Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum D/A processor–headphone amplifier & Voltikus power supply Page 2

The all-metal, infrared remote control fits nicely in the palm and has seven buttons: Power, Source, Balanced/Unbalanced, Headphone A/B, Mute, and Volume Up/Down. A small light lets you know that a button has been pressed. I found that the remote worked flawlessly.

After running for several days, the Voltikus was warm, the Zodiac much warmer—due to the jitter-baking "oven" inside, I guess.

Setting It Up
I went to the Support area of Antelope's website and downloaded and installed the Zodiac Platinum DAC Audio Driver for Apple OS X (v.2.09, 2/11/2014), which worked as promised. I then tried to download and install the Zodiac Platinum DAC Control Panel for Mac (v.1.00, 12/11/2013), which wouldn't install (footnote 3). Since one of our computers is set up to boot Windows 7, I tried the PC version of Control Panel (v.1.00, 12/11/2013) there, and it worked fine.

When you connect the Zodiac via USB to your computer, the Control Panel app (if installed) graphically replicates DAC's front panel, with additional settings—eg, headphone impedance, USB settings, input/output levels—also available directly. If you can get it to work, this is the way to go—it makes it much easier to tweak the Zodiac's settings than using the DAC's buttons and display. However, the Control Panel app isn't required to run the DAC with your computer, so after sorting through the settings, I went back to my Mac.

You can set the headphone-jack impedance to 120 ohms (the default setting) or 0 ohms. I left this set at 120 ohms for use with my AKG and trusty Grado headphones. PCM and DSD upsampling can also be turned on or off; I left upsampling on for my listening and testing.

For compatibility with most USB sources, there are three modes of USB connection, set by pressing certain buttons in sequence (or via the Control Panel app on your computer). FS1, or Full Speed Mode, the most widely compatible, supports sample rates up to 96kHz. The fun begins with HS1, or High Speed Mode, which accepts sample rates up to 192kHz and is set by default. HS2 supports sample rates up to 384kHz as well as DSD.

I set the Zodiac to HS2 and USB Audio Class 2.0, then booted Audirvana Plus on my Mac. All sampling rates, including 384kHz and DSD 64 and 128, lit up in Audirvana's Preferences, under the Audio System tab. While on this Preferences page, be sure to select the Zodiac driver as your output device, and set Native DSD Capability to "DSD over PCM standard 1.0." That done, the Zodiac's display indicates when it is receiving a DSD signal and that it's upsampling the signal to DSD256.

Though these playback apps don't support DSD, I also ran the Zodiac with Amarra 2.5, VLC 2.1.4, and iTunes 11.1.5, without any problems. My main source, Meridian's Control 15, was connected to the Zodiac via S/PDIF; I had no problems with on-the-fly changes of sample rate.

Everything was now set up and tweaked. It was time to listen.

Platinum = Heavy Metal?
Black Sabbath has been a favorite of mine since high school, and particularly their first five albums. So I was delighted to hear how fabulous the recent 24/96 versions downloadable from HDtracks sound. I should modify that: Only the first few albums sound fabulous; as the band got older and richer, they seemed to lose their way sonically. I'm not trying to start a flame war, but to my ears, each release after the first album sounds worse than the one before, as compressed guitars and fancy multitracking rob the music of its true heaviness.

So back to that first album, Black Sabbath (Warner Bros.), and the last track on side 2 of the LP: "Sleeping Village/Warning." Though it starts out softly acoustic, once the electric guitars kick in, rock'n'roll doesn't get any better. The simple purity of this recording was preserved through the Zodiac, as the guitar, bass, and drums each carved out its territory in all its glory. Detail was excellent, with the bottom end full of authority while Ozzy Osbourne's sneering voice hung perfectly in the air. The Antelope had gotten off to a great start.

I switched gears slightly and hit Play on Alex Chilton's cover of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," from his Free Again: The "1970" Sessions (Omnivore). Chilton is known for his work with the Box Tops and then Big Star, but his early solo work is also stellar. For this version of the Rolling Stones classic, he turns the guitar figure around a bit and creates a solid, crunchy sound with plenty of support from the rhythm section, which leaped into the room through the Zodiac.

At this point I fired up the MSB Analog DAC and Benchmark's new DAC2 HGC, and found that, with this track, the Zodiac had a slightly thicker bottom end than the Benchmark, which sounded drier (or, one could argue, a little leaner). The MSB, like the Antelope, simply revealed everything in detail, but had a bit more dynamic authority when Chilton's band rocked out. All three DACs uncovered plenty of detail, but each was shaded in its own way.

Since the Zodiac can function as the only preamp a simple system might need, I directly compared it in this role with the MSB, also a preamp-DAC. I've found the MSB faultless as a volume control and preamp, and the Antelope was able to keep up in every respect. Other than the slight differences in sonic signature between the Antelope and the MSB, which I guess were the results of their filter and jitter designs, both excelled at creating a transparent path to my power amps—except that, again, the Zodiac caused the output to audibly zipper as I turned its volume knob, which the MSB does not.


Unlike some who'd probably consider buying the Zodiac, I'm no headphone fanatic—but I'd never heard better sound from my Grado HP1s than through the Zodiac, and I spent many hours working at my desk while listening to that pairing. One nice feature is the ability to set different volumes for the Antelope's headphone and analog outputs, which makes it easy to switch between listening modes. Comparing the Zodiac directly with the Benchmark DAC2 HGC via headphones, I preferred the Antelope by a slight edge: It locked images in space a bit better, and felt more dynamic.

Milkshakes & Sound
I listen to and review a lot of DACs, and have concluded that milkshakes can help us understand how audio components compare with each other. Milkshakes are available in hundreds of flavors, and most recipes for even the same stated flavor taste very different from one another. Loudspeakers are like that: They come in all sizes and voicings, and vary widely in sonic flavor.

DACs, on the other hand, are not like different milkshake flavors and recipes. DAC designs are more like a single recipe of chocolate milkshake in which the variables are the type of cocoa used and perhaps a slight tweaking of the sweetness. The chefs spend a lot of time tweaking this one recipe, but it's easy to conclude that, done right, most of them will taste—I mean sound—excellent and similar. Still, over time, you develop your preferences.

In this case, my slight preference for the MSB Analog DAC over the Antelope Zodiac Platinum came down to personal taste, not some absolute standard accuracy. For example, David Crosby's new album, Croz (CD, Blue Castle 11421), is a stunner for both sound and as a return to musical form. I downloaded the 24/192 version from, but the CD sounds wonderful as well—both are no-brainer demo recordings. "Radio" is probably my favorite track, with a dynamic, punchy drum sound and full CSN-style vocal harmonies; here, the MSB Analog simply felt a tad more under control, yet still alive.

Nonetheless, some will prefer the Zodiac's slightly thicker sound, which could add a sense of heft the MSB lacks. Both DACs were faultless at handling midrange dynamics with suppleness while adding no glare or harshness, and with oversampling switched on, the Zodiac sounded very good indeed. (I noticed early on that switching off the Antelope's oversampling clouded the midrange ever so slightly, so I left it on for all comparisons.)

Zodiac DSD Sounds
Listening to DSD recordings was a pleasure, though I haven't made up my mind as to whether the format sounds better or worse than PCM. The comparisons I've heard so far have allowed too many variables (different or unknown masterings, PCM conversions in the processing, etc.) for me to draw solid conclusions, but I look forward to someday hearing a test that might settle the issue—such as identical live microphone feeds sent through an optimal set of encode/decode chains. That said, the Zodiac handled my DSD tracks as well as the best I heard from PCM, and its inclusion of DSD decoding will indeed future-proof this model. Once again, I preferred the upsampling left on—it enhanced midrange clarity.

Join the Club
Finding it helpful to log the reactions of other listeners, I again tapped our local audio club for some volunteers. Tony Holt, one of our club's founders, has a younger set of ears and a taste in music to match, while Mike Crowe is an established audiophile and equipment collector with old-school cred. I asked each to bring along a small selection of tracks to play.

First thing we did was check the level calibrations of all the DACs in the room, so that none had the "louder is better" advantage (footnote 4). We began with several cuts that Tony and Mike wanted to hear: "Boxes, Bills, and Pain," from Modern Blues; "Born Under a Bad Sign," from Jimi Hendrix's Blues (Columbia/Legacy); and "I Will Rise Up," from Lyle Lovett and His Large Band's It's Not Big It's Large (Lost Highway/Curb).

We switched back and forth a few times between the Antelope Zodiac Platinum and MSB Analog DAC. Right away, Tony noted that the Zodiac had more low-frequency presence, but also that the bass sounded a little muddier. Mike said he preferred the MSB: "If anything, it's cleaner sounding." I wrote down that the drums seemed more dynamic on these tracks through the MSB.

Next we threw the Benchmark DAC2 HGC into the hot seat and added some more music. This time the Antelope gained the upper hand for Mike, who said that it was cleaner and more dynamic. Tony had the opposite reaction, noting that voices in particular sounded more real to him through the Benchmark.


Back to the MSB and one of Tony's albums, Bourbon Princess's Black Feather Wings (CD, Accurate 5050). Tony: "Instruments are more defined in space with the MSB, but the Antelope has more weight in the bottom end, which makes it seem more dynamic. The MSB presents music as 'more there in front of you'"—which was how I was hearing it, too. Mike liked the MSB all around.

We ended with "Tamatant Tilay/Exodus," from Herbie Hancock's The Imagine Project (Hancock/Sony Classical), and an interesting twist. This time, Mike preferred the Antelope, while Tony thought the Hancock track brought the Zodiac closer to the MSB than the other tracks had. "This song surprised me," he said. "The Antelope was clearly preferred to the Benchmark on this one, but was much closer to the MSB."

And Finally
I don't find it surprising that a shoot-out among well-made products will divide a crowd. The back-and-forth I have described offers a reality check on the sort of reviews that state that "this DAC blows everything else away" or is "a major step forward." The sounds of well-made DACs in all price ranges are more similar than the sounds of models in most other audio categories. So when you have well-engineered DACs, there's not much sense in declaring one a "winner" and the rest "losers"—listeners will always have subtle preferences that will shift, depending on the recordings chosen and personal taste in sound.

In the end, Antelope Audio's Zodiac Platinum with Voltikus power supply has a complete set of features for the modern audio system, performs flawlessly, and trades jabs with some of the best DACs out there, all for the not entirely crazy price of $5,500. In the selection of a DAC, I always encourage readers to go out and listen for themselves, and this one is well worth checking out. It's like choosing a chocolate milkshake: The choice comes down to personal taste—and for many audiophiles, the Antelope Zodiac Platinum will taste great.

Footnote 3: It turned out that the Zodiac has to be connected to the Mac computer when you first launch Control Panel after installing the driver. I was downloading it at my desk for use later when I brought the computer into the living room for testing.

Footnote 4: These days, when I have audiophiles over and announce that we're going to check levels with my SPL meter, everyone whips out his smartphone, lays it on the couch, and runs his preferred SPL app.

tonykaz's picture

Hello Sir ,

Our Tyll is revealing the newish strategy at your offices , I'm happy to learn of your position as the "Man" covering DACs .

I've had a look-see at your MSB writings as well as a few other offerings , certainly I'll continue to follow along .

I'm an old time Audio person , going way back to the early Tube days . I've imported some of the British products ( back in the 1980s ) , I've retailed and manufactured .

Now-a-days I'm a Schiit/Sennheiser music lover , I have no business connection to Home or Professional music reproduction .

I've come to discover DACs to be a sort of Phono Cartridge type of transducer , the MSB stuff seems the best of the bunch .
Not being in the business , I don't have any consideration other than the performance of the device in question ( a happy place ) .

I think that I've discovered the Dopamine connection to music and it's reproduction , this phenonomen occurs when any music played ( poorly or well ) excites the brain into a state of pleasantness , I suppose it's why we all love music .

I think you lads have a million things to consider when reviewing products , I don't expect reviewers to get down to the tiny details of how a femto clock can keep music in focus or things of that nature but I will expect honesty and integrity , which I suspect your JA will insist upon ,

Anyway , thank you for pitching in and trying to be helpful in describing the advancements in this area .

Tony Kaz in Michigan

ps . your local Dr.Mike Moffet might be helpful in digital education , of course the MSB lads are close by in Watsonville so you do have potential access to the pointy headed intellectuals .