Antipodes DS Base Music Server
Powerful functionality and excellent sound in an attractively small package
After having reviewed the costly Antipodes DX and proclaiming it my new reference, here is a product of the same manufacturer, but at the other end of the cost scale. Starting at 1995 euro for the 1TB version, it is far removed from the DX’ lofty 6000+ price, but does it offer comparable sound quality? Read on to find out!
Review sample kindly supplied by Ohm Audio
Retail prices in the Netherlands:
1TB: 1995 euro
2TB: 2295 euro
4TB: 2495 euro
Any mini-PC can be loaded with similar music server software and then on the surface do pretty much the same thing, but it won’t work as slickly, and certainly won’t sound as good. Believe me, I’ve tried. Although a Sonos Connect or Mac Mini can deliver sound more or less on par with a 300 euro CD player, a more high-end CD player does deliver significantly better sound. By using a dedicated music server such as just about any VortexBox based computer one can easily obtain much better sound. Especially when a good linear power supply is used the result can approach the sound of some high-end CD players, but it cannot beat the best of them.
Let me put it differently. Audiophiles and press the world over have considered Aurender servers among the very best available, and for several years so have I. During this time I stopped using CD’s as I found the Aurender N10 to sound better overall than the best Levinsons, dCSses and Wadias that I have had. And then I heard the Antipodes DX, which in my opinion sounds even better, and is my current reference. Of course, an Aurender of Antipodes DX cost serious money, but here’s the upside of this story: the Antipodes DS Base comes seriously close to the performance of the Aurender N10!
Above: DS Base with hybrid outboard power supply that uses switched rectification and step-down stage, followed by a linear DC regulation stage.
Supplied for review is the 4TB version DS Base. Functionally the DS Base is very similar to the DX: it has the same GUI and OS, and offers the same apps such as RoonServer, RoonReady, SqueezeLite, MPD, HQPlayer, PLEX and Sonos. For a deeper description of these features, please see the Antipodes DX review.
The differences between DX and DS Base are in the hardware, and then mainly in the power supply. When looking inside the unit it is easy to think that this is no more than a standard motherboard in a nice case. Earlier samples of the DS Base utilized SOtM USB cards, but my review sample (serial 000151) does not. On initial inspection, SPDIF and USB come straight from the motherboard. But as listening tests will later confirm, there’s more to this than meets the eye.
It seems that there is no way around optimizing both hardware and software in order to really get state of the art sound. For this reason, Antipodes pay fanatic attention to detail. In particular, they aim to minimize electronic noise, and to fine-tune the combined solutions to avoid the build-up of similar types of noise where they could sum up and create peaks at the same frequency. To this end, all the components used have been carefully selected based on sound as well as electrical noise levels. Just as with the DX, the power supply is a major part of this. Although outboard for the DS, it is still a special low noise semi-switched power supply, which has a switched rectification and step-down stage, followed by a linear DC regulation stage. The external supply has the brightest LED that I have seen on any piece of equipment, flooding a big part of the rear wall in spacy blue at night. This is easily remedied with some tape though, and some might even consider it a cool feature;-)
The DS Base uses 2,5″ spinning hard drives for music storage, as according to the manufacturer these produce less heat, noise and vibration than the larger 3,5″ disks. The system software, application software, database and caching are all on solid-state.
The electronics on the motherboard driving the USB and SPDIF sections are in fact customized, as Antipodes work closely with their chosen motherboard maker, to eliminate parts that are detrimental to the music. Some parts such as noise filters are removed and others are replaced with better sounding equivalents.
Above: earlier DS unit with SOtM USB card (serial 000103). Below: current production unit (serial 000151). The latter is the unit reviewed here. The former was initially here for review together with the DX but it had to go back together with the DX before I could review it. Later. another DS Base was delivered, which was reviewed instead. The DS Base as reviewed has a rear panel that looks like the one on the image below (note the deviating USB port amount and position).
Core Direct vs RoonReady
There are several modes in which one can use Roon on the Antipodes server:
- The Roon Server & RoonReady combination to play directly to a DAC (recommended method)
- Use Roon Server Core to play directly to a DAC (similar to mode 1, but RoonReady is bypassed)
- Use Roon Server to stream to RoonReady and Bridge devices via the network
- Use the Antipodes server as just a RoonReady endpoint to play directly to a DAC
This review was started using the server in mode 4 (as endpoint). Further down I will discuss how it sounds when in mode 1 (integral server+endpoint). In either mode, Roon can output sound in two ways: Core Direct and Roon Ready.
Core Direct means that the Roon server’s outputs are used directly by the operating system and thus not using RAAT internally if the DS’ built-in server is used. If an external server is used, as is the case at this point in the review, then RAAT is still used between the external server and the Roon installation on the DS. If Local Playback is enabled (see above screengrab), the Audio Settings panel in Roon will have two sections where outputs can be chosen: one labeled “Connected to Core” and one labeled “Networked”. The former is connected directly while the latter is using RoonReady.
Roon Core will enable all of the available outputs but according to Antipodes, the sound will be noticeably better when selecting only one output at a time in the Roon Ready setup. That’s why I selected only the output I needed in the Roon app setup. Prior to doing that I de-selected the output in RoonReady settings in the Antipodes GUI.
Via RoonReady, the external server (in this case a Windows PC) or the DS’ internal Roon Server talks via the RAAT protocol (Roon Advanced Audio Transport) to the RoonReady renderer/player app and this is the method that Antipodes recommend for the DX. The added advantage of having both server and renderer / player (RoonReady) in the same device is that they do not need to use the comms layers that sit underneath RAAT when the two apps talk across a network and according to Antipodes this leads to better sound.
Precisely conform to earlier experience with the DX, Core Direct sounds different from RoonReady and depending on personal taste and setup matching, one or the other might be preferred. With the DX I could still swing either way but because the DS is less outspoken across the board than the DX, given my already relaxed sounding system, I prefer using Core Direct for its tighter and more articulate sound, also because this makes it sound closest to the Aurender. If your system is more lively than mine (which is easily possible) then the more fluid and relaxed RoonReady method might be the better option. This will make the DS sound more in line with the smooth and relaxed AudioAanZee Reference Flow, but with more natural timbre, better low-level detail and better overall refinement.
As I now found out having used various Antipodes servers as well as the combination of CX+EX, the difference between RoonReady and Core Direct depends on where the Roon Server and RoonReady applications run.
- In a single Antipodes device scenario (DX, DS, EX) where Roon Server runs the server functions and the same hardware is also used for RoonReady as the Renderer for USB output, Core Direct sounds tighter and RoonReady sounds softer.
- In a combo scenario (CX + EX) where Roon Server runs on one device and RoonReady runs on the other, the situation is reversed for the Renderer machine. In this case, RoonReady sounds tighter and Core Direct softer on the Renderer machine (EX). With this same combo, the reverse is true for the CX, Core Direct sounding tighter and RoonReady sounding softer, which is again exactly the same as for the DX, DS, and EX when they are used on their own.
So, I’m conjuring up the following but as I try to apply logic to my findings above, basically, it looks like Core Direct is the most direct when the server is on the same machine as RoonReady. For a duo setup and on the Renderer machine, however, it looks like RoonReady is the most direct path and Core Direct somehow creates an extra step.
Listening as Endpoint
First off, the DS Base is listened to as streaming endpoints. Later on I will also assess the differences with the DS as endpoint and when used integrally with its built-in Roon server. During this review, the Aurender N10 and Bricasti M5 have been used as comparison material. DAC used throughout this review is the Bricasti M1 Classic.
Above: the DS was also tried with the Exogal Comet DAC. Compared to the Bricasti, this provides a less voluptuous but more outgoing sound. The two combine to make for an incredibly lively package.
Core Direct with Coax
After connecting it and having played for a few hours, the listening commenced. At first, compared to the Bricasti M5 and the Aurender, the Antipodes DS is certainly the liveliest of the bunch but also a little thin sounding, quite unlike I remembered the DX to sound. First suspect for causing this is the power connector phase. The external power supply has a captive power cable of which the connector is not labeled for phase, and from experience with other music servers, I know that this can make a large difference. So, after reversing the polarity listening recommenced. Yup: the DS now sounds just as lively as before, but more relaxed in the midrange, and with considerably more bass power. I know some might frown upon this but I say: just try it and judge for yourself!
When listening casually, there is actually not a world of difference between the DS Base and the Aurender N10, and this in itself is a real achievement for the DS. As an endpoint, the Bricasti M5 sounds closest to the Aurender in terms of nurtured cleanness and level of refinement. The Bricasti however is fuller, smoother and warmer through the upper bass and midrange and more relaxed overall. The Antipodes DS, by comparison, is more agile and has a more forward midrange than either the Bricasti or the Aurender. Most obvious difference though is in perceived increased dynamics, pacing and transient attack, the DS easily sounding liveliest and most spontaneous. Used as an endpoint, and using coax, the DS is also a little uneven and sometimes a little overly spicey, but due to its unbridled enthusiasm, rhythmically certainly the most engaging.
Core Direct with USB
Switching from coax to USB makes a large difference. With USB the DS sounds calmer and more refined. The sound is now more even (less rough) and more nurtured yet every bit as lively. With USB, the DS in generic comes close to the overall performance of the Aurender but deviates on some points. For example, the Aurender is still more finely detailed and refined, but the DS is more lively and engaging in the midrange as well as timbrally slightly more convincing. Incidentally, just as with the DX, there is no artificial sheen whatsoever to the DS sound and although there is a considerable difference between USB and coax, each output sounds very natural. Considering that this level of performance is achieved using a standard Windows computer to run Roon on, this is a real achievement, especially given the DS’ moderate price!
Above: used with Siltech Paris interlinks for the most open and neutral sound.
Above: used with AudioQuest Water interlinks, for a more sonorous sound.
This is an interesting feature that you don’t often see on Music Servers but if it is, it often seems to be thrown in as a bonus, rather than as a serious feature. Knowing that Antipodes derive all the DS’ outputs from the motherboard, I did not expect too much from the built-in analog outputs. Naturally, this is no standard motherboard but one customized to provide the best interfaces by optimizing the components on it, but still how good could the analog outputs really be?
Listening to the DS’ analog outputs using an AudioQuest Water interlink after having done all the comparisons above I was really surprised to find that it sounds A LOT better than it has a right to. Naturally, a costly high end dedicated DAC such as the Bricasti M1 extracts more detail, power and refinement from the signal, but I have to say that the DS on itself sounds highly convincing and miles removed from the onboard audio that I am used to from my Macbook or Windows PC. The DS’ analog outputs sound nicely powerful and propulsive, with solid tuneful bass, a lively yet smooth and organic midrange and clean, refined treble. And as I am now finding is customary for the brand, also on the analog outputs, there is no electronic signature whatsoever, only pure, natural sound. I wrote earlier about entry-level solutions sounding like a 300 euro CD player, but this sounds more like a 2000 euro Meridian 506.24 CD player! This is no empty claim, as I have a 506.24 at hand, and I have compared the two directly. The Meridian is more relaxed and smoother, but the DS is more propulsive and lively. Sure, a 506 is no Levinson or Wadia, but still, this is not quite what I expected.
DS used integrally with Roon Server
When using the DS with its internal Roon server and database and the USB output via Roon Ready, the DS gains more refinement but also more liveliness and instantaneousness as well as a more neutral tonality, so much so in fact that it comes very, very close to the sound of the Aurender N10 when also using USB. There are still differences but they are so small that I don’t think many listeners will easily identify each server in a blind test.
When using Core Direct, the DS sounds tighter and more articulate. Some may prefer this, others may prefer the more fluid RAAT presentation. As my system doesn’t get aggressive easily, I tend to prefer Core Direct but this is of course a very personal matter. The beauty is that one can select the desired output on the fly using the tablet. During this review I switched from the usual Rowland Model six monos to a Bryston 3B ST. With the latter driving the Apogee Divas, and especially when also using one of the SW1X DAC 1 units, the sound is quite a bit more lively and “instant”, so now it sort of depends on the track played which Roon mode I prefer.
But more impressively, using the built-in Roon server via Core Direct the DS actually sounds better than the Aurender N10 on some accounts. Ouch, I did not see that coming. The DS has all the low-level detail, most of the nuance and refinement and most of the treble aire and fluidity that the N10 is capable of, and adds better dynamics with more attack and without diminishing the decays. Lastly, just like with the DX, the DS has a more convincing tonality, where wood sounds and percussion instruments sound more like the real things, than with the Aurender. The Euphony Buggy/Zotac also comes close with its more powerful bass and a more sonorous and ballsy sound. It certainly sounds more powerful than either the Aurender or Antipodes DS and even rivals the best Wadias in those areas, but it doesn’t quite offer the level of refinement that the Antipodes DS Base is capable of. It’s not every day that my long time reference is equaled, certainly not multiple times in a short timeframe, and definitely not by a much less expensive component.
Above: very bright led on external power supply, bathing back wall and ceiling in spacious blue light.
Only one: in spite of being more silent 2,5″ versions, the HDD’s (two for the 4TB version I suspect) inside the DS Base are a bit noisy. In the listening seat they are all but inaudible, certainly when playing music, but when standing close to the equipment rack the whirr is quite audible. It’s not really loud by any means, but certainly louder than my 2009 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro. By comparison, the Aurender’s twin 2,5″ HDDs can hardly be heard even when pressing one’s ear against the enclosure. The solution is simple but not inexpensive: the DS can be equipped with special SSDs running bespoke Antipodes firmware, which will not only silence the DS, but likely also make it respond even faster.
Summing it up
Purely as an endpoint, the Bricasti M5 can be considered to have the edge in terms of bass fulness, midrange smoothness and overall level of refinement but it remains a matter of taste. Either way, if it wasn’t for the M5 and Antipodes’ own DX, then the DS would be the best RAAT endpoint I have heard so far. The Meridian 818v3 was also incredibly good, but this one was listened to using its built-in DAC, so it cannot really be compared to the USB output endpoints reviewed here.
When used integrally as a Music Server the DS base and M5 are more or less of the same overal quality but with quite different perspectives. Whether you prefer the smoother, more relaxed and more sonorous sound of the M5 or the more propulsive and lively character of the DS, the fact remains that both products perform at or beyond the level of the Aurender N10 and the DS Base, in particular, offers tremendous value for money.
Well done Antipodes, offering such high-class sound at such a competitive price! Evidently there is a lot to gain by optimizing the motherboard, but also by knowing what really counts. Whether this is low noise levels, power supply stability or something else, frankly I don’t care. When a product sounds so good as the DS and costs so relatively little, I don’t ask any more questions. I just enjoy the music!