Here’s one of the dumbest things I’ve said about high-end audio, especially digital audio, in the last couple of years: “I’m perfectly happy with just a DAC and a laptop.” My time with the Antipodes Oladra music server has proven that statement wrong, and my time with it hasn’t been so much a review as a shift in the way I’m approaching the future as an audiophile.
That sounds dramatic, I know. Many years ago an editor for a high-end audio website told me that I when writing a review, I am supposed to be the “expert.” I’m not allowed to talk about the journey I’ve taken (or am about to take), nor the mistakes I’ve made the along the way. (That, of course, includes those dumb things we’ve all said in front of people who knew far more than we did.) But I am still relatively new to DACs and streamers and ethernet switches and, most of all, music servers. The Antipodes Oladra was a big leap for me, in terms of my audio knowledge base, and I personally learned a lot merely from writing this review.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
In other words, the $29,000 Antipodes Oladra music server had me experiencing a touch of the ol’ Imposter Syndrome. Am I the right reviewer for this? Do I even know what I’m doing with this glorious hunk of high-tech machinery?
It was only a couple of years ago when I told some of the writers at PTA I wanted to start reviewing digital audio, and I was going to start with simple, entry-level DACs until I got the hang of it. I was quite nervous when I said yes to my first digital audio review, mostly because I had explored this gear many years ago and found it uninspiring, complicated and sonically inferior to my CDs and LPs. I’ve persevered, however, pushing deeper into the world of digital converters and even network streamers thanks to my continuing love for streaming services such as Qobuz. But the Antipodes Oladra is a music server, a high-falutin’ one at that, and so far I’m undecided about needing one in my audio system at least until I decide what to do with all these CDs that have taken over my house.
That’s one of the reasons I haven’t ripped my CD collection to a music server yet. I look at my ever-expanding CD collection–that’s still the predominant format in my house merely because that’s how most publicists send out new releases these days–and I know, deep in my heart, that there will be a day when they all have to go. (Colleen enthusiastically concurs.) That’s where a music server such as the Antipodes Oladra comes in.
But I do hem and haw about this predicament. I like playing CDs, which is surprising to an old vinyl lover like me, and I like reviewing CD players and transports for those audiophiles who may feel slightly overwhelmed by the rapid and continuous advances in new digital playback technologies. The more I mention my CD collection and my wish to continue with it, the more I hear from fellow audiophiles who feel the same way. I tell them about streamers and DACs and servers and they just wave me off dismissively. It wasn’t too long ago that I felt exactly the same way.
Before the Antipodes Oladra music server arrived, I had settled on that idea of having a DAC so that I could just stream Qobuz from my laptop. That was it, my preferred digital rig, and it gave me a chance to try all the different flavors in DACs under the guise of “reviewing.” I was quite happy with this arrangement, and I felt that it was all I needed for now. (I still haven’t purchased my own personal DAC yet, but I know which one I want.) Then I played with a couple of network streamers, and I realized that they offer a smoother interface than my laptop. Plus, they sound better for a variety of reasons.
The best reason for having a top-notch music server such as the Antipodes Oladra, as I found out, was that bold yet accurate claim to better sound quality. Music servers aren’t just about data storage and file organization and getting rid of the mounting piles of physical media in your listening room. The Antipodes Oladra will sound much better than a laptop. As I found out, much better.
Inside the Antipodes Oladra
The Antipodes Oladra is expensive. There’s no doubt about it. The last time I reviewed a server, the Innuos Zen Mini, it cost less than $2,000. I found the Zen Mini was interesting and useful enough to get me thinking about my next move when it came to my entire music collection. If I rip all these CDs to a music server, I can reduce a lot of clutter in my house. Even though I’ve heard plenty of music servers at high-end audio shows, ones that cost as least as much, if not more, than the Oladra, I still wondered what benefits could be attained for that sizable amount of cash. It’s just a computer, right?
I stopped thinking about the cost of the Antipodes Oladra the minute I picked it up and placed it on my rack. It’s heavy, solid, and it sports a fit and finish that’s quite astonishing. Because of its gorgeous curves, it’s quite easy to lift up. It’s built, quite frankly, like a very expensive amplifier. But the cost of this music server isn’t based on what it looks like or how it feels to pick it up. It’s what it can do, for you.
The Antipodes Oladra, naturally, does a LOT. I’ll leave it to Antipodes to explain the main points here:
“The Oladra uses four separate processing engines (illustrated in the process map below) and each is optimised for the process it performs. The Server engine is our premium high-power processor and is unique to the Oladra. The Player engine is a premium version of the Player engine that is used in the KALA Series. The first re-clocking board is a premium version of the USB re-clocking board used in the KALA Series and it has separate processing for the USB output and for the first stage of the Synchronous outputs reclocker (S/PDIF, AES3 & I2S). The cascaded processing stages progressively perfect the digital signal before it goes to your DAC. The early stages benefit from higher processing resources. The later stages use progressively lower power to achieve ultra-low noise levels, resulting in utterly natural timbres and incredibly fine resolution.”
Yes, the Antipodes Oladra re-clocks the data. That’s worth something, right? I’ve spent time with a number of reclocking devices in the past, and they’re not inexpensive. But they are essential to delivering a more “organized” sound, one that seems to click with my brain in a noticeable way. It’s really hard to use some sort of re-clocking in the digital playback chain and then suddenly remove it. The sound is muddled in comparison, even if it didn’t sound muddled before you installed the re-clocking unit. Comparisons, as always, are easier to hear through subtraction and not addition.
Why do you need all this? As Antipodes explains, “The Server engine is the heart of the system, managing your files and music streaming services, and controlling what is played.” You have plenty of tech so you can build a sizeable network, even with multiple end-points. As mentioned, you can connect to your DAC in a number of ways: Direct Ethernet, USB, S/PDIF, AES3 or I2S. Most of us probably think of a music server in terms of storage, and the Oladra has plenty–up to 3 SATA SSD, user installable.
The connectivity options with the Antipodes Oladra are staggering, which makes it extremely versatile for just about any system configuration. That’s when I realized, somewhat casually, that the Oladra is indeed the flagship server from this New Zealand company, and that there are other models in the line such as $7,000 K21 that would undoubtedly be a more practical choice for me, at least right now. But I’m here to do one thing and that’s listen to a music server that pushes against the current state-of-the-art in digital playback. I’m trying to discern, once and for all, if a music server such as the Antipodes Oladra can render my laptop obsolete.
The owners’ manual of the Antipodes Oladra music server let me know that everything was going to be all right. Just connect three cables–power, network and connection to the DAC–and everything should fall into place after that. I read that sentence and, quite frankly, heaved a sigh of relief. Once I downloaded the app, however, and endured a rather lengthy software update before I could play my first song, I realized that it was going to be more difficult than usual to review a music server because this isn’t a component where I can just listen and write down what I hear.
Music servers are more of a long journey. Not only do you have to build your library, but you also have to tailor the server’s features to your own organizational preferences. This is the point where many of you will mention Roon, and how it changed your life, but so far I’ve been lukewarm about the service because I haven’t burrowed deeply enough into this rabbit hole to explore all of its possibilities. Besides, as my time with the Aavik S-280 streamer proved, you don’t have to use Roon. For the Antipodes Oladra, you can use Squeeze instead of Roon. Which I did.
I plugged in those three cables, and then I went to the Antipodes website to customize the server and set my preferences. When I reviewed the Innuos Zen Mini, I spent a lot of time ripping CDs and building my library. After the review had concluded, I sent the gear back to Innuos and realized those libraries were gone forever. When I agreed to review the Antipodes Oladra, I told myself not to do the same thing. I wanted to use a few choice tracks, you know, like “Chocolate Chip Trip” and “Yulunga” and a few other favorites because these are songs I know well.
That’s what I did. I was able to glean a firmer opinion of the sound of the Oladra by that time. Then, while exploring all the features in an attempt to appear thorough and knowledgeable, I discovered that I could listen to internet radio through the Antipodes Oladra, which is usually the first thing I do when I review a network streamer. (Because it’s usually easy.) Then I noticed that a bunch of hi-rez music files had been pre-loaded on the Oladra–mostly from unfamiliar performers. I explored these files for a while, and discovered some interesting choices–none of which I wrote down, unfortunately. I thought I had all the time in the world to talk about all this great new music. Then I did something quite bone-headed.
Once I’d listened to my tracks and these pre-loaded tracks, I had gotten to the point where I had spent a significant amount of time listening to these music files and I started going through all the menus so I could learn as many of the features as I could. I had stored a few additional tracks using newly discovered pathways in the Oladra, and once I had things figured out I went back to erase some of the false starts. That’s when I pushed the proverbial big red button that should say DON’T TOUCH THIS BUTTON and I erased all the music files in the Antipodes Oladra.
I’m not sure if the Oladra was pre-loaded with music from Antipodes, and some poor person spent a lot of time creating these files, or if this was just the remnants from the last reviewer. Either way…oops, sorry. But that’s when I knew I couldn’t be that expert who’s going to tell you everything you need to know about this music server. Instead, I can tell you setting up the Antipodes Oladra music server isn’t easy, and you will need to spend the time getting used to it, discovering how you want to use it and, eventually, making it all second nature to you.
Antipodes Oladra Sound and Listening Sessions
Sure, at times the Antipodes Oladra felt like buying an MV Agusta Rush as a first motorcycle and if there’s a whiff of “too much server for me” in the air, you’re not imagining it. But after feeling somewhat comfortable storing and playing the tracks I wanted to hear, I concentrated on the sound quality of this sophisticated and daunting music server.
First of all, it was decidedly easy to hear the difference between the Antipodes Oladra and my laptop. Really easy, in fact. I was perfectly happy with a DAC and my laptop and Qobuz, huh? Those days are gone and will not return.
One of my initial issues with DACs and streamers and servers was this sort of shiftiness within the sound, where the overall presentation seemed so dependent on the file format, source, and even the time of day. (There are times when I’ve had to stop using the network when someone else was on their laptop, or watching TV, or both at the same time.) That shiftiness is usually detectable in imaging and soundstaging, where an anchorage to the boundaries of the listening space seems about to break loose. The Antipodes Oladra, however, brought the music into an incredibly stable state within the three-dimensional space.
There’s a point early on in “Chocolate Chip Trip,” when the electronic sounds are ping-ponging between the channels and it sounds broken and hashy. That noise is eventually replaced with drums, but for a few short seconds you can hear an etched effect, possibly deliberate, that sounds like the noise is fading in and out like an AM station in the middle of the Texas Panhandle. On a mediocre hi-fi, you don’t even hear the cut-outs–it often sounds like a constant tone. On a good hi-fi, you hear the spaces between the noise and wonder if there was a technical glitch somewhere. On the Antipodes Oladra, I now understand that it’s a deliberate sound in every way. It isn’t a technical glitch at all, but a sound made a long time ago, buried in the earth until now, and it’s holey and a little worse for wear. (In a way, this noise reminds me of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”) If that sounds crazy to you, I’ll remind you this is Tool and these guys are deep thinkers.
That’s the detail I heard using the Antipodes Oladra music server. I was floored. The noise floor was nearly non-existent–the CAD Ground Control GC1.1 earthing device contributed a bit to this–but I also realized that I start thinking about low noise whenever I’m hearing what a quality re-clocking device can do. Proper grounding can sweep the floor, but re-clocking polishes the objects you place on that floor.
With all of the files I downloaded, as well as the ones that were already there before they were summarily executed by a blundering audio bureaucrat, I noticed three distinct improvements in the sound. First, the transient edges were sharper. I could feel more slap to the sound–it was immediate and it could be surprising, especially during dynamic passages. (I really enjoyed two of my favorite Peter Gabriel tracks, both wild and heavy with world percussion–“Rhythm of the Heat” and the opening title music from The Last Temptation of Christ. What a rush!)
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I heard the same levels of silence I’ve usually enjoyed when I have tons of grounding and noise suppression devices in the system. While using the Antipodes Oladra, I used the aforementioned CAD Ground Control GC1.1 and additional noise control through a bevy of Furutech NCF products, not to mention the AudioQuest Niagara 3000 power conditioner. So my system is already quiet. But I could still detect that the Oladra was just a little bit quieter than any other source I was using at the time. Once again, a multi-pronged approach to noise reduction tends to make sense because the effect on the sound is cumulative–although the folks from CAD don’t necessarily agree with that. We’ll go more into that when I review the GC 1.1, and it has a lot to do with difference between audio components and computers in how they require proper grounding.
And this is the point in the story where I discovered that huge obstacle when it comes to reviewing music servers–the review period was simply over. In my best Kevin Arnold voice: “And that’s when I learned that it’s difficult for a reviewer to really tear into a music server the same way they would tear into a pair of speakers or a power amplifier.” A huge chunk of the value of a music server is how it can be customized to serve its customer’s needs and tastes, and that slowly evolves over time–especially in this volatile market segment. I can’t imagine what every single feature is and how I will use it, especially in just a few months’ time.
But I can tell you this–I haven’t heard this level of digital playback in my own personal system until now. The Aavik S-280 streamer was in the same ballpark sonically, but that is a streamer and this is a server. We can also talk about DACs and what they bring to the party–both the $8,000 Merason DAC-1 Mk. 2 and the $15,000 CAD 1943 DAC were superb dance partners. But the Antipodes Oladra was ready for both of these superb converters, and I never once felt like one half was disappointing the other.
Antipodes Oladra Conclusions
Did my time with the Antipodes Oladra provide me with the clarity I needed to make a decision about music servers? To tell the truth, I think that day is still off in the future, and I wonder if my own digital rig will be sophisticated enough to explore the potential of this astounding and organized device. So yes, I’m going to suggest that a device that can accomplish this much and sound this good might be reserved for those of you who already have a magnificent DAC and streamer in place. You know what great digital is supposed to sound like–a lot like analog–and the Antipodes Oladra is it.
Then again, it’s not about me or how my finances might dictate which music server I eventually buy. No, this is about you, the knowledgeable digital audiophile who is looking for the finest sound possible. As I mentioned, this is only the second music server I’ve reviewed, so my point of reference has to be all of those first-rate music servers I’ve heard at high-end audio shows, high-end audio dealers, and at high-end audio manufacturing facilities. It goes back to the days when I was importing and distributing and exhibiting at those same shows, and I was still flipping LPs and swapping CDs while the smart guys were sitting in their comfy chairs and running a flawless demo with just a smart phone or tablet.
I wanted to be one of those guys. It seemed so easy, and the results were stunning and suggested the unlimited future of high-end digital audio. With the Antipodes Oladra, I felt as if I entered that world for the first time. It was a world without limits, where I could do anything I wanted, and it all sounded magnificent in a strangely easy way. I have no idea–yet–if the Antipodes Oladra is the “best” music server out there. I just know it’s shaped my music server expectations in a profound way.