Antipodes DS Music Server
Output: USB Audio 5v Off, USB Audio 5v On, Ethernet, Coax S/PDIF, analog RCA pair, USB for backup
Dimensions: 230mm (w) x 220mm (d) x 80mm (h)
Shipping Weight: 5kgs
Availability: Authorized Dealers
Price:$2700 w/1TB HDD, $2890 w/2TB HDD, $3170 w/4TB (as reviewed), w/1TB SSD storage $3600, 2TB SSD $4275, 4TB SSD $5625
"A Digital Signal Is Not Just Bits"
So says Antipodes (and many others including me). They go on, "A digital signal sent from a digital source to a DAC is an electrical or optical wave. The DAC's receiver reads the wave to identify the bits. When the wave has electronic noise interference and/or timing errors, the bits can still be read but the bits are not recognised with perfect timing and this results in poor sound regardless of the DAC used." Oh heck, let's just light the fuse, "Faith in theory, without empirical testing in the intended application, is dangerous because all theories are gross simplifications of what really happens, so don't fall for the 'bits is bits' or reclocking rhetoric." Run!
I reviewed Antipodes' flagship DX server (see review) as did John Atkinson in Stereophile (see JA's review) and I think it's safe to say we were both impressed. Very impressed, even (JA concluded, "Highly recommended. I said highly.". When I heard that Antipodes founder Mark Jenkins recently upgraded their less costly DS server, my immediate rection was—I want one (to review). So here I sit with the Antipodes DS, packed with 4TB of internal HDD storage at my request. While storage is such a personal thing, 4TB strikes me as a goodly amount for many a music lover. If you want/need more...space, Antipodes recommends direct-mounting an external NAS for second best sound quality. The best quality is achieved by playing from internal storage according to the company.
The DS, like its older sibling, runs on a stripped down version of Fedora/Linux while employing a purpose-built VortexBox Linux software suite with customised scripting "to fully optimise how the software is employed to play the music files". All music sources, internal, NAS-based, USB, and streaming, are cached in RAM before playback. While some suggest this is all one need do to eliminate jitter and deliver a clean signal to your DAC, Antipodes goes to some lengths to eliminate noise thereby "feed[ing] the DAC with a precision-clocked ultra-low noise digital signal."
Let's hear more from Antipodes on noise:
The first step is to keep RAM activity to a minimum and this is achieved by using a purpose-built VortexBox Linux software suite and customised scripting to fully optimise how the software is employed to play the music files. The second step is 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. At a total system level, it means avoiding different chipset noise spectra coinciding to create peaks, and ensuring the residual noise is placed in frequencies that do minimal damage to the digital signal. We liken this to the process of vibration tuning. An equipment rack does not and can not eliminate vibration. But a well-designed equipment rack will smooth the energy peaks, release the energy quickly, and channel energy into benign frequency bands.DIY'ers may, or may not, want to digest these steps. Building a music server to match the Antipodes requires more work than slapping some drives and a third party audio card in a computer and calling it a day.
The DS' back panel houses all of the ins and outs listed above as well as the power inlet for the included external switching/linear power supply. Antipodes employs an extensively modified SOtM USB card for the USB outputs. THs USB port labelled "BackUp" can also be used to connect external USB storage. The front panel houses the on/off button and a slot loading CD drive for ripping your discs to uncompressed FLAC format using an Antipodes algorithm for bit-perfect rips. The fanless alloy case comes in silver or black and I enjoy its stout, heat-sink’d looks.
The DS supports most files formats including wav, aiff, flac, alac, mp3, aac, ogg, dsf and dff as well as PCM resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz and double rate DSD via DoP. I ripped a few CDs using the DS' ripper and a single album CD took about 5 minutes before the DS spit it out. I did experience some dropouts while simultaneously playing music and ripping.
Antipodes recommends iPeng8 for iOS devices, Squeeze Ctrl or Orange Squeeze for Android, and Soundicity or Squeeze Remote for the Windows Tablet. I used iPeng8 on my iPad mini and coupled the DS with a number of USB DACs including my reference Auralic Vega (which does not requires the 5v USB power so it was connected via the 5v Off output), the review sample Metrum Musette, and the T+A MP 2000 R streamer. All of these were connected to my Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp, yes it's now mine, driving the loaner DeVore Fidelity gibbon X.
More Than Bits
We can run ourselves ragged over theories but unless we're actually building something, this makes no sense whatsoever (unless Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus In Furs tickles your fancy). What we want to do is listen to music to see if all of the things Mark Jenkins and Antipodes Audio have done adds up to better sounding music. They do.
The DS betters my MacBook Pro for certain and it also betters many streamer solutions I've heard which rely on external, typically NAS-based, storage to feed them. The one sonic standout being the Bel Canto REFStream (see review). If we're to take Anitpodes' word for it, I do, the lengths they've gone to to lower noise and deliver a cleaner, better defined and timed signal to my DAC results in music that sounds more refined and more natural. Music emerges from a quieter, deeper, and more believably spacious place and blossoms with more life-like dynamic snap, color, voice, and ultimately, emotion.
You'll read many of these same words in my other server reviews, the differentiating factors being the degree of these sonic improvements in addition to features, build quality, and the control app. Compared to the recently reviewed Melco N1A (See review), I felt the Melco edged the DS out sonically, albeit by not a great margin. Feature-wise, the Antipodes adds that CD ripper which means you don't need a computer to feed your music collection new bits from disc. Of course downloads will still requires a computer that's attached to the same network as the DS in order to get the downloads from point A to point B.
I used the DS as a server feeding a number of DACs including my reference Auralic Vega as well as the T+A player and the DS improved the overall sonic performance in every case. I did not try playing music from a NAS since 4TB of storage is plenty for me. If you read my review of the Antipodes DX, you'll read that I found that a mounted NAS sounded nearly as good as playing back from internal storage. Since VortexBox supports third party apps including IckStream, you can also play from streaming services including Tidal Hi-Fi, which I did, often. Sound quality wise, Tidal sounded just great and I'd add noticeably better than when streaming from my MacBook using the Tidal App.
I also did some listening through the Antipodes' internal DAC, connecting directly to my Ayre AX-5 Twenty integrated amp via Auditorium 23 ICs. The sound of music was clearly a step toward the darker, more closed in, and less colorful sound as compared to the Auralic Vega. I'm not surprised, as adding another $3500 to our system price had better offer a sound improvement. My guess is someone willing to spend at least $2700 on a music server, will eventually want to add an outboard USB DAC to get the best out of the Antipodes. As a starting point, the DS' DAC is certainly pleasant to listen to if not offering the last word in sound reproduction.
Getting back to power and noise, I also took the DS for a spin without the included external linear power supply. Wow. This being the only change really sends the point home about how important clean(er) power is. Reproduction got noticeably flatter, less natural sounding, and moved more toward gray as if some of music's color had been drained away. This difference took all of a few minutes to hone in on and I did not spend much time listening without the external power supply since it simply wasn't as much fun or engaging. Why torture ourselves when Antipodes has done it for us and included the cure?
Antipodes Means Music
Antipodes has delivered another great sounding music server. If having an in-built CD ripper and/or DAC to boot is part of your server wish list, the DS offers a very appealing package. Even though it has been a while since I had the Antipodes DX server here for review, I feel comfortable saying that the DX offers even better sound performance as compared to the DS. But...I'm curious as to how a solid state drive DS would sound. If an SSD-equipped DS improved its performance over the HDD version, I'd say we'd get very close to the "Damn, that's really good" category rendering comparisons rather pointless.
Also in-use during the Antipodes DS review: Melco N1A