A lot of interesting audio equipment is coming out of Eastern Europe at the moment. Hifi Pig has been reviewing and featuring several items from Poland recently, and now it’s Bulgaria’s turn with Antelope Audio’s 2295€ Zodiac+ DAC / Pre-amp.
Driven by the tremendous interest in computer audio, DACs are now experiencing a very strong resurgence in popularity. The market is swamped by them! What separates Antelope Audio from the vast majority of its competitors is the company’s established expertise in digital clocking. Antelope Audio is a pro-audio company best known for its master clocks including an atomic Rubidium model.
All 3 of the Zodiac range are encased in a very attractive (read: seriously cute!) compact somewhat cubic chassis (165x112x190mm).
Two rotary volume controls are provided on the front panel. One to control the outputs to a pre-amp, one to control the two 6.3mm headphone jack outputs. Both are analog controls, not digital ones that can reduce the digital signal’s bit-rate.
Input selection is via a single button, which scrolls through the auto-detected inputs whose abbreviated names are shown in the LED display at top-centre of the faceplate. When the Zodiac locks onto the source it displays the sample rate on offer. This display also shows output level (dB reduction from maximum) while the control is being used and for a second or two afterwards.
The only obvious omission is of a remote control for volume and input. You get one of these in machined aluminium with the top Zodiac model, the Gold, so the functionality has been developed and it would have been good if remote control capability with, perhaps, a less costly handset had been included with the Zodiac+.
Interestingly – and occasionally usefully! – a mono button is part of the feature set. Stereo sources are converted to a central monophonic image. I don’t think I’ve seen this on a DAC before – I found it useful for the occasional solo piano recording where the image of the piano was engineered to be way too wide and filled up pretty much the whole of the space between the speakers. Much better to hear it as a centrally focused sound, I think. I’m sure that Antelope Audio included a mono option for other reasons, although I can’t think what they might be ….
The rear panel is a very busy place indeed, with a multitude of digital and analog inputs, and RCA single-ended and XLR balanced outputs. Digital inputs encompass SPDI/F co-ax (RCA) and optical (TOSLINK) as well as USB.
The Zodiac+ is the middle model of three Zodiac DACs, the base model is due this spring and the Zodiac Gold sits at the top of the tree at £500 more than the Plus.
The Zodiac+ has its own onboard clock. I was a bit baffled reading the instruction manual to see that the clock is “oven controlled”. Apparently what this means is that it’s kept at a constant temperature, improving stability and, according to Antelope, bringing significant sonic benefits.
The USB will accept signals up to 192kHz, although the use of a mini B socket is slightly odd and limits the array of good-quality USB leads that can be used, although Antelope supply one with the Zodiac+.
In Use ….
I very much like the looks of this component and I consider it to be interestingly innovative in appearance. The controls and input/output sockets are logically laid out and well labelled.
Sonically, it’s not of the “razzle-dazzle” persuasion, but instead entices you more slowly with its rich tonality and a fairly relaxed musical presentation. I think it is unlikely to ‘blow you way’ in a dealer’s demonstration room, but it repays more extended listening.
Playing my favourite electric/blues music, Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band, the vocal is nicely present and there is no hint of harshness or glare. The bass is deep and powerful but a little looser and less controlled than I have heard it from some equipment. The room-shuddering slam of the bass drum at the opening of Mahler’s 3rd symphony is bloomier and less ‘slammy’ than I prefer.
Imaging as well, is a little on the broadbrush side, with more of an enveloping than a sharply focused sound. The solo lute on my Naxos CD of sonatas by Silvius Weiss is less precisely focused than usual, with the sound of the lute tending to merge with the recorded ambiance, and the twang of the plucked strings is less precise and articulate than I am used to, with fast runs tending to lose resolution.
A Philosophical Diversion ….
Let’s draw back a bit from the item under review and consider things more in the abstract for a while.
There is a wide range of preference in sonic presentation amongst music lovers and audiophiles. Some of us prefer one type of presentation, while others prefer something different. I think an excellent analogy for this is the choice of seat we take in a concert hall or stadium. Personally, I like to be front/central – just a few rows back in the stalls. This gives a very immediate and dynamic sound with overall ambiance at a minimum. Others prefer to sit further back, and enjoy a less focused but more immersive experience. A good friend of mine is a rear-circle listener – he likes to be way up in the “Gods” with its broad wash of sound and reduced dynamic impact. At home, he listens at lower volume levels than most, which also ties in with his rear-hall seating preference.
….Back to the Zodiac+
Bearing in mind that little philosophical diversion, I would say that the Zodiac+ provides a mid-hall listening experience. It isn’t as dynamically immediate as some, but provides a more relaxed experience that is tonally opulent and immersive rather than focused with precision. Levels of detail are also reduced a little, and leading edges across the tonal spectrum can be softened. If you are after a “shock & awe” musical assault, you definitely need to look elsewhere, although I would be curious as to what a more powerful Power Supply Unit (PSU) than the small stock unit provided would give in the way of increased dynamic impact and image focus.
I did a fair amount of listening to the headphone output from the Zodiac+ using my trusty Sony MDR-CD1700 – these are excellent ‘phones (rrp £200) from a few years ago. A very similar sound to the line-output was heard, perhaps more laid back than that. Quite a warm and smooth sound. As you might have gathered by now, I prefer a more immediate and forthright approach to musical enjoyment, but others are more relaxed and would doubtless enjoy what is on offer from the Zodiac+.
The Antelope Zodiac+ DAC/Pre-amplifier and headphone amp is recommended then, if its particular sonic presentation suits you – if you like a somewhat relaxed view on the music and prefer to sit in the mid-stalls / front circle at a live concert, then this may very well be the DAC/pre-amp for you!
Author – Jerry
Review system: MBL 116F speakers, Parasound Halo A21 power amp, Morgan Audio 500 valve pre-amp, XTC Pre-1 pre-amp, Resolution Audio CD50 CD player, Beresford Bushmaster DAC.