Antelope Audio are a company who specialize on two fronts, they have a pro audio section and then they have another one for the audiophile. Pro audio is not my area but their other products caught my eye quite easily. Their home audio range is pretty much all DAC related and barring their 40 grand Rubicon DAC that is certainly a thing of beauty, the Zodiac range is the focus. Now there are 4 models of Zodiac with the first 3 models being launched circa 2009 and then more recently there has been a new addition. Now I actually don’t have their latest model, which is the Platinum DSD DAC but its predecessor, the Zodiac Gold 384khz DAC, which back in 2009 really did shock the world by offering 28/384 playback but more recently with DSD being the latest buzzword and 384khz playback coming a lot cheaper and source files being rare, this will have to prove itself even more. Now although I said the home audio range is mainly made up of DACs, they do have some devices to compliment the DACs and I am talking about a very impressive 10m Atomic Clock for them and an ultra low noise, triple regulated power supply in Voltikus. Now Voltikus is something that I also have with the Zodiac Gold and will be using the two as a package through the review. You can get the Zodiac Gold alone for cheaper but the bundle of the two seems to come best at just under £3300.
Now the Zodiac Gold is not simply just a DAC but also one with a pre-amp and headphone outputs. Now features don’t stop there, this thing is jam packed with options and uses for this, and the back panel is well organized with all of its options. Up at the top you have all the analog connectivity including balanced ¼ inch inputs, unbalanced RCA inputs, balanced 3 pin XLR outputs and unbalanced RCA outputs so that all of your DAC and pre-amp capabilities are covered and so is the choice to use this just as a headphone amp or pre-amp if you would like with the inputs. The bottom section is therefore reserved for everything digital with 6 inputs (2 coaxial, 2 optical, 1 AES and a high speed USB) and 3 outputs (1 AES and 2 coaxial), which are de-jittered making this viable as a USB to SP/DIF converter. However I did test this function and find it too not want to work with 88.2 and 176.4 and above files, which left it rather limiting in its uses and I would have to make sure playlists don’t contain any files it cant deal with as you end up with a horrible crackling sound that cuts in and out of the music. That being said in terms of how it sounded, I was very impressed and when using the coaxial output into my BMC PureDAC it proved to sound warmed, fuller and more spacious but I just couldn’t live with the lack of functionality over some sampling rates, which is a shame. One function that I am impressed about regarding the different digital inputs is that the Zodiac registers which ones have a connection so when you shuffle through the sources on the front panel, you don’t go through all the ones that aren’t connected, which saves time and of course, if you have a lot of different audio gear, it is handy too have the number of connections this does. Also on the front panel you have the power switch, a mono switch (it works but I don’t have any uses for it) and a mute button that is very handy. You then have the amazing steeped attenuator that just feels amazing, you get a click for every of the delicate sound adjustments you make that leaves the stereo image completely intact due to a stepped relay that is matched to 0.05db and it all happens in the analog signal to keep the digital one from being interfered. As far as a display goes you get a small, red LED window at the top that lets you know the sampling rate of the file it is playing back. File playback is just great on the PCM side of things with it accepting any PCM file you can throw at it, all the way up too 384khz although only in 24 bit, no 32 bit. DSD on the other hand it cant do natively so it has to turn them into PCM files first and unlike other DACs I have that have to turn DSD in PCM, this is very generous turning them in 24/354 files but in all honesty, that is pretty irrelevant because it still don’t sound like DSD and it is the one area I would take my BMC PureDAC over it for (as a DAC only) and that is DSD playback.
File Playback Screen
Lights lets you know what features are in use
You lastly have something that for me is very exciting and that is two headphone outputs, with their own dedicated volume control. Antelope really did seem keen to show off the headphone outputs when I met them at the Bristol Sound and Vision show and it was also one of reasons why they were interested in my review and the feelings were vice versa because if this could impress as both a standalone DAC and a DAC/amp combo, then, well there would be a lot to love with the Zodiac and it would also show a lot better value. There are some things I love about the headphone section, two outputs is good so you can a/b headphones and share with a mate and so is the option to change the output impedance (you can also change the USB input settings) from 0 to 120 ohms although unless you want the extra dampening, there is not a lot of cases where 120 ohms would be better. However with the main volume pot being very impressive in quality and feel, the tiny headphone pot that does not have the same accuracy or feel is a bit disappointing, the same goes to the power of this which is obviously weak as when using not very efficient orthodynamics like my HiFiMAN HE-500s they flat out failed and even though they done better with higher impedance stuff, like my Sennheiser HD580, the sound difference from comparing them with my Questyle CMA800R or even the much cheaper Tube Amp BL-2 was very clear. With easier going stuff, like IEMs and low impedance cans, the Antelope fairs better with a quiet background and a balanced detailed sound but it never impacted me with a wow factor and body felt a little lacking versus dedicated amplifier gear. Now this is not me hating on the Zodiac, if I am casual listening, watching a movie or YouTube videos for example, then plugging into the headphone outs is not an issue but if I want the upmost sound quality, then a dedicated amplifier always seems like the better option. This is also pretty handy if this DACs main use is in a speaker set up and your listen to headphones a bit more casually and just sometimes you have to turn to them over your speakers, then your still going to get a very enjoyable sound from them. As an all in one DAC/amp unit dedicated for headphones though I just cant say go this way and lets be honest, it is not cheap unit and you could progress the sound so much more by investing in a dedicated headphone amp.
Now I think it would be rude to talk about some of the technology implemented into the Zodiac because, it has some pretty unique stuff going on. One of Antelopes pride across their ranges, both Pro and Home Audio are their clocks and the one in question is “Oven Controlled”. What they mean by this is that the Zodiacs Clock is shielded in a container, which allows for the temperature to be kept constant; clocking is also improved by precise 64bit algorithms (which also play a role in jitter reduction). The DAC chip used is the Burr Brown 1792-A but of course implementation is key over the name of the chip, which is reputable in its self anyhow.
The unit itself is a beast, I have the gold finish that pairs nicely with its namesake but they have other colours if you like something more understated, I like the gold though, why not show off. Everything is well finished, it is on some impressive feet and buttons all have a nice feel and click too them and I shouldn’t even have too bring up the volume wheel again after my gushing earlier. The size of it is impressive I have too say, I mean it really is a small unit, especially for something of its quality and feature set. The Voltikus is no different in quality (much heavier) but what I think is a but strange is that it is the same height but not as wide, which works if your positioning them next too each other but I have found it easier too stack them which ends up looking a bit weird. I couldn’t write the review without talking about the remote, which is even more of a beast than the unit; it probably weighs more as well. The remote is all metal and feels cold and chunky in your hand and has the same high quality buttons as son the device and you can control any functionality the device has from a distance. It is only a remote control but it warrants a smile on my face and I think that makes something simple really quite special.
Due to the time I have had with this being a loan unit I have only been able to use this in my computer headphone rig and not been able to take them to Josh’s (site reviewer) to get them involved in his Kef LS50 set up. For that reason I have only used them with my iMac through a USB connection and been feeding it into a range of amps but mainly the Questyle CMA800R, through the Balanced XLR output of course.
With super expensive speakers and monoblocks and all of the top end HiFi, I have never questioned the more expensive DACs but for use in a computer headphone set up, it has always played on my mind how much a DAC more expensive than both the headphones and amp (and almost the cables as well) combined could bring to the sound. Not in a sense that I don’t appreciate how much DACs bring too the table but more so with me just not being sure how far my headphones can scale. In this respect this just confirms there was not a single bit of need for an ounce of the doubt in my mind because the acoustic quality boost that this brought too my set up over any other DAC I have used in my house is phenomenal. It was not a case of me sitting there straining my ears trying pick up the subtle difference or anything similar too that, just a simple clean cut difference. Up until now I have used the BMC PureDAC as a reference, ok it is half the price of this but it shows a great value in its price range because of its performance. Now the PureDAC has an incredible tonal balance and honesty in its sound and the Zodiac doesn’t actually change too much in terms of sound signature, it is more simply just a case of it doing the technical things better.
First of all I want too talk about how spacious it is and just how magnificent the soundstage is. I am using headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800, HD580 and HiFiMAN HE-500, which in the world of headphones have a truly magnificent soundstage, along with my Questyle CMA800R which provides soundstaging like no other amp I have had in my collection, even with the limitations of headphones, I have always thought my soundstage experience has been pretty solid, in fact it has been. But the Zodiac manages to spread the sound out on all fronts, the width is very obvious along with the depth, its like it has a built in 3D effect but not one of them silly artificial ones. Now the increase in height is not one of the most obvious differences to tell but using the height test from Dr. Chesky’s Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc (24/192), the differences too other DACs jump out and present themselves and it seems like this boost in height actually plays a part in the whole awesome soundstage performance of this DAC. The Zodiac paired with a Binaural recording such as Don’t You by Amber Rubarth makes for a sound so open, with such spot on imaging that you have a truly surreal effect that your not just listening to headphones. Now the reason that I wanted too start with talking about the soundstage is because it just makes this a really full sounding well textured DAC, it makes others sound thin and lacking in body, even though tonally, some are very similar, they just don’t have that same sense of being full and this is something that really is pushed across with the Zodiac.
The bass is tight and articulate, in fact compared to the PureDAC its has just a little less mid-bass body but a stronger tighter impact and it just seems more realistic with less of the bass being heard and more of it being felt, like it should be. The midrange is very sweet with great dynamics and very powerful vocals. It is really airy and there seems too be a really nice resonance present, in fact this resonance it has is one the real standout points that really brings a lot of life to the sound but its hard to exactly pinpoint and describe it. The treble is simple in that it just seems too deliver, it has unlimited extension, is clear and well cut and has a good texture to it. The DAC generally delivers with a bigger sound, its more real, more built up. I find my self wanting to turn other DACs up louder when comparing too the Zodiac because I want too replicate that intense level of dynamics and character but every time it dawns on me it is not a volume thing, I mean I can turn the Zodiac right down and it is still delivering in a precise and powerful manner. When I say this I am not getting confused and leaving the volume the same on the amp when comparing too DACs and I make sure I volume match because the Zodiac does have a clearly more powerful line out then any other DAC I have got but that is not what is at play here.
The Zodiac is a very well thought out piece with a lot of great function and a huge range of ways too use it. As a DAC it simply sounds stunning, the best I have had in my desktop rig too date with ease and it really does push my headphone rig on and justifies its price tag in sound as far as I am concerned a separate of its price will ever be justified. That being said if your looking for an all in one DAC/Headphone Amp combo then this is not the one, in fact although the BMC PureDAC has a inferior DAC, the headphone out is much stronger and the overall sounds from the headphones is much more capable. I am not deeming the headphone outputs useless by any means and with lower impedance, higher sensitivity mid tier cans and IEMs, this will offer a great sound and could do well in getting people further into the headphone game but the main objective for anyone with this should be too use as a DAC because that is its clear point of excelling.