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Srajan Ebaen
Financial Interests: click here
Source: Apple iMac 1TB running OSX 10.6.6 with AIFF files up to 24/192, PureMusic 1.74 in hybrid memory play with pre-allocated RAM, Burson Audio HA160D, Weiss DAC2, iPod Classic 160GB, Onkyo NS-D1 digital-direct iPod dock, Pure i-20 digital direct iPod dock, Antelope Zodiac+ [on loan], Red Wine Audio Black Lightning 18V DC [on review]
Preamps: Esoteric C-03, ModWright LS100, Bent Audio Tap X
Amplifiers: ModWright KWA-100 SE, FirstWatt F5 & J2
Speakers: Mark+Daniel Fantasia S
Headphones: ALO-recabled Audez'e LCD-2, beyerdynamic T1 and Sennheiser HD800
Cables: Complete loom of ASI Liveline, Crystal Cable Ultra, Zu Event; Entreq USB and Firewire, Wireworld Starlight

Stands: 2 x ASI HeartSong 3-tier, 2 x ASI HeartSong amp stand
Powerline conditioning: 1 x GigaWatt PF-2, 1 x Furutech RTP-6
Sundry accessories: Extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, noise filters and phase inverters
Room size: 5m x 11.5m W x D, 2.6m ceiling with exposed wooden cross beams every 60cm, plaster over brick walls, suspended wood floor with Tatami-type throw rugs. The listening space opens into the second storey via a staircase and the kitchen/dining room are behind the main listening chair. The latter is thus positioned in the middle of this open floor plan without the usual nearby back wall.
Review Component Retail: €2.995, €795 for optional power supply, €3.495 combined
Antelope Audio's Zodiac Gold slots above the previously reviewed Zodiac+ as Igor Levin's top current DAC. As a digital pro-audio company, Antelope joins Benchmark, dCS, Meitner and Weiss with models aimed at the audiophile community. While Firewire has been the definitive standard to connect pro processors to studio computer workstations, Antelope's Zodiac range of three models has instead boarded the universal serial bus called USB. The associated and proudly displayed figure 384 in the press photos of the Gold currently has little relevance. One, should 32-bit/384kHz source material get issued, this DAC is future-proof. Currently of course 24/192 files from high-resolution download sites like Linn Records represent the max data density at which commercial music recordings are released. Two, Igor Levin's team seems to be one of the few capable of—or bothering with—writing the necessary firmware code and drivers to exceed today's 24/192 ceiling for PC audio (two others at present are MSB Tech from the US and M2Tech from Italy). Besides anticipating the foreseeable future for streaming audio, the 480Mbits hi-speed USB 2.0 spec of 384kHz is braggadocio for Antelope's engineering chops. But it ain't bragging if true.

We can probably agree that if the 384 figure was all that separated Gold from Plus, nobody would go Gold for now. Core differentiators thus include a clicking remote-controlled analog domain relay-switched resistor volume control for 0.05dB precision attenuation over 60dB in preamp mode; and a standard rather than mini USB port for those wishing to experiment with audiophile cables. The €795 optional Voltikus outboard power supply with triple-cascaded voltage regulation, LT1021 voltage reference and 90-250V input acceptance can also upgrade the switching wall wart of the Zodiac+. The Gold then inherits the proprietary 64-bit Antelope Trinity clocking and jitter management, oven-controlled clock and BurrBrown 1792-A chip-based digital circuitry from the Plus. So shoppers will wonder. How would a Plus + Voltikus compare to a solo Gold?

On exactly how the Gold's all-important output stage might better that of the Plus, I asked the company's Leizer Benvenishty to fill in the gaps. But first, let's run down the basic features which determine how the Gold can interface with even complex hifi systems:

Source switching accommodates 2 x optical, 2 x S/PDIF coax, 1 x S/PDIF AES/EBU and 2 x analog on RCA and TRS balanced respectively. The analog inputs bypass the digital circuitry of course to directly encounter the volume control. Smart recognition only shows inputs with valid signal as selectable. For outputs there are digital and analog options. Dejittered by Antelope's proprietary protocol, digital includes 2 x coaxial and 1 x XLR. For analog there are paralleled RCA and XLR, the latter accompanied by miniature trim pots accessible by screw driver. Lastly a BNC socket is primed for an external word clock.

There are also two paralleled headphone outputs with switchable 0 or 120-ohm output impedance and dedicated volume control; a multi-function display for sample rate, main volume, source input, headphone amp impedance and USB modes*; a mono summing function exclusive to the digital inputs; soft mute (-20dB only on digital sources) and full mute; and a Windows/OSX software control panel. Digital and analog circuitry occupies separate boards with gold-plated traces and large internal ground planes. A functional summary calls the Zodiac Gold an 8-input headphone/preamp/DAC with remote control. Unusual in the current climate and different for example from certain Esoteric machines which allow PCM conversion to DSD is that the Gold always processes incoming data at its native resolution without internal upsampling. What goes in is what comes out. Included in the shipping box is the standard SMPS DC power supply; an IEC power cable for it; USB and Toslink cables; the remote control; and an owner's manual that can be previewed online.


* The three available USB operational modes include UF1 (12Mbits full-speed mode for backwards compatibility with support up to 96kHz); UH1 (class 1 USB high-speed mode of 480Mbits with support up to 192kHz); and UH2 (class 2 high-speed mode of 480Mbits with support up to 384kHz for OSX only). Default headphone output impedance is 120Ω in HP1. The HP2 setting lowers it to 0Ω for higher output.

Technical specifications for the Zodiac Gold are 129dB of dynamic range; 0.0004% of THD+N; better than ±0.003ppm clock stability with an oven temperature fixed at 64.5°C; less than 1ppm/year clock aging; sample rate support for 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192kHz (352.8 and 384kHz are exclusive to the USB and word-clock inputs); 2.4kg/5.3lb weight; and dimensions of 165 x 112 x 190mm WxHxD (6.5 x 4.4 x 7.5").