Three years ago, Zodiac hoofed it to the desktop audio scene with professional ostentation: five digital inputs, precise clock matching, iDevice-compatible USB DAC section, a good selection of analogue outs, and a historied name. Given Antelope’s professional CV, it was no surprise that they’d be thorough with their audiophile DACs.
Up to 192 kHz sampling rate (only with USB & S/PDIF)
Antelope Oven Controlled Clock with Ultra Low Jitter
Built in 64-bit Acoustically Focused Clocking eliminates jitter from all digital inputs
Anti-thumping Speaker & Ear protection on power up & source change
Computer Data (USB), 2 optical Digital (TOSLINK), 2 coaxial - SPDIF (RCA).
Stereo analog outputs – balanced (XLR), unbalanced (RCA)
Dual-stage headphone driver architecture for superior matching with professional headphone coils
Large volume control for analog outputs and a separate volume control for headphones
Input select button easily toggles between inputs
USB compatible with Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000, Mac OS X and Linux without driver installation
PC/MAC/Linux software control panel
Audiophile Power Supply (optional)
Meets FCC and CE requirements
Antelope Audio Zodiac Silver: ~1.900$ USD and up
ohmage: DAC functionality
Antelope Audio’s professional roots allow them to skip the skimp and deliver more than the typical USB and single-SPDIF input. Zodiac Silver duals up RCA coaxial and toslink SPDIF connections as well offering USB input. The best part about the latter is that it runs as close to plug and play as possible. Windows PCs, Macs, iPads - as long as you have the cable, you get audio.
Sampling rate information is displayed on the large cyclopean LCD at the top of the Zodiac. Source input is controlled by depressing the source button. Cyclops will sync with the source, then give you its sampling rate. Switching is automatic.
Antelope Audio’s team need to be introduced to knobfeel. Both the big, analogue line-level knob, and the headphone output knob rotate loosely, rocking slightly back and forth before engaging. Camera lens aficionados will recognise the same wishy-washiness in Nikon’s line of cheap AFD lenses.
Perhaps the biggest chink in Antelope’s otherwise well-designed armour is choice of knob sizes. Why adorn the front panel with two 6,3mm headphone jacks and advertise Zodiac as a DAC/headphone amp when headphone volume is controlled by the fiddliest control on the amp. The massive nose controls (of all things) the rear analogue outputs. All eyes are on it. It does its job (despite the wiggle), but draws far too much attention to itself. If Antelope had advertised Zodiac as a preamp rather than a headphone amp, such criticism would be nothing but hot air.
But it’s not. Because the headphone volume pot is tiny, and off-centre, it is a bugger to turn. Blazes, I've perfected the art of swearing during this review. Antelope: if you’re going to market a device as a DAC and a headphone amp, make sure the control that is most often used is well suited to its purpose. And while you are at it, indicate headphone output levels in cyclops. Thank you.
Forget blinkenlights, flash and trash take a back seat to comprehensible controls. Zodiac's brushed aluminium frame is elegant. Its digital lights glow in mature tones. Minus knob trouble, impeccable control layout. There’s virtually nothing to learn, nothing to scratch your head about, nothing that requires a double take (aside from ol’ big nose, that is).
Antelope utilise small fonts, sparingly apply bolds, and balance the ink. While engraving would be welcome, the ink does its job. The choice of newspaper-style fonts isn't the best for desktop/HiFi audio, but let's be clear, Antelope designed a pricey DAC that looks, acts, and feels like the real deal.
ohmage: build quality and finish
Bemoaning Zodiac’s workmanship is suicide. The Zodiac a solid box, with well-anchored ins and outs of all types. Stood against Woo Audio’s (admittedly cheaper) WA7, it laughs at Woo’s wobbly connections and jittery glass roof. there is more air in its packaging than necessary, but the core components: documentation, cables, power supply, are well padded.
Zodiac’s guts are physically split into separate analogue and digital layers. The USB driver immediately pops up in your iDevice or computer's, labelled Zodiac, not speaker, or SPDIF. Irrespective of input, clock changes are accounted for immediately. There is no power thump in either analogue or headphone lines.
The only oink in the ointment is a frail complaint at best: Zodiac’s lightweight design means that plugging in certain headphones will require two hands. The el-cheapo wall wart power supply does more to critically cheapen this otherwise wonderful package.
While primarily a DAC, Zodiac has a much-spouted about headphone amplifier. First, let's attack the DAC.
The Zodiac DAC is yoked to a semi-aggressive low-pass filter. Highs plod a steep roll off from 12kHz to 20kHz. I'm not complaining. Low-pass filters proliferate in certain audiophile circles. Combined with high levels of harmonic distortion, certain aggressive low pass filters can soft and cushy. The Zodiac does not. It's not got enough harmonic distortion fleecify your favourite music. Despite the attenuation in the highs, Zodiac bristles with upper frequency range detail. Certain nuances may be toned down, but all the good stuff is there, and is lovely. Space between instruments - thanks to fast attack and decay times - is preserved, museum-grade. Placed in a grating, sibilance-prone system, Zodiac soothes.
Typically, systems with fast treble roll offs are hard to recommend for anything but relaxing, wine-sipping listens. Typically, those systems push harmonic distortion to plus levels. Orchestral music, chamber music, and even trance, retain all the speed necessary to render lively, accurate tones.
ohmage/porridge split: Antelope Audio’s low-pass filter is particularly well-implemented. It is stable and retains detail. But it still is a low-pass filter. Music lovers who want absolute reference sound will have to move on
What I expected from Zodiac was: unforgiving, gruesomely detailed, sibilant sound. Why? Because Antelope Audio equipment is used in large studios. Because their clocks are generally conceded to be extremely accurate. Because I am an absolute impostor.
Detail, space, and vitality trot through every musical fibre the Zodiac has. While its overall sound is decidedly digital, it is digital in the best way possible: tight, fast, transients, clean decay and ascent - the DAC in this silver box ploughs effortlessly from genre to genre.
Bass is as acrobatic as mids, nothing is left lingering after the note has retired. In part, this lends to an impression of lightness. Don’t let that fool you. Zodiac fully resolves the lows. It simply doesn’t smear them.
ohmage: Zodiac delivers speed and space. No music will outpace it
Both the RCA and balanced XLR outputs are admirable performers. Systems with weak inputs will benefit from big nose’s accurate attenuator. In fact, Zodiac plays as well with home HiFi setups as it does with portable kits. Tralucent T1 owners, ALO Rx owners, and the rest of you, balanced or unbalanced, Zodiac's attenuated outs allow perfect matching for all of your gear.
ohmage: the line attenuator is excellent. It should match every system out there, beefy or lean
porridge: headphone amp
However, not all is well. Despite boasting a wonderful pair of sheathed headphone jacks and a good amount of marketing impetus, Zodiac’s headphone amp section is only fair.
Let's get the good stuff out of the way. Firstly, Zodiac's headphone output is as black as black can get. It surpasses the Woo Audio WA7, no matter how sensitive the earphone. In fact, it pummels most made-for-IEM portable headphone amps out there. Likely, you will more annoyed by the hum of your computer than you will any overt noise from the Zodiac.
Secondly, channel balance is good even at low volumes, making IEM usage a realistic option. Slightly marring this IEM-friendly image, however, is Zodiac's aggressive gain. Even at a volume of 0, sound trickles through sensitive transducers. The gain only further emphasises this. Antelope suggest that you keep your source output high for best performance. Right they are. But IEM users should probably dial down their computer volumes. SPDIF signals often don’t have attenuating circuits. Grin and bear it, earphone folks.
porridge: gain is aggressive for sensitive earphones
The other issue IEM uses will face is audible drops in resolution and dynamic range. Zodiac simply doesn’t offer enough current into tiny IEM loads.
Portable headphones of middling impedance: Audio Technica’s ESW11LTD and Fostex TH600, represent a sweet spot of sorts. Though restricted slightly, bass performance rebounds to near no-load levels. Gain and channel balance are right on. Zodiac only begins to strut its stuff after 50Ω. As is the case with many headphone amps, no-load levels of resolution are served by high Ω headphones of varying sensitivities. The DT880 600Ω matches the Zodiac’s penchant for detail and space. Sometimes, sibilance is the price you pay for a detailed-sounding headphone. Zodiac pushing, sibilance is a thing of the past. And the sacrifices are few.
porridge: Zodiac’s headphone amp can't push great resolution into low Ω headphones or earphones of any type
Fed by even the most modern of recordings, Zodiac produces very little IMD when driving Beyer's 600Ω DT880 to 100% of its volume pot. On the opposite end, Zodiac's headphone circuitry isn't able to push the same headphone to speaker-loud levels as can the ALO National or International. Yes, those two are mere battery-powered headphone amps but they are designed ground-up for headphones, Zodiac isn't.
ohmage: voltage levels for high Ω headphones are amply supplied with current
First and foremost, Zodiac is a DAC. Serving up sound from a rush of 1’s and 0’s is a job it does very well. It has the hardware and software to support it. Sample switching and source detection are perfectly implemented. Even ol’ big nose is a great addition. This Antelope is detailed. Its fast signature is flattering all the time. At times it inspires awe. But Zodiac won’t replace your stand-alone headphone amp no matter how much you want it to.
Maybe it shouldn’t. Discrete headphone amps are always best. Same with DACs. Same with power amps. Maybe this is Antelope’s attempt at steering the all-in-one-box-happy crowd back to reality. If so, good job. The DAC alone is worth the ticket. That you get a headphone amp thrown in is a simple kindness.
RMAA benchmarks can be found here.