At first glance, playing and streaming digital music files is a straightforward process. You’re directing data from a variety of sources, some local, some ‘in the cloud’, perhaps through a signal reclocker / conditioner to a digital to analog converter (DAC). “And the music comes out here.”
Not that easy. Bits, it seems, are not bits, or not only. A digital data stream is also an analog signal. Noise and other signal errors endemic to multifunction computers not designed primarily for playing music can affect the sound of music. And then there are the practical issues of optimally setting up and connecting, and then organizing music files properly, which can be especially difficult when ripping files from multi-disc sets.
These hurdles are the reason why so many audiophiles have switched to all-in-one music server solutions or even raised their hands and stuck with physical media.
Ever since I started using my Roon Nucleus + music server, which is powered by an HDPlex 300 linear power supply rather than the switching wall power supply provided by Roon, I have wondered about the quality of other servers / streamers that cost considerably more expensive. I’ve listened to a few, including the Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3 SX and the Innuos Statement.
In June, I requested a sample of my most expensive to date, the flagship one-box server made by New Zealand company Antipodes Audio, the K50 ($ 15,000, footnote 1). My contacts within the company were Mark Jenkins, CEO of Antipodes, and Mark Cole, head of service, sales and marketing for the company. Which meant that in addition to figuring out how to operate a single device with multiple choices of inputs, outputs, servers, and drives, I had to figure out which Mark was which.
Jenkins, who grew up at Bizet, Puccini, Gershwin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and the Rolling Stones, spent several decades in digital transmission, broadcasting and telecommunications before entering the hi-tech industry. fi in 2004. He focused on cables at first, then turned to music servers.
âI was struck by a conundrum in the ’90s,â Jenkins explained in an email; we also communicated a lot on WhatsApp. âUsing computer audio opened up my music library to me in a way that playing a record or CD didn’t. Yet the record and CD sounded better.â¦ end of DACs that claimed to completely correct jitter [and] make the source limitations irrelevant. â¦ So I decided that the simple explanation that âdata is only dataâ should be considered. ”
Experimentation led Jenkins to believe that every component in a stereo system matters. âFor computer audio, the idea that you can do a bad job at the source and fix it later is just at odds with what I hear.â¦ A lot of our competition is focusing on a low cost product. or high-powered computer to calculate the numbers; then they rely on things like slow linear power supplies and additional peripherals designed to filter out noise or regenerate the signal to fix things after the event. … [Antipodes] starts with audio design from scratch.
“As explained on our technology page, we believe the industry has focused too much on noise and adopted noise reduction techniques that compromise bandwidth. âInstead, Antipodes aims to ensure a high quality digital signal from the start and to conserve bandwidth. âWe believe this sets the sound of our music servers apart from those of our competitors.
âThe problems of early digital led people in the wrong direction. In the beginning we were largely trying to get rid of the harshness and nasty high-end noise that came from (a) using hard drives and ( b) interference with the audio signal Much of the way people dealt with this noise was to slow everything down with slow linear feeds, noise filters and regeneration, which also tends to act like a filter. The fundamental difference between our approach and what we see most of our competition doing is that we approach everything from the ground up rather than applying bandages after the event. I think we are also unique in our focus on bandwidth as well as noise rather than focusing exclusively on noise.
“Our goal is to provide a perfect square wave to the DAC, … [one that] is able to turn a corner at a perfect right angle and has no squirms and squiggles that confuse timing. … We started working on improving bandwidth rather than reducing noise [because] if we improved the bandwidth, then the life, verve, vigor and emotional implication – the things that make you smile, cry or dance – is gone. … If we allowed noise at the start of the signal, we would have to start filtering and slowing things down to eliminate the problem. Thanks to this, we can also maximize the bandwidth. ”
In one of the many follow-up discussions with the two brands, Jenkins noted that global chip shortages had forced some design changes to the K50 and that the beta software I would receive would not be bug-free (footnote from page 2). An updated manual was also not available. What was consistent with the previous iteration of the K50s, however, was that it honors Jenkins’ personal “bias that timbre must be precise” for music to have life.
âThe ultimate goal of Antipodes Audio is to provide emotional fulfillment that can be difficult to achieve in an ordinary day,â he said. âEvery now and then I listen to a distributor’s $ 130,000 turntable setup and wonder, ‘What are we missing? Big turntables have a kind of life and verve that the music servers of a few years ago just didn’t have. Getting that life and verve into an Antipodes music server has been my biggest goal over the past few years. … It’s easy to get a music server to throw tons of detail at you; getting it to make sense of music is the hard part. ”
Antipodes optimizes the K50’s power supplies to increase speed and reduce noise. The company works with two manufacturers of industrial motherboards to ensure optimum tuning of precision and sound performance. âThe tuning is really only available for a motherboard manufacturer,â Jenkins said. âWith their help, we can optimize audio performance. This allows us to achieve high quality and great sounding motherboards, albeit at a relatively high cost compared to using standard motherboards.
âYour Roon Nucleus + benchmark is not quite the same as the K50. The Nucleus is there to play the Roon server application; the K50 plays a range of server applications on an internal device and the reader application. selected on a second isolated internal device It also generates a full range of digital outputs using clocks controlled by the oven.
âThe K50 has three compute parts, each powered by a dedicated, superspecified, ultra-fast low noise power supply:
?? The server computer runs server applications, manages storage, manages Internet flows. … Simply put, it provides high quality streaming of files over Ethernet to the player’s computer.
?? The meter computer runs meter applications, transmits via USB, and supplies power to the meter. [other] digital outputs. Simply put, it receives the streamed files from the server computer and transforms them into digital audio signals.
?? The digital output unit is driven by an FPGA compute engine and does certain things including providing galvanic isolation from other computers, resynchronizing digital signals using a very high quality oven controlled clock, and generating signals in formats appropriate for each digital output. Note that the classic digital outputs (S / PDIF, AES3, I2S) must be generated using a high quality clock. It’s less important for USB and much less important for Ethernet, where issues like noise and bandwidth take on greater importance. ”
The K50 can work with Roon as server and player, Roon as server with Squeezelite or HQ Player as player, or Squeeze as server and Squeezelite as player (footnote 3). Jenkins declined to defend either in the print media, although he acknowledged his preferences. After strongly encouraging me to try everything I could, he said, âIf you’re used to Roon, this is a good place to start. Corn [every server/player] the combination looks different and preferences may change as different software changes.
Footnote 1: JA reviewed the company’s previous flagship, the DX Reference, in October 2015.
Footnote 2: That was an understatement.
Footnote 3: Squeeze and Squeezelite are the native applications for Logitech Media Server, aka Squeezebox.