Antipodes EX Music Server
Review sample supplied by Antipodes Audio
MSRP: 3850 euro ex VAT
Retail price in the Netherlands incl 21% VAT: 4650 euro
With its ODAPS2 power supply, four separate shielded chambers, and user-installable storage, the relatively affordable EX server marks the start of a new Antipodes range. When using the EX by itself, both server and renderer apps run on the same device. The EX enclosure has a similar build as the DX and consists of very thick aluminum panels screwed together very sturdily. Because there are no fans, the machine is whisper-quiet, nicely heavy and feels incredibly solid. Interestingly, the EX is the Antipodes entry-level music server but at the same time, its rendering capabilities are considered to represent the company’s best solution!
Although The EX works sublimely just by itself, it can also be teamed with the CX to form the top-tier CX-EX combination. In this configuration, the CX is a high power device running only the server app and the EX is a lower power, purist device, running only the renderer app.
The EX has already started shipping and the CX will follow soon. At the time of writing, the EX has been received but not yet the CX. So, I’ll start with the EX and add a follow-up review when the CX has been received.
What you should know first and foremost is that all Antipodes servers can be set to function in various capacities, such as Roon Server, RoonReady renderer, Squeezebox (including UPnP server), MPD renderer and HQPlayer NAA. There is a lot more, and I mean A LOT more to write about the technical side of this server, but much of this is the same as for the DX or DS servers that I reviewed earlier. So, for a full description of all the technicalities and possibilities, please refer to the earlier reviews.
The most notable differences from the earlier DS and DX servers are that the EX uses user-installable storage, has a new ODAPS2 power supply, two, rather than one, Ethernet ports and no integrated CD ripper.
The user can very easily install up to 4TB of HDD or up to 8TB of SSD storage, without having to open the enclosure. The drives simply click into place using rear panel slots.
The orange ring around the power switch indicates that the unit is in standby
Antipodes are all about reducing noise, but only in manners that are not detrimental to the sound. The new ODAPS2 supply reduces high-frequency noise without resorting to filtering that would impede the speed of current delivery. Any USB ripper can be used, but Antipodes also have a separate external CD ripper in their portfolio, the P1, which has the same footprint as the EX.
As mentioned, the EX has two Ethernet ports. One can be used to connect to the network and the second to provide a low-noise dedicated feed to an Ethernet DAC. According to the manufacturer, “Ethernet can introduce high levels of noise into the receiving device. The Direct Ethernet solution in Antipodes servers minimizes network ‘chatter’ on the link and creates a high bandwidth, phase accurate, low-noise direct link between the server and renderer. This provides a dramatic improvement over connecting your server and renderer devices through a noisy switch or over a long length of network cable”. I’ve put this to the test and indeed, the direct connection sounds considerably cleaner as well as freer than a connection via the existing network.
When using Roon on the EX and streaming via Ethernet, the destination device must of course also support Roon. When using USB, any USB DAC will work. Alternatively, when using UPnP as part of the Squeezebox emulation, virtually all network endpoints are supported. This opens up a whole new can of worms, but the manufacturer has gone to great lengths on the Antipodes website to describe all the possibilities in detail, with easy to follow step by step solutions.
Just like with the earlier designs, the EX allows the user to run the server in several operational modes and several audio output modes, and they all result in a slightly different sound, allowing the tailoring of sound precisely as needed. While this may sound like complications, the excellent user interface makes it really very easy to change settings. For the complete overview of modes and output settings, please check the aforementioned earlier reviews.
Starting with a USB connection, like the other Antipodes machines, the EX already sounds truly great even when using my regular Windows PC running Roon in the other room and streaming via RoonReady to the EX as an endpoint. When switching from RoonReady to Core audio output on the EX, the sound tightens up nicely in the bass, increasing perceived speed, while remaining sonorous and relaxed. There are people who prefer RoonReady for its freer presentation but as I am quite focused on bass precision, I prefer Core Audio. Whichever mode you prefer, the change is made within seconds. When switching from the Windows PC to the EX’s built-in Roon server, playing music from its own SSD, the sound improves very noticeably, on all accounts I should add. There are simply no downsides to this and therefore an easy recommendation. The difference between RoonReady and Core direct remains, but this is a matter of taste and open to interpretation.
After having been stunned by the DX and DS in terms of bass definition and overall impact, I was expecting to hear the same attributes in the new EX but the new machine turns out to have a different character. Regardless of streaming- or connection method, its most prominent feature is its smooth, relaxed delivery. In addition, there is simply zero hash, zip, zing or other forms of harshness or brightness. At the same time, however, the EX is as finely resolved as the best servers and endpoints that I have heard. More specifically, it’s every bit as refined, focused and “hi-res” in presentation as the Aurender N10 was, but with a fuller, tonally more textured sound. While the EX sounds more relaxed and is not as tight and upbeat or as “forceful” as the earlier Antipodes designs, it does actually remind me of the DX for its rich textures and timbral fulness. It may not sound as “direct” as the DX and DS, but the EX is also far from compressed. It lets the music breath and flow freely and has great lyrical capabilities. I should also note at this point that the CH Precision C1 is itself a tonally very full sounding DAC.
When speaking with Antipodes CEO Mark Jenkins about this perceived change in sound, he informed me that with the early models they tended to concentrate a lot on tonality and organic heft, alongside resolution and other audiophile parameters. But they realized that it is more important to focus on the emotion. This led to experiments to see what is typically robbing digital of its ability to convey the emotion in the music, particularly compared to high-quality vinyl front ends. They found that the most important thing to do was remove all filtering and allow very wide bandwidth, and that led to the DS and DX models that I reviewed earlier. These Antipodes servers had real musical life, but to some listeners and in some systems they could be a touch thin (DS) or a little rough (DX2). This quality may work in some systems but not so much in others, but it certainly worked very well in my then Apogee Diva + Jeff Rowland system.
Anyway, with the new DX3, EX, and CX, they significantly improved the signal handling and power supply technology, looking for that perfect balance of sound that is fast and clean and at the same time relaxed. The ability to convey the emotion in the music is the top priority, and this was certainly evident from my listening tests, and that brings us back to the EX review.
The EX also has an analog audio output. As the website states, this was not an attempt to include a high-quality DAC but an inexpensive way to reveal the benefits of getting the digital part right. The analog outputs sound fine, actually. Not hugely revealing and not incredibly expressive but otherwise pretty good. I’d say that it’s on par with a mid-class CD player.
Not having the CX at hand just yet, I don’t have full options for assessing the direct ethernet connection, but fortunately, I also have a CH Precision C1 DAC at hand, which contains a UPnP input, as well as a USB input.
In addition to the main USB 2.0 outputs (one with 5v power, the other without), the EX also offers standard motherboard USB outputs. Although the website states that “each of the four ports is independently derived so they do not interfere with each other, and each of them receives exactly the same quality of the digital audio signal”, the manual states that the 2.0 outputs lead to the best audio quality. I’ve just tried it and find that the 2.0 outputs definitely sound best, the regular outputs sounding quite threadbare in comparison. The 2.0 output (the C1 required the one with 5V output) sounds more spacious as well as more focused and more refined. Antipodes state one or the other may sound better, depending on the combination. I’d encourage the user to just try it and stick with whatever sounds best.
The phase of the power plug also turned out to make a marked difference: one way around the EX sounded tighter, cleaner and more direct (but less relaxed) and the other way around the EX sounded more sonorous and timbrally richer (and more relaxed). This is another thing to just suck and see.
Like the earlier Antipodes machines, the Bryston BDP-3 sounds bolder and more energetic than the EX, and more forward in the midrange, and because of this, it appears to be more lively. There’s more of a boogie-factor with the Bryston, but it is also quite a bit rougher. The EX is a lot silkier and more fluid.
The Melco N1A/2 in comparison sounds quite a bit thinner and tonally bleaker into the C1’s USB input than the Antipodes EX. The Melco N1ZH/2 connected the same way sounds a lot fuller in the bass than its cheaper brother and is richer in the midrange and has increased focus and spaciousness. Still, the Melco N1ZH/2 and the Antipodes EX are very different animals, the former is tighter, cleaner and more articulate and the latter smoother, tonally richer and more relaxed. In my opinion, the Melco’s come into their own when streaming via a UPnP network connection. This way, their sound becomes much more organic and free-flowing, but both servers remain tighter and cleaner while the Antipodes remains tonally fuller and richer.
Used with the Aqua Formula xHD DAC, via USB, into the Jeff Rowland Corus preamp, the Antipodes EX presented the music with a very even balance between weight/full tonality and transparency/neutrality. Either of the Melcos, by comparison, sounded a little dry and just a little too clean with the Aqua, especially in the bass and midrange. Clearly, the EX combines very well with the Aqua DAC.
UPnP versus USB
As Roon does not support UPnP and the C1 does not support Roon, my only option to allow comparisons between USB and direct ethernet connection with these components was to use UPnP. This would turn out to be a very interesting comparison and one that will likely divide opinions as to which is best. USB provided the familiar balance of tight control, high transparency, and excellent low-level detail. Used this way, the presentation is familiar but still smoother, richer and more refined than most other servers or streaming endpoints that were used with the C1 via USB. The C1 adds another perspective by offering the choice between USB Class 1 and Class 2. Class 1 is limited to 96kHz but sounds very noticeably tighter and more articulate. Class 2 sound freer, smoother and more fluid, but is also slower in pace and a little blurry in the bass. I preferred Class 1.
When switching to direct ethernet, an interesting thing happens: the sound becomes seemingly more coherent and at the same time more free-flowing. It’s difficult to put into effectively descriptive words, but probably best described as being subjectively more involving, letting the music speak for itself more freely. Going back to USB now made for a comparatively more restrained sound, as if the signal was somehow more processed. Listen longer, though, and you get used to the USB signature again.
As always, your mileage may vary, but I find it very useful to have the option to choose between these two connection methods. As Antipodes also indicates on the website, the end result is dependent on the implementation and I would add to this that user preference and system synergy also play a role. When the CX arrives, this will no doubt make for other interesting results and potentially even more options for tuning the sound precisely as preferred. I, for one, can’t wait!
The Antipodes EX has a smooth, relaxed delivery, with zero hash, zip, zing or other forms of harshness or brightness. At the same time, however, the EX is as finely resolved as the best servers and endpoints that I have heard. More specifically, it’s every bit as refined, focused and “hi-res” in presentation as the Aurender N10 was, but with a fuller, tonally more textured sound. hile the EX sounds more relaxed and is not as tight and upbeat or as “forceful” as the earlier Antipodes designs, it does actually remind me of the DX for its rich textures and timbral fulness. It may not sound as “direct” as the DX and DS, but the EX is also far from compressed. It lets the music breath and flow freely and has great lyrical capabilities.