, but the decipherd inner lines of Beethoven’s contrapuntal writing was incredible. Lots to do with Bell’s musicianship, of course, but the DS1 had its say over the music. So did a standard CD player, my upstairs system, a small office system, and a reference CD player in the main system. The DS1/DAC won this by a knockout. Simply, on another level. Pow!

This continued with jazz and vocals of all types. Jenkins was kind enough to pre load 6000 Flac tracks on the DS1, so I got to listen to lots I would not usually play — Jimi Hendrix Blues, Joni Mitchells’ ‘Mingus’, Cat Stevens, Radiohead, lots. All sublime through the Chario Sovran speakers.

Conclusions and Congratulations

Because of the ‘Perfect Sound Forever’ CD con we fell for 25 years ago, audiophiles are far more wary of new formats. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you DVD Audio, SACD, Digital Cassette Tape, and on and on. All complete business (not musical) failures. The computer file is different, not only because it echoes the same digital quality as CDs, but because of the delivery system, both source and purchase. It’s here. It’s not going away. And, unless we get upcoming Google Glass to deliver the files directly to our brain via a blink of an eye, this system will be here for a while. You might as well get on board now.

After a reviewer has listened to equipment in the system for a while, the ear tends to get used to a specific sound. Hopefully, a good sound based on a system’s natural synergy. After two months, I’m still beguiled hourly by what the DS1 produces. We often read about ‘lifting a veil’, but the DS1 does more than lift a veil, it shatters a ceiling. It is that good.

Companies like Antipodes are making things easy for us old stick in the muds. This New Zealand company is not jaded. More like a fresh and clean South Island alpine lake and, as such, is very worthy of your research time and dollars. Match the DS1 with a quality USB DAC and your digital front end will be set for the foreseeable future. So, get out there and enjoy. The Antipodes DS1 is very highly recommended.

Further information: Antipodes Audio

Manufacturer's Comment

Thank you Anthony – for the thorough review of the DS1. Antipodes Audio has been making music servers since 2008 – customized PCs and Macs until in 2011 when we switched to using Linux. Against the best PCs and Macs/Hacks we could make, our first minimal Linux servers sounded more immediate, had a lower noise floor and these advantages came without adding any nasty edge. This is probably because using a simple operating system that is built up from the ground just for audio is better than trying to side-step the complexity of a multi-purpose OS.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet (1.5.166-7). These are apt words if trying to use electrical engineering theory in audio design. Therefore I take no conventional wisdom (or accepted science) ‘as read’, and experiment, experiment, experiment. To give you an idea of what I mean, an audio cable design typically takes me two years to develop. Even so, it has surprised me how long it has taken to arrive at a fully mature design for our music servers. You will have guessed from Anthony’s review that our servers are about sound quality first, second and third, and as in most things audio, it turns out that almost everything matters.

We started out with similar views to those expressed on the computer audio chat sites, but quickly found some of the conventional wisdom was not quite right, and several things not being discussed were very important. This created a bit of a concern for us – should we make life easy and adopt what our audiophile customers already believe to be true, or should we risk being thought ‘wrong’ and do it the way that sounds best? Naturally, we decided on the latter.

To give you an example, the conventional wisdom is to design for zero moving parts, and for this reason that an SSD sounds better than a spinning hard drive. This is readily confirmed with a simple experiment. With a small leap it is also concluded that a music server should use an internal SSD and the large noisy drives that hold the music should be external to the music server.

But the theory is only as good as the limitations of the experiments that have confirmed it. Through broader experimentation, and against my first intuition, we have decided to use an internal spinning hard drive – but we use the smaller 2.5” drives, heavily noise filtered, slow spinning, and using custom firmware. What we have done with our hard drives means that when compared to even a filtered SSD there are just very minor audio pluses and minuses. Against this; the SSDs are low capacity and expensive; using two or more SSDs sounds worse than using one of our 2TB hard drives; and adding external drives or a connection to a conventional NAS sounds worse too.

A lot of audiophiles are just discovering the audio benefits of serving up the digits in a smarter way than playing from a spinning CD in real time, and some are building their own servers. Done carefully you can get a good DIY result. Buying a music server from Antipodes Audio is about getting the last 20% of audio performance, knowing that you are getting it, a simple turnkey solution, and a company that will support you when you get stuck. Whether you are 20 miles or 20 thousand miles away, you nominate the time for a free remote assistance session, we log into the music server over the internet at that time, fix it and show you why it happened. The vast majority of customers never need it, but it is nice to know it is there.