Antipodes CX + EX Music Server and Renderer part 2/3
For this comparative purpose, the EX and CX were set up next to each other on an Artesania Digital Server platform, connected with identical Belden power cables with Oyaide C-004 connectors and standard Cat5 Ethernet cables. I opted to use the Aqua Formula xHD DAC with the CAD USB 1 cable between them. The CH Precision system was bypassed entirely as the Aqua DAC connected directly to the Ayon Spirit III integrated amp via an AudioQuest Water cinch interlink. The output mode in all cases was via the tighter sounding RoonReady mode. The USB port used in all cases was the top black one, labeled USB Audio 2.0, 5V On.
EX as Server + Renderer
Although I normally use the EX with the CH Precision C1, the EX also pairs extremely well with the Aqua Formula xHD DAC. It has a taut, energetic and lively performance with a clear-cut purity, combined with a sense of body and substance that makes it sound ever so engaging. I’m being a bit short about it now but the EX really is great and I’ve not hidden my enthusiasm in the original EX review. For now, though, I can’t wait to move on to the rest of the tests.
CX as Server + Renderer
As a consequence of its design, the CX is indeed ideal as a server: Roon browsing feels very snappy, every bit as fast as my big tower PC, in fact. As a server + Renderer, it also works perfectly but it does have a very different character than the EX. It is even faster, cleaner and more transparent but also a lot cooler, and leaner in the bass. Personally, I prefer the warmer, more sonorous sound of the EX but this difference is a relative matter and it is not really indicative of quality. There’s another difference between the EX and CX, though, that, for me, totally makes a case for the EX. Whereas the EX has a nice sense of depth and of being wrapped in an enveloping a sound aura, the CX has imaging just as wide as the EX’s, but the imaging in the depth plane is much reduced and the aura that was surrounding me with the EX is now flattened and portrayed in front of me, more or less in the same plane. It seems that the high processing power does indeed have a considerable effect on the sound. But wait for it… the CX has another trick up its sleeve.
CX + EX is like Yin + Yang
Retaining the CX as Roon Core but selecting the EX as the Renderer, still using a standard cat 5 network cable it took all of 3 seconds before I loudly exclaimed: “Holy Shit!” The difference was not subtle, it was huge! Wow man, everything the EX does so well was still there, but magnified. The soundstage was now even larger, both wider and deeper and even more enveloping, the delivery more powerful, with even more impressive dynamics. It was not the effect that you get with dynamically compressed music where everything just becomes louder, but there was an increase in the difference between soft sounds and loud sounds, an actual increase in the perceived dynamic range. It was unreal, all the little sounds being crisp and clear yet with a wholly natural feel. Subtle details and timbral shades were easier to hear as if the resolution and transparency had increased significantly, yet the sound was rich, organic and full-bodied, really the opposite of clinical or cool. Like Yin and Yang, the CX and EX perfectly complement each other.
A new Reference
Remember how I was so smitten with the Melco’s free-flowing soundstaging, streaming via its dedicated Ethernet connection to the CH Precision C1? Well, after hearing what I just heard, I was not so confident of Ethernet’s superiority anymore. But before switching to the Melco for comparison I first listened to some more tracks using the Antipodes CX and EX, this time via USB to the C1. Sure enough: all the aforementioned qualities were still present, along with the extra qualities that the C1 offers such as an even more solid bass and an even richer overall sound.
Then, it was time to compare the CX+EX with the Melco N1ZH. For this final test, I aligned the Melco and the Antipodes servers with the same track and started them simultaneously and then switched between them directly on the C1. Well, that game was finished before I knew it… Indeed: the Melco was beaten at its own game! The Antipodes combo sounded every bit as fluid and free-flowing and just as refined and transparent, yet with an even deeper soundstage, more solid bass, a richer tonality, and an even more organic delivery. The Melco also still sounded very nice for sure but in comparison with the Antipodes combo it now came across as less convincing and organic, less real and therefore ultimately less engaging. How about that?
Mind you, the CX+EX combo connected via USB has surpassed the Melco N1ZH connected via Ethernet! So much for my Ethernet theory… Oh well, that’s the thing with digital audio: we live and learn.
“USB has greater potential but requires a very good server. Ethernet is better only when the server is a little noisy.”
So, according to Mark, whether USB or Ethernet yields better results, is dependent on the quality of the device in question. Here I was, thinking that the Melco was already extremely good, only for it to apparently be beaten at its own game. But I have no reason to doubt what Mark is saying. The results speak for themselves.
Not just any Ethernet cable
I know, this is controversial, but please bear with me. The EX and CX come complete with a nice Ethernet cable in the box. Normally an afterthought but in this case, Mark has selected precisely this cable for its audio qualities and after comparing it to a bunch of other Ethernet cables, I fully agree with his decision.
Compared to standard cables, regardless of their Category, the cable that came with the CX made for a very noticeable increase in impact and tautness! Mark had already informed me that these cables were something special but also warned me that they would need a considerable amount of running in. Now I must admit to being a little skeptical about the latter myself. I can understand that noise on a cable can affect the performance of a component downstream but an Ethernet cable that needs running in? When I asked Mark about his thoughts on what causes one Ethernet cable to sound warm and relaxed and another to sound tight and dynamic.
“The Ethernet cables that sound soft and mushy are doing that due to noise. The tighter and faster the sound (due to Ethernet cabling) the better the cable – in my experience.”
In order to put this to the test, I connected one of the two cables and left it connected while using it between CX and EX for two weeks. Then, I swapped it for the other identical cable that has seen no use. Guess what? Mark was right! The unused cable, by comparison, sounded thinner in the midrange and while bold and impactful, a little bit too tight, while the used cable was just as speedy and dynamic but at the same time lusher and sweeter.
How can an Ethernet cable make a difference? And more so, how can it become better as a result of burn-in? I’ve asked Mark the same questions and that resulted in a very interesting but also very lengthy email conversation. In order not to make this review too long, I’ve opted to jump to the conclusion here but to provide a Side Notes part 3 for the technically interested. Also in part 3: information about running in and warming up and a review of the Antipodes-supplied Ethernet cable. But I can imagine that many will feel that I’ve been rambling on for too long already so here’s straight to the Conclusion.
The EX is a great Music Server and an even better Renderer. Just the same, the CX is an amazing Server. But when combined, the two perform at an unprecedented level. All the qualities of the EX remain present but are enhanced with the qualities of the CX and then taken to an even stellar level.
There comes a time when a reviewer just lacks the superlatives to describe the latest experience and for me, this is it. How do I describe the CX+EX delivery if I have already used all the superlatives that I can think of for earlier reviews? This combination is, quite simply, the very best digital front end that I have heard.