The Fifth Element #68 Page 2
Antelope Audio Zodiac Gold DAC and headphone amplifier
Antelope Audio is a pro-audio company that has made its worldwide reputation in digital-audio master clocks, both conventional and atomic. High-precision master clocks are necessary in many professional recording, mastering, and film-sound situations in order to prevent different pieces of digital gear from drifting away from each other and losing synchronization of the datastream. More recently, external clocks have been offered to the audiophile marketnot that audiophiles need master-clock synchronization, but because it is assumed that an external master clock will be more accurate than your digital gear's internal clock. (In order for you to use an external word clock, your digital component must have an input for one.)
At Parsons Expo 2010, the same professional-audio trade fair where I first encountered the Bricasti M1 DAC I wrote about in August, I also first saw Antelope's entries in the DAC-and-headphone-amp category now populated by models from Benchmark, Grace, Lavry, and others. Antelope offers three different Zodiac D/A headphone amps: the Silver ($1899), Black ($2899), and Gold ($4500)as well as the optional Voltikus analog power supply ($1000). (I think that name is very cool.) I requested the loan of an evaluation unit, and Marcel at Zodiac wanted to send me a Gold plus Voltikus ($5500). As far as I know, the Zodiac Gold's "Unique Selling Proposition" is that it can accept PCM digital data sampling rates up to 384kHznot that there are a lot of such signals lying around. But if you want future-proof, the Zodiac Gold has that in spades.
The Zodiac Gold is, no surprise, gold in color, but with silver buttons and master control knob and a smaller headphone volume knob. Its shoe-box shape suggests that it's intended to sit on a console or table. Over and above its sampling rate (I know of no other D/A headphone amp, and of only two other DACs that can decode 384kHz via USB2.0), the Zodiac Gold's professional origins are obvious: multiple digital and analog input and output options, and a front-panel Mono button for checking mixes. The Line Out volume control is via a stepped-relay attenuator. The Zodiac Gold's digital chips, by the way, are housed in an internal "bake oven" for temperature management. A stylish all-metal remote control is standard.
I compared the Zodiac Gold to a variety of DACs, from Behringer's DEQ2496 ($653.99, but available for $300 or less) through Arcam's rDAC ($479) and Musical Fidelity's M1 ($699), and Bricasti's M1 ($7995). The electronics were Ayre Acoustics' CX-7eMP used as an AES/EBU digital transport, and Ayre's AX-7e as an integrated amplifier; or a Luxman combo of C600-f solid-state preamp and MQ-88 tubed power amp. Cables were Cardas Clear or, in the case of balanced interconnects, Ayre/Cardas, and Canare 110-ohm AES/EBU digital cable. The loudspeakers were Vivid Audio B-1 and K-1, and Rogers' LS3/5a.
After I'd had the Zodiac Gold and Voltikus for a couple of weeks, I began my critical listening with 16-bit/44.1kHz test tracks, including: "Channel Identification" and "Channel Phasing," from Test CD 2 (CD, Stereophile STPH004-2); "So Do I," from Christy Moore's This Is the Day (CD, Columbia Sony Music 5-3225.2); "Cry Me a River," from Julie London's Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737); the title tracks of Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind (CD, Reprise 7599-27451-2), Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark (gold CD, DCC GZS 1025), and Jane Monheit's Taking a Chance on Love (CD, Sony Classical SK 92495); "My Foolish Heart," from the Bill Evans Trio (CD); and Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony (CD, Telarc CD-80059).
It soon became apparent that the Zodiac Gold plus Voltikus (I always used the optional power supply) had a personality of its own. It had all the usual hi-fi virtues of dynamics and bass and soundstaging, but it also had a definite midrange warmth, and a decided delicacy in the treble. Compared to the less expensive DACs listed above, it had more resolution, transparency, and soundstage width. There was a noticeable performance gap down to the Musical Fidelity M1. Listening to the MF M1, I was never tempted to think that I was listening to a DAC that cost multiples of its actual price.
The Zodiac Gold performed noticeably better than the Musical Fidelity M1 on the "Channel Phasing" tests on Test CD 2, with a more striking difference between the in-phase and relatively out-of-phase segments. Components that do well on these tracks seem to do better at presenting ambience and space in music, in my experience. I found that on classic recordings such as Bill Evans' The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (CD, Riverside 4443), the Zodiac Gold's tone was slightly more "analog-like," in that the percussive attack of Evans' piano was ever so slightly rounder; through the Musical Fidelity M1, the piano attack had a little more metal in its sound. Throughout all my listening, the Zodiac Gold gave a presentation that was very full-bodied, musically satisfying, and emotionally engaging.
However, when I compared the Zodiac Gold to the even more expensive Bricasti M1not a headphone amp or line stage but a straight-through DAC that tops out at the sampling rate of 192kHzthe Bricasti had somewhat more of all of the above virtues, plus clear advantages in "starting and stopping" and in treble extension. Through the Zodiac Gold, "Court and Spark" in particular sounded a little flat and airless by comparison.
I then listened to a 192kHz download from HDtracks of Evans' cover of "My Foolish Heart" from my iMac via USB to the Antelope (the Bricasti lacks a USB input), as well as some free 192kHz demo tracks from Norway's 2L label, of Beethoven music for string quartet and Ole Bull's Violin Concertoall with the help of Sonic Studio's Amarra software (footnote 2).
Of course, the sound was outstanding. The Beethoven string quartet was just drenched in ambience. Waltz for Debby, which just celebrated its 50th birthday, was immediate as never before. However, I think it would be questionable to attempt to draw any conclusion more specific than "outstanding" from a comparison of the CD from the Riverside boxed set and HDtracks' 192kHz download, because the only common element is the master tape; the remasterings are totally different, certainly from the standpoint of the equipment used, and perhaps in the levels of mastering as well.
I would have loved to listen to 2L's free 358.2kHz DXD downloads of Beethoven music for piano and for string quartet, but either Amarra could not output the 358.2kHz sampling rate or the Antelope Zodiac Gold couldn't accept it. Interestingly, the latest update to Hairersoft's Amadeus Pro 2 program for the Mac played the 358.2kHz DXD files through my iMac's internal speakers (albeit bottlenecked to 96kHzbut at least they played). What's going on there? I did some but not a lot of headphone listening, and the Zodiac Gold was first-rate.
My experience of getting 192kHz sound with the Zodiac Gold was not quite plug'n'play, but it wasn't a terribly protracted process either. What worked for me, after a few unsuccessful tries, was to start with iTunes only, then get Zodiac Gold to lock to 44.1kHz sound via USB, then get Amarra involved, and then go to higher rates. Oh, yeahand "restarting" the Zodiac Gold means pulling the Voltikus's cord out of the wall and waiting a bit. In use, Amarra's ability to automatically reset the iMac to each file's native sampling rate, without having to open up the Audio/Midi Setup control panel and quit and restart iTunes, was a blessing. (If the iMac's output sampling rate is not reset, you then will be, for example, listening to 44.1kHz files upconverted by the iMac to 96kHz, which does not sound good. At all.)
The Antelope Zodiac Gold is a very impressive DAC that sounds much better than DACs costing much less, but not as good as one costing half again as much that has a less ambitious feature set and tops out at 192kHz. If ultra-hi-rez sound is your new obsession, and especially if you want to listen to ultra-hi-rez audio through headphones, the Zodiac Gold might be the only game in town. If you're shopping in this area, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
It was only after my impressions of the Zodiac Gold's sound had solidified that I learned that Antelope's chief designer, Igor Levin, takes an idiosyncratic approach to digital design. After taking brute-force measures to minimize incoming jitter, he uses his own method to add "benevolent jitter" to the signal in a manner analogous to digital redithering. Antelope calls this Acoustically Focused Clocking, and the initialism AFC appears on the Zodiac Gold's front panel. A video clip wherein Levin explains his approach to digital design can be found here.
Footnote 1: For reasons I can't understand, I was able to play a 32-bit FLAC download from a USB thumb drive of a CD-quality file of Morten Lauridsen's cabaret song "Where Have the Actors Gone" on the Denon and Marantz players but not on the TEAC, despite the claim of the TEAC's owner's manual that FLAC is a permitted file type. Perhaps the TEAC's FLAC limit is 24 bits. And while Marantz, in reply to my question, told me that FLAC is the only way to hear 24/96 on the Marantz, iTunes does not handle FLAC, and so there we are. But I don't think these models are going to be on the shopping lists of people who were early adopters of hi-rez downloads anyway.
Footnote 2: I was very much taken aback at how much better Amarra made CD-quality audio and 24/96 files sound through my iMac's internal speakers. Criminy. Talk about "more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"!