048-051 Antelope Audio Platinum DSD DAC_v7_CBSPPFPM.indd

DSD-compatible USB DAC with outboard PSU & clock
Made by: Antelope Audio, Bulgaria
Supplied by: Auden Distribution, Lancs
Telephone: 07917 685759
Web: www.antelopeaudio.com; www.audendistribution.co.uk
Price: £8595
Antelope Audio Zodiac
Platinum DSD/Voltikus PSU/
10M Rubidium Atomic Clock
Antelope Audio has tapped into its bespoke digital clocking and pro-audio heritage to
offer a three-box USB DAC/preamp solution for discerning domestic audiophiles
Review: John Bamford Lab: Paul Miller
ntelope Audio’s latest product
for high-end hi-fi systems, its
Audiophile 10M atomic clock,
was launched in the latter
part of 2014, and has been designed
to complement the company’s top-ofthe-range Zodiac Platinum DSD DAC
introduced earlier that same year: a
two-box combo priced at £4249 with its
accompanying Voltikus power supply unit.
Adding the Audiophile 10M clock turns the
Zodiac Platinum into an ambitious threebox system priced at a heady £8595, but
promising state-of-the-art playback of PCM
and DSD digital media.
It’s considerably more than just a D-to-A
converter, as the centrally positioned
volume control dominating its fascia might
suggest. As well as being a headphone
amplifier – with two headphone sockets
on the front panel – it’s also a preamplifier
with two analogue inputs alongside its
USB, AES/EBU and four S/PDIF (two RCA and
two Toslink) digital inputs. Active inputs are
auto-detected. One of the analogue inputs
is single-ended (RCA), while the other is
balanced – via ¼in TRS jack sockets, which
are commonly used for balanced audio
connections in professional gear.
Volume control is analogue, the rotary
knob governing an encoder for the unit’s
relay-switched precision resistor ladder
attenuators (separated for left and right
channels) to adjust gain in 1dB increments.
Both single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR)
analogue outputs are provided; these can
been trimmed in ranges from +14dBu to
+26dBu (XLR) and 0dBV to 12dBV (RCA).
Headphone output impedance can also be
switched between ‘0’ and 120ohm and the
headphone amplifier’s output attenuated
by 12dB if required. Finally there are three
‘de-jittered’ digital outputs on the unit’s
busy rear panel: two S/PDIF (RCA) and one
Digital-to-analogue conversion is
courtesy of TI/Burr-Brown quad DACs –
two DACs working in parallel per channel
– while a major feature of the Zodiac
Platinum is its custom designed upsampling
employed by FPGAs running at 64-bit.
Antelope Audio’s USB implementation is
also bespoke, with ASIO drivers provided
RIGHT: Antelope’s reed relay-stepped volume
control, output stage and power supply sits
on the Zodiac’s uppermost PCB while the
LatticeXP2 FPGA (the host processor) and dual
PCM1792 DACs are located on the lower board
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for Macintosh, Windows and Linux
operating systems. Supporting PCM up
to 384kHz and DSD up to 128Fs via DoP,
the Platinum’s synchronous upsampler
can convert 44.1/48kHz to 352.8/384kHz
and single-rate DSD [DSD64/2.8MHz] to
quad-rate DSD256. I say ‘can’ because this
feature can be disabled if you prefer to play
out files at their native sampling rates – or
perform strategic upsampling in player
software in your computer.
There are no user-selectable filter options
in the Zodiac Platinum, Antelope’s
designers choosing to employ a fixed
linear-phase filter. While most functions can
be addressed in set-up menus accessed by
variously pressing and holding the power
and source buttons on the fascia, computer
audiophiles will be delighted by Antelope’s
provision of a comprehensive software
control panel which allows remote control
of the DAC directly from the screen of your
computer. It provides convenient access
to all essential controls – source selection,
volume, upsampling on/off, etc – and
provides a number of additional features
such as a peak level meter, adjustment
of the front panel LEDs’ intensity,
product registration and feedback to
the manufacturer, and
firmware updates. A nicelyformed metal infra-red
handset [see p51] is also
included in the package.
Antelope’s cutelynamed Voltikus power
supply is priced around
£800 as an upgrade
option for the company’s Zodiac Gold DAC/
preamp/headphone amplifier introduced
three years ago. But with the firm’s latest
DSD-capable (and better spec’d) Zodiac
Platinum the Voltikus PSU is mandatory
as the Platinum has no on-board supply. A
discrete linear supply employing a shielded
toroidal transformer, Linear Technology
LT1021 voltage reference and multi-stage
regulation, the Voltikus design has been
tweaked for accompanying the Platinum
and hooks up via a supplied cable
terminated with mini XLR connectors.
Power on/off is governed by a rocker switch
on the rear panel where there is also a
ground/lift switch to eliminate hum caused
by ground loops.
And finally we have Antelope Audio’s
brand new Audiophile 10M outboard
atomic clock, an ultra-accurate 10MHz
rubidium reference
generator designed
to ‘get ultimate sonic
performance from your
system’ [see boxout]. It
has two outputs and can
be used with two devices
that support 10MHz input
clocks – typically studio
components – simultaneously.
Connection to the Zodiac Platinum is
via a supplied BNC cable. It increases the
price of ownership substantially, and it only
references USB audio signals.
Considering the elaborate three-box
component rig and the need to install the
‘Detailed and
vivid, it packs
a powerful lowend punch’
When Igor Levin founded Antelope Audio in 2005 he already had 15 years’
experience in professional audio, his US-based AardSync brand providing highprecision audio and video clocking systems for recording and mastering studios,
and large-scale pro-sound rigs for live concerts. Antelope Audio continues to
design and manufacture a plethora of professional studio gear alongside its
range of specialist hi-fi DAC/preamps, built in its factory in Bulgaria. Precision
clocking remains at the company’s very core, its proprietary ‘oven controlled
clocks’ and 64-bit ‘Acoustically Focused Clocking’ (AFC) algorithm featuring in
all its current hi-fi DACs. Says the firm of its Audiophile 10M rubidium atomic
clock: ‘100,000x more stable than a typical crystal oscillator, the hyperfine
energy levels of the non-radioactive rubidium core enable high-precision timing
to 0.03 parts per billion, which equates to a loss of just one second per 1000
years!’ Introduced for the first time as a hi-fi component by Antelope, to ensure
ultimate performance from its Zodiac Platinum DAC/preamp, its design is based
on the brand’s Isochrone 10M studio master clock which, we’re told, many
engineers believe to be ‘the best sounding clock’ ever produced.
ABOVE: Buttons for power, input, mono
and mute are duplicated on Antelope’s nifty
software control panel (see text) and IR handset.
Display shows volume, input or sample rate
ASIO driver and desktop utility, it might
sound like something of a palaver to get
this top-of-the-range Zodiac Platinum up
and running. Don’t be put off. Installation
was a breeze and everything worked
without a hitch.
From the outset I could hear that the
performance was straight out of the top
hi-fi drawer. It sounds detailed and vivid,
delivers a beautifully ‘open’ and threedimensional soundstage, packs a powerful
low-end punch, and has a mellifluous easyon-the-ear quality. I settled in to several
days’ enjoyable auditioning…
Recent months have found me exploring
the musical subtleties of several modern
jazz offerings released on the Norwegian
independent Hubro imprint. One of my
favourite ensembles is the innovative trio
Splashgirl, whose 2012 album Field Day
Rituals [Hubro CD2520] showcases piano,
double-bass and drums, artfully crafting
sparse sonic landscapes in which the
spaces around their instruments play as
important a part of their compositions as
the notes themselves.
The Zodiac Platinum’s strikingly clear
and deep imaging capability helped make
inventive tracks such as ‘Dulcimer’ and
‘Mass’ utterly captivating, the latter’s
immense low frequency rumblings resolved
exquisitely by the Platinum to help describe
the music’s dark and spooky underbelly.
The piano and drum kit sounded highly
authentic, with realistic splash and crash
to the cymbals, together with naturally
decaying reverberation tails.
In a completely different vein, Lorde’s
hit song ‘Royals’ from Pure Heroine
[Universal Music NZ 602537519002]
sounded equally splendid, the Platinum
combo depicting most faithfully the
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ABOVE: The DAC [centre] offers USB (with a 10MHz clock input on BNC), coaxial and
Toslink S/PDIF, and AES/EBU digital ins, re-clocked S/PDIF and AES digital outs plus
RCA and balanced XLR analogue outs. The 10M [right] provides two clock outputs
fragility evident in the 17-year-old
New Zealander’s voice. The wallop
of the bass drum was exhilarating.
And, once again, the clarity allowed
easy observation of individual
elements – and the ‘sonic spaces’
– in the recording, along with the
multi-tracked harmonies and the
didgeridoo-type droning bass effects
buried in the mix.
Meanwhile densely-produced
prog-rock recordings such as
Squackett’s infectiously melodic
‘Tall Ships’ from A Life Within A
Day [Esoteric Antenna EANTCD
21002] were seemingly put under
a microscope. Ex-Yes bassist Chris
Squire’s characteristically twangy
Rickenbacker sound stood out
clearly among the multiple layers of
keyboards, guitars and reverberant
voices as I listened all the way into
the recording studio’s mixing desk.
Steve Hackett’s acoustic guitar
sounded simply heavenly.
Meticulously crafted high resolution
audiophile recordings naturally were
brought to life by the Platinum setup. Switching between WAVs, AIFFs
and FLACs of high sampling rate PCM
recordings from the 2L label and
native DSD recordings from Channel
Classics was automatic and seamless
throughout the time I spent
evaluating the Antelope combo.
The best of these sounded
wonderfully authentic – as indeed
they do when I play them through
my resident T+A DAC 8 [HFN Oct
’12]. But of course this was designed
at a time when 192kHz/24-bit audio
was the ‘state of the art’ in USB
interfacing. More recent designs, like
this Zodiac Platinum, are mandatory
if you want to play DSD recordings in
their native format and access rare
‘demo’ files at 352.8/384kHz.
Comparing like-with-like, listening
to CD rips and hi-res PCM files up to
192kHz/24-bit, I’d describe the T+A
DAC as ‘faster’ and more incisivesounding, the Zodiac Platinum
adding a little more subjective bass
warmth and a gentler, more relaxed
demeanour through mid and treble.
All the while I’d deliberately been
listening to Antelope’s three-box
combo with its upsampling turned
off, wanting to hear files in the
‘raw’. Does switching-in the Zodiac
Platinum’s upsampling make an
appreciable improvement to its
sound quality? As when observing
the subjective differences between
various digital filters, it’s impossible
to determine what sounds ‘best’,
as the results tend to vary from
recording to recording, and
preferences would depend on the
‘character’ of your system.
For the most part I couldn’t
determine that upsampling PCM
files to 352.8kHz made a difference
that would easily be heard under
blind listening conditions. However,
with simple recordings (the
aforementioned Splashgirl a case in
point) upsampling did appear to add
a little more clarity and openness,
sharpening the focus.
This is a very solid performer although much of its subjective
‘character’ is as likely due to the analogue output stage as
the proprietary digital housekeeping. As supplied, the DAC
is configured to offer a maximum 3.9V output through its
(balanced) 55ohm XLRs where distortion rises slightly from
a minimum of 0.0002-0.0004% (20Hz-20kHz) at –20dBFs to
0.0013-0.0018% at 0dBFs [see Graph 1, below] irrespective of
choice of digital input or use of the 10M clock. Similarly, the
A-wtd S/N ratio remains impressively wide at 114.5dB, low-level
resolution good to ±0.1dB over a full 100dB dynamic range
and the frequency responses very extended at –0.13dB/20kHz
(44.1/48kHz media), –0.7dB/45kHz (96kHz files) and
–3.1dB/90kHz (high-res 192kHz files).
Antelope’s 10M external clock only services the proprietary
asynchronous USB input, not the S/PDIF or AES/EBU inputs.
However, while there is no significant difference in the general
performance of the Zodiac’s S/PDIF and USB options there is
a distinction in cumulative jitter with the ‘unclocked’ S/PDIF
emerging the superior at just 18psec [black spectrum, Graph
2 below] and the 10M-clocked USB at 78psec [red spectrum,
Graph 2]. Clearly the most thermally stable master clock cannot
guarantee that jitter won’t ‘sneak in’ at some other point across
the digital audio path up to, and including, the DAC chip itself.
However the sharp delineation of these spectral lines indicates
little or no noise-like jitter which bodes well for fine, sharplyfocused stereo imaging. Readers may view comprehensive QC
Suite test reports for the Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum DAC’s
S/PDIF and USB inputs by navigating to www.hifinews.co.uk and
clicking on the red ‘download’ button. PM
ABOVE: Distortion vs. 48kHz/24-bit digital signal
level over a 120dB dynamic range. S/PDIF input
(1kHz, red) and USB input (1kHz, black; 20kHz, blue)
Admittedly expensive – especially
with its optional Audiophile 10M
rubidium clock – this is a topflight component combo that
delivers spectacular sound. But it
sounds tremendous even without
the 10M. £4249 for the two-box
Zodiac Platinum combo isn’t
unreasonable if you factor in what
you might otherwise spend on
a latest-spec DAC, an audiophile
headphone amp and a separate
preamp for a high-end system.
Sound Quality: 87%
- 100
ABOVE: High resolution jitter plots with 48kHz/24-bit
data (S/PDIF, black; USB, red). 10M clock used for USB
Maximum output level (Balanced)
3.90Vrms at 55ohm
A-wtd S/N ratio (S/PDIF / USB)
114.8dB / 114.5dB
Distortion (1kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)
0.00125% / 0.00016%
Dist. & Noise (20kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)
0.0018% / 0.00045%
Freq. resp. (20Hz-20kHz/45kHz/90kHz)
+0.0dB to –0.1dB/–0.7dB/–3.1dB
Digital jitter (48kHz/96kHz/USB)
18psec / 38psec / 78psec
Resolution @ –100dB (S/PDIF / USB)
±0.1dB / ±0.1dB
Power consumption
15W (5W standby)
Dimensions (WHD) / Weight
430x100x360mm / 13.5kg
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