But with that said, let me add that many users choose certain preamps, not for their accuracy or neutrality, but for their subtle and presumably euphonic colorations. Their hope, I suspect, is to tweak the overall system sound by selecting a preamp whose colorations (or distortions) complement or offset weaknesses in the other system components. Let me simply say that the Zodiac Gold’s inherent neutrality might actually make it frustrating for “tweakers,” simply because the preamp is devoid of romantic-sounding colorations or embellishments. Instead, the Antelope is all about purity and neutrality on a 24/7 basis. Interestingly, though, this doesn’t mean the Zodiac Gold sounds cold, clinical, edgy, or sterile: as in our discussion of the DAC section, above, it means the preamp sounds natural, unforced, and relaxed.
Zodiac Gold Headphone Amp
Similarly, I thought the headphone amp was quite good. It sounds balanced and open, with very low grain. It has enough oomph to drive moderately difficult headphones like the Sennheiser HD800s, but some people might feel that the gain and overall drive capabilities of the Zodiac Gold are not quite sufficient for really tough headphones like the HiFiMAN HE-6. If you are super picky about your headphone listening, you might also find that the Zodiac doesn’t quite provide enough high frequency “air” to make you happy.
One can argue about whether this perceived lack of the Nth degree of “air” is simply a matter of the Zodiac Gold being more accurate than some other headphone amps, but either way let’s note that some (perhaps many) headphone enthusiasts would argue that satisfying listening necessarily involves matching the colorations of their amps to the characteristics of their preferred ‘phones. Again, the Antelope’s “just the facts, Ma’am” sonic presentation may frustrate those who prefer to look at the world through the audio equivalent of “rose-tinted glasses.” In our eyes, though, the Zodiac Gold’s honesty and neutrality are both big plusses.
On Shelby Lynne’s "Breakfast In Bed" from Just A Little Lovin’ [Lost Highway], the Zodiac Gold sounded more “analog” than our reference DACs, which is to say it seemed a bit more compressed, but a little less shouty and smoother. The Zodiac doesn’t make sharp transient dynamics seem edgy, and at the same time on macro-dynamics that build up over time, the Zodiac seems very stable and coherent.
Kate Rusby’s acoustic guitar on “I Wish” from the album 10 [Compass] showed a similar graceful handling of micro-dynamics. The leading edge and the harmonics have a natural proportioning through the Zodiac.
Feist’s song “The Bad In Each of Us” from Metals [Cherrytree/Interscope] opens with some significant deep bass. The Zodiac renders this clearly and with plenty of depth, but I would say that the sound is little less punchy than on our reference DAC.
Ben Sollee’s “How To See The Sun Rise” from Learning To Bend [R.E.D.] shows the even-handed clarity of the Zodiac. The track shows less treble splash and more open and extended dynamics than our reference DAC and therefore simply sounds more realistic.
The value of “combination” products always depends significantly on which elements of the combination you plan to use. That said, if you think of the Zodiac Gold with Voltikus power supply as a three-piece ensemble (DAC + preamp + separate headphone amp), you could view its $4495 price as quite fair. After all, you might easily pay $1000 for a headphone amp, and $2000 for a preamp and $2000 for a high-end DAC. In fact, you could pay much more for each in order to achieve the level of quality on offer here. But if you are shopping in this price (and quality) range, the point is that the Zodiac Gold combines circuits that are competitive in each area, and it puts them in a compact package.
While we’re on the subject of packaging, we had mixed feelings about the Zodiac Gold’s controls. The build quality and feel is exemplary, but we were much less convinced by the use of a multi-function LED display window to signal various operational modes. For example, if you engage output muting, that fact is indicated only by subtly dimming the main display window (in our view, a pretty ambiguous was of showing that muting is engaged). Other control functions are also indicated in ambiguous or confusing ways. For instance, if you press the SOURCE button once, the LED display shows the currently selected source, but if you press the SOURCE button twice in rapid succession the Zodiac Gold will switch to the next active input (the preamp has active input sensing, so it will skip over unused inputs). These switching and display strategies may offer specific benefits for the pro audio community, but they make the Zodiac Gold seem a bit idiosyncratic for audiophiles and headphone enthusiasts accustomed to more conventional components.