The European firm Antelope Audio is one of the increasing numbers of audio companies with roots in the professional audio market, but that also offers some of its products for audiophiles and other sound quality-conscious consumers. This two-market approach particularly makes sense in digital audio, where R&D costs can be high, and thus it is beneficial to spread them over several markets. In addition, in the digital audio realm, the needs of the two markets overlap when it comes to DACs: both need low distortion digital-to-analog conversion.
Igor Levin founded Antelope Audio in 2005, but Levin’s experience in the industry dates back to the origins of an earlier company called Aardvark, which Levin helped found in 1990. Aardvark made a number of pro audio-oriented DACs and related products, but the product that really put Aardvark on the map—and that earned Levin the moniker “Mr. Clocks”—was a high-precision master clock called the AardSync. At the time of the AardSync’s release, not many individuals in the pro audio or audiophile communities fully understood how profound the effects of an ultra-precise clock could be on digital audio sound quality. However, the beneficial effects of the Aardvark clock were readily apparent to studio engineers who plugged the AardSync into their recording and playback equipment chains, and the rest is, as they say, history. Almost overnight, Levin had a hit product on his hands (and one that many would say helped to define an entire product category).
When he launched Antelope Audio in 2005, Levin again revisited the topic of precision clocking, looking to use new technologies and ideas to improve upon the performance of the original AardSync. The result involved two related technologies, which Antelope describes as “proprietary 64-bit Acoustically Focused Clocking (AFC)” complete with “Oven Controlled Clock”—technologies incorporated in Antelope’s Isochrone-series (where “Iso” = constant, and “chrone” = time) master clocks, which have won critical acclaim in the pro audio world.
More recently and more importantly for Playback readers, Antelope has decided to release a series of three versatile Zodiac DAC/preamp/headphone amps, which—significantly—each incorporate Antelope Audio’s clocking technologies as used in the Isochrone clocks. The range includes the entry-level Zodiac ($1895) 192kHz/24-bit DAC that promises “excellent pro sound quality at a reasonable price,” the mid-tier Zodiac+ ($2695) with expanded features and that is billed as a “Mastering DAC”, and the top-of-the-line Zodiac Gold ($3895, or $4495 when upgraded with an outboard Voltikus power supply), which is a 384kHz/24-bit DAC that comes with a remote control and is described as “a highly aesthetic audiophile DAC delivering pristine sound quality).
Being “go for the gusto” guys, we at Playback opted to try the top-shelf Zodiac Gold with Voltikus power supply for this review, in part simply to see what a product that promises the ultimate in computer/desktop audio functionality might have to offer.
• The Zodiac Gold DAC can process up to 24-bit, 384kHz digital audio files, which should allow a good measure of future proofing.
• Antelope says very little about the DAC circuitry itself, other than that there is no upsampling involved.
Clock/De-Jittered Digital Outputs:
• Incorporates the firm’s signature “Antelope Oven Controlled Clock”, where Antelope says, “the clock is housed in a shielded container where the temperature is kept constant, therefore bringing significant benefits to the detail, dynamics and stereo placement of the audio.” The Antelope web site shows an illustration that demonstrates how holding the clock at a constant temperature can reduce timing errors from 10 parts per million (ppm) down to about 0.1 ppm—a readily audible improvement.
• Leveraging the benefits of the Oven Clock, the Zodiac Gold provides two de-jittered/re-clocked digital audio outputs. An Antelope spokesperson told Playback that the de-jittered digital outputs are among the most popular (and most highly prized) features of the Zodiac+ and Zodiac Gold models.