Many people, when listening to DACs, find it hard to distinguish between them. In my experience this often is the case because the differences between DACs show up in their handling of transient sounds—sounds that are presented at different times and in different ways in various recordings (and types of music). As a result, comparisons that involve slowly switching between components can make it difficult to observe key sonic differences between DACs in “real-time.”
Nonetheless, extensive listening to the Zodiac Gold, and comparison to other DACs over long periods of time reveals that the Antelope has a distinctive way of dealing with some transients. In particular, the Zodiac Gold delivers a cleaner leading edge to treble transients than do many DACs. This is true, even when the comparison is with DACs I would rate as very good to excellent. Another way of saying this is that there are DACs that plainly distort the leading edge of, say, notes from cymbals or snare drums, or that can be heard in the upper ranges of pianos or guitars. But even when we go to many DACs whose behavior in isolation seems exemplary on these kinds of transient sounds, I would say the Zodiac Gold often manages to sound just a bit cleaner, and thus more three-dimensional.
By “cleaner,” here, I mean that the rising edges of transient sounds as rendered by the Zodiac Gold, sound more appropriately relaxed and natural when compared with the sound of live music (the absolute sound). It seems that the initial transient sound as reproduced by the Zodiac Gold exhibits noticeably less overshoot than would be the case with many other excellent DACs. An important and musically significant result of the Zodiac Gold’s clean transient performance is that the rest of the note—that is, the note’s body and decay sounds—don’t get masked by overshoot and other transient problems. Thus you get, overall, a better sense of note-by-note decay and can hear the small signals (for example, subliminal echoes and reverberations) that reveal the space in which the recording was made. This spaciousness is a distinctive aspect of the best DACs.
The Zodiac Gold is also well and truly detailed, by which I mean that it is revealing of the kinds of natural low-level information that I referenced above. Frankly, some equipment gets called “detailed,” when in fact it has problems with transient overshoot that create the false illusion of a “better defined” sound. With the Zodiac Gold, however, the sonic detail that is served up is the real thing—quite the opposite of the fake detail some gear foists off on unsuspecting listeners.
The other aspect of the Zodiac Gold DAC that I found to be distinctive is it’s bass performance. My view is that the weighting of the Zodiac Gold’s bass, as measured by amplitude, is quite accurate and normal. And yet, some bass transients via the Zodiac Gold seem to lack the last bit of punch that they have in reality and via other good DACs. In this regard the Zodiac Gold is not alone, in that it reminds me of what I consider the best current DAC available, the Meridian 808.3. Both these superb DACs have accurately weighted bass, but lack a bit of low-end “slam;” I cannot explain the origins of this phenomenon, but there you have it.
I should also say that the sonic characteristics I’ve described are, in the global scheme of things, pretty subtle. I would not recommend running out to purchase a product like the Zodiac Gold if you are looking for a really large or obvious transformation of the sound of your system. This doesn’t mean that you can’t hear the differences on offer here, because that’s not the case at all, but rather that the resulting differences don’t change everything the way a change in speakers, room acoustics or sometimes amplifiers can. (If a product, like the Zodiac Gold DAC, has very low distortion, but in a category where competing products also generally have fairly low distortion, this almost has to be the case.).
Zodiac Gold Preamp
Moving on to the preamp section, I was impressed with how neutral the Zodiac Gold is. When I find a really good DAC that has been integrated, as in the Zodiac Gold, with the functionality of a preamp and/or headphone amp, I always worry that those “other function” will turn out to be the weak link. But that is not the case here. Apart from differences in features, I don’t know that you can find a unit sonically superior to the Zodiac Gold until you reach the top echelon of today’s highest of high-end preamps (products that typically cost quite a bit more than the Antelope does).