- Part 1 - Introduction and Digital Audio Optimization Foundations (Link)
- Part 2 - Enter the Extreme
- Part 3 - First Impressions and Basic Configuration (Link)
- Part 4 - Tweaking Up the Extreme (Link)
- Part 5 - Extended Listening Impressions, Learnings, and Conclusions (Link)
In Part 1 (LINK) of this series, I share my experiences with digital audio optimization, and how when the time came to move beyond my optimized DIY NUC-based two server setup, those learnings and experiences brought me to the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme.
As I was researching approaches to push digital server performance to its limits, it quickly became clear that Emile Bok (owner and guru at Taiko Audio) had already done orders of magnitude more experimentation and discovery than I could ever hope to accomplish, and had already pushed a lot of the hypotheses and things on my “to explore” list to their limit, and had already optimized the big levers WAY beyond anything I was aspiring to.
Here was an opportunity to learn a tremendous amount about the digital audio optimization road ahead from one of the most respected people and companies in digital audio. How can a self-respecting übergeek audiophile say no to that?
Well, what I learned so impressed me that I ordered an Extreme unseen and unheard. After a Pandemic-induced delay, it finally arrived in California a month ago, and boy was it worth the wait.
Enter the Extreme
The Taiko Audio SGM Extreme is aptly named: an Asus WS C621E Sage motherboard with two Intel Xeon Silver 4210 CPUs (10 physical cores and 20 logical cores(!) each), 12 hand selected custom 4GB RAM modules (48GB total), dedicated Optane storage for OS and up to 24TB of optional M.2 PCIe storage for local music storage, custom power supply, custom precision machined casing for fanless operation and vibration control, generous use of panzerholz vibration absorbing material on key components, an obsessively minimized and tuned OS to dedicate as much CPU to playback as possible, all in a 100 pound beast of a precision machined and assembled package.
The Extreme hit all the key attributes that I was looking for: massive number of Xeon cores to distribute and isolate workload (while only using a vanishingly small part of system capacity during music playback), dual CPU motherboard to better isolate music processes and threads from other OS processes and threads (the ultimate in network-bridged servers, if you will), a staggering amount of PCIe storage to keep all music content local and as logically “close” to the CPU as possible, clean and massively stable power, passive cooling (fanless) even with all that power, an obsessive level of attention to RF and mechanical vibration control, fast low latency memory with affinity to different CPUs (even more isolation), a highly tweakable base OS (Windows) that has been pre-tweaked to maximize audio performance, and a person and company behind it all with an obsession to build the best possible digital audio server for the best possible audio playback, and to continually evolve it going forward.
Of course, the price tag was very scary, but it was within a reasonable factor of what I was already budgeting for a high-power system build. Given the opportunity to not churn through endless variations of motherboards and cards and cases and power supplies (coal and water and chalk for those that have read Part 1), I jumped at the opportunity to purchase an Extreme unseen and unheard. My sincere thanks to Emile for his patience and openness during my research process.
Alas, during the six week lead time between when I ordered the unit and when I expected to receive it, the world changed and we all went into lock down. After an additional 4 week delay (some understandable supply chain challenges, and FedEx prioritizing medical supply shipments over audiophile equipment), I received my Extreme mid April, with an unexpected amount of home time to put it through its paces and enjoy the music.
Out Of The Box
When my Extreme arrived, my FedEx driver was (the say the least) VERY unhappy as he carried the box to my door. The string of creative expletives he let loose both coming to the door and walking back to his truck was as stark and impressive and inspired as an Ornette Coleman solo.
The Extreme is a beast, weighing in at 100 pounds. Fairly intimidating, and not something you want to drop on your toes. The commotion was enough to draw my high school senior out of her room. After letting her know that my new music server had finally arrived (“It’s called ’The Extreme’ sweetie”), she quipped “That seems on brand”, dropped the mic, and went back to her room.
After an appropriate time to let any FedEx-contributed CV19 nasties on the outside box fade away, it was time to slide it into my family room and unbox the beast. Inside the box is the Extreme and nothing else (BYO cables). The custom CNC machined case work is meticulous and stunning, and built like an armored vehicle designed by Dieter Rams:
Overall each case takes multiple days to CNC mill, but the end result is simply spectacular. The case work is precision CNC machined aluminium (10mm thick top and bottom panels, and 15mm thick front and back panels), with a generous mix of copper and panzerholz (tank wood) materials. Taiko claims that the ~6,000 ventilation holes were designed for more than just cooling, and are also radiation waveguides (RF cleanliness is next to digital audio godliness). The cooling fins look identical, but are solid milled aluminum on the left side (for power supply cooling) and solid milled copper(!) on the right side (CPU cooling).
The machining precision is stunning. Parts are perfectly flush, and (although not easily seen in the photos), the finish on the aluminium is perfectly even and quite beautiful. The fit and finish is well beyond anything I’ve seen in a small volume consumer product like this.
Interesting details abound, like the use of vibration absorbing panzerholz wood for the footers (more on panzerholz later).
Aside from the illuminated power switch on the front panel, all the goodies are accessible on the back: A USB 3.1 Gen 2 socket to your DAC, multiple USB 3.1 Gen 1 sockets and LAN ports for data, a StarTech PEX1000SFP2 PCIe optical Network card, a 280GB Intel Optane 900P storage drive for the operating system, a VGA(!) port, an ASUSTek Hyper M.2 x16 v2 PCIe storage card for your music library (it comes standard with 2TB, but I purchased 8TB of storage to fill a single card), the power supply, and a mysterious port for future options.
Optionally, you can order the Extreme with S/PDIF or AES/EBU (single, dual, or quad wire) connectivity. You can also optionally order up to a total of 3 ASUSTek PCIe storage cards, for up to 24TB of music storage, in increments of 2TB.
The Belly of the Beast
The inside of the Extreme is even more stunning than the outside:
The Extreme is powered by a custom linear power supply with a 400VA transformer (I couldn’t get in there to see details), custom Lundahl choke regulators, and a stunningly large 700,000µF capacitor bank with the highest audiophile grade Mundorf capacitors, and even a pair of Dueland(!) capacitors.
This bank of capacitors is perhaps the most extreme part of the Extreme, a true extravagance of riches (I’ve read about Dueland capacitors but had never even seen one in person, let alone two). Emile has not spoken too much about his power supply strategy, but certainly the heart of the secret sauce of the Extreme starts and ends here with this remarkable power supply.
I am still waiting (and waiting) on my custom Paul Hynes SR7 build, but my intuition is that it would be a very interesting horse race between Paul’s design approach (extreme attention to voltage regulation and output impedance), and the approach Emile is taking with the Extreme power supply (extreme focus on filtering and fast current reserves).
Looking at this bank of capacitors and hearing what I’m hearing, I can’t help but think that Emile may have gotten it right. Although I’ve always found Paul’s designs to excel at speed and dynamics vs capacitor heavy designs, massive massive filtering does open the door to more brute force capacity on the power side of the supply. This is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” taken to the Nth degree.
Will it be easier for Emile to evolve his design strategy to faster and faster supplies over time? Time will tell, but I suspect there is a lot more goodness to be found in Emile’s strategy. I can’t wait to hear how both power supply strategies evolve over the next couple years!
Panzerholz again makes an appearance on the interior of the Extreme, adding vibration absorption and isolation to both the critical transformer assembly and the power supply coil. The panzerholz mounting platform for the transformer assembly is particularly impressive, and a very welcome thing to see on such a performance critical component.
Everywhere you look inside the Extreme, you see this type of attention to detail on performance critical components (see the copper offsets? The intentional blend of materials to diffuse resonances?). The care and attention put into packaging and integrating the finest grade components available is stunning. The careful blending of materials to complement each other speaks to the care and thought and what must have been endless prototyping that went into the design.
Shifting attention to the heart of the machine, the Extreme is built on an Asus WS C621E Sage motherboard with dual Intel Xeon Silver 4210 Scalable 10 core CPUs, each with 10 cores and support for 20 logical cores (40 logical cores total). The Extreme also comes standard with 12 sticks of custom hand selected industrial 4GB RDIMM RAM, for 48GB RAM total.
This is a beast of a motherboard, stocked to the 9’s.
(image and schematic credit to ASUS, extracted for convenience from their website and manual)
Some interesting details to note from the technical documentation for the ASUS motherboard. Each Xeon processor has direct access to its own bank of 6 memory slots and its own PCIe x8 and x16 channels. By populating all the memory slots available on the motherboard, Taiko has built in the ability to segregate and isolate processes to different CPUs (and CPU cores), memory, and PCIe channels. They have also spread memory access across the entire bandwidth of all the available memory channels on the motherboard. The heavily tuned Windows 10 Enterprise installation of the Extreme takes advantage of this topology to deliver maximum sound quality on playback.
Conceptually, this sort of dual CPU strategy appeals to me, delivering all the process isolation benefits of a dual server configuration (music server and music endpoint), but with an ultra performant and coherent CPU to CPU Ultra Path Interconnect (UPI) bus connecting the CPUs instead of ethernet.
The dedicated DAC USB 3.1 Gen 2 port uses an advanced ASMedia 3142 USB controller, which acts as a PCIe bridge to USB. These ports are capable of 10Gb/sec data transfers. Although audio would never require these data rates, it speaks to the performance these USB controllers are capable of, and the general philosophy of the Extreme design to have the highest bandwidth and most powerful components possible, and to utilize as little of that bandwidth and power as possible.
Given the criticality of the USB interface to digital audio, it is also interesting to note that the ASMedia 3142 has its own custom PHY layer and control layer. I wonder how much of the sound quality advantage of the Extreme comes back to this particular USB controller implementation (recognizing that the other side of the USB handshake in the DAC is almost certainly using a more generic USB chipset...at some point the DAC itself becomes the performance bottleneck in the chain).
Later I’ll discuss my comparison of USB direct from the Extreme vs through a top of the line SOtM tX-USBultra special edition powered by a Paul Hynes SR4.
The Extreme also uses a custom passive CPU cooling system, leveraging six 80W capable heat pipes and the incredibly large copper cooling fins on the right side of the Extreme (machined out of a solid 53 pound block of copper!). If you want to know where that 100 pound weight comes from, the copper cooling fin for the CPUs accounts for 22 pounds of it on its own.
The investment in passive cooling is both extravagant and stunning. In operation, even with the crazy amount of computer power bundled into the Extreme, the unit is essentially silent, with the case running barely warm to the touch.
As shipped, the Extreme has several open PCIe slots for future expansion and upgrades (for example, an audiophile-grade USB card or network card from JCAT, or additional PCIe storage).
As shown in the block diagram above, by default each PCIe slot has an affinity for one or the other of the CPUs:
- CPU 1 - 1 (16x, blank), 2 (8x, SFP card), 6 (8x, blank), 7 (16x, Music storage card)
- CPU 2 - 3 (8x, OS storage card), 4 (8x, blank), 5 (16x, blank)
This is another tuning opportunity to have I/O cards more directly linked to the CPUs where dependent processes are running. In the case of the Extreme, CPU 1 has direct affinity to all music I/O (network, USB, storage), with CPU 2 delegated to OS I/O. By delegating system and music processes to cores on the appropriate CPU, Emile is able to achieve an optimal balance for sound quality.
The ASUSTek Hyper M.2 x16 v2 PCIe storage card supports up to 4 2TB M.2 storage drives (up to 8TB per card). Although its on-card fan is disabled (presumably to reduce system noise), the Extreme has no issues keeping things passively cool at music data rates.
The machining of the interior components is as precise and clean as the external components, with a generous and thoughtful mix of aluminium, copper, and panzerholz throughout (when you consider the importance of vibration/RF/temperature control in a device like the Extreme, the elegance and brilliance of the way various materials were selected and blended for different properties really comes to the fore).
Interestingly, there is an additional connector on the power supply copper panel, with +5V and +12V DC available. This is intended for future expansion (as Emile says, Extreme is a project, not a product). Along with the optional port on the back of the Extreme, I’m intrigued by what may be in works as the Extreme project evolves. It is also tangible proof of Emile’s commitment to make the Extreme as future proof as possible – as new motherboards and new connectivity standards emerge, the Extreme is designed to evolve with them (and as anyone that has tried to get the most of out USB and digital audio would attest, a new connectivity standard for digital audio would be a godsend).
The Softer Side
The Extreme comes pre configured with a highly tuned custom version of Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2019, as well as Roon and JPLAY playback software. Optionally, you can ask Taiko Audio to install HQPlayer Desktop for you.
Once I tracked down a VGA to HDMI adapter (wow, was that a dusty box), I took a peek at the BIOS, but (other than being a bit overwhelming with all the server-class BIOS settings) nothing stood out as interesting. I confirmed that secure boot was off, so at some point I may try to boot up the Extreme with Euphony on a USB stick.
The system is intended to be run headless (no monitor, no keyboard, no mouse), and comes with VNC Viewer for connecting to it over your network. It also comes preinstalled with TeamViewer for remote support (Emile has been quite generous in hopping on the machine to check things out and tune things up, even with the 9 hour time zone difference between California and the Netherlands).
By using this particular version of Windows, Emile has been able to strip down the installation to the bare minimum components needed for a music server. By significantly reducing the number of running processes, each process has less contention on each of the 40 logical cores. In addition, Emile uses tools like Process Lasso Pro to allocate processes and threads to where they run best, and contend the least.
While this is fantastic for a turnkey optimized system, be aware that if you install any additional software on the Extreme, you may be unintentionally degrading sound quality by disrupting the optimized allocation of Roon and JPLAY processes to between the dual CPUs. Caution before you start experimenting with different software packages and system configs.
Similarly, the LTSC version of Windows allows Taiko Audio to validate and bundle system updates before sending them out. As a best practice, you should resist the temptation to be updating OS and software packages on the Extreme, in case there are changes that disrupt the sound quality tuning in the system.
As a very late breaking example (after I had finished all the listening tests and this review), there was a recent change that had a significant adverse impact on sound quality that required a retuning of the system. Emile kindly remoted into my system to make the adjustments (and things sound fantastic!). It is a reminder of how delicate the tuning is for the Extreme, and how even at this level of performance and system capacity, the delicate nature of the remarkable magic the Extreme can deliver.
That being said, in practice you plug the Extreme into your home network, turn it on, connect to and configure the Roon Core running on the system, and Bob’s your uncle. When the spirit moves you, use your favorite VNC client (I happen to use Screens on my MacBook Pro) to connect to the box for things that you can’t do within Roon (such as add a driver for your DAC, copy over your music library, etc).
I’m a Roon and HQPlayer user, so it was very easy for me to drop into the Extreme environment. I had not used JPLAY before, but it is pre configured and shows up in Roon as a USB driver, so it has been very easy to use. On my machine, Emile was kind enough to also install the Chord ASIO driver for me, giving me three different ways to connect to my Chord DAVE (WASAPI driver, JPLAY driver, and Chord ASIO driver). There are differences and tradeoffs between these drivers, which I will describe later.
So what about other playback software other than Roon? I have not had a Windows box in my home for over a decade, but I’ve been intrigued by software like JRiver Media Center and foobar2000. For folks looking to tailor their system with their preferred music software, these packages can be installed and run on the Extreme, but appreciate that the system has been carefully tuned to have the maximum sound quality when used with Roon.
At some point, I’m looking forward to being more comfortable with my understanding of how the process allocation optimizations on the Extreme are set up, so I would have confidence to do my own experiments and listening tests with alternative music software. Until then, I’m very glad that Emile has leaned into my favorite software (Roon) as the playback software of choice for the Extreme. Based on my interactions with Emile so far, I also have complete confidence that if a better package comes along, Emile will be able to retune the system to get the most out of whatever that package turns out to be.
(As an aside, it is difficult to overstate how incredibly engaged and accessible Emile is for customer support and system support. As more and more people sign on for the Extreme project, I hope he’ll be able to occasionally get some sleep and time with the family, but his commitment to share his knowledge and expertise and take care of the community is a big part of why I had such confidence signing up for this journey.)
So all this looks incredible. How does it work and sound in the real world? In Part 3, I’lll jump into first listening impressions, and configuring and optimizing the out-of-the-box performance of the Extreme.
Community Star Ratings and Reviews
I encourage those who have experience with the Taiko Audio SGM Extreme to leave a star rating and quick review on our new Polestar platform.