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Reference-grade Roon with the Antipodes DX Gen 2

  • The quiet life. Some of us crave it sooner or later. However, the lure of the big city comes at a price. Being close/r to the action means more people and higher living densities. That spells more daily noise than we’d hear elsewhere: the roar of traffic, the whir of trains, the clang and thunder of construction sites, the boom-boom-boom of nightclubs and (if we’re truly unlucky) neighbours.

    A consumer grade PC or Mac is the digital audio world’s big city. There are many things to see and do but it comes at a price: noise. Here though it’s electrical, not mechanical. Neither Apple nor Asus have electrical noise in mind when designing their laptops or towers and DACs connected via USB allow that noise to degrade the bitstream signal’s integrity. The result is audible. In the worst of cases, music takes on an anemic quality with noticeable treble glare.

    Adding a band-aid fix such as a USB filter or re-clocker is akin to choosing an apartment by the freeway and having the local council erect a 15ft high wall to stem the intrusion of traffic noise. It works – but only to a point.

    For the quiet life proper we must move to the suburbs or, better still, the country, where ambient noise is considerably lower than the city.

    Such thinking runs parallel to that of Mark Jenkins, the CEO and founder of New Zealand’s Antipodes Audio. When Jenkins designs music servers, electrical noise handling is his number one priority. His reasoning: better to have low noise from the outset than expect the downstream DAC to deal with it.

    Each server model’s motherboard, RAM, CPU, hard-drive and USB audio card are selected based upon their electrical noise profile and how they sound. Jenkins says he listens as much as he measures.

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    Completing the hardware picture is a custom-wound transformer that feeds a bespoke power supply that is “regulated, linear and designed to shift residual noise out of musical bounds” to ensure the USB output has the cleanest (low noise) power feed possible.

    There I’m quoting from my own review of the (since discontinued) Antipodes Audio DS Reference server, penned for 6moons in early 2014. The conclusion? A server/streamer designed to meet audiophile sensitivities – the DS Reference – can sound better than one that isn’t – a Mac Mini.

    Back on the Mac (and as any Audirvana+, Amarra or Pure Music proponent will tell you), the specifics of how music playback software is coded, as well as the background processes permitted to run on the host OS, all contribute to a computer’s sound quality (or lack thereof).

    Similar thinking is applied by Jenkins to his servers. From Ethernet input to USB output, the audio signal is handled by a fork of Fedora Linux customised by the Kiwi with signal optimising, jitter-reducing scripts and several buffer/re-clocking stages.

    A carefully designed computer tasked only with music storage and playback – and nothing else – can sound superior to a fully tricked-out Mac or PC.

    Re-affirming this finding in 2015 was Aurender’s N100H. And again, Antipodes Audio’s flagship DX, which is a cut above its rival in price and performance. Less so on looks.

    Readers are advised to catch up on the DAR-KO Awarded DX here, on the DS Reference here and, most recently, Ken Micallef’s coverage of the newer DS here.

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    New for 2016 is an overhaul of the DX.

    At first blush the second generation DX looks every bit the same as its predecessor but lifting it from its triple-box packaging gives us our first taste of any changes. The DX now wears a thick alloy plate all over.

    Spin it ‘round and we note more numerous connectivity options out back. In addition to a pair of USB sockets for DACs, one with its 5V feed severed, the fully tricked out “DX DUAL” adds three S/PDIF outputs – AES/EBU, coaxial and Toslink.

    These aren’t sourced directly from the host OS. They are first re-clocked by a “XMOS X-CORE 32Bit/500MIPS multi-core processor based asynchronous circuit”, complete with two oscillators, one for each of 44.1kHz and 48kHZ sample rate families. Think of this as an internal USB-S/PDIF converter for which the outputs are galvanically isolated and “use an ultra high quality differential line driver circuit”, according to their designer.

    Jenkins explains: “In developing this [S/PDIF] output set, the aim was to achieve the same level of sound quality that we achieve with our USB outputs into the same DAC, and we are delighted to report that we have achieved that. Listener preferences will be driven by personal taste and the cabling used. This enables customers with DACs that don’t have USB inputs to enjoy the exceptional sound quality that an Antipodes server can bring to a fine system.”

    First timer DX buyers can specify USB or S/PDIF or both. Or neither – in which the DX doesn’t feed digital audio directly into a downstream DAC but serves files to another network endpoint.

    Pop the now heavier lid and we note overhauled internals about which Jenkins says, “a new generation of Intel chips means we could improve a number of aspects of performance by changing the server core – mainboard, CPU, RAM. We have changed the [USB] output card and made some minor but telling changes to the power supply.”

    Chatting to Jenkins via email, he reckons the result is a cooler running DX with greater computational muscle.

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    This brings us to the software side of the new DX, which Jenkins has dubbed Antipodes 2 and which includes what many users have apparently been holding out for: Roon. In the new DX we get a double dose. Roon Ready and Roon Core are pre-installed, which affords us a number of Roon-routing possibilities.

    One could stream Roon from a third-party Roon server (like an Intel NUC) to the DX’s Roon Ready component whose output then goes to the DAC.

    However, according to Jenkins, there’s an audible advantage to Roon-ing under one roof.

    Here would have the DX use its Roon Core component host the music library and then have it output audio directly via ALSA to a connected sound device (USB or S/PDIF). Let’s call this Core Direct. (Make note of it only for the purposes of this coverage – you won’t be using it for reasons that will become clear).

    A third way to plumb Roon inside the DX is to have Roon Core talk to Roon Ready directly. Think of this scenario as Roon playing out the server-client model not on a LAN but inside a single computer.

    Jenkins clarifies: “They [Roon Core and Roon Ready] talk using RAAT but when they are in the same device they do not need to use the not-so-good comms layers that sit underneath RAAT when the two apps talk across a network”. 

    Whatever the preferred scenario, control comes from Roon Remote, either another Roon install (like that on a NUC) or Roon’s own Android/iOS apps on a tablet or smartphone.

    Roon. Roon. Roon.

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    What does the DX Gen 2 bring to those who don’t know of, don’t care for or cannot afford Roon?

    Here we come to the overhauled “Antipodes 2” server software  – it’s faster and more intuitive than the outgoing VortexBox shell. Users of the Sonicorbiter SE will feel right at home. (And yes, the new Antipodes DX sounds noticeably better as a digital transport than the US$300 cube).

    Via myantipodes.com, one can install/activate various alternative options for media handling – Squeezelite, Squeezebox server, MPD, HQPlayer NAA, Bubble UPnP, SONOS ‘Auto configure’, Plex Media Server – as well as configure playback from externally attached USB drives and network shares, automated CD ripping (whose software side has been improved in v2) and back-ups.

    Now comes the kick inside for Roon refuseniks.

    Jenkins is so enamoured with the sound of the recently released Roon 1.2 that he says, “The one big thing is that the sound quality of Roon has gone up several steps, and I think beats out the other players we have, neck and neck with one or two at worst.”

    “I can tell you that the Roon guys look to us to write very efficient code, and that will help. But they do tend to assume a lot of processing resource is available and that Roon Server and Roon Ready will be on different devices. I suspect the good clean code plus RAAT is a lot of the reason for good sound.”

    “But we also employed some tricks to stop playback doing the usual unnecessary things that degrade sound. This does not touch the Roon code it just blocks certain things being kicked off by the code.”

    “After a bit of work we managed to get Roon Ready sounding better than Core Direct.” (The latter can toggled on and off in the Antipodes 2 settings panel.)

    That’s interesting.

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    Mark Jenkins at Munich High-End 2016.

    But…

    “[Roon] sound quality is way better than SqueezeBox/Squeezelite.”

    Want best sound from a Gen 2 DX? The audible pecking order according to Jenkins is as follows: 1) Roon Server with Roon Ready; 2) MPD; 3) SqueezeBox/Squeezelite.

    In a more general sense, Jenkins claims the DX Gen 2 brings a faster, more open sound than the previous model.

    With my Gen 1 DX making the outward bound journey across the Tasman Sea before Munich High-End 2016 and back again as a Gen 2 DX once I’d returned home from Germany, the time between DX drinks is too long to evaluate such claims with any degree of authority.

    The deltas that separate this type of product are too small for an A/B separated by several weeks to be reliable. This is not a review (and never will be).

    That said, I am reasonably confident that the DX’s organic/smooth sonic signature was not lost to the Gen 2 upgrade. To have this, my reference server, Roon-enabled is a win-win. It’s not just about me though, is it? Reviewers must look beyond themselves…

    To have the whole Roon shooting match sit inside a plug n’ play box without the (sometime) hassle of network configuration and management will likely be the Gen 2 DX’s trump card, especially to long-time digiphiles looking to replace their CD player for the first time or those wholly dissatisfied with a consumer grade PC as transport.

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    Time to complete the circle.

    You might be thinking (as I did): what about Ethernet-enabled DACs? Do they not blunt the edge of the audiophile-grade server’s appeal?

    According our man in New Zealand the argument against Ethernet (and for USB) runs like this: compared to Ethernet, USB has the potential to carry more noise from the server to the DAC but generates less of its own noise inside the DAC (think: receiver chips). Ethernet remains a good strategy with a noisy server. However, it can be bested by USB when a low noise server with a decent clock is present. For more tech info on the why, consult Gordon Rankin’s take on USB audio here.

    In other words, a music server/streamer done right returns us to the quiet life.

    The second generation DX sells for US$6500 (and up) and is shipping as of yesterday.

    Further information: Antipodes Audio

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    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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