Better known for its range of cables, Kiwi company Antipodes Audio turns its attention to music servers, and comes up trumps.
SEEN MANY CD players in audio shops lately? Chances are you won’t have, and unless you’ve been asleep under an apple tree for the last five years, you’ll have heard that the compact disc is very much in a state of decline.
Music these days is more than likely stored on a computer or some other device, and will either be streamed via a ‘client’ (Logitech Squeezebox Server/Sonos/name your brand) or played from a server with storage on board.
I was asked to look at and appraise an example of the latter: Antipodes Audio’s DS1 music server. As the name suggests, the DS1 is made to exacting specifications here in New Zealand, and I had a chance to catch up with founder Mark Jenkins at his base in Meadowbank for a wee chat about the DS1 and audio in general.
What impressed me the most was Mark’s thorough research into how the brain receives information via the ears, which is quite a physiological approach to the business of designing audio products. Here’s Mark quoted from his website:
“Our approach to designing audio products is not just based on the application of electronic theory, but on how the human ear/brain works. When we hear real live music we also hear many distortions, through absorption, reflections and resonances, and yet the ear/brain recognises the sounds as real. When we listen to reproduced music we are rarely fooled into thinking the artists are actually present.
Sound is just a sequence of changes in air pressure at our ears. That we can interpret this sequence of pressure changes into different instruments and voices occupying distinct spaces, and how reflected sound is largely filtered out of our perceptions of sound, is a miracle of our ear/brain process. But it is also something our ear/brain does whether we like it or not. The ear/brain process insists on decoding spatial information in what it hears, and this is critically dependent on time-domain accuracy.”
Heavy stuff indeed, but it all makes sense. What it does spell out is that Mark, Sonia and their team at Antipodes aren’t just stuffing electronics into a box or buying OEM cables and repackaging them in order to flog them off. They’re extremely serious about producing products that actually cut the mustard in sonic terms.
There’s more information available on the Antipodes website regarding their scientific approach to audio which I won’t quote here, but it’s definitely worth a read.
The review copy of the DS1 came loaded with excellent quality hi-res and Redbook CD rips, including more than a few albums/artists I also have on my NAS drive at home.
The sturdy silver aluminium case has a most uncomplicated front fascia with a slot-loaded disc drive (in this case a DVD drive) and a power on/off button. Around the back is where all the action is (as is so often the case these days), and here you’ll find 2 x USB 2.0 outputs, an Ethernet port and the necessary 12v power input. Included on the back are DVI-D and VGA connections, but these are not wired internally and as such won’t work, although the DS1 can rip and stream high quality video via SMB, DLNA or NFS if so desired.
The sample DS1 came equipped with a low-speed 2TB drive, and ripping CDs once set up was a breeze – just load the slot drive and wait for a few minutes, and said album appears on the drive complete with all metadata (including album art). Nice.
Antipodes quotes ‘Low Noise Ethernet Streaming’ as a feature of the DS1, and Mark explained they went to great lengths to ensure an absence of RF or spurious noise at the Ethernet input. Antipodes also have a partnership with acclaimed South Korean company SOtM who supply the low-jitter and noise PCI/USB 2.0 output used in the DS1 and other servers in the Antipodes stable.
Last but not least, a simple switch mode psu completes the DS1 package. Moving further up the range to the DS2 brings improvements such as the SOtM USB 3.0 card and a heavily regulated internal linear power supply, but the DS1 is at a very good price point compared with a lot of its much-vaunted competition.
The Set Up
For a lot of hi-fi punters dipping their toes into the wonderful world of music servers and streaming, the DS1 and other similar products would appear to be their worst nightmare: IP addresses, passwords, software to download onto a smartphone or tablet, cables, and on and on. Luckily, the DS1 was a doddle to set up and I reckon most could have it up and running within a matter of minutes or so.
Firstly, I placed the DS1 on my rack, connected a USB cable (USB ‘B’ to ‘A’, make it a good one), then the obligatory cable from my Ethernet network switch box (Antipodes don’t include a Wi-Fi card, as they introduce too much noise), then I plugged in the wall wart. Antipodes suggests waiting two minutes to allow the DS1 to power up fully. Having achieved that, I looked at the list of network devices on my router’s home page and wrote down the DS1’s IP address for safekeeping. While on the computer, I then typed in http://antipodes1.local and voila – there appeared the Antipodes Vortexbox front end. Yes, the DS1 runs Linux Vortexbox, a well-known open source operating system specifically designed for music replay, ripping and tagging. So all good so far, but now I had to control the DS1 somehow. Carefully reading the instruction manual (yeah, right) I sauntered off to the Google Playstore on my Asus Nexus 7 tablet, and proceeded to download MPDROID, a control client for Android devices. Once downloaded, I was able to find the DS1 almost immediately, along with its hidden treasure trove of delicious tunes. I was ready to rock, big time! Oh, I also downloaded MPoD for my iPod just to check it out; it’s a bit better in terms of facilities, but essentially both Android and Apple clients do the same thing.
As an alternative the DS1 also comes pre-installed with Logitech’s Squeezebox Server, and although now not supported by Logitech (those fools), it has a large fan base and active forum. It’ll also allow access to streamed radio services and music streaming via sites such as Spotify, Rhapsody and Pandora – although for how long is anyone’s guess. This also means that those with Squeezedevices can use the DS1 as an external NAS drive, which would prove beneficial for this reviewer (I have no less than 4 Squeezebox players). I didn’t try to control the DS1 using LMS during my listening sessions, preferring to use either MPDROID or MPoD.
All that was left to do was settle down with a few nice hot cuppas, a good supply of biscuits, cakes and muffins and an empty house for the purposes of a good old unencumbered listen.
As odd as it must sound to most people, my high-sensitivity Fostex-equipped Voigt Vofo’s sound superb, even using 250wpc Audiolab mono solid-state amplifiers. Yes, it’s overkill and I should be using a little 10wpc SET amp, but the problem is I have a home theatre system tacked on to the system and I couldn’t really see a little tube amp doing justice to quality flicks such as Armageddon or Battleship Earth. So, big solid state it is, connected to my very nice Audiolab 8200CDQ DAC/pre. Cables used were Nordost’s Blue Heaven USB (really, really good), Blue Heaven balanced from pre to power amps (the original Blue Heavens that is), and my trusty old Nordost Solar Wind speaker cables.
The Ethernet cable? Some cheap thing from PB Technology I had hanging around. To be honest my four-year-old home was fully wired for Ethernet when built, but I didn’t think about streaming audio as a replacement for CDs back then. Oh how things have changed, and given the chance I’d be far more scrupulous in terms of in-wall cables. The good news though, is that my streamed audio sounds top notch using my existing (and probably un-extractable) supplied –by-electrician cabling.
Given the amount of quality music pre-loaded on the DS1 I stuck mainly with those albums and artists, but there were a few tracks I seriously wanted to hear that weren’t present. So I popped into the computer room, fired up the Mac and there was the DS1, available as a network drive. I then simply copied music from the NAS directly into the DS1’s music folder, and within a few minutes the tracks showed up on MPDROID ready to play.
Now I could compare the exact same rips played via both the DS1 and Squeezebox Touch – this was getting interesting. First up on the listening block was Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s Grammy-winning Raising Sand (in 24/96). It’s a well-produced work, although a touch heavy in the bass, yet somehow listening through the DS1 seemed to tighten that aural spectrum compared with the humble Squeezebox Touch. Tracks seemed to be pacier and with better definition, Robert’s breathy vocal on ‘Please Read The Letter’ was full of gravitas and emotion, and the silent pauses between his vocal seemed much darker than the Logitech.
Percussion effects such as the shaker (right channel) on ‘Fortune Teller’ seemed more pronounced, while handclaps had more realism and were easier to pick out of the mix. Even better still, soundstaging and the ability of the system to conjure up an image of a band on a stage took a step forward. This was becoming terrific rather quickly. Of course I’m comparing it with a budget offering, but the Squeezebox Touch is renowned as being able to punch well above its weight. It also has the EDO 24/192 plugin installed, but I use SPDIF and not USB – could this be a reason for the differences I was hearing? Well, a quick cable swap later and listening to the Touch using USB did bring about improvements (a ‘quickened’ pace, slight improvement in detail) but still not a patch on the DS1. It did bring home to me the apparent superiority of USB as a connection.
So I quickly swapped cables again and selected Bob Marley and the Wailers Exodus. ‘Natural Mystic’ just boogied from the start, Aston Barrett’s bass guitar syncopating nicely with his brother Carlton’s drum backbeat – I closed my eyes and dreamt of cricket on the beach, and the faint aroma of pineapples and ganja floating in the summer breeze. Yep, the DS1 transported me to Jamaica in my mind, but when I opened them I discovered I was still in my living room in West Auckland. Damn.
The only thing left to do was check out Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ from his Time Out album. This progressive jazz piece featured unusual time signatures at the time it was written (1959), and apart from being a fine work I wanted to hear how the DS1 coped with small-scale jazz. No worries here: Paul Desmond’s concise alto sax shone through as delicately as I’ve ever heard, Brubeck’s piano had very good timbre and body, and the decay on some notes really sounded great. The next track on the album, ‘Strange Meadow Lark’, highlighted Joe Morello’s subtle brushwork on the snare, and in conjunction with Brubeck’s piano the track really swung, daddy-o. Almost un-noticeable was Eugene Wright’s restrained double bass, underpinning the song without pulling much attention away from soloists Brubeck and Desmond.
Antipodes have created a fabulous-sounding, easy to set up and control product in the DS1. At around 3K it’s a serious investment for the majority of us, but you have to understand that most competing servers cost more, and some require a far greater investment than the homegrown Antipodes.
Certainly from my perspective it comfortably bested my little old Squeezebox Touch in every department, and I’m dreading having to return it. GARY PEARCE